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I know—that’s a very weird thing to say. But it’s true. Don’t tell me how to “overcome” my anxiety. Don’t tell me how to “master my fear.” Don’t offer a hundred insights from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I’m not interested. I have a very different approach to anxiety. And I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.
For over a decade, my anxiety disorder has done one thing with jaw-dropping efficiency: clarify my priorities and draw me closer to God. It’s a flame that burns away the wax of distraction and forces me to come to grips with what I believe about the life I’m living, the God I serve, and the relationships I’m woven into. And yes, anxiety hurts. No one loves a good panic attack. I’m not a masochist. But I see what anxiety does in me. I track it. I study it. The results have always been consistent: Comfort and ease (a lack of anxiety) make me drift. Slowly but surely, I become aimless, materialistic, self-centered, vain.
Then the white flame of anxiety swells and burns away the wax. It clarifies my core. And with that clarity comes the sharp realization that I’ve been neglecting my spiritual life, my relationship with the one whom I claim I love more than any other. Even deeper than this is the conviction that I’ve been wasting my life because I haven’t been doing the one thing I’m here to do: conform to Christ’s image through suffering (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:10). Being shaped and molded and pressed into the form of Christ —that’s why I’m here. At the end of life, the best question I can ask is simple. “God, do I look more like your Son than I used to?” The resounding “yes” will be the result of years of spiritual work by God himself.
But right now, are we seeking to be shaped? Are we looking at our experiences and speculating about how they’re pushing us toward the behaviors Christ practiced and the words he uttered? Are we even thinking about Christ on a daily basis? For many of us, the answer is as certain as it is sad.
And that’s exactly why I love my anxiety disorder: It always pushes that simple question to the surface. The undertows of everyday life push it down to the depths. But God calls it up like drift wood. It always comes back, because God is always present, always shaping and shepherding, always waiting for us to square our shoulders to him and walk in the good works he’s prepared for us (Eph. 2:10).
To switch metaphors, my anxiety shoves a mirror in front of me and says, “Look. Look at yourself. Is this the man God created you to be? Is your life in any tangible way resembling that of a disciple of Jesus Christ? Would you be content if you died right now?” Anxiety pushes self-examination, and self-examination leads to Spirit-driven change.
Now, I know that most people won’t resonate with this approach. It sounds a little crazy. . . . Okay, a lot crazy. But think with me for a moment: what are our experiences for? What’s the purpose for anxiety?
What Are Your Experiences FOR?
Many of the 40 million Americans treated for anxiety disorders each year in the US don’t ask that question. And I completely get it, because I was the same way. I’ve been battling anxiety for over 12 years now, and when I first started, my approach was basic: “GET THIS OUT OF MY LIFE NOW! Give me medication, give me counseling, give me life changes—I don’t care. Just get this out of my life!” Don’t get me wrong, medication, counseling, and life changes are good things, and I’ve implemented all of them. But that still doesn’t get at the underlying purpose of our anxiety. I don’t think it’s here just to be gotten rid of. After all, if anxiety does go, something else will surely take its place. Is the purpose in life just to eliminate all the negative experiences so that we’re left in a nirvana-like state of unwanting? I don’t think so. At least, that’s not what Scripture teaches.
Scripture actually teaches that ALL of our experience has the same purpose. What is that purpose?
“For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
2 Corinthians 3:18
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
For Paul (and thus for God himself, who inspired Paul to write), the purpose of our experience is to conform us, to shape us, to Christ’s image. In other words, when bad things happen to us (like anxiety), our primary question should be a how question, not a why question. We already know the why. The how is what matters.
- How is God going to make me more like Jesus through this?
- How is this experience related to something in the life of Christ?
- How can I grow closer to Jesus by processing and responding to this experience?
A Warning for Christians: Anxiety and Sin
There are Christians out there, sadly, who will tell you that anxiety is the result of indwelling sin. And so they will claim that the purpose of our anxiety is to draw out some deep-seated evil or unfaithfulness in us. Perhaps it’s exposing our lack of faith. Let me give you a clarion biblical example that exposes the falsehood of that assumption.
You’ve heard of a one-to-one correspondence, right? It’s a direct connection between one event and another event. In John 9, Jesus gave his disciples a lesson the church needs to be reminded of when it comes to dealing with believers who have anxiety disorders.
“As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
The disciples tried to make a one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering, which was a long-standing practice. Job’s friends had the same approach. “Okay, Jesus. This guy’s blind. So, what’s his sin? What does he need to repent of? Or is it his parents? What law did they break?” Their thinking is too simplistic. This is not a one-to-one correspondence issue. There’s not always a direct link between sin and suffering, though there certainly can be. Here, Jesus response is mysterious, but beautiful for those of us who struggle with anxiety.
Why is this man blind? It has NOTHING to do with sin. It has EVERYTHING to do with God working in him to display his divine power to others. The blind man would be a testament to grace, a walking portrait of God’s restorative work. His blindness would be a means of sight for others. Through him, many would come to see the glory and hope of Christ.
The moral of the story: be very wary of making a one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering. Not only is life far more complex than we imagine; God is also doing things we cannot see, things we are ignorant of. For me, God has been working through anxiety for many years in order to shape me to Christ, to make me into, as it were, something like the blind man, someone who would display the work of God in the presence of others. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m telling you about the God who shatters and shapes us into the image of his Son. I’m telling up about how pain and mental suffering can be powerful tools in his hands. I’m telling you that I love the tools of God. Or, better, I love how God uses them. Whether it’s anxiety or financial hardship or cancer or grief, God will use everything bitter and broken to shape us to the Son of God. And that, my friends, is nothing short of amazing.
I know I’ll continue to be judged by others for being anxious. Let them think I have troubles with indwelling sin. I certainly do, even if it’s not tied to my anxiety. I’m content to know that God is going to keep using what I hate to do what he loves, to use what I fear to do what only he can fathom, to use my pain for his purposes. Nothing has shaped me to Christ like my anxiety disorder. So I don’t want to get rid of it. I want to keep growing and communing with God through it.