“Actually,” Joey added, “The bible says worry is a sin. I can’t understand how you can say you trust God, but you still worry. You must not be trusting God enough, or your sin would go away.
“I do trust God, and I do cry out to Him,” I tried to explain, frustrated at the turn the conversation was taking…again. “But I have what’s called an anxiety disorder. It means my brain doesn’t regulate anxiety chemicals the way everyone else’s does, so I have more anxiety than the average person.” They looked at me quizzically, and I could see that they didn’t believe me. To them, I was taking on too much burden by choice, and I was displeasing God in the process by not handing it back to Him.
If only I could.
This conversation with “Rita” and “Joey” wasn’t a specific conversation I had, per say, but a culmination of many similar conversations I’ve taken part in.And they almost all end the same way, awkwardly. Unfortunately, they hurt a lot more than I can let on. I’m the least perfect person you’ll find on this earth, but there is one thing I know: I love God, and I trust Him. And it hurts, and makes me angry to be told otherwise. I do not believe my anxiety disorder is a sin. I don’t believe anxiety is a sin, for that matter. This places a great divide between myself and a large portion of the Christian community.
So the question comes down to what does God mean when he says in Philippians 4:6-7,
“…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”?
It’s a question worthy of exploration.
What is Anxiety?
Here are some possible causes of anxiety, according to WebMD’s article, “Causes of Anxiety.”
- Stress at home or at work
- Stress in a relationship
- Stress from emotional trauma (such as loss of a loved one)
- Symptom of a medical illness (such as a heart attack)
- Lack of oxygen
- Symptom of an anxiety disorder
So anxiety can be caused by many things. The leading cause in this article is stress. The National Institutes of Mental Health defines stress as, “the brain’s response to any demand.” In fact, most authorities say stress is a result of the “Fight or Flight” mechanism we’re built with. The University of Texas’s Stress Management and Reduction page, “Fight or Flight” says this natural reaction works through these steps:
- A threat is perceived
- The autonomic nervous system automatically puts body on alert.
- The adrenal cortex automatically releases stress hormones.
- The heart automatically beats harder and more rapidly.
- Breathing automatically becomes more rapid.
- Thyroid gland automatically stimulates the metabolism.
- Larger muscles automatically receive more oxygenated blood.
So when you’re cleaning out the garage and a huge spider runs out from underneath a box, your God-given response that He built into you for self-preservation kicks in, and you suddenly have the energy, oxygen, and strength to beat the spider to a gooey pulp no matter how tired you were.
The university’s Stress Management and Reduction page also says this about our ability to distinguish between threatening situations and non-threatening situations.
“Even though the fight or flight response is automatic, it isn’t always accurate. In fact most of the time when the fight or flight response is triggered it is a false alarm – there is no threat to survival. The part of the brain the initiates the automatic part of the fight or flight response, the amygdala, can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat.”
So basically, stress is our body’s reaction to a situation we perceive to be a threat (even if it isn’t). Anxiety, by definition, is the emotional response to that stress. Psyweb.com’s article, “Difference Between Stress and Anxiety” says that anxiety is an adverse effect of stress. This means that when that even after the spider is dead, and the threat is no longer there, I’m still sitting there wondering how many more spiders are hiding in my garage, and if one is going to sneak up on me.
When Does It Become a Disorder?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s article, “Understanding the Facts,” When it crosses over into possible anxiety disorder territory is when the anxiety begins to interfere with everyday life. Here are some common anxiety disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Panic Disorder (Panic Attacks)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There is no physical test that determines if someone has an anxiety disorder, rather, a doctor is the one who must evaluate a patient and come up with a name for whatever is going on in his or her life. While everyone experiences stress to some degree (It’s dangerous not to.), there is a difference between some anxiety every now and then.
For example, I have traits of OCD, which means that while I don’t have the disorder in its severest form, I do have some of the actual traits of the disorder. When I was a child, I developed a compulsion where I felt I had to chew my each bite of food 100 times before it was safe to swallow. As you can imagine, meals became pretty long ordeals, with my mother begging, pleading, and ordering me to chew less, and me in tears, insisting that I had to chew each bite 100 times or I’d choke. My perceived threat was choking to death. This caused the stress signals to alight in my body. Emotionally, I became anxious because I was worried about choking. I insisted (through meltdowns) on taking so long to eat that it began to interfere with my life.
We also know about the existence of anxiety disorders not only through verbal claims, but brain scans show differences in the brains of those with disorders and those without as well. Huffington Post’s article, “Anxiety vs. Stress: What’s The Difference?” says this about the neuropathways of people with two anxiety disorders.
“Specific disorders, such as OCD and PTSD, involve specific [neuro]pathways and behaviors not seen in other states. For example, individuals with OCD have heightened activity in the caudate nucleus of the basal ganglia, a region involved in learning and memory, as well as emotional processing. It appears to be a gatekeeper of signals to the orbitofronal cortex and thalamus, two regions that are overactive in patients with OCD.”
Science Daily’s article, “Brain scans show distinctive patterns in people with generalized anxiety disorder” reports a study recently done by Stanford University on the brains of people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The summary states this:
“Scrambled connections between the part of the brain that processes fear and emotion and other brain regions could be the hallmark of a common anxiety disorder, according to a new study. The findings could help researchers identify biological differences between types of anxiety disorders as well as such disorders as depression.”
The article goes on to describe how the connectivity between different parts of the brain don’t seem to be as efficient in the brains of people with GAD as people without it. The connections between the two are busier, but the messages are getting a bit scrambled, which results in the individuals not being able to discern as well what counts as a threat and what does not.
