Question: Regarding last friday’s ACG bible study on Daniel, my microgroup members raised up two questions which I thought would be good to write in here.
1. If after recognizing our fears, we still hold onto it and it is somehow very hard to resolve, does this mean we aren’t trusting God after all? And if so, what does it mean for us to keep struggling with these fears but yet trying very hard to trust in Him?
2. It was mentioned how anxiousness is not trusting God and how that is a sin. What about those with mental illnesses (e.g clinically diagnosed anxiety)? Are they actively sinning against God by being anxious (bearing in mind it’s such a mental game to battle with it)? Thank you!
Response: Thank you for the great question! Despite living in one of the most comfortable and prosperous countries in the world, the people in our culture are becoming more anxious and worried than ever before. Anxiety is a rampant force that is mowing down the minds of many across the Western terrain. This cognitive illness has also affected many of our members within our own church communities, who are presently suffering from the relentless mental torment.
I believe Scripture has much to say to anxious hearts, and reading through your question I thought it would be helpful to firstly write up this response that will answer three of these core questions:
1. What is the essence of anxiety?
2. What means must we use to resolve our fears and anxieties?
3. How do we approach those who are suffering from clinically diagnosed anxiety?
Once we have covered our foundations for the topic, we should be more equipped to make a good biblical case in answering your more nuanced questions.
1. The Anxiety Epidemic
Most of us are well-acquainted with anxiety. It visits us in a timely manner when we are uncertain of our performance on a recent exam. It creeps into our mind when we have been rejected by every company we have applied to. It grows and spreads in direct proportion to our rising bills. Fallen opportunities that create unmet expectations often paralyses us into self-doubt and fear. It is a universal phenomenon experienced by all those who live long enough to learn that life does not always go according to plan.
It is of little coincidence that statistics show there are more people suffering from anxiety in more affluent and prosperous countries than their poorer counterparts. For example, Australia and New Zealand, both considered to be highly-resourced countries, had the highest lifetime prevalence rates in cases of anxiety – 8 percent and 7.9 percent respectively, whereas Nigeria and Shenzhen, China, considered to be low-income localities, had percentage rates as low as 0.1 and 0.2 respectively .
Perhaps the cultural mantra of autonomy and the abundance of material prosperity we are blessed to have in this country has reinforced this delusion within our Western minds that we are absolutely sovereign over our own lives. Many of us are living under the illusion where we exaggerate our ability to have control over circumstances that we, in actuality, do not have influence over. But when circumstances change and the direction of the tide is no longer in our favour, we are thrown into utter confusion as we tremble and shake with unimaginable fear, gasping anxiously to regain control over our undesirable situations.
What does these responses to our experiences of reality say about what is going on in our hearts?
2. The Essence of Anxiety
Whatever the myriad of reasons may be, our anxieties manifest our desires for long-lasting security and satisfaction. If we fear financial instability, our mental health will fall in decline when our investment in market shares and property dramatically plummet. If we fear loneliness, we will sink into despair when we lose close friendships whom we have invested greatly into. What terrifies us the most is that we are not able to control the storyline of our own life narratives.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If our anxiety is cultivated by our fears of uncertainty that bring misery to our life, then the straightforward solution to our anxiety is surprisingly simple: someone has to assure us that everything is going to be alright.
Who in the world has the power to calm our troubled souls, as to assure us that the summation of concerns and troubles in our lives are under absolute control?
3. The Antidote to Anxiety
The world has tried to offer their listed suggestions of remedies to mitigate the mind-tearing effects of this psychological epidemic; alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, fidget spinners – there is no end to the ludicrous ways which others have tried to use in order to cope with their mental miseries. Those who are more sensible have sought out ‘positive-thinking’ behavioural therapy treatment to find improvised ways to think differently about themselves in order to change the way they interact with their circumstances.
Now that isn’t to say we discourage psychological treatment. We also won’t deny that some of these rather desperate means can sometimes bring short-term relief to our afflictions. But Scripture is not in the business of mitigating the severity of our symptoms – God’s Word is in the business of eradicating the illness altogether.
Scripture tells a better story that the Author God always calls us back to read and to remember. His steadfast love never ceases, and His mercies never come to an end (Lam 3:22). Jesus says that if God cares for the birds in the air and the flowers in the field, aspects of the creation with less value with human beings, how much more will He care for His children, whom He has crowned with the greatest glory and honour over all creation (Matt 6:25-32). This is the reason for why Jesus says “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” (Luke 12:22).
He doesn’t tell us to just be less anxious – he tells us to stop being anxious. To be anxious is to respond either in ignorance or in rebellion to the knowledge of God’s sovereign love and provision over our lives. If Christ has overcome and defeated death, our greatest enemy (2 Tim 1:10), then on what basis must we be anxious? If he has supplied the means to defeat sin and death, and tore the veil in two in order that we approach the throne of God unscathed, will he not also supply the means to meet our less significant needs (Matt 6:33)?
The Lord holds our futures in His hand (Prov 16:9), and He calls us to trust in His all-encompassing care. The apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6). We can bring our petitions to the One who is really in control of all things, and offer Him prayers for thanksgiving for everything that He has graciously given to us.
