I hope the answer is no. For anxiety is a horrible, painful, and disabling experience. But according to current surveys most people in the UK today are anxious. A recent poll reported 64 percent of the population were stressed or anxious, which means over 40 million Britons today are feeling anxious. Now I think we need to take such surveys with a pinch of salt, but undoubtedly the Covid-19 crisis has precipitated a lot of worry and generated much fear in the population. I hope this is not so in our churches.
I’ve written previously in this column about anxiety, and I distinguished there between anxiety as an illness and anxiety as worrying, which the Scriptures teach us we should not experience because it manifests a lack of trust in our God (Matt. 6:25; Phil. 4:6). The latter is the kind of fretting and panic about the risks from the virus to our health futures which we should not experience as those who serve the Lord who rules the Covid-19 pandemic as he rules all things for our good and his glory.
So while we cannot criticise ourselves or others for anxiety illnesses, we should be visibly different from those around us in our response to Covid-19. We should not be anxious like the rest. And we can help ourselves to not be anxious by forming and practising three habits.
We should meditate on the Word of God (Ps. 119:23; Phil. 4:8). Of course, we should do this at all times. But we should read and reflect on the Scriptures especially during such times of stress. And during the Covid-19 crisis most of us have more time to do so. This is a great opportunity to spend more time searching the Scriptures, more time reading good books, and thus more time meditating on the great truths about God and our salvation in Jesus Christ. And as we fill our thoughts with Scripture passages and doctrines, we push out worldly worries and we give no space for fretting about Covid-19.
In the society around us grim personal experiences of Covid-19 and daily death totals from the virus are everywhere: on the landing pages of websites, running through social media messages, on the front pages of newspapers, and making the headlines in the TV and radio news bulletins. And if your habit is to watch the news and read such bulletins and newsfeeds then your mind will be full of such things, won’t it? You will find yourself meditating on Covid-19 day and night. And the result? You will feel anxious. Instead we should be meditating day and night on the many and varied wonderful stories and truths in the Holy Scriptures, packing our minds with what edifies us and glorifies God.
Second, we should pray (Phil. 4:6). Again we should always be praying people, but more so at such a time as this. Our prayers are a good barometer of our emotional weather. We see this in the Psalms, don’t we? David prayed fervently during his many crises. And we sing: ‘Have we trials and temptations? / Is there trouble anywhere? / We should never be discouraged / Take it to the Lord in prayer.’
We have more time to read and more time to pray these days, so let us thank God for such an opportunity and dedicate more time to prayer. In our house we don’t have a television. We never have had one. But I’ve often reflected that we don’t need a TV to know what the news programmes are emphasising. We learn this from church prayer meetings. We know the TV news is full of distressing stories about flooding in Bangladesh because we hear about this when our brothers pray. We know the news is repeating heart-wrenching accounts about the impact of an earthquake in Chile because we hear them in people’s prayers.
So how much does Covid-19 drive your prayers? One good way to not be anxious is to switch off the news and turn to God in prayer. By all means briefly pick up the main events if you must, but instead of listening to the government minister updating us on the crisis with the latest grim figures, switch him off. And pray for him, and for the Prime Minister and the government, that they would have wisdom to lead us through this national trial. Instead of listening to an emotional account about a nurse who has died from Covid-19, switch it off. And give thanks to God for those who are working in difficult circumstances in frontline services and keeping the country going.
Third, we can sing praises to our God (Col. 3:16). Sometimes our weaknesses or our circumstances make it hard to concentrate to read or to pray. Our thoughts drift and we find our minds filling with negative ideas and fearful images. So at such times sing praises to God! Get out your hymnbook and give thanks. If you’re blessed with the ability to do so on your own, go ahead, but these days we can all stream hymns and songs of praise on our phones or computers and sing with such help. By doing so we remind ourselves of great truths about God and our salvation and this can help us to clear our minds of worldly worries and stimulate us in turn to prayer and meditation.
So are you feeling anxious? Let us all aim to engrain these godly habits, turning the current crisis into an opportunity to deepen relationship with the Lord and to walk serenely with him.
By Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.