As I sat staring at the menu, I wondered why I even bothered to look it over. My anxiety had consumed my appetite. Eating felt like a chore and nothing could satisfy the insatiable hunger of my fears.
Across from me sat a trusted pastor and friend. We breezed through the typical small talk, and dove straight into the deep-end of our conversation. I plunged beneath the surface and divulged to him the recent struggles I’d been having in my life and how almost every aspect of it had been conquered by fear.
“I’ve been there too, more than I want to admit,” he assured me.
After lunch, we went out outside for a walk. As we took laps around the block for the next half hour, he began to share how his own anxiety had also gotten the best of him. The parts of his story that he was sharing were painfully similar to what I was going through. I breathed a deep sigh of relief knowing that I wasn’t alone in my struggles.
I also couldn’t help but think, But we’re pastors… we are supposed to be helping anxious people, not being plagued by our own debilitating fears.
The truth is anxiety doesn’t discriminate. No matter how spiritually mature or how well versed one is in scripture. Fear can strike anyone at any given time without regard for who they are or what they do.
More Common Than We Want to Admit
In recent years, it has become much more normalized to talk about feelings of being overwhelmed. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that anxiety affects one out of five of us at a crippling level. Normal everyday tasks like breathing and eating can feel impossible to do. Past mistakes can hinder us from making decisions for our future. Relationships can bring us sadness rather than joy. Many of us experience some degree of anxiety regularly— whether we want to admit it or not.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” This verse suggests that even Jesus Himself possibly experienced anxiety. And yet, it never got in the way of Him placing His trust in God. We see a glimpse of the fear that gripped Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, just before His death. It was there that He begged the Father to take the cup of wrath from Him. He was so overwhelmed that His sweat was becoming like drops of blood (Luke 22:39-46). And though we see that Jesus was suffering in agony and stress with the looming thought of His death on the cross, He still trusted in the sovereignty of God.
In that moment when circumstances felt worrisome, fearful, and debilitating, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but your will be done.” It was as if to say, “I don’t know how I will make it through this, but I trust you are in control.”
More Misunderstood Than We Realize
When referencing their fears, people will often say something gave them anxiety or that someone made them anxious, but do we really know what it means to be anxious? We know that it has something to do with a kind of nervousness or stress that feels overwhelming. But what makes mild nervousness different from a crippling panic?
One definition of anxiety is as an emotional reaction to something uncertain—whether it’s a threat to our health or something that makes us upset. A low level of anxiety can be normal and even healthy, pushing us to do what needs to be done. Some fear is almost God given in a sense, an internal alarm system that gets us out of harm’s way like when it tells us to stay away from a ledge or keeps us from procrastinating on that impending deadline. On the other hand, too much anxiety can be consuming, leading us to believe lies that others don’t like us or making us hypervigilant in situations that do not warrant it.
In many Christian circles, anxiety can carry a dangerous and debilitating stigma. Some Christians shy away from topics related to mental health, leaving them without the support they need in times of struggle or crisis. We can wrongly believe that God doesn’t care about our mental health but the mind, body and soul are of God’s concern, and within the reach of the redemption and power of Christ.
More Purposeful Than We Know
Many times, anxiety can be over-spiritualized. It can be miscategorized as sin, when in actuality it can lead us to sin, but is not sin within itself. Just like any other physical or emotional problem, anxiety is the result of being fallen people in a fallen world. But as God’s children, we know that everything has a purpose. We know that all things, even anxiety, can be worked together for our good. That good is the life-long process in which we are made to be more like Christ (Romans 8:28-30). Our anxiety invites us to grow in our dependence on God and surrender to His will.
Talking about purpose when dealing with our anxiety sounds more inconsiderate and insensitive than helpful. We’d rather know how we can overcome anxiety rather than why we’re going through it. But one thing I’ve learned is that when I choose to trust that God has a purpose in my emotional turmoil, I can bear the pain better. While God is never the source of our anxiety, He does allow it to shape us and transform us so that we look to Him and learn to trust when life feels so uncertain.
The Apostle Paul talks about how God views our suffering, including anxiety. According to him, these anxieties are temporary. Paul knew what it felt like to wrestle with fear at times. But he also knew that what those present sufferings were achieving in him, outweighed the temporary pain. In 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
It can sound counterintuitive, but our pain is actually one of the greatest signs of the goodness of God. It points us to Jesus. It teaches us that when we move beyond the pleasure of comfort, health, and wealth, we get to know the “man of sorrows” Himself, whose sacrifice on the cross reshapes the way we as Christians should think of pain and suffering.
As you face anxieties in your own life, it’s alright to ask God why He has allowed you to go through your current suffering. I’ve been there, and I understand your pain. But in the midst of your pain, don’t miss the greater questions: What are you trying to develop in me, God? How is this momentary affliction preparing me for an eternal weight of glory?
It is in those answers that we begin to see how even our anxieties can be used for our good. It is in those moments that we begin to understand the everlasting value our suffering has as it prepares us for an eternal glory.