In the previous post (Responding to Anxiety: Being Crushed, Being Called), we saw how an anxiety disorder both crushes us and yet enables us to hear God’s call. The latter part is what I want to focus on in this article.
It is well known that sheep are not the best listeners; they are stubborn and stiff-necked. And yet they need to follow a voice. Otherwise, they wander and get lost. And it is no accident that Scripture frequently refers to God’s people as sheep (2 Sam. 24:17; 2 Chr. 18:16; Ps. 44:11, 22; 49:14; 74:1; 79:13; 95:7; 100:3; 119:176; Isa. 13:14; 53:6; Jer. 23:1; 50:6, 17; Ezek. 34:5-6, 10-12, 15, 17, 31; Mic. 2:12; Zech. 10:2; Matt. 9:36; 10:6, 16; 15:24; 25:32-33; 26:31; Mark 6:34; 14:27; John 10:2-16, 26-27; 21:16-17; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25). Like sheep, we need to follow a voice, a divine voice. We need not only to hear it but to heed it. The trouble is that our spiritual ears are prone to clogging. This is where an anxiety disorder is especially useful. It can unstop our ears, letting us hear God’s voice.
Anxiety as Suffering, Suffering as Shaping
Now, this is tough to swallow. Anxiety might be a spiritual blessing in disguise, but it still hurts. It’s still a form of suffering. And our culture often encourages us to eliminate it. Suffering is not so much a spiritual tool as it is a painful tragedy. “Do whatever you can to get rid of it.” That, in essence, is the message of the world. Sometimes it is a tacit message, unspoken but firmly believed.
Yet, that is not how Scripture speaks of suffering. In fact, it says the opposite: “Embrace suffering because it is going to shape you.” This is one of the clear implications of James 1:2-4.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Count it “joy”? Let’s be honest: that sounds insane. I don’t know if I’ve ever been joyful in the presence of suffering, especially a swell of anxiety or a panic attack. I count it “horror.” I count it “misery.” But I don’t count it “joy.” Why on earth would we do this?
Because anxiety, a form of suffering and affliction, does something; it shapes us by pressing us and revealing whatever treasures we are guarding in the dark soil of the heart. In other words, it uncovers what we really value. And once it does this, we have the opportunity to change, to replace false faith and hope with true faith and hope, to replace distorted passions with holy desires, to replace the things of man with the things of God. I was reminded of this yesterday as I sat in a doctor’s office, reading David Powlison’s God’s Grace in Your Suffering. Suffering both tests us and changes us. It is
both the acid test and the catalyst. It reveals and forms faith. It also exposes and destroys counterfeit faith. Afflictions expose illusory hopes invested in imaginary gods. Such disillusionment is a good thing, a severe mercy. The destruction of what is false invites repentance and faith in God as he truly is. . . . Affliction presses on unbelief. It presses unbelief toward bitterness, or despair, or addiction, or even more desperate illusions, or even more deadly self-satisfaction — or to a reconsideration of what lasts. To lose what you are living for, when those treasures are vanities, invites comprehensive repentance. (Powlison, 2018, p. 14-15)
Comprehensive repentance: not exactly the stuff of dreams (more like the stuff of nightmares).
Because anxiety has the power to shape us, to lead us to change, it is something like spiritual medicine. By pressing and shaping our souls, it draws to the surface all of our spiritual impurities. And then God’s Spirit can work in us to replace the old and sinful with the new and holy (Eph. 4:24). Like most medicines, it’s bitter on the way down. We don’t want to take it. But we have to, because we know from experience that the lasting effects are good.
The shaping power of anxiety, functioning as a sort of spiritual medicine, lies in its ability to expose us and unstop our spiritual ears so that we can hear the voice of God, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11).
The Voice of God
But how do we hear that voice? Prayerfully read the Bible. The answer is simple but can be very difficult to implement. So many things get in the way. But Scripture is the very speech of God to us. It is where he speaks to his people. To hear the voice of God, you do not need a profound mystical experience. All you need to do is open the Bible and start reading. We’ll get into how this works in the next post.
Powlison, David. God’s Grace in Your Suffering. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018.