God does not promise that we will be delivered from every kind of misery in this life, or answer every petition we bring to Him in our favour. We won’t always understand the intricate reasons behind our own tribulations. But what God does promise is that when we place ourselves into His hands, He will give us peace in our minds and hearts in any distressing situation (Phil 4:7). This peace, which transcends all understanding, empowers us to speak with boldness:
“Though I don’t understand everything that is going on in my life right now, I am safe in my Father’s arms and I know that everything is going to be alright.”
4. Moving Forward from Our Anxiety
Now that we have covered our bases, we should finally come back to answer the nuanced questions that were asked initially at the beginning:
a. Trusting in the promises of God in faith is a life-long battle
It is good to be honest about our own fears. But it isn’t good enough to merely recognise our fears and to hold firmly to them – we must hand over our anxieties to God, who loves us and cares for us, in order that we may secure lasting peace over our deepest and darkest fears (1 Pet 5:7).
If you are continuing to cradle your fears, then it may well be that you aren’t trusting in God. Am I being insensitive here? I think not, because all of us are anxious, all of us are sinners, and all of us do not trust God with our entire lives perfectly. Even the apostle Paul himself struggled to handle the numerous trials he encountered in his ministry with his own strength, and he had to learn the process of understanding contentment by trusting in the sufficiency of God’s strength through the hardest adversities life had to bring (Phil 4:11-12).
So long as we continue to live in this sin-bound world, we will not find perfect rest from our fears. Living in a world that is in constant flux will mean that new challenges, new circumstances and new dangers will always pave their own way into our own lives. And we will certainly feel anxious when these trespassers walk pass by to tear a new hole into our meticulous plans. So long as we live, our trusting in God’s provision won’t be perfected until we either meet with Jesus or when Jesus meets with us on the final day of reckoning. Expect to be anxious.
But there is always hope found only in the gospel. By God’s sanctifying grace, we can continue to anchor on the redemptive promises of the never-changing, ever-faithful God of the universe. If it was possible for Paul, the worst of sinners (see 1 Tim 1:15), to learn contentment in every situation he encountered through the peace of God he received, then we too can have confidence that we can conquer every anxious thought by the peace that God has given to us by putting His Word into practice (Phil 4:8-9).
b. Approaching those who are suffering from anxiety
So, what about those who are diagnosed with anxiety disorder or other particular phobias? Are they actively sinning against God because they have a mental disorder? I shall speak with as much sensitivity as I can, but it is here that I will sense that others may disagree with me. And that is okay.
Here are a number of guiding principles that would provide helpful discussion for us as we continue to think through this matter constructively:
(1) Having a mental disorder is not a sin; choosing not to trust God with your mental disorder is.
To reiterate what has been said earlier, anxiety or worry is an inappropriate response that is manifested from a continual distrust in the provision of God; therefore, it is a sin. But being a heavily anxious person who constantly worries is no equivalent to a person who is diagnosed with anxiety disorder – many who suffer from this condition have brains that malfunction for various reasons. Those who are medically diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety, will experience persistent anxious thoughts that are often induced against their volition.
God isn’t frustrated at those who have an anxiety disorder. God casts His frustration at those who don’t cast their anxieties on Him in humble prayer. He is frustrated when we forget to trust on His provision over our lives. He is frustrated when we do not pour out our brokenness on Him, and that includes the disorders we have of any kind.
(2) Anxiety disorder can manifest from a range of complex reasons.
Consequently, it isn’t always clear knowing the primary causes that may induce anxious behaviour in a person, which is sufficient enough for us to err on the side of caution when attempting to diagnose such people who suffer with anxiety. Even if it is quite evident that their anxiety stems from obvious sin, it is a worthwhile pursuit to continue inquiring more information in light of acknowledging the fact that we may not have fully grasped the whole situation.
(3) Anxiety can sometimes be self-inflicted.
Given the plethora of reasons, anxiety can also come as a result of sinful or foolish behaviour. Those who are anxious about an upcoming exam may have to examine their own emotions to determine whether their anxiety is something they are unable to control or whether it is due to their lack of discipline and preparation in their studies. Those who are extremely worried about making ends meet to pay their bills should assess whether their anxiety stems from a physiological malfunction or whether it is due to their habitual tendency to gamble all their money away. If you are honest with yourself and see that the manifestation of your anxiety consequently stems from obvious sinful or irresponsible behaviour, then with genuine repentance you can implement various structures within your daily routine (such as a calendar and diary for better study preparation), so that you can get your lives in order and prevent yourselves from stressing unnecessarily.
(4) We must always examine our hearts before we call people out for their sin.
We can be frustrated at those who seem to be in a state of perpetual angst all the time. With our self-righteous attitudes, we are much more inclined to make critical judgments over their unacceptable, un-Christianlike behaviour, condemning them harshly for their overly-dramatic and unceasing worry.
That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t call our brothers and sisters out in their sin; we can and must do so. But before we do so, we should remind ourselves again that none of us live our Christian lives in complete trust in the sovereignty of God. We are fundamentally anxious people who are all on the worry spectrum. Only when we assess the conditions of our hearts by recognising the log that is clearly protruding out of our eyes (Matt 7:5), will we be qualified to speak profoundly to those with anxious hearts of the unyielding and powerful truths of God. Exhort them with the glorious promises without tainting your encouragements with bitterness and anger, that we can find true rest in Christ the One who has rescued us from our greatest predicaments.
 – Ruscio AM, Hallion LS, Lim CCW, et al. Cross-sectional Comparison of the Epidemiology of DSM-5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Across the Globe. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(5):465–475. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0056