A Biblically Robust Approach to Anxiety

In this series we are attempting to develop a robust application of Scripture to various troubles. To begin with we are going to explore what is perhaps the most (or at least one of the most) common struggles: anxiety. When it comes to treating anxiety many Christians resort to simply quoting Scriptural verses that use the word. But the Bible gives us more than just a memory verse or two on worry. In fact, Scripture gives us even more than just one framework for facing anxiety. The Bible presents us with at least four frameworks for confronting fear.

We should always begin with attempting to understand a person’s experience of a trouble. Often people resort to Bible verse band-aids because they don’t really understand the depth, breadth, and complexity of a person’s struggles. Understanding anxiety will allow us to more appropriately tailor our Biblical application.

Anxiety can be described as an intense emotional distress related to a threat of danger. That danger can be real or perceived; it can be physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, or any other form. Anxiety is fear, but more importantly it is a fear that seems to linger. Fear impacts us in different ways (physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually). It also arises because of different triggers and therefore fear can look different. Many note that anxiety comes in a variety of forms: Generalized anxiety, specific phobia, social anxiety, panic attacks, and even PTSD.

Knowing the different experiences, triggers, and manifestations of anxiety is vitally important for appropriately applying Scripture. This important because Scripture does not offer one flat treatment plan for all experiences. Rather, God recognizes that different people and different types of anxiety need different emphases and different approaches.

Let’s consider, then, the four frameworks for confronting fear. First, Scripture offers us what I call the Vigilance Framework.

Scripture acknowledges that God has built into us a kind of constructive concern that is designed to help protect us and others. We see this concept first in Genesis 2:15. God instructs Adam to “take care” of the creation. The Hebrew word literally means “keep vigil or watch.” In other words God wants Adam to be vigilant in caring for the creation. This is a good, normal, healthy kind of concern that makes us pro-active in protection. But, in a sin-cursed world, this vigilance can get stuck. Anxiety, within this framework, is vigilance that is always scanning, always on guard, always sensing potential threat. Healthy vigilance, however, focuses on specific fears by turning to the Lord.

Philippians is a letter that we often turn to when addressing anxiety. Chapter 4 is where we usually go, but we should start earlier in the book. Philippians 1:27-28 calls us to vigilance, and Paul himself models this vigilance in verse 20. By the time we get to chapter 4:4-9, Paul has been building a case for vigilance in the face of fear. The response that Paul develops to anxiousness is a healthy kind of vigilance, which involves three things: Turning to the Lord – pray and express gratitude for His blessings; Focusing Your Thoughts – think on these things; and Practicing Faithfulness –  practice these things. It is is a focused and active response that calls us to do what we can and look to God for help. This approach reorients anxiety towards constructive concern. For more on this concept see Bob Kellemen’s book Anxiety: Anatomy & Cure.

Second, Scripture offers us the Manna Framework. Ed Welch develops this idea in his book Running Scared, where he borrows from Exodus 16. When God provides manna for the Israelites to eat, He gives them an important qualifier to go along with it: “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning” (Exodus 16:19). In other words God provided manna for today, but Israel would have to trust Him to provide it for tomorrow. This framework emphasizes the trustworthiness of God and our response of faith to His provisions.

Anxiety often lives in the future. It worries about tomorrow and looks for grace today to face tomorrow’s troubles. God always provides grace for today, but He does not promise us grace now for future challenges. We must trust Him to provide tomorrow’s grace when tomorrow comes. For some anxious people the Manna Framework invites them to see God’s faithfulness today and trust in it for the future. There is a way, of course, to use the principle of this framework without the context. We could simply say to people: you need to trust the Lord more. And that might be true, but by disconnecting it from their feelings of insecurity about the future we apply the principle in a trite manner that doesn’t help the sufferer. This is a more robust use of the principle.

Third, Scripture offers to the anxious person the Humility Framework. This approach suggests that anxiety is far more arrogant than we realize. Some anxiety comes from a conviction that we ought to be able to control our world, that we ought to be able to achieve perfection, that we shouldn’t make mistakes. Anxiety can expose our own over-confidence, perfectionism, or control. Peter makes this case when he writes to Christians who are being persecuted—an anxious scenario if ever there was one—and tells them to “humble themselves” (1 Peter 5:6).  He urges the suffering Christians to submit themselves under the mighty hand of God. When anxiety is stirred up in us because we are trying to take responsibility for things beyond our control, the solution is to humble ourselves under the loving lordship of God Almighty. Read the full context of that passage and see how Peter approaches anxiety.

Fourth, and finally, Scripture proves us with the Kingdom Framework. This framework exposes what we rely on. What we fear often reveals what we love and what we put our hope in. Far too often we become anxious because we have put our trust in the small kingdoms of our own making. We trust in jobs, possessions, comforts, people, and other earthly things. We don’t just appreciate these things, we hang all our hope and joy on them, and they can’t bear that weight. Jesus warns us about treasuring the wrong things.

Most of us know Jesus’ sermon on anxiety (Matthew 6:25-32), but those words are sandwiched between two statements about the kingdoms we serve. On the front end, Jesus tells us not to “lay up treasures on earth” (v. 19) and to evaluate whom/what we are serving (v. 24). On the back end he tells us to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (v. 33). The section in the middle directly speaking about anxiety is connected to kingdoms. The kingdom you trust in, the kingdom you treasure, the kingdom you serve, will either invite confidence and security or it will cultivate fear and uncertainty. God’s Kingdom is forever and those who trust in it will never have to fear its failure.

The Kingdom Framework challenges our anxiety by asking us to evaluate what we love. If my treasure is insecure or unstable, if I put too much hope in earthly things, then I will become anxious. The solution is to cultivate a trust in and treasure of a better and more secure kingdom. The solution to anxiety in this paradigm is to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” The focus of this framework is to help people orient their hearts towards Christ and shift their values to more closely align with God’s.

Each framework provides us with a slightly nuanced lens through which to explore our experience of anxiety. Of course many practical things will need to be done to help people, but a robust framework helps us more pointedly apply Scripture and care for those who are struggling. This is far more helpful than simply telling people “be anxious for nothing.” It seeks to understand the different experiences of anxiety and respond to them carefully with the relevant Scriptural frameworks.

A Caution: anxiety can also arise as a symptom of biological factors. It is important for people to get appropriate medical check-ups and competent assessment by professionals to help evaluate what might be contributing to their struggles. Don’t assume that you see everything.

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