Anxiety is one of the most common mental health struggles we face in modern society. It’s also among the most misunderstood. Too often the Christian community is quick to turn a blind eye to those who struggle with issues related to mental health. Those who struggle can find themselves feeling all alone.
I know because I’m one of them.
In 2008 I learned my church staff position was one of several being eliminated due to the downturn in the stock market. During this time I also experienced a personal health scare, and within just a few weeks, my wife and I returned home from a weekend getaway to New York City to find our home had been burglarized.
The break-in was the last straw for me. In the days immediately following, I experienced my first full-blown panic attack. As a licensed therapist, I knew what was going on. I recognized the racing heart rate, the unclear thinking patterns, and the general sense of impending doom as classic symptoms of anxiety. But that didn’t make the incident any less frightening. The experience made me feel out-of-control, emotionally weak, and helpless.
Having been raised in the church, I knew how much the Bible had to say about anxiety: “Be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6a); “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25). But I also knew how little most pastors and church people had to say about the condition. During a time when I felt a desperate need to pull myself together, I felt all alone and unable to clearly articulate my feelings even to my wife.
In the middle of it all, I was working hard to identify potential job leads. At the end of an especially taxing day, I had a phone interview scheduled with a church committee. My antidepressant had not yet taken effect, and I kept looking at the clock, counting down to the time for the phone to ring.
“God, help me sound normal,” I pleaded. “Help me place my trust and confidence in You. Help me remember to breathe.”
Breathing—something we do every moment from the time we’re born—was suddenly something I had to coach myself to do. It was surreal. I’m one of the professionals who had helped many others through their own bouts of anxiety and depression. And yet here I was, feeling a mere shell of myself, doing my best to seem okay, knowing that no church wants to hire a basket case.
I’m grateful my battle with major anxiety was short-lived. I’m even more grateful this unwanted struggle came with an indescribable gift—the ability to truly empathize with those who suffer from anxiety.
When we experience challenges in life, too often our sole focus is on overcoming those challenges rather than growing through them. With that perspective in mind, it has been helpful for me to study the Scriptures through the lens of my own mental health struggles.
Many of the Bible’s most celebrated and highly regarded characters likely also struggled with some form of anxiety. I think of Adam and Eve, whose hearts must have been racing when they heard the voice of the Lord calling to them as they hid in the garden (Gen. 3:8). I imagine Noah (Gen. 6) likely felt anxious as he labored tirelessly for years constructing a gigantic boat, as passersby laughingly pointed and ruthlessly mocked him.
I think of Moses (Ex. 4:10), a stutterer with low self-confidence, accepting God’s assignment to lead the Israelites. I think of Ruth (Ruth 1:14), who, in her grief, attached herself to Naomi. I think of the Pharaoh (Gen. 40-41), whose dreams were deeply disturbing, undoubtedly impacting his ability to accomplish ordinary daily tasks with accuracy and efficiency.
I think of David, whose many writings offer insight into his own fragile state of heart and mind (Ps. 139:23). I think of a teenage girl named Mary (Luke 1:29), who must have felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of carrying and giving birth to the Son of God. I think of the disciple Peter (John 18:27), whose mouth often engaged before his brain. How much anxiety must he have felt when he heard the cock crow for the third time? And I think of Martha (Luke 10:41) who was so obsessively cleaning house that she couldn’t fully enjoy Jesus’ visit to her home. If we’re honest, isn’t that the way many home-based small group leaders feel?
There are many others whose lives were clearly touched by anxiety. The most significant though is Jesus himself. As Christians we have a hard time thinking of Jesus as anxious, and yet we know there’s no emotion we experience that he does not fully understand. Yes, even Jesus—fully human, fully God—as he prepared for his death on the cross, demonstrated a certain sense of anxiety as he prayed to the Father (Matt. 26:39).
If you or someone you love struggles with chronic anxiety, you can be assured that it is a real issue—and something that can’t be cured simply by having more faith or praying more prayers. However, you can help an anxious person just by noticing, caring, and being available to help bear their burdens. Maybe that involves providing a meal, doing the grocery shopping, or taking care of the kids. Maybe you can help the person find a competent Christian counselor or local support group. If you don’t know how best to help, you might simply ask. A little kindness and compassion will go a long way.
Never hesitate to talk with your medical doctor about your struggles with anxiety. I often remind people that we see other medical professionals and specialists for our heart, kidneys, etc. It’s important to remember that our brain is an organ too, and sometimes it requires specific attention. I actually chose my neurologist because of his background in psychiatry as well. Perhaps your situation can benefit from a two-pronged approach to treatment: counseling and medication.
I still experience times of anxiety, but I’m learning to give God praise even in that. Because I know he understands and has a purpose that I may never fully grasp.
This article was first published March 22, 2019 on the website of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was updated on this site to include specific guidance with regard to medical treatment.