The Best Cure for Anxiety


(system) #1

The lesson this week reminds us of the scriptural promises that we don’t need to feel anxiety, worry, or fear. This is undoubtedly intended to be encouraging, but unfortunately the quotation from Ellen White with which it ends could be taken to mean that being anxious is a spiritual failing. It seems to imply that the only reason we don’t have “peace and happiness as we pass through … this life” is because we don’t have sufficient “faith … [and] trust in our heavenly Father” [1].

In other words, if I’m feeling anxious, frightened or worried, then, in light of all the promises in the Bible, it must because I’m really not as one with Christ as I ought to be. The irony, of course, is that the thing that probably most Adventists will feel the most anxious about is our status vis-à-vis Jesus. For many SDAs, we are worried about whether all will be well at the Last Judgment, or whether we are going to be directed towards the goats. So, telling us that, if we’re right with Christ, then we won’t be anxious—this isn’t the best way to alleviate anxiety or worry about whether we’re right with Christ!

And I have to say, I don’t believe that the Ellen White who at one point had difficulties with her marriage, who had two of her four sons (including her first born) die young, and who had to go to Australia because the leaders of the denomination found her too awkward to have to live with—I don’t believe she really wanted us to think that if we are finding life worrisome and troublesome it was our fault. I don’t doubt she wanted to encourage us to be positive and to trust in Jesus, but I’m also quite certain she knew that enough bad things happen in life that a certain degree of apprehension and alarm is apposite and reasonable. We can trust in our heavenly father and yet still be troubled in our lives; she, more than many of us, had reason to understand that.

I don’t want to take away from the important point that we can indeed “Cast all [our] anxiety on Him because He cares for [us]”, and that, when we “Cast [our] burden upon the LORD … He will sustain [us]”. In consequence, we truly “Do not [need to] be anxious about anything, [because] in every situation, [we can] by prayer and petition present [our] requests to God.” [2]

But are anxiety or worry, then, only things that God should free us of? Aren’t anxiety, concern and worry sometimes appropriate? In the rest of this short essay, which surveys some texts (and their contexts) in which the Bible discusses anxiety, I’m going to be suggesting that there are times when anxiety, if not exactly something to be welcomed, is at least something that can be positive.

First, sometimes anxiety may indeed be a sign that we need to look afresh at our spiritual life. I don’t want to overstate this, because unease is often unnecessary (as the lesson suggests), but there are times God will use it to prompt us to look at our personal spirituality afresh.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses, foreseeing that the Israelites might well give way to idolatry and apostasy, foretells the results:

Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations … Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day... . In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!”—because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see. [3]

But there is always another option—the Israelites can renew the covenant, as chapter 29 describes.

Note that Deuteronomy 28 tells us that an anxious, troubled, disquieted state of mind is a result of breaking with God, even apart from the actual troubles that will afflict those who choose to ignore God’s way of living. To me, though, it may well be that God doesn’t actually inflict these states of mind on us. Our mental disintegration is a natural consequence (like the results of sin) for anyone who has once been in communion with the divine. We will thereafter always aspire to encounter the transcendent, and so once we subconsciously recognize that we are living in such a way as to grieve our creator and redeemer, our subconscious will respond appropriately—with anxiety and even angst, for while our nature is to be prodigals, our nature is also to return to our loving heavenly father and beg for forgiveness. When we resist our better natures, anxiety is natural.

And our response, like that of the Israelites, should be to go back to God. As David wrote: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” Rather than resisting this, we should go with it, and, like David, acknowledge that “You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. … Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.” And if we do, then we can also avow David’s words: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.; … And lead me in the way everlasting.” [4] In this model, our “anxious thoughts” can be relieved because they have prompted us to repent and seek renewal.

There is another Biblical context in which concern and foreboding can be positives, and that is where we feel it on behalf of others. Nehemiah chapters 1-2 tell us how Nehemiah felt sick at heart about the condition of Jerusalem and of his fellow Jews living there. This was partly unhappiness at the way things were, but it was also a wider unease, that the “great trouble” of the returned exiles might continue unless things were put right now. So worried was Nehemiah that he could not sleep and, the next morning, as he served the Persian emperor, his anxiety was writ large on his features. The King of Kings astutely observes that Nehemiah is not ill, and thus: “Something must be bothering you.” [5]

Artaxerxes was right, of course; something was “bothering” Nehemiah. But his disquiet did him credit, not discredit. The Bible might, perhaps, have implied a rebuke to Nehemiah—after all, shouldn’t he have just cast his anxiety upon God? Shouldn’t he have prayed and then just trusted that it would all be fine? The answer is “No”, because sometimes God has to act through us! The only suggestion in scripture that Nehemiah shouldn’t have been bothered is in the hint that this is what King Artaxerxes wanted—a pagan king! And even he is moved sufficiently by Nehemiah’s concern to issue a royal blank check to his cupbearer, to go to the aid of his unhappy fellow countrymen.

The simple fact is, Nehemiah was right to fret about the state of affairs in Jerusalem. The people there, as the rest of the book that bears his name makes clear, were not just victims of unfortunate circumstances; they had also fallen into a spiritual rut. On both counts, they needed outside help. The key for us, though, is that Nehemiah didn’t just feel concerned about conditions in Jerusalem—he was impelled by his anxiety to act. He braved the king’s displeasure, and later the hostility of important locals, and the apathy and apostasy of many leaders back in Judea. The result was that the returned exiles were put back on track.

Sometimes we will be right to feel worried and anxious for others; when we do, the best cure is to do something to help. It is also the Christian response.

To wrap up. I am not suggesting we should try to be more worried! But if we feel apprehension, alarm or anxiety, well, sometimes it is the right thing to feel. Certainly, we don’t need to be anxious about feeling anxiety, lest it shows we aren’t trusting God enough. Sometimes we are right to agonize about our spiritual state: anxiety will be positive if it prompts us to renewed repentance. And sometimes, worry ought to be a spur to action, to do something about a troublesome situation, rather than just a psychological affliction we want God to rid us of. Action, whether it is renewing our spiritual connection with Jesus, or acting to help others, can be a good way to quiet our disquieted spirits.

END NOTES

[1] Lesson for Friday, January 7, citing Ellen White, Mind, Character, and Personality, 468. [2] 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 55:2, NSAB, italics supplied; Philippians 4:6, NIV. [3] Deuteronomy 28:64-67 (NIV). [4] Psalm 139: 7, 13-14 (NKJV), 23-24 (NIV). [5] Nehemiah 1:3 (NIV), 2:2 (CEV).


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2853