Good news for anxious Christians: A cure has been found for all your anxiety! You CAN overcome! The secret is in praying harder! Trusting God more! Studying the word! Growing in your faith! Hooray!
When it comes to mental health, this is the premise on which most Christian books, articles, and devotionals are founded. A majority of the church assumes that God cures anxiety when believers do x, y, and z. THEN, it will no longer have a stronghold on their lives. There is truth in that: the more we delve into God’s loving sovereignty and live in the selflessness of the Gospel, the less we find ourselves obsessing over our circumstances. The Truth does set us free.
What most of the church is unaware of is that an entirely different kind of anxiety is plaguing her members. Only 3% of us experience it, and when we’re promised we’ll be cured when we essentially become “better Christians,” things get worse. We already blame ourselves. We think things like this:
I’m anxious again and it’s all my fault. I should “be anxious for nothing,” but here I am, being what I shouldn’t be. My anxiety is evidence that something is wrong in my relationship with God, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how to stop this. Maybe if I…
just read my Bible more,
just pray with more faith,
just “trust God” more,
just read the right inspirational Christian books,
just listen to the “right” music,
just get more in tune with His will,
just study theology more rigorously…
….Maybe if I just didn’t fail so much,
… then I wouldn’t be so anxious. This. Is. All. My. Fault.
This type of anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and like any group of believers, some of us are spiritually immature, but many of us are mature. Our disorder does not make us any less spiritual. In fact, it reminds us of Truth: the Truth that we are weak and we need God. All. The. Time. Our anxiety is not normal–that’s why it’s called a “disorder.” Our fight-or-flight mechanism misfires like crazy, creating not only mental duress, but physical pain. The triggering thoughts can be incredibly difficult to identify, and once they are, the battle to fight them can last and last and last. (You can read more about the nature of the beast here and here.)
On behalf of my suffering bros and sisses, I’m giving GAD a nickname: thorny anxiety. It stems not from a lack of trust in God or an immature faith, but in a thorn… a thorn like the one Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthian church. Like Paul’s thorn, GAD has redemptive value that furthers God’s beautiful kingdom here on earth. Check it:
“a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12)
Does anxiety harass me? YES. Other translations say “torment.” It does that too. 😦
Does it keep me from becoming conceited? YES. It reminds me that I cannot save myself. It reminds me that I can rely on my Father alone. It reminds me of His words: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Have I begged God to remove it? 32840938204 times YES.
Has He removed it? No.
Is He redeeming it, giving purpose to the pain it causes? Yes.
Do I always know what that purpose is? No.
Is He enough for me in my most turbulent moments? Yes.
Am I more aware of His power in me because of my weakness? Yes.
Am I content with my weakness? Yes.
Am I content with the “hardships” (NASB says “distresses”) and “calamities” my anxiety causes? Yes.
To be “content with distresses” is quite the paradox. Isn’t a state of “distress” the opposite of “contentment”? Doesn’t “distress” mean I’m frazzled, stressed, anxious? It does. But I can also be content with the fact that I’m distressed. I can accept that it sucks and I can’t rid myself of the terrible feeling. So I can be content when I’m anxious. I can be at peace with it. I will still cry out, I will still take my medication, but I can say that I’m (at least somewhat) content that if this is where Jesus has me, that He has His reasons, and He is with me and holding me. I am at peace with the forest He’s growing, even though I cannot see it from the trees. I trust Him.
What if Paul came across a book called “Remove Your Thorn”? And what if it was full of Bible verses and theologians who told him he’d be healed if he just believed what God wanted him to believe? And then God didn’t heal him. Would Paul feel like a spiritual failure? Would the authority of the authors make him question his faithfulness and trust in God? Would he wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” Would he be misled into believing that “There’s some horrible sin that must be preventing my thorn removal!” Would it cause him to spiral like I do?
What if Paul didn’t have his thorn? He claims he’d be prideful and lose his focus on Jesus, who was everything to him. So, church, can we just calm down about “curing” and “overcoming” anxiety disorders? Or better yet, can we just acknowledge that sometimes God doesn’t remove thorns–not this side of heaven. Can we leave that margin for those of us who have tried almost everything and still struggle?
I’d rather trust. I trust God with my anxiety disorder. I trust His redemptive purposes. I trust that He is ever-present. I trust that He knows how it feels. He sweated blood in anguish in Gethsemane, after all. He loves me dearly, and He and I both look forward to the day this thorn is removed for good.
My anxiety disorder reminds me of the truth:
It reminds me that I am weak, that I am nothing before Him. That I bring nothing to the table. I embody the truth of His words: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Last Sunday, and now today on Saturday, I have been wrecked. Laying on our guest bed, crying hysterically, because “When will this end? And Help me Jesus.”
I have had *so* many privileges and experiences, but my GAD reminds me that *my* strengths are not mine, and it’s undeniable that without Him I can do nothing. I can be brought to a halt at any time. And I need to be saved. He is not obligated to save me. But He does. That mirrors His Gospel. Actually, it is his Gospel, his Good News. And in this way, because I am weak, I am strong.