The past two years have had an extraordinary impact on people’s mental health. The over-stimulation or under-stimulation of lockdown; the threats and the unknowns of the pandemic; the disruption to routines and many new things we’ve had to learn have all taken their toll. And then there’s all the non-pandemic-related stressors too – ministry, relationships, finance, other health concerns - they haven’t gone away. And Christmas, of course – always some pressure there!
Different people have responded differently but, for many, anxiety has come to the fore. The severity has ranged. For some, there has been an exhaustion and sense of dis-ease at what might come, for others, life has been blighted with panic-attacks, distracted days and disturbed nights. For all, uncertainty at the future has left us with an increased realisation that life is nowhere near as much under our control as maybe we thought it was. And, if we’re honest, that hurts.
Looking for help
The internet has been ablaze with self-help techniques. Taking exercise, building in down-time, prioritising carefully, breathing deeply and talking to friends are all wise ways to help us persevere. Adverts encourage us to speak to our GPs and, for some, talking therapies and medication can certainly help. But none of that includes Christ. Surely there are ways in which we can process our anxiety that involve him.
If we’re honest, quite a few of us easily believe that Christians shouldn’t admit to struggling with fears. We remember Bible verses that tell us to “be bold” or “not be anxious” and assume that our anxieties are either sins or, at the very least, the kind of weaknesses we need to hide. Others of us think if we just prayed a bit more, just remembered a few facts about God then maybe our fears would disappear. But the Apostle Paul, in his letters, referred to his anxieties (Philippians 2:28) without shame. And, at the same time, reminds us that help for our anxieties is ultimately found in relationship with the One true Lord who is present and full of peace (Philippians 4:5-7).
The letters and gospel accounts, such as the Sermon on the Mount, remind us that it is not techniques that change us. It is knowing that we are sustained, are protected, are guided, are part of a big plan that involves but does not stand or fall on us - and then relying on the One who provides all that which makes perseverance possible long term.
Learning God’s gifts
The first aspect requires us to see God clearly. Not to give in to the lies of anxiety that try to persuade us that we are alone, unloved, out of control and unequipped. Those false beliefs often come thick and fast when the pressure is on - our circumstances nudge us to believe them - but they are not true.
We can remind ourselves of some of the great images of God that the Bible provides: Shepherd, King, Rock, Refuge all of which tell us that it would be completely against his character to leave us struggling alone. The Good Shepherd doesn’t leave his sheep behind, or fail to find grass or somehow forget the journey to the green pasture ahead. The King doesn’t fall asleep on his throne, mislay his plans or make a bad decision. The Refuge doesn’t have a weak spot, an area that is vulnerable to attack or a policy that would exclude any of God’s children from its protective care.
We are loved. We are led. Those “everlasting arms” of the Lord are holding us fast. The Lord’s provision for us is far more powerful and defining than any of the tough stuff we are experiencing (however horrible it may be).
But the Scriptures do more than simply tell us of God’s gifts, they invite us to step into the very story of God’s salvation.
Leaning on the Giver
Whilst metaphor might help us realise who God is and what he’s doing – it’s narrative that helps us rely on his character and work. Think Joseph – Ruth – David – Elijah – Jesus – Paul – Peter and more. Their experiences were not ones of ease - their circumstances were painful beyond description at times -but they show us how to flourish when life is fearful by showing us how to live life reliant on our Father above.
Their stories – and the stories of other heroes of the faith like them - were ones where they actively kept their eyes on God, actively believed his words, actively turned to him in prayer even when they were broken, actively developed trust in his goodness and plans even when they were confused, actively followed wherever he led rather than going their own way, knowing that the ending was good even if the journey was hard and they couldn’t see that good just yet (Hebrews 11).
But it wasn’t just activity that marked their dependence, it was rest too. Even Jesus took himself apart to be alone and rest and pray (Mark 6:46). God’s strength enabled them to press on in hardship and rest in peacefulness. And they practised those things, time and time, until they became a normal part of life.
Pursuing God’s ways
It’s worth stating that no level of learning and leaning guarantees an anxiety-free life in the here and now. Perfection is to come in the new heavens and the new earth. We’re all still wrestling with fallen bodies, in relationship with fallen fellow-humans in a fallen world right now. But learning and leaning on our God can change our experience of anxiety and do so in ways that can bring much hope.
Most of us underemphasise one aspect of this process and overemphasise the other. Some of us will tend towards propositional truth – understanding who God is – but forget the call to tender, relational dependence. Others of us will lean in hard with emotions outpoured but forget who we are leaning on and our thought lives can spiral out of control. Some of us struggle with both.
With encouragement from those around, however, we can grow. And, as we do, our experience of anxiety will change. So, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, why not (alongside the undeniably useful practical techniques noted above) commit yourself to learning and leaning. After all, as John reminds, it’s the way we were designed to live:
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us (1 John 4:16)