Posted on June 16, 2023 by Rev. Jonathan Conner
For many people, anxiety is not a word; it’s a malevolent monster, a monster with an icy claw that clutches their hearts, leaving them paralyzed. If you battle anxiety, you know this reality all too well. And you, like many others, wonder, Can the grip be loosened? Is freedom possible? Read on.
In answer to the first question, Yes, the grip can be loosened! How is shared below. In answer to the second question, Yes and no. Yes, freedom is possible because in Christ we have the promise of absolute freedom in the resurrection when we and the entire creation will be liberated from sin’s curse, when our sin nature is eliminated and our new nature in Christ is all that remains. No, because we currently live in sin-shattered world, and as long as sin persists, anxiety will persist on some level (greater for some than others).
This is not to say that your experience of anxiety is because of a sin you’ve committed, but that anxiety is an effect of sin’s sting on you. It’s one way you experience sin’s impact on the world. As Christian author and counselor Dr. William Backus writes in his tremendous little book Finding Freedom from Anxiety and Worry, “You have [anxiety] because you are a human being existing between time and eternity, surrounded from cradle to grave with what the ancient prayer describes as ‘so many and so great dangers.’”
This is not to say that we can’t learn to battle against anxiety or that we can’t achieve greater peace than we currently have. We can, and with the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word, firmly in our hand, we will.
Dr. Backus concurs,
The good news about anxiety is that there is a way to deal with it in faith, so as to make the most of it, diminish its power, and find your way through. If you are willing to stop adding to the problem by seeking every which way to escape and avoid anxiety, if you are willing to let your faith become activated to follow it straight ahead into your fear, you can discover how to ease and reduce anxiety, and even use it to become the person God wants you to be.
Before we get too far, though, let’s do some defining. What exactly is anxiety? William Backus writes, “Anxiety is fear that we’ll be hurt, made to suffer pain, loss, embarrassment, harassment, inconveniences, or other things we judge ‘not good.’” While some people may experience more severe anxiety than others (some even experience anxiety that isn’t conscious, but something that grips the heart), all people experience it.
The question for us, then, is how do we battle against it? Before we get into the meat of our discussion, we must acknowledge that this article will not be a comprehensive treatment of anxiety (as if a few pages could cover it!), nor will it address the role of medication in treating anxiety, which may prove beneficial for some battling prolonged and intense anxiety.
Dr. Backus shares that anxiety may have a number of underlying causes. Some people seem to be born with a tendency to be more reactive. The message such individuals are invited to tell themselves, however, isn’t My genes made me do it; rather, I don’t have to be paralyzed by fear. I can learn to battle against this inborn tendency.
Another source of anxiety is, what Dr. Backus calls, radical misbeliefs. These are any number of beliefs that are, quite bluntly, false. He explains,
Anxiety results from believing and telling ourselves untruths, which are the opposite of faith or correct belief. Two core misbeliefs usually give rise to our anxiety. First, we believe that something is very likely to turn out badly, when in all probability it will turn out tolerably well. Second, we believe that if it does turn out badly, the harm done will be devastating, when in fact we can recover from even the worst disasters and go on with a life in praise of God.
He adds this painfully insightful observation:
As in every instance of anxiety, we’re saying either that God won’t protect us from an almost certain calamity, or that if it does occur, He won’t turn it into the highest good. Misbelief, then, is one of the root problems of anxiety.
To unearth these misbeliefs, we need to pay attention to the self-talk that is running continuously in the back of our mind. If you pay attention, you’ll notice, as Dr. Backus writes, that your “mind keeps us a constant line of chatter.”
These “notions, perceptions, judgments, and opinions reflected in that chatter have a direct effect on [your] feelings and [your] behavior.”
We must also note that trauma can deeply wound individuals, leaving them with persistent and haunting anxiety, even anxiety attacks, but space prevents addressing trauma induced anxiety in this article. If you battle such anxiety, talking about it helps! Lutheran Family Service has counselors equipped to help you.
Dr. Backus counsels:
However these misbeliefs are acquired, they elicit and fortify most of our everyday irrational anxieties, fears, and worries. We must learn to discover them and replace them with truth if we want to make headway against distressing or debilitating anxieties.
