When this ever-present God asks us to be bold and courageous, we find a surprising paradigm for dealing with anxiety. The life of faith is difficult and requires trusting in God beyond what the eye can see. But a life of unbelief is even more difficult because it capitulates to fear and loses sight of God in the ensuing panic.
Either way, this isn’t the proverbial case of doubt crowding out faith. Doubt is a tool for questioning one’s fears. It is anxiety itself that undermines faith. Our vocation as anxious believers is to see and appreciate the contradiction between our anxiety and the God who loves us. With the help of other techniques, and possibly medication, we battle anxiety simply by believing God.
This challenge has been impactful for me personally. I am very good at controlling my life. I can anticipate demands, manage projects, and persevere. I plan my days to the hour (sometimes even more detailed than that), and I work with others, whether my wife or a coworker, to make sure I’m covering my responsibilities at home and at work. But in my darkest moments, especially when I’m tired, I get anxious about things I can never control. I fret about plane crashes, cancer—even about interactions with strangers.
If left unchecked, these thoughts become the background noise of my life. So there is grace in being told that my anxiety is creating illusions, or in the words of Martin Luther—a theologian who struggled with anxiety unlike any other—anxiety is all that Satan can do to us now, for the Lord is “a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Prov. 18:10).
As the Old Testament gathers a multitude of characters, from prophets to kings, to reflect on their struggle with faith and anxiety, there is still a sense of incompletion. Their human counsel only goes so far. So, by a chorus of voices, we are vaulted into the counsel of God himself. God backs up Moses with plagues; Isaiah delivers the word of the Lord to Ahaz; Naomi receives an answer to her prayers. These human voices point to a divine solution. Even still, Job cries, “If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together” (Job 9:33).
This is where the New Testament enters the fray. It’s focused on the greatest cataclysm in history—the death of God’s Son—and how the cataclysms of the Old Testament find their resolution in him. But the New Testament never abandons the Old Testament pattern of redemption, especially the comfort of a God who walks with us in “a valley of deep darkness.” The incarnation of Jesus on that fateful night in Bethlehem allows God to enter our suffering more fully, even our mental illness.
By the time Jesus reaches Gethsemane, he says he is pained or “very sorrowful” to the point of death (Matt. 26:38, ESV). This expression is derived from the Greek term lýp (pronounced loo-pay), arguably the most feared emotion in antiquity. Some scholars suggest it is the equivalent of our notion of depression. It was so troublesome that the Stoics, Greek philosophers famous for trying to avoid negative emotions, believed there was no cure for it. It was an irredeemable mental state.
As this despairing God-man hangs on the cross, he turns—you guessed it—to the Old Testament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1). Here we enter the mystery of the triune God. As Jesus expresses his dying angst, we can’t definitively know what the Spirit said to him. But it probably had to do with the content of the psalm he was reciting: “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (v. 31).
The final note of hope and expectation in Psalm 22 foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection, and it is an event that has far more implications than we can imagine. If Jesus can go to the darkest mental places of the human mind in Gethsemane and emerge resurrected and vindicated, we also—by faith in him—will be raised to new life and a new psychology. This realization provides great encouragement for the anxious.
For me, anxiety has always been a sense of impending doom. It’s hard to shake, and disaster seems inevitable. There is no counseling session, no piece of sage advice that fully deflects it. But in the therapy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is a promise that our anxiety will eventually end, and this perspective helps us to endure our often-anxious lives.
Better yet, the promise envisions total freedom from anxiety, and all mental illness, when we receive new bodies and we rise to celebrate Christ’s victory with minds that know only the “perfect love” of God, which “drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18, GNB).