As someone who has struggled with anxiety, the Bible verse Philippians 4:6 has been one I have anxiously pored over for a long time:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in
everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”
This verse has been incredibly helpful in my rational anxieties about things, especially when I moved to a new city and had an entirely new set of concerns: is my apartment safe? If something happens to me, who would I contact? Do I have enough money in my bank account in case of an emergency? Am I secure at my job?
In college, I learned a lot about what it meant to be a person of action and to do things instead of worry about things. I had a good friend who often kindly reminded me to always try to do the absolute best I can and then leave the rest up to God. When there was nothing further that could be done, “letting my requests be made known to God” genuinely helped when I could actually choose to just stop feeling anxious.
Stopping that feeling was the harder part, though, and my anxiety completely took over at times.
What do you do when you can’t stop thinking about stuff going on? When your mind intrusively and involuntarily reworks everything over and over until you can’t sleep? When that lack of sleep then makes it worse and you are less rational because of your fatigue? When you are conditioned from past experiences to be on guard at all times, and fear has become the default for you?
What about when you have internalized everything to the point where you are having a panic attack for no apparent reason, and you are quite literally “Anxious for nothing?”
That’s when the meaning of Phillipians 4:6 can shift into a painful command.
Yes, I am anxious. It is for reasons I do not understand or choose, and I do not have any requests to be made known to God except for it to just stop.
Anxiety is a really complicated thing that often gets caught up in a debate of whether or not it is a sin or affliction in Christian circles. I think I mostly hear about it being considered a sin, but maybe because that is what stands out and hurts me the most.
John MacArthur is a well-known American pastor and radio personality, and has had a lot to say about anxiety in his writings and sermons. He has written a book on anxiety called Be Anxious For Nothing, and also has a very easily accessible sermon series on anxiety you can find on his website, http://www.gty.org. He frequently mentions that he, too, suffered from anxiety for a long time.
There is a quote I read by him once that I think summarizes the core of his perspective on anxiety:
“Think about it this way: Christians who worry believe God can redeem them, break the shackles of Satan, take them from hell to heaven, put them into His kingdom, and give them eternal life, but just don’t think he can get them through the next couple of days. That is pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? That we can believe God for the greater gift and then stumble and not believe Him for the lesser one reveals an embarrassing lack of faith”
This is a fantastic point if you are thinking rationally, but what if you aren’t starting with rationality? John MacArthur’s sermon series on anxiety has a lot of really great points for addressing worries, but by labeling anxiety as a sin and lack of faith, I think he fails to acknowledge the different ways anxiety can manifest itself. In my experience, anxiety can be very different than worrying.
Worrying is usually concerned with what you spend time thinking about instead of praying about.
You worry about whether or not you are going to have time to do what you would like later in the day, you worry about having to talk in front of a large group of people, whether or not your friend is mad at you, if you are going to get a good grade on that paper, and you worry about whether or not your boss is happy with your work.
I think worrying is generally a rational process. It is a way of consciously identifying a problem and trying to solve it, however ineffective of a solution worrying actually is. It is also a problem with the heart because it does express a lack of trust in God and/or a lack of trust in the world around you. It can also be the manifestation of a control issue.
And as highlighted before, yes, those are things you can and ought to be on guard against, and you should remember to do your best, let God do the rest, and then accept we’re in a fallen world.
However, anxiety is not only concerned with worrying, and as Christians, we should not try to treat them as being one in the same. Worrying isn’t always the cause of anxiety (at least, it isn’t for me), but it is more often a symptom of something deeper that is “off.” Anxiety is more of an unsettled feeling.
In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis wrote:
“Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ”
Anxiety can manifest itself in so many different ways, from a heart and trust problem to a deeper psychological defect resulting from the fall, the sin of others, or an individual’s dangerous environment. It’s hard to say it is as simple as telling someone to “stop worrying, it’s sinful” as a blanket solution, right?
John MacArthur’s treatment of anxiety ends at a treatment of “worrying,” and to someone who has a physical and deep internal problem with anxiety, it can be shaming and humiliating to be told to stop doing something that is so internal it is compulsive. People who struggle with OCD, anxiety disorders, and PTSD have a real physical problem that causes them to suffer, and that deserves to be treated as a real affliction from a Christian perspective.
As Lewis highlights, Anxiety for Christians in particular often comes with being anxious about anxiety, since anxiety is so often considered a “defect in faith.” To put things simply, you cannot shame someone into letting go of their shame.
Having anxiety is a real point of suffering for many people, and admonishing it as being sinful essentially hands the anxious a new shovel with which to dig their hole.
Additionally, Lewis explains how afflictions, if treated with grace, lead us to share in the Passion of Christ. A fantastic example of how Christ shared in this human emotion is when he prayed in the Garden of Gesthemane. At this point in the Gospel, Christ showed real anxiety about his impending sacrifice, and literally sweat blood while praying for the cup to pass him. To call anxiety a sin denies Christ’s sanctity.
But whether or not John MacArthur is correct in calling it a sin, I think his solution is correct. It is the same solution Christ gives us in the garden. From either school of thought, if you agree with Lewis in saying anxiety is an affliction or MacArthur in saying it is a sin, we should all turn and focus more on the solution which is made clear in Philippians 4:
“…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We should pray with supplication and thanksgiving, we should focus on what is good, and practice what is good so that we might receive the peace that passes all understanding.
Do we turn to God with prayer in supplication because our future is in his hands and we are sinful and selfish to think otherwise? Or, perhaps, we should turn to him in order to be healed of a problem that we can’t understand.
Either way, prayer and trusting in God is essential for all healing.