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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about anxiety disorders (my own and others’) as I work on my next book (Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with an Anxiety Disorder, coming 2019, God willing). In preparation, I read John Mark Comer’s excellent book, My Name Is Hope (you can read my review HERE). I’m currently working through Barry McDonagh’s Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks. There’s a very, very important assumption in nearly all approaches to anxiety. In fact, it’s an approach I’ve had for quite some time. And I’d like to take some time to respond to it here. I’ll do this more fully in my book, but I couldn’t wait. Are you ready?
Alright, here’s the basic assumption: You should get rid of (or overcome) your anxiety disorder.
I know what you’re thinking. “Ah . . . yea. That’s pretty much what everyone wants, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t you want to get rid of your anxiety disorder?” Well, what if I told you that your Christian identity depended on it?
Now, hold on. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in any way saying that you’re defined or identified by an anxiety disorder. We’re defined by who we are in Christ (see my article, “A House Built upon a Rock: Finding Our Identity in Christ”). I’m saying that your anxiety disorder is part of your suffering, and suffering is part of your earthly identity as a Christian. So, my counter intuitive advice is this:
Let me put some flesh and bones on that shaky skeleton of advice. I’m drawing on something I learned about the Apostle Paul, in an article by Richard Gaffin, “The Usefulness of the Cross.” Here are the basic biblical truths we need to keep in front of us.
- One of the central elements of being a Christian is sharing in the sufferings of Christ (2 Cor. 1:5-7). Not some of the time. Not occasionally. But always (2 Cor. 1:8-9). Suffering is not an anomaly for Christians. It’s our daily bread and butter.
- Why? Well, suffering, correlated with “the death of Jesus,” is something we always carry around with us (2 Cor. 4:10). And why do we do that? “So that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” We carry around Jesus’s death so that we can manifest Jesus’s life. Life comes only through death. How’s that for a paradox?
- As strange as it sounds, when we believe in Christ, we are raised with him and receive a down-payment of his resurrection life. And what do we do with that down payment? We pay a daily toll that gives us entrance to a road marked “Fellowship with Christ’s Sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). We walk that road knowing that now our life is one modeled after Christ’s: weakness and frailty in us lead to strength and power from him. In Gaffin’s words, “the power of Christ’s resurrection is realized just as the fellowship of his sufferings and conformity to his death” (p. 234). Conforming to the image of Christ, to his death, is our end goal. All the time. I know that sounds like doom and gloom. But stay with me.
- Here’s the big point: If you try to avoid or dissolve all suffering, you’re actually running away from the adopted life that God welcomed you into. When we were adopted by our heavenly Father, we were granted something: “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). “Remove that suffering,” Gaffin says, “and you take away our very identity as God’s adopted children, our being heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (p. 238). Lose the suffering of Christ, and you lose your Christian identity on earth.
- In short, we were adopted by our heavenly Father, in the loving power of the Holy Spirit, in order to be conformed to the image of the Son. And that conformity “means suffering now, for ‘the present time,’ and the glory to be revealed at his return” (p. 238).
The point is this: Your anxiety disorder is a powerful manifestation of the sufferings of Christ. It’s a spiritual tool that God is using to manifest his power in your weakness, his life in your death. God is using (and will use) your anxiety disorder to teach you amazing things about your own weakness, your quivering need for him at every moment, and the powerful life that you can receive when you’re bowed in submission to him. Your anxiety disorder, in other words, serves a critical spiritual purpose.
As a follower of Christ, your goal is not to be rid of pain and suffering. It’s to walk through it faithfully with outstretched arms, welcoming the resurrection life of Christ into your body of weakness. Your goal in life is to be shaped. Please hear that. Shaped. We try to get rid of anxiety because we don’t want to be shaped. Shaping hurts. Shaping pushes and squeezes. It’s eye-wateringly painful. You hate it. I hate it. But the message we need to hear from Scripture is this: your shape-making suffering is intentional. In fact, it’s Christ-conforming. It conforms you to the image of the suffering Son of God, who went through suffering and into glory.
Hey, I don’t like this any more than you do. I haven’t suffered with an anxiety disorder for 12 years only to pull a 180 and embrace suffering enthusiastically. Every day is a struggle. I hate being hyper-vigilant, feeling my throat close up, feeling disconnected from reality.
But if that’s the road my savior paved for me, then I’m going to walk it. I’m not going to try to bring in a construction crew to tear apart the road. I’m not going to try to eliminate my anxiety disorder with every resource at my disposal. Because my life isn’t about comfort. It’s about conformity.
And even if we could eliminate our anxiety disorder, even if we brought in the construction crew to tear up the tar and pavement, the road of suffering would show up elsewhere. Because it has to for Christians. That’s your road. That’s my road. We’ve got to get rid of this assumption that eliminating anxiety is the end goal.
So, don’t trade your anxiety disorder for a cure. See it for what it is, a spiritual tool in the hands of God. Shaping you. Conforming you. Don’t look at how you can get rid of it. Look at how you can use it, at how God is already using it.
I know that answer isn’t going to be popular with people. It’s not popular with me! But it’s the biblical answer. And you might just feel a bit of relief once you realize that you can stop trying to rid yourself of an anxiety disorder — not because you can’t do anything about it but because God can do everything with it. And he will. He will.
Stop trying to take the tools out of God’s hands. He’s a crafter of souls. He knows what he’s doing with you. We need to break out of the secular worldview that tells us to eliminate pain and suffering at all costs. That’s not the gospel. That’s not Christ. You are not higher than your master (John 15:20), and your master carried a cross. So pick yours up. Pick up your anxiety disorder, and get ready to watch God do some amazing things!
Another key that I’ll be discussing in the book is how central language is in combating anxiety (through reading Scripture and praying). But you’ll have to wait for that 🙂