“So,” I’ve had people tell me. “God could fix this. You’re not relying on God to fix this. If you prayed for it, and really believed that He would heal you, He could.” Hold your horses. I’m getting to that.
The Sovereignty of God
I have no doubt that God could make me “normal” if he wanted to. In the Bible, he healed leapers, a blind man, a bleeding woman, and brought the dead back to life. There is no question in my mind that He could change my brain patterns. Of course, there’s a difference in the words, can and will.
Nearly everyone I’ve talked with that objects to my anxiety brings up the verses, John 14:13-14,
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.“
It’s easy to jump on the words, “Ask me…and I will do it.” We tend to forget that middle part, “ask in my name.” Aside from uttering the words, “…in Jesus’s name, Amen,” what does that phrase really mean? For that answer, I go to one of my favorite verses, 2 Corinthians 12:7-,9
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, 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.“
It was probable that Paul had an eye problem based on the fact that he had other people write his letters for him, and other things he mentions that people had to do for him, or he wished he could do. (But I’m not going to get into those right now, simply to stay focused. You can email me if you want to know more, and I’ll happily respond.) Either way, Paul had a physical problem that he asked God to heal three times.
And God said no.
Now, if Paul wasn’t praying in faith for healing, I have no hope because I know my faith is still infantile in comparison with His. He did what God said to do, praying for healing, and God lovingly refused him. But rather than being angry with God, this is how Paul responded:
“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.“
What a strange way for Paul to respond to a physical ailment! And what happened, between Point A and Point B, where Paul asked in faith for God to heal him, and God said no. Didn’t Jesus say He would give whatever we asked for? No, He didn’t. He said He would give us whatever we asked for…in His name.
To understand what asking in God’s name means, I think we need to look again at Paul’s response to the refusal above. Instead of being angry, Paul accepts what God says. He says that He is content with weakness if it means He has the power of God resting upon him.
I believe to pray in God’s name means to ask God for something…and then, because I believe in the name of Jesus Christ as my all-knowing, all-powerful Savior, accepting whatever He says. Sometimes, He says yes, and other times, He has better plans for me than for what I can ask for myself.
When I was little, I needed a shot “in the hip.” “In the hip” is medical code for, “in the butt.” I needed the shot, I believe for an infection of some sort, and the shot was the fastest way to get me the medicine I needed. No eight-year-old wants a shot in the butt. I kicked and cried so hard that they had to get more nurses in the room to hold me down. And I was right in thinking the shot would hurt. As much as it hurt, however, it was necessary to solve a much bigger problem that would hurt me later on.
When I was little, I prayed nearly ceaselessly for God to heal me of my tics (Tourettes) and my fears (anxiety struggles). And I prayed with an unrivaled faith. I just knew that I was going to wake up the next morning and everything would be better. But morning after morning, my disorders were still there. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve realized something.
God can choose to heal me anytime He wants. But He made me this way. My brain wasn’t wired the way it is by accident. David says in Psalm 139:13-16,
“For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.“
As a result of the way God created me, I am who I am today. Through my differences, I’ve learned to see the world from the perspective of others who are hurting and alone, something I might not have otherwise understood. I am content with the person God created me to be, and I don’t long to be anyone else. Yes, I still deal with anxiety attacks, and, yes, my anxiety levels are usually quite high, but these things have a reward that one might not expect.
Dealing with Anxiety Biblically
A fun Bible fact that you might have heard is that the the words, “Do not fear” are in the Bible 365 times, enough to have one per day for the entire year. Just as a parent knows his or her child might fear lightning storms or a bullying situation at school, God knows we’re going to fear in this world. Our bodies automatically are built to be able to fear, to jump into high gear when we feel threatened. If God didn’t expect this natural response from us, then He wouldn’t have brought us 365 verses of comfort.
My father wasn’t angry with me when I was little, and I feared the thunderstorms that echoed throughout the Las Vegas Valley. Instead, he would come to my room and hold me close until the storm had begun to pass.
Just as my father didn’t punish me for my fear of the storms, our Heavenly Father isn’t angry with us when we have anxiety, clinical or not. Instead, He whispers verses of comfort to us, drawing us into His love. It is for this very reason that I am today grateful for my anxiety disorders. I am grateful because I am privileged to run to God over and over again, and to receive comfort on a daily basis. I fear often, but I’m comforted even more.
So where does the sin happen? Obviously, sin is when we do something God tells us not to do, or don’t do something he tells us to do. And there is danger of sin in this place as well.
Peter 5:7 answers this question best, I believe.
“…casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
This verse assumes we will have anxieties. Rather than telling us not to have them, Peter says that we need to cast them upon Him…because He loves us!
My father never got angry with me for fearing the lightning. He would have, however, been unhappy with me if He’d gone into my room and tried to hold me, and I’d shoved him away, intent on being scared all by my lonesome. In the same way, I don’t believe God is angry when I have anxieties. The sin would take place, however, if I refused to take my anxieties to Him. Trying to do it on my own – that is where the sin would lie.
When my father held me during thunderstorm, I still shuddered with fear every time a bolt got close to the house. I knew though, that I was safe in His arms. I feared, but I had an inner peace. In the same way, I can run to God with my sin. The situation might still cause me stress and anxiety, but I can know deep in my heart, that everything will be okay. I can have an inner peace that comes with obeying God, and casting my cares upon Him like the Bible says.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about God and anxiety. Please share your questions and comments in the Comment Box below. Also, if you’re interested in getting more information on neurological disorders, education, and encouragement, sign up for my weekly newsletters. As always, thanks for reading!