A Word from Your BCC Team: You’re reading the first of a several-part Grace & Truth blog miniseries on Biblical Counseling and Anxiety. In today’s post, Pastor Pat Quinn diagnoses the spiritual root causes of anxiety and then offers God’s remedy for anxiety.
Anxiety Is Pervasive and Complex
In my own counseling ministry, anxiety is one of the “big three” issues I deal with most frequently (along with depression and marital counseling/conflict resolution). The pervasiveness of anxiety in our country is well documented. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. According to studies, 40 million adults over 18 are reported to suffer from anxiety disorders like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobias.
Helping people who struggle with anxiety is challenging because it often develops from multiple influences such as genetic predisposition, family and social relationships, traumatic experiences, and spiritual problems. While we always need to keep biological and social influences on the table, let’s think about some possible underlying spiritual contributors to anxiety and then look at a passage that points to a divine remedy.
Level 1 Spiritual Influences on Anxiety
While the specific influences and manifestations of anxiety vary greatly from person to person, I have found a few common spiritual issues that often underlie problems with anxiety. We’ll call these three issues level one influences.
- Idolatrous desires: As biblical counselors we are all familiar with how God-substitutes (Jeremiah 2:13; Ezekiel 14:1-6; James 4:1-10) can lure the heart away from the Living God and replace love of God and neighbor with false worship and manipulation of others. It is also true that these heart idols often fuel fear and anxiety. I have seen people shake with terror in my office or describe panic attacks because they either feared they wouldn’t attain what they craved or might lose the dream life they had.
- Unbelief in God’s character and promises: When our hearts defect from an active trust in God’s wise and loving sovereignty over our lives, many of us become control freaks manipulating everyone and everything to seek our own “way, truth, and life.” The underlying, anxiety-fueling, false belief seems to be, “I don’t sense God doing much for me so it’s up to me to pursue my own happiness and keep all the plates spinning…but I can’t!”
- Prideful self-righteousness: Attempts at self-justification often lead to anxious striving, fear of failure, defensiveness, inability to rest in Christ’s righteousness, and feelings of inadequacy and condemnation. Self-righteousness is the default mode of the human heart (Romans 10:1-4) and can lead to anxious questions like, “Is my faith strong enough?” “Have I done enough?” “Is God pleased or disappointed with me?” “Am I genuine or phony?” “Will all this end well?”
Counseling Question: What other underlying spiritual influences on anxiety have you discovered in yourself or others?
Level 2 Spiritual Influences on Anxiety
It’s obvious that these three level one issues are forms of false worship. And false worship inevitably leads to what I’m calling level two—the deep hidden fear of the wrath of God.
Romans 1:18-32 shows how this plays out in three parts. First, we suppress the truth about God, exchange the truth about Him for a lie, and worship God-substitutes. Second, in His wrath God gives us up to lusts of the heart, dishonorable passions, a debased mind, and evil behavior. Third (and most relevant to anxiety), Paul says we instinctively know that all this deserves death.
This means that underneath all our other fears and anxieties and all their various causes, deep down we are terrified of God’s condemnation and sentence of eternal death. Even non-religious people who don’t consciously fear God fear death. Author Jack Kerouac wrote:
“I am young now and can look upon my body and soul with pride. But it will be mangled soon, and later it will begin to disintegrate, and then I shall die, and die conclusively. How can we face such a fact, and not live in fear?”
Believers know even more terrifying truth: death is “the wages of sin,” is “the final enemy,” and leads to “the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord.” John summarizes this succinctly by writing, “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).
Counseling Question: How can we clearly and winsomely help people see the relationship between anxiety and the fear of judgment?
The Divine Remedy in 2 Timothy 1:1-10
Now we will look 2 Timothy 1 to see God’s remedy for the misplaced desires, unbelief, self-righteousness, false worship, and fear of death that fuel anxiety.
- Paul reveals God’s promise of life and offer of grace, mercy, and peace through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:2). The fact that God promises life through the “appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:10) gives good reason for counselees to fight fearful unbelief and trust in the character and promises of God, which are all “yes” in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). The gospel of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is historically reliable, theologically clear, and practically powerful. The truth that God’s sovereign care for us begins “before the ages” (2 Timothy 1:9) and leads to “immortality” (2 Timothy 1:10) give good reason to surrender control and rest in God’s steadfast love. If He is sovereign over eternity past and eternity future, He is certainly able to work all things in our present lives for good (Romans 8:28).
- Our idolatrous desires are targeted by God saving us and calling us to “a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9). The connection between a holy calling and the deep satisfaction and joy we crave may not be immediately clear. Our craving for joy and life often leads us to believe we cannot be satisfied by Christ alone but need to supplement Him with various worldly pleasures. We have already seen that this often leads to anxiety about gaining and holding on to what we believe we can’t live without. This is remedied by seeing how the holiness God calls us to and our ultimate happiness in Him are related. Jonathan Edwards helps us see this connection: “He imparts of his own beauty….They are partakers of God’s holiness (Hebrews 12:10). So God communicates to his people of his own happiness” (quoted by Dane Ortlund in Edwards on the Christian Life, p. 30). I love the connections between God’s holiness, beauty, and happiness and how He communicates these to us through the gospel. This means that we and our counselees can learn to be satisfied in that what we need and desire the most we can never lose—Jesus Christ. The resulting joy and security are great antidotes to anxiety.
- Much anxiety is connected to the nervous striving of works-righteousness. We fear that our good deeds don’t outweigh the bad, that we never seem to measure up, that we’re not as spiritual or successful as others, and that our shabby lives may one day be exposed and condemned. How liberating are Paul’s words that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Our salvation and hope do not depend primarily on our own performance but on the grace of God’s eternal election and Christ’s perfect performance on our behalf. We can answer the anxious questions, “Have I done enough? Am I secure?” with, “No, I haven’t done enough, but Christ has—in my place. I am eternally secure in the grace, mercy, and peace of God.” Then, in the freedom of our eternal election and perfect justification, we can get on with loving God and others. And John tells us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
- What about the final enemy—the fear of judgment and death? This rightly makes us tremble. But the trembling of fear can give way to the trembling of joy as we hear Paul tell us that by His appearing Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Our worst problem—the wrath of God toward our sin—has been finally and irrevocably solved. Jesus abolished death through the cross and brought eternal life in the Spirit through His resurrection. In their song See What a Morning, Keith and Kristin Getty proclaim:
And we are raised with him,
Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered;
And we shall reign with him,
For he lives, Christ is risen from the dead!
So, Peter exhorts us, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7). In the light of this glorious gospel, casting all our anxieties on Him makes wonderful sense.
Counseling Questions: What other passages apply gospel grace and truth to anxiety? How do you connect remedy to reasons?