One of the ways the Old Testament brings comfort to the anxious is by its dependence on two personable literary genres. The first is historical narrative, which is found in books like Genesis or Joshua. Unlike some social media profiles that are carefully crafted to present only the best, most exciting, and successful sides of a person, these narratives reveal a more complete picture. Characters are presented with both achievements and frailties. There is Moses, the scared speaker (Ex. 4:10); Ahaz, the desperate monarch (2 Kings 16:7); and Naomi, the bitter mother-in-law (Ruth 1:20–21). These characters remove the stigma of anxiety and remind us that God works through broken people.
The Psalms complement the narratives by offering snapshots of individuals responding to anxiety. Rather than a tidy summary packaged for retrospective sharing, David’s penetrating question, “How long, Lord?” (Ps. 13:1), invites us into his active suffering and gives us permission to plead with God to end our suffering, too. Asaph expresses the inexpressible when he says that God has given him only “the bread of tears” (Ps. 80:5).
Most importantly, this group of human voices provides theological solutions: “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Ps. 118:6). The comfort of the Psalms is especially felt by recalling that they are songs meant to be sung and they are the inspired Word of God. This means, as John Calvin noted, that when we sing the Psalms during trials, it is as though God’s Spirit is singing through us.
Of course, the texts of the Old Testament don’t always seem like a good resource for fighting anxiety. There are moments that feel like a literary gut punch, including Micah’s promise of judgment on the people of Israel (Mic. 2:3–5), and stories of severe testing, such as Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1–18). Far from comforting us, these texts only increase our anxiety. But if we read them closely, we find that each story is redemptive because the anxiety is momentary and meant to draw us closer to God in faith and hope. It’s never the intent of a biblical author to constantly tease a believer’s fears or to pry away their faith in a good God.
After sharing stories and offering reassurance, Old Testament texts often issue a challenge: Will you enact the faith that you profess? It may seem trite, but it’s exactly what we need to hear if anxiety is at least partly the product of our will—a habit of mind that can be counteracted.
When I was visiting a professional for strength-based counseling, this was the issue he kept discussing with me. “Isn’t your God one of infinite love and care? How does that relate to your anxiety?” It’s unsettling to have a non-Christian pressing you on the disconnect between your orthodoxy and your orthopraxy, but he was right. You can only say the Serenity Prayer for so long before the line “courage to change the things I can” becomes less of a statement and more of an imperative.
The Old Testament fits nicely into this movement from comfort to command. Joshua tells the Israelites to enter Canaan with courage (Josh. 1:18). Proverbs contrasts the wicked and the godly based on how they relate to fear and anxiety: “The wicked run away when no one is chasing them, but the godly are as bold as lions” (28:1, NLT). In Isaiah, the prophet challenges Ahaz as he worries about the threat of military invasion: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, then you will not stand at all” (7:9).
Crucially, these commands are not issued from a finger-pointing God who stands back as we are thrown into the terrors of life. This God is ever present, and—even as he commands us—he is already walking with us, leading us down paths that we cannot travel on our own. This is the message of Psalm 23:4, which some translations render: “Even when I walk through a valley of deep darkness, I will not be afraid because you are with me” (ISV, emphasis added). This translation helps us to see that God walks with us, not only as we approach death but in all of the dark moments of our lives. He is always there.