It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and so this post is part of a series of posts on that topic. This post is primarily about anxiety – I’ll explain what it is from a biblical point of view and then I’ll try and give you some biblical, Christ-honouring, gospel centred strategies to help overcome unhealthy anxiety and find joy.
The passage of Scripture that I always turn to when thinking about anxiety is Philippians 4:4-6 where both joy and anxiety collide.
Philippians 4:4–6 (ESV) — 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
It’s hard to deny that one of the core themes of our faith is joy. As Christians we’re supposed to be filled with joy. Paul wrote:
Romans 14:17 (ESV) — 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Joy is the biblical cure of despondency. It’s the cure of complaining and grumbling. It’s the cure to emotional weakness:
Nehemiah 8:10 (ESV) — ….the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
What that means is that you and I will never be strong Christians if we don’t decide to rejoice, because the joy of the Lord is a stronghold.
In another post, I’ve written about the two fundamental ideas to understanding emotions and if you haven’t read that yet I’d encourage you to click here and read it before carrying on otherwise what you’re about to read may not make sense.
The theological statement that is behind our joy is this: Jesus is alive.
The pre-fall version of anxiety is this: anxiety was a good emotion turned bad.
If it’s true, from my previous post, that all unhealthy mental struggles are the product of the fall and what originally intended for good has been “made crooked”. What then about anxiety? Well, let’s go back to the time when there wasn’t anything crooked … the Garden of Eden. Is it possible that we see the good emotion that has turned into anxiety?
Genesis 2:15 tells us that The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. that phrase “keep it” means to watch over or keep vigil. It’s a God-given emotion that urges us to act quickly in response to a threat – and this is good – and this is the pre-fall version of anxiety.
What happens then is that threat comes (and fear comes because we feel uncertain about our resources in the face of danger) and we can either choose at that moment to turn to God in faith or take matters into our own hands.
Vigilance minus faith will always produce one of two behaviours: we either choose to be a warrior or worrier (anger or anxiety). Interestingly enough, according to the bible, anger is the fight response to a threat – it’s vigilante justice – it’s the warrior action. The angry person is just as fearful and terrified as the anxious person but the response is just different. Anxiety, however, is the flight response to a threat. It’s vigil without action – it’s the worrier action.
Adam experienced both when he fell. He hid in the garden (Gen 3:8-10) – that was his flight response but He also blamed his wife (3:11-12) for the original sin – that was his fight response.
It would be good to think about your own typical response to fear and threat. Are you one that fights or flights?
Ok, so having laid some groundwork for our understanding about anxiety, what difference does the gospel make?
Well read how Paul describes Jesus in 1 Cor 15:
1 Corinthians 15:45 (NLT) — 45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit.
That’s basically the summary of the Bible: the first man, Adam, who was created, put into a garden and fell – and models fight and flight – and the second man, Jesus, who creates all things new, went into a garden and was victorious.
Jesus even models for us the proper, constructive healthy response to Anger and anxiety:
Matthew 26:39 (ESV) — 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Here Jesus, the second man (note that He also is in a garden just like Adam was) models constructive vigilance. He faced death and placed his faith in his Father’s good hands. Note that Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, modelled destructive fear and anxiety (Peter chose the fight response by cutting off someone’s ear, and then chose the flight response when he denying the Lord 3 times, all the disciples displayed an inability to hold a vigil (Matthew 26:40)
The most crucial aspect is to understand this: we experience the power of life and death in two gardens – the garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane. If we live in the power of the flesh then we live a fear-based, self-centred life that follows the model of the first Adam in the first Garden but if we live by the power of the Spirit, then we live a faith-based Christ-centred life that follows the model of the second Adam in the second garden.
What what do we do that will help us live in the second garden with Christ? Well go back to the text I introduced at the start of this post:
Philippians 4:6 (ESV) — 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Jesus said in Luke 12:
Luke 12:22 (ESV) — 22 do not be anxious about your life
so the question is how? how do we go about doing that?
In other words, the way to be anxious about nothing is to be prayerful about everything. When we sense the red mist of anger or the hear the runaway footsteps of anxiety, at that moment, as a pattern of what we have been doing as a regular practice, we pray.
Practising turning to God in faith will keep you from flight or fight. It’s how we learn we learn to move from one garden to the other as we move from “one man” to the other and cast all our cares on Him. It’s faith.