I am a millennial statistic. Dubbed “the anxious generation,” most of us are stressed, and we experience work-disrupting anxiety at twice the average rate. We are leaders of the mental health crisis in a world where many think anxiety is generally on the rise.
Until recently, I didn’t think I was an anxious person. Then, in a single year, I finished writing my PhD thesis in England, worked multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills, tore my MCL (with a wife 36 weeks pregnant), became a first-time father, found an academic job, got a work visa, moved across the Atlantic, found housing, completed my first term of teaching, and defended my doctoral thesis. By no means was all of this bad or world-ending—some of it was very good. But at the end of it all, I was burned out and anxious.
My story isn’t unique. Workplaces are increasingly mobile, creating the risk of isolation and overwork. Young people are told to go anywhere and do anything, but their mental health is paying the price. And that’s to say nothing of weightier problems like addiction, abuse, chronic illness, joblessness, homelessness, and a host of others that afflict so many today. A thriving wellness industry has risen in response, complete with Instagram therapists, wellness dogs, and stress-relief toys. As a Christian, you can feel tension—even guilt—when a doctor or a self-help book improves your mental health more than a Bible reading.
As someone who has sought professional help for anxiety, I can say that my own recovery has always been rooted in the Bible, especially one Old Testament passage: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). If you accept the wisdom of the media, or even of some Christian leaders, my deliverance shouldn’t have happened this way—not with the help of that dry, dusty Old Testament. But as others buy a casket and recite a eulogy for these texts, I find them bounding with life.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one. Many of our most therapeutic worship songs brim with Old Testament references, including “Raise a Hallelujah” and “Blessed Be Your Name.” Fleming Rutledge’s award-winning book The Crucifixion notes how communities that endure generations of marginalization find solace in Old Testament stories of exile and deliverance. This is seen in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King employs Old Testament themes, including an allusion to Psalm 30, to comfort his anxious audience.
The texts of the Bible—especially the Old Testament—are ancient, and they were written long before our mental health crisis. But they’re neither irrelevant to our concerns nor merely a backstory to the more useful New Testament. In fact, by telling the stories of various individuals and their toughest experiences, the Old Testament is not so ancient—it delivers a special form of group therapy.
The relevance of the Old Testament for addressing anxiety begins with its composition. It is the product of dozens of authors over a whole millennium. So it catalogs an overwhelming number of traumatic events, from the murder of Abel and Israel’s oppression in Egypt to the rape of Tamar and the exile to Babylon, to name just a few. This is different from the New Testament, which is so focused and was finished so quickly that similar first-century events—the destruction of the temple or the eruption that leveled Pompeii and may have killed dozens of early Christians—are not recorded.
Imagine you’re standing near the site of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. What thoughts and feelings would you experience? Almost all Americans who were alive during the attacks remember where they were on that fateful day and what it felt like to watch the news repeatedly show the buildings’ collapse. The experiences undergirding the Old Testament texts aren’t much different. At least one disturbing event for society at large—from natural disaster or military invasion to national exile or political scandal—lies behind almost every Old Testament writing.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Old Testament is more saturated with the Bible’s famous “fear not” statements than the New Testament. These documents distill the wisdom of centuries, ushering us into the counsel of the eldest elders and the wisest sages to learn what it means to trust in God.