A close relative once told me, “Matt, you’ve always been a worrier. Even when you were a child—the one time in life when you shouldn’t have a care in the world—you always seemed on edge or troubled about something. I have never been able to wrap my mind around it!”
Her description of my besetting nervousness is dead-on. Though the veneer of my life has looked radically different at various stages in my twenty-seven years, one common, invisible thread has weaved its way through every season: anxious worry. As a kid, my anxiety fed on a buffet of legitimate life-difficulties that probably would have caused anyone some soul trouble. However, as an adult who is overly concerned about living a life free from practical difficulties (I think most of us fall into this category), my worry is almost never ignited by real situations in the present but rather by undesirable circumstances that might await me in the years to come.
My future-oriented anxiety has many objects. This week I may fear that my body might one day fall prey to some vitality-devouring illness. Next week I may worry about the financial woes that would accompany a possible job loss. These types of things happen to a lot of people, so it isn’t all that crazy to think they might happen to me. But there are other times when I am utterly swallowed up by fears that the rational part of my brain knows are stupendously irrational. For some time I have suspected that I might have a bit of a problem. I don’t believe I have a chemical imbalance that necessitates anti-anxiety medication (I’ll explain why). I just believe that I, like many other people, have a “worry enzyme” embedded into the sin-stained DNA of my fallen personality.
Before God resurrected me from spiritual death, I coped with my anxiety by ingesting mind-altering substances or by engaging in fleshly behaviors that distracted me from my fearful obsessions. Sin was my go-to treatment. But today I have a new, spiritual nature, and the sins that once offered some sense of relief now only inflict further pain on my soul. Iniquitous medication is no longer an option—which should be okay, right? Because coming under the loving provision of a kind and sovereign God who promises to work all things for my ultimate good should alleviate my fearful fretting, shouldn’t it? Sure—theoretically. Yet my anxiety has persisted. And that’s not a knock on God or his ability or willingness to still my worrisome soul; it’s a knock on me. Being the prone-to-unbelief person that I am, I have found it terribly difficult to pull my eyes away from my fears and open my ears to the peace-inducing truths that the Spirit is always trying to communicate to my heart.
God wants us to be free from worries. He desires 100% percent of each of our souls to be available to enjoy and glorify him—unhindered by the paralyzing effects of anxiety. Jesus urged his followers not to be anxious about material needs (Matthew 6:25-33) or the future (Matthew 6:34) or even to fear what man can do to them (Luke 12:4). Paul tells his readers to be anxious for nothing—literally, for nothing (Philippians 4:6). Peter echoes the words of Paul, instructing believers to cast all their anxieties on God (1 Peter 5:7).
Yet I struggle, as I think so many of us do, to obey these commands.
A while back, I asked the Holy Spirit to help me unearth the reasons for my seeming inability to subdue my anxious tendencies. It didn’t take terribly long to realize that, for me, the primary hindrance to living a life free from worry is not my inability but my unwillingness to do so. God would not insist that I cease from my worries if I were utterly unable to cease from my worries. With every command God gives, he also supplies the power to obey by means of his Spirit who indwells us. God’s obedience-producing power isn’t some far-off thing that is out of reach; it is immediately close and accessible. Therefore, I am not unable—I’m just unwilling.
Why am I unwilling? Finding the answer to this question was the next step in my soul-excavation. And I think, after much prayer and sober reflection, I’ve discovered the answer: I am an idolater. Every time I’m in a fearful funk and try to set my mind on the truths of God’s affection for me, his commitment to me, and his resolve to allow nothing—no suffering, no guilt, no demonic oppression, not even death—to separate me from his love, I scarcely find encouragement. These staggering realities should send my soul flying high into the inconceivable peace of God (Philippians 4:7). They don’t, though. “Yeah, I know, but . . .” I say to myself, as I go on festering in anxiety.
My trembling heart is not treasuring God; or the unbreakable union with him that I have through Jesus; or my sure destiny of forever enjoying the pleasures of his love and the splendors of his glory. The continuation of my anxiety in the face of these fear-crushing, gospel realities reveals that what I am cherishing most in my fretful obsession is not what the gospel gives me. My heart is treasuring the idea of an easy, comfortable life. I am not longing for God to be my all in all; I am longing for God to guarantee that no harm, discomfort, or suffering (whether deserved or not) will taint the trouble-free life I am trying to live. Of course, I know God doesn’t promise to spare me from such things—which is why I worry, sometimes spending countless hours a day tormenting myself by envisioning possible difficulties that might lie ahead.
As my Spirit-directed soul-excavation came to a close, I rediscovered a life changing truth that I have long known but failed to apply to this area of my life: repentance is the threshold to freedom. If my happiness is rooted in knowing and walking with God, and if my peace of mind is totally wrapped up in all that he gives me in the gospel, and if my purpose in life is to glorify and enjoy him forever, I truly have nothing to worry about.
As I have sought, by the help of the Spirit, to keep myself from idols (1 John 5:21) and to abide in the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5), my chronic worrying has greatly diminished. Anxious proclivities still exist within me, like a thorn lodged in my flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). But continually striving to turn away from idolatrous longings and continually asking the Holy Spirit to help me treasure God above all else continues to subdue the paralyzing anxiety that has haunted me for all of my life. Repentance has truly set me free.
NOTE: Because I have been able to effectively subdue my anxiety by repenting of idolatry and abiding in Christ, I do not believe I have a chemical imbalance that necessitates anti-anxiety medication. However, I know that some of you do, and I don’t want you to walk away from this article feeling even a smidgen of guilt for being unable to treat your anxiety solely by spiritual means. If you need medication, you need medication—and there is no shame in that. Praise God for medicinal blessings that are available to help us alleviate the pains of physiological brokenness.