In the corner of our attic, I stared at a brown-gray clump of feathers, bottomed by black, bony talons. How did he get in? And how long had he been pecking at the window before he gave up and laid his body on the old pine boards? Sparrows and pigeons and starlings can squeeze themselves into tiny spaces. They can get in . . . but not out. And if left unnoticed, they will rage against the horror of glass until their life is spent.
There are some 40 million Americans treated for anxiety disorders every year. Forty million starlings caught in the attic of fear, raging against the horror of glass. And many of them are Christians. I am one of them.
Odds are, you probably know several Christians who battle anxiety, if not an anxiety disorder. What can you say to encourage them, to lift them up, to help them breathe easier for a moment or two? Anything?
There is something you can say that comes right from the pages of Scripture, and it’s mind-blowing. But before I get to that, here are three things not to say. They’re painfully common and patently unhelpful.
What NOT To Say
1. What sin might be causing you to feel this way? While sin can and does lead to anxiety, there’s not a necessary correspondence between the two, just as there isn’t between sin and suffering more broadly. Think of Jesus and his disciples with the man born blind (John 9:1–3). “Who sinned?” they asked, probably with an heir of confidence. “This man or his parents?” Neither. That’s the answer. There was not a direct correspondence between sin and suffering for this man, just as there wasn’t for other figures in Scripture, Job being a prime example. So, why the blindness? Jesus’s answer was terse and telling: “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” That’s right: a man was born blind and lived for years without seeing the light all for one, simple reason: to become a showcase for the work of God. This might sound cruel to us. Why would God have a man live his whole life blind just for that moment when he would cross paths with Jesus and his disciples? Couldn’t God at least make him go blind the year before he met Jesus? Why did he have to be blind from the womb? We can’t know the answers to those questions. What we can know is that God had an amazing and miraculous purpose for his blindness. His life was to be an arena—think of this for a moment!—an arena for the illuminating, Spirit-wrought work of the Son of God. After his encounter with Christ, he would be a walking message, a talking testament to God’s life-altering power. God’s purpose for this man went well beyond sin and suffering. It was all about God’s own proclamation of his greatness, etched in flesh and blood and retinas. Our physical suffering can and should lead to our being shaped by the Son of God so that we might declare the riches of his grace. If your brothers and sisters battle anxiety, it’s far more encouraging and biblical to speak with them about how God might be shaping them to Christ through anxiety rather than telling them that they need to do some soul-searching in order to get rid of it.
2. You just need more faith. Don’t we all? Jesus was clear that we have trust issues. He was clear that we worry too much about what we’ll wear, eat, and earn (Matt. 6:25–34). But his call in Matthew 6 not to worry about fabric, food, and finances was not an authoritarian shout. “Just stop it! You don’t need to worry about this stuff, so just STOP!” This passage, after all, comes in the same chapter where Jesus speaks of the loving care of our “heavenly Father” (6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32). It would be quite a shift in tone to move from pointing out God’s loving providence to shouting at God’s people. It makes much more sense contextually to read this passage as one of consolation: “Hey, it’s okay. You don’t need to worry about these things. Your Father is here, and he’s always faithful. Try your best to trust him each day.” The larger problem with the “you just need more faith” approach is that anxiety can be linked to physiological problems: a broken body. While anxiety is not just a physical issue, it has a physical component that people need to acknowledge. Sometimes our bodies are simply broken in a fallen world. God has given wisdom and medicine to doctors to help with that brokenness, just as he has for other illnesses. Telling people that they need more faith often just heaps guilt on their shoulders. “Oh great. My body is broken and I’m faithless!” You can assume from the outset that everyone needs more faith. Even those who were closest to Jesus Christ on earth repeatedly struggled with this (Matt. 8:26). Don’t point out the obvious. Find another way to be constructive.
3. You’ll get through this. Well, sure. Or not. Maybe I’ll die. Either way, the sentence does little to console an anxiety-ridden believer. It’s what I call an ice-cube sentence. It can’t do anything but sit in someone’s mind for a moment and then melt away into nothing. It’s the equivalent of telling someone that the sky is blue or the grass is green. There may be a time and a place when this sentence means more than that. Sometimes we do need to be reassured of the plain truth that God will carry us through. But this sentence usually needs company. Don’t send it wandering into the ears of a believer without additional comfort and truth.
What To Say
Now, if those are the things you likely shouldn’t say, what should you say? Of course, there’s more than one answer, but one of the most powerful comes from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:8–11.
8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
2 Cor. 4:8-11
What in the world is going on here? Paul is setting out a mysterious spiritual equation. Here’s the shorthand version:
BODILY SUFFERING + DEATH = JESUS’S RESURRECTION LIFE
We suffer and carry around the death of Christ in our bodies. We walk around in weakness. We’re afflicted, crushed, and struck down to the dirt. Why? “So that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Focusing on Christ while we suffer in our bodies leads to Christ’s resurrection life being manifested in those same bodies.
Now, that doesn’t mean that if we suffer from anxiety and just think more about Jesus, our anxiety will go away. That may happen, but that’s not the point. The point is that the life of Jesus is about spiritual restoration and Christ-conformity. Receiving the resurrection life of Jesus, in other words, means that we become more like him. God is life, and Christ is God. Paul is telling us that the life we deeply want and need—the life of being conformed to the God who is life—will come through our broken bodies. When people look at those of us who suffer with anxiety, they can actually see the life of Christ, if we’re willing to submit to God in the midst of our anxiety and let it shape us to him. What does that look like, exactly? It may look like being more selfless, offering others help and a listening ear when we feel weak and broken. It may look like on-the-spot prayer (even in public), lifting up the concerns of others as we feel concerned about ourselves. It may look like asking for prayer, showing our need for communion with God’s people and the prayers of his saints. Whatever the case, people should be able to see something of the life of Christ in us precisely because we are weak and broken. Our anxiety can put us in the perfect place to display the life of Christ. God’s power, remember, is going to be displayed in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
The Question To Ask
So, what can you say to someone struggling with anxiety? Here’s a question that might draw out a helpful and hope-giving response: What kind of resurrection life do you think is coming for you today? They may not have an answer when you ask it, but I’m sure they’ll be thinking about it for the rest of the day, or week, or month. That question turns our experience with anxiety on it’s head. Instead of striving to get rid of our anxiety, we’re running towards it, begging God to shape us to Christ through it, not in spite of it. In God’s amazing grace and providence, anxiety can be a catalyst for Christ-conformity and resurrection life.
It’s all a matter of how we approach it. If our goal is to get rid of everything in our lives that causes pain and discomfort so that we can achieve some strange state of Christian nirvana, then we’re going to struggle a lot with anxiety. We’ll be bent on breaking it down and getting it out of our way. But if our goal is to take everything we experience and view it as a purposeful, God-ordained opportunity for Christ-conformity, then anxiety can be a mighty tool for our spiritual formation. I say, let’s start using the hard things to head towards Christ. There’s no greater use for our pain and suffering.
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