I have written before about my ongoing struggle with anxiety that I have had ever since I was young. Anxiety and worry manifest themselves in my life often in physical symptoms (stomachaches as a child, knots in my stomach, breaking out in itchy hives, pressure on my chest etc.) and are emotionally and mentally taxing. Ultimately though, they are usually rooted in what is going on in my heart on a spiritual and theological level. Anxiety does much not only to reveal my fears, but what I believe about myself, life and God.
Jeff has prayed often for me since before we were married for my anxiety- for the stomachaches, patterns of thought that jump to worst-case scenarios, and inexplicably violent nightmares. And I believe God is answering his prayers and prayers of friends who have come alongside of me and fought for me before the throne of grace. It is a constant battle, but how far I have come is a testimony of the goodness of God.
There have been some truths that have been on the forefront of my mind these last few months that have been helpful in fighting anxiety. Hopefully, they will be a God-graced reminder and help for others like me. Here they are:
1. Most importantly, the argument from the greater to the lesser.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32 ESV)
Much of my anxiety stems from the fact that, like C.S. Lewis wrote, “We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” I wrote about the life-changing truth regarding that fear which God brought home to me two years ago here: The Sign of Jonah.The deep understanding of the love of God demonstrated at the cross for the sake of my redemption at great cost to himself grounds my trust that he will be good to me (even if I don’t feel like it is good) in all the smaller things that make up the rest of my life. This is what I wrote in April of 2011:
During the message, when exhorted to look to the cross, I remembered afresh the Father’s love for me in giving up his Son and Jesus’ love for me in coming to walk this earth, not holding onto his glory but becoming a servant to suffer and die for me. He did all this while I wanted nothing to do with him. He loves me, and I know it not just because the Bible says “God loves you” but because He demonstrated it. The love that he showed, stirs up trust in my heart- I know, like know, through the cross that his affection, intentions, and will toward me are good and loving. He is not just working towards his glory and Christlikeness in my own life, but the way he brings that about is also good and loving because that is who he is. I cannot look to the cross, and then think about God as some cold, distant being who plans my life in a mechanical and “well, it’ll end up good in the end!” way. He loves me at all times, thus I trust that the ends that he plans are not just “good” in some abstract sense, but even the means ordained by him flow out of his eternal, unchanging, everlasting love. That’s why I’m not afraid even though an easy life is not promised to me. That’s why I will trust him even though I know there will be times things don’t make sense in my eyes.
A related illustration that has stuck with me since I heard it a few months ago is one by John Piper that if someone gets you a million dollar present, he is not going to be standing at Walmart trying to decide between $3 and $4 wrapping paper. Christ is ours! Life eternal is ours through the precious blood of Christ! We do not need to think he will be uncaring, unthinking, and harsh about the details of our lives.
2. The argument from the lesser to the greater: Consider the ravens and the lilies!
24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!…27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12, ESV)
A few weeks ago, I was struggling with feeling like the promises of God in Scripture and his help for those in need seemed distant. My life is made up of such small things and the things I am anxious about, though big in my perspective, seem so small compared to the greater suffering, trials, and problems in the world. The promises held out in Scripture felt too huge for me- held out for those in persecution or in grave need because of their great love for God. And so I prayed, and God answered with Luke 12.
There are many truths in this passage that help in fighting anxiety (e.g. 8 reasons here). But the one that the Holy Spirit brought home was this: My life is small, short and fading- God seems in some ways “too big” for the details of my life. But God in his infinite wisdom and love has chosen to clothe flowers and feed sparrows. That means before the beginning of time, he has willed and purposed for each individual blade of grass on my lawn to grow and a means for each bird outside to eat. God is so big, so incomprehensibly powerful, that there is no small thing that escapes his sight and power. And if God has chosen to care for flowers and birds, and he says that I am more important than they, then he will care for me, his child.
3. Not “what will happen to me”, but “what am I to do right now?”
My mind, if not brought under the rule of God, is constantly creating projections of the future which are almost always comprised of my worst fears. I have the uncanny ability to make a mental jump between Jeff being a bit late coming home and not picking up his cell phone to how I’m going to make a living as a widow. Looking back, these kinds of thought have passed through my head every day for as long as I can tell starting from when I was young being afraid every time my parents were out. I have lately been asking God to help me rein in my thoughts and the most helpful thing for me has been to change the question that I am asking myself whenever I am anxious.
In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes about a (ficional) demon writing to another newbie demon about how to deal with their “patient” (a person) against the “Enemy” (God). About anxiety, he writes (italics mine):
Nervousness or fear is the body’s response to a situation that demands some kind of response, for example “fight or flight?” It is not necessarily a bad thing and at times, fear brings about a necessary action- like rushing to the sofa because my daughter is about to flip over the edge. In the same way, when we think about things that are potentially worrisome, God doesn’t call us to just think happy thoughts but respond to them. Sometimes the response will mean taking tangible action, always we are to respond in prayer and thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6-7). But anxiety takes a situation, analyzes it as bad, and just keeps thinking “what will happen to me?” instead of “how am I called to respond right now?” Now, when I start feeling the familiar sense of worry coming on, I try to ask this question so that the alertness and nervousness at the situation are used in the ways that they were ordained to work in bringing me to deeper dependence on God and being an active agent in doing the will of God.
4. I will probably be an “anxious person” my whole life, but this struggle is God’s ordained means to grow my trust in him and be a witness to his grace.
Having my daughter has convinced me of the creativity of God in creating each person uniquely. I see her and I see other children and it’s amazing to see how even now you can see their personalities coming through. Even from when she was a few months old as we got to know her more, we started praying about things she will probably struggle with given her particular make up. My temperament has a lot to do with the particular struggles I have. This is not to be fatalistic, but it gives me comfort to know that, though I pray I will grow in fighting it, I will be prone to anxiety until I see Jesus and that God brings about each struggle for my good and his glory.
I have learned not to see knots in my stomach as a failure on my part, but opportunities to turn to trust in God. When my daughter was a newborn and when I was nursing, the hormones involved caused waves of dread to pass over me unrelated to things I was thinking about or doing. It helped to see each occurrence of this biologically caused dread as a chance to say to God, “I don’t know why this is happening and I don’t like it, but I trust you.” I am coming to see God’s sufficient grace in all this and my being prone to fear and worry as a potential tool in the hands of God as he teaches me to turn to him and trust in his loving kindness and steadfast faithfulness.
God is ever so patient as I fail to trust again and again. He has been faithful to give grace and teach me. And to those who have continually prayed with me through my anxieties, thank you. All I have written here and am still learning is an answer to your prayers.