The Pervasive Problem with Anxiety
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Sarah Fader, a thirty-seven-year-old social media consultant in Brooklyn, made it clear that anxiety is no long a problem for some but a generalized disorder for all. She texted her friend about coming to visit, but when she didn’t write back quickly, Sarah started to get uneasy. Sarah posted on Twitter to her sixteen thousand-plus followers: “I don’t hear from my friend for a day — my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore.” She appended the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike.
Her hashtag became as viral and the feeling of anxiety itself. Thousands of people were soon sharing their own examples under the same hashtag; some were retweeted more than a thousand times. Ms. Fader struck a nerve. If you think about it, I am sure you could chime in using the same hashtag right now about something in your life. Why? Because we are all human and feel worked up about something nearly all the time.[i]
The New York Times reported that our society has moved from being depressed to being anxious. The news source said, “Prozac Nation Is Now the United States of Xanax.”[ii] Anxiety disorders are the number one mental disorder in America, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age eighteen and older, or 18.1 percent of the population every year.[iii] According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages thirteen through seventeen, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern. The number of Google searches related to anxiety has doubled in the last five years, according to Google Trends.[iv]
Anxiety manifests itself in a multitude of ways: feeling distressed, uneasy, worried, upset, fearful, apprehensive, agitated, fretful, restless, nervous, and fidgety, to name just a few. Fear can be a symptom of anxiety, or the cause of it. Fear and anxiety are different yet interrelated. “The difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is usually caused by tangible objects or threats. Anxiety picks up where fear leaves off and is mostly directed toward imagined or unrealized objects or conditions. Anxiety is more vague and more pervasive.” (Archibald Hart, Ph.D, Overcoming Anxiety, pg. 9).
Be Still, But How?
You may have seen this verse a cross-stich hanging on your Grandma’s wall or printed on a coffee mug in a Christian bookstore: “Be still and know that I am God.” The Sons of Korah wrote this in their well-quoted Psalm about God being our fortress in Psalm 46. These guys had a rough linage. God told everyone to stay away from them and then literally opened up the earth to swallow their fathers (Num. 16:28–35). Yet these sons of those rebellious fathers knew that the power of God’s redemption. Instead of living in fear that the earth would eat them, too, they pressed into the presence of God. Perhaps the cure for their anxiety is found in the words they penned in some of the Bible’s best hymns:
- “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
- “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts” (Ps. 84:1).
- “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Ps. 46:1–3).
“Be Still and know that He is God” may be one of their most widely quoted lines, but it is not so easily applied. The “Know that He is God” part is not what our heart argues with–it is the “Be still” part we struggle with. That’s because we lack a depth of application to our knowledge of God that allows us to be still.
When we “know God,” we have a proper understanding (within our limitations) of who He is. But knowledge without application will lead to pride, not peace. When we act on what we know about God, the first necessary action (or reaction) is to fear God. This means you are in awe of what you have discovered about God. It is a sense of devotion to God because you are overwhelmed by His love, hope, and grace.
J.I. Packer, in his highly regarded book Knowing God, asks this probing question: “How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.” This is the beginning of overcoming anxiety. When we take what God has said about Himself and carve it into the walls of our soul, we loosen our grip on this world (or its grip on us). Then we are able to hold tighter to the reality of who God is.
Fear Starts with Awe
Do you remember the first time you rode a roller coaster, saw the mountains, kissed another person, or held your child? We experience awe in exciting, meaningful first experiences. The feeling of awe sweeps you away and you swear your life will never be the same. I want you to imagine for a moment feeling that same kind of excitement over your revelation of God. When we are awakened to the reality of a loving and gracious Creator, it causes our soul to experience awe for God.
Perhaps that feeling of awe for God never came for you, or maybe it is long passed. What would it look like for you to have excitement and emotion over the Lord is again?
You may be sitting there asking, “Can the fear of God really affect the anxiety and stress I have in my daily life?” The answer is yes. John Murray wrote, “The fear which frees us consists of awe. It is the reflex of our consciousness to the transcendent majesty and holiness of God.”
Here is a problem that plagues us all: our awe of God is eclipsed by the anxiety in our life. We worry about paying the bills. We fret about the way we’re raising our children. We feel stuck in a dead-end career. We struggle with marital conflicts. We are concerned that we’re living a mediocre life rather than making a meaningful contribution. All of these feelings distract us from looking at God and direct us to look only at ourselves. They are the symptoms of what author Paul David Tripp calls “Awe Amnesia.” This means you lack a right and “awe-filled” perspective of who God is and therefore end up with a relational and spiritually detrimental problem. When we lack the fear of God, we lack identity, purpose, and peace, and this feels like a season of silence from God. We must not misunderstand of who He is for us. To that end, Tripp writes:
“[God] is awesome in power for us. He is awesome in sovereignty for us. He is awesome in mercy for us. He is awesome in wisdom for us. He is awesome in love for us. He is awesome in holiness for us. He is awesome in patience for us. He is awesome in faithfulness for us. He is awesome in grace for us. What he is, he is for us!”[v]
Only awe for God will keep your identity, self-image, and anxiety in its rightful place. Here is a truth to hold on to: You and I will be in awe of what we believe will give us life (identity, meaning, purpose, pleasure). So, if we have what Tripp called “Awe amnesia” and forget who God is, we lose sight of who we are. Then we nervously search the earth for something we’ve already been given from heaven.
Fear of God Is Made Possible by the Gospel
At the church where I serve as pastor, we have midweek staff chapel, when we come together to worship Jesus together and hear a short message from God’s Word. We had one particular chapel around Christmastime that we refer to affectionately refer to as “the crying chapel.” I decided to teach on Isaiah 9:6, which says,
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
At the end of my teaching, I passed out a bowl full of little slips of paper. Each of the slips had a name of God mentioned above. I told everyone to take the one that they identified with the most at that point in their life and share why they selected it. For the remainder of our time together, story after story included descriptions like these:
“I chose ‘Wonderful Counselor’ because God walked us through a hard marriage season this year.”
“Mine is ‘Mighty God’ because of the way He spared the life of my nephew.”
“I picked ‘Prince of Peace’ because I’ve been so worked up over our finances, but God has provided. When I am laying in my bed at night, He comforts me and catches my tears before they hit the pillow.”
“I love the name ‘Everlasting Father,’ because God has been to me the dad I always wished I had, and so much more.”
Our staff members still joke about how we can’t have “crying chapels” more than once a year because that one was so emotionally exhausting. Yet if you ask any of the people there, they will tell you that was one of the sweetest times we’ve ever shared together.
The beautiful words of Isaiah 9:6 point us to the person of Jesus, the truth that He was born of a virgin, lived with us, died for us, and raised for us. That is what makes Him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Without Jesus, we would not be able to know God, fear God, or have awe for God. The gospel of Jesus Christ awakens our dead hearts, opens our blind eyes, imbeds faith within our hearts, and allows us to know God.
Knowing the character of God allows us to say with the apostle Paul, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6). The word for “anxious” here can also be translated as “worry,” but the command in the Greek is much more forceful. It can be read as forbidding the continuation of an action that is already ongoing. In other words—Stop it! Paul essentially say, “Stop perpetually worrying about everything.” It is the same Greek word we find in Matthew 6:25, which says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (emphasis mine).
God knows that we are habitually concerned about the problems and difficulties of life. He knows that anxiety is an ongoing state for us. But when we worry, we are more prone to sin. We will fight to keep what we have or get what we want. When we worry, we struggle to trust God. When we do not hear His voice, we grow even more anxious.
[i] NYT article
[v] Tripp, Awe, pg 173.