Unfortunately, many of us have made a habit (probably unknowingly) of listening to the soundtrack of misbeliefs running through our mind. To fight back against anxiety, we need to stop listening to ourselves and start talking to ourselves. In other words, we need to stop listening to the misbeliefs exacerbating our anxieties and start speaking God’s truth into our heart to fight back against them. And to do this, we’re going to need to get equipped for battle by immersing ourselves in God’s truth, revealed in Scripture.
There’s simply no other way. Anxiety won’t go away by itself. In fact, our attempts to deal with our fears and worries by avoiding them will ensure that we’ll keep them. Dr. Backus observes, “It’s our avoidance that creates most of the problems associated with anxiety – not the negative feelings that accompany it.” He adds, “Avoidance fosters and increases the anxiety itself.” Avoidance makes the monster bigger! “Instead of running away from anxiety,” Dr. Backus exhorts us to “step firmly into it.”
Dr. Backus writes, “The anxiety/avoidance/more anxiety cycle can be broken. The way out is faith! If we invoke that ‘living, busy, active’ faith Martin Luther discovered, we can take effective measures to cure our fear…” First, “faith counters misbeliefs and provides true self-talk, which will change our feelings, lessen our fear, and galvanize us into new action.” And, second, “Faith doesn’t stay in our head and in our self-talk, but it issues in actions… Faith will always prompt us and urge us to go ahead and do our duty in spite of our fears.”
This faith doesn’t guarantee the elimination of anxiety, as anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows. So the message is NOT anxiety = lack of faith. The message, rather, IS anxiety = sin-cursed world that faith must walk into, into the very “valley of the shadow of death,” confident in God’s promises and presence, “for [He] [is] with [us].” Faith moves us forward, compelling us to act on the truth of God. Dr. Backus offers several fundamental truths:
Knowing these truths in an academic way isn’t enough, however. They must be moved from the head to the heart. They must be internalized so that they influence our behavior. Quite simply, as Dr. Backus puts it, it comes down to this question: Are we on our own?
Faith knows the answer. No! God is with us and for us. His promises are sure. Faith teaches us to fight back against the lies parading through our minds. In fact, faith teaches us to argue against ourselves, against the misbeliefs that play in the background of our minds. “Practice arguing against your erroneous beliefs,” Dr. Backus exhorts, “until arguing becomes a habit, a good habit, a habit of faith.” We have to bring our misbeliefs to the surface, say them out loud, hear them for the lies they are, and then slay them with the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
We must remember that faith, as Dr. Backus writes, is
not a static subscription to doctrines (although doctrines are important), but believing in an active, involved, participatory manner, and actively, aggressively approaching everything in life on the basis of truth.
Our faith doesn’t dissolve our anxiety and fear; it drives us forward into them. Dr. Backus writes,
Faith in Christ Jesus activates us to respond to God, motivates us, and summons us to go forward even into situations which seem fearful. Faith gives courage, but courage is not defined as the absence of anxiety. Courage is going forward whether we’re anxious or not.
Take special note of what he said. Faith doesn’t guarantee the elimination of anxiety; faith drives us into the anxiety knowing God’s promises are sure. So, we’re not suggesting anything like a three step program that will guarantee the removal of anxiety; we’re encouraging living and active trust in the promises of God as we walk into anxiety and battle against it. This may be difficult and you may need help doing it. That help is available in Scripture, in your pastor, in Lutheran Family Service, and in helpful books like Finding Freedom from Anxiety and Worry. If you need help, it’s here.
To get started, begin the hard work of exposing your misbeliefs today. Stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself, speaking God’s truth into your heart. Activate your faith and move forward into your anxiety in the promises and presence of God. And pray for God’s help, for He is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Your “self-talk,” Dr. Backus writes, “must be saturated with the truth that once you’ve let your request be made know to God, nothing is ever again the same.”
And then, in Dr. Backus’ words, “leave the outcome to God, who will take responsibility for you as a caring omnipotent Father.”
If you or someone you know is battling anxiety and would benefit from Christ-centered mental health counseling, refer to or contact us today.
Lutheran Family Service walks with those experiencing difficult times through mental health counseling, marriage counseling, crisis pregnancy counseling, and adoption services.
More posts about Mental Health