The Presence of God in Our Anxiety
Pastor Scott Sauls has said the following: “Studies indicate that when we suffer mental illness alone, the results can be tragic, even horrific. When we suffer inside a support system, however – when we bring our pain and sorry and stress into the light in the context of redemptive community – the chances of coping well become exponentially higher.” Far too often in recent months, Americans have experienced the tragic and horrific results of untreated mental illness even as we struggle with mental health challenges in our own hearts and homes. Mental illness isolates the sufferer and destroys community at every level, from friendship to family to church to city. At Rooted, we seek to be a small part of your support system and encourage you to find help within your redemptive friendships and communities. This week we will share articles that examine different facets of mental health, remembering that no matter the challenges we face, we have a living hope in Jesus Christ.
When I was eight, I was diagnosed with anxiety.
I remember sitting in the small office of my school’s counselor, the walls of the room covered in friendly, well-meaning posters about harnessing your feelings. The counselor began breaking down what my diagnosis meant and gave my mom and I tips on how to recognize and control the emotions I felt.
After the diagnosis, I had weekly meetings with the counselor. She became one of my biggest advocates in school and one of the most valuable mentors throughout my childhood. I wasn’t aware of it then, but she was the first person other than my mom to truly stand alongside me as my anxiety took over.
As I got older, my anxiety pretty much dissipated. Like every kid, I would worry needlessly about schoolwork and friend drama, but I don’t think my thoughts were driven by angst like they had been when I was younger. For the most part, I thought I’d outgrown my anxiety, but I was wrong.
There’s really no convenient time for anxiety to reenter your life, but the summer before senior year of high school is a particularly inconvenient one. Without warning, I was brought back into the throes of angst right in the midst of making my college decision. It had nothing to do with the decision itself, as I was actually really excited about college. It was just the beginning of an early-adulthood battle with anxiety that, if I’m honest, I’m still fighting even now as a sophomore in college.
I didn’t, and still don’t, want to face the pain. My anxiety became something hard for me to understand, an inhuman emotion that I had never invited into my body. It became one big internal battle where I felt weighed down by the world and the weird feeling of impending doom, when nothing in my life indicated that I should be worried.
If you asked me what specifically I was worried about, I couldn’t tell you. My angst was never circumstantial, but my stress always was.
Anxiety and stress are two different feelings, I’ve learned. Anxiety can be a wildfire: blazing aimlessly in many directions, with no clear point of origin, causing all other emotions and tasks to feel difficult and impossible. Meanwhile, stress is like a controlled fire: you’re aware of its presence, and it can be tamed given time and changing circumstances.
The question for me became this: how do I tame the wildfire?
Anxiety manifests itself in multiple ways. From headaches to tears to nausea to loss of appetite to lack of motivation to disengagement, my anxiety presents itself in many forms and colors, shapes and sizes—at completely random times—so it’s often hard to distinctly recognize it for what it is, as there’s no clear pattern.
Here’s my piece: I’ve never tamed the wildfire on my own. My attempts at self-sufficiency always lead to spirals of doubt, insecurity, and fear.
What has helped immensely, though, is the promise that I am never alone. The parable of the Good Shepherd and His sheep rings true to the tune of promise. John 10:11-15 says this: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
These verses have reminded me to seek my Father in the midst of my anxiety because all other attempts at protection will fall through. The world is the “hired hand,” and my constant seeking of it will never allow me to see God in my fear.
Cancelling plans and backing out on commitments will only make me feel worse. Lying in bed and indulging myself in a Netflix marathon will only make me numb. Pretending the fear isn’t there will only multiply it—I have to challenge myself to surrender to the One who knows me best.
It’s okay to pray a small, feeble prayer if that’s all your heart can muster. It’s okay to squeak out the words, “Help me, God. I don’t know where to go from here.” He hears you and He will fight for you.
In addition, one of the most helpful supports through my anxiety has always been my mom. She’s battled anxiety her whole life, too, and knows me so intimately that she can practically tell me how I’m feeling. Having my mom as my confidante through my struggles with angst taught me this: pray for a community to get through the anxiety. Chances are, it will never fully leave you, but having a team to stand alongside you— people who see and know every piece of you, yet choose to stay—brings life into your bones. Bringing people into your mess makes for very real and beautiful communities.
One of my favorite authors, Hannah Brencher, says this in her most recent book, Come Matter Here: “If you let people in and then keep letting people in, you will see God. If you stay on watch for God—shift your eyes off the problem for five minutes—you will start to see him move around a way you didn’t think was possible.” I couldn’t have said it better myself—God can use the imperfect people in our lives to walk us through the darkness and remind us of His love.
Anxiety is something to be fought, not something to submit to. It’s a direct attack from the enemy—someone who has never had your best interest at heart in all of eternity. Ask the Lord to provide people who do have your best interest at heart, because once they enter your life, you’ll never be the same—and you’ll never have to fight alone again.
There is joy to be found, light to be seen, and life to be lived that I have been able to fully enjoy because of the good work that Christ has done in making me new. Sure, there are days when I find myself on the ground more than I’d like, but He’s shaping my heart on those days—teaching me things that can’t be learned in complete joy.