“For 7 years I have lived with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety”—so begins an article I was saddened to encounter this past week. After the author describes how his struggle prohibits him from enjoying normal day-to-day activities, he concludes, “I’m a mess, really.” What a heartbreak! But even more heartbreaking is what he believes about his anxiety: “It’s not a Matthew 6 or Philippians 4 issue—it’s a physiological issue,” he writes. As the article continues, it’s clear that he lives every day with the entrenched belief that he has “a mental disorder, not a control problem.” He is partly right—it’s not a control problem. It is, however, a spiritual problem. That’s what he’s missing. I’m saddened that he doesn’t seem to get that he isn’t doomed to a life dominated by fear.
He attributes his anxiety to “a malfunctioning brain,” to physiological causes. No doubt the symptoms of his anxiety are physiological, but that’s not necessarily true of the cause. There just isn’t any concrete medical evidence to prove that these so-called disorders have a physiological origin. While brain chemistry has indeed been shown to be different in those who suffer acute anxiety, it’s likely that the anxiety warped the brain chemistry rather than the reverse. I’m certainly not qualified to wade into the arena of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. I’m talking strictly about the ever-growing list of disorders in which a set of symptoms is collected into a unit and given a name, no doubt as an attempt to gain some control over the problem. But simply giving a name to a set of symptoms doesn’t solve anything; if anything, it’s likely to just entrench the sufferer more deeply into a sense of helplessness. And because this is what happens, those who struggle simply cannot comprehend the depth to which the problem is actually spiritual.
All this is quite understandable for those who don’t know the saving power of Jesus, but that’s exactly what grieved me most when I read the article—the author is a professing believer. The God in whom he believes is the one whose Word says, “Have no anxiety about anything.” So it seems this is a Philippians 4 issue after all. We cannot rightly claim that the apostle Paul penned those words because he didn’t know about “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” and if he had, he’d have made an exception. The Spirit of God, who inspired Paul’s words, is bigger than that. All through Scripture God’s people are commanded not to fear, and the apostle Peter commands us to cast anxiety onto God as a way of self-humbling. We cast our anxieties—all of them—onto God because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:6–7). So the overall teaching of God’s Word is that anxiety is indeed a disorder, but it isn’t a mental disorder—it’s a trust disorder.
Entrenching such disordered trust by placing more faith in the word of contemporary psychology than in the Word of God dooms sufferers to the bondage of victimization. And it dishonors the character of God. For the article author and so many who share his plight, it’s true that full-on, complete freedom from the awful, panicky anxiety struggles may never come in this lifetime. But if believers would consider identifying the struggle not with chemicals in the brain but rather with a spiritually rooted thorn in the flesh, they will find tremendous blessing even in the midst of it. My hope for the article author is that he will take a fresh look at 2 Corinthians 12. There he will discover that the reason the Lord did not deliver Paul from his thorn in the flesh was that he had something better for him—the utter sufficiency of his grace that imparts strength beyond anything humanly possible. The weakening brought about by our thorns is a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to know a grace that we wouldn’t know otherwise.
The author seeks to end his article on a note of hope by remembering the gospel, rightly pointing to the fact that his anxiety struggles do not alter his standing before God and noting that because of Christ’s redemptive work, he is confident of being sustained until the end. But the full gospel story is that because of Christ’s finished work, he is even now being transformed into the image of Christ, which means that all his thorns can be used redemptively both in his life and in the life of others. Truly all things--including anxiety--work together for good for those who love God (Rom. 8:28). For that reason, all who are anxious have great reason for hope.