In Seminary, my professor opened one of our counseling courses with this bold generalization: Everyone struggles with anxiety. “Everyone is anxious,” he explained, “Some of us just haven’t admitted it to ourselves yet.”
I sat there vigorously taking notes, but determined to prove to him that he was wrong. Not everyone is anxious, that is far too broad of a claim. I could prove it to him, too, because I am not an anxious person. Sure, I struggle with anger, my words, jealousy, but I’m definitely not anxious. I don’t second guess myself in social settings. I don’t get a pit in my stomach with the thought of a confrontation. I don’t stay up at night worrying. I am not anxious!
He then prompted us to reflect on times of fear in our life. I was flooded with memories. My first day at a new school. Camping on a mountain in the midst of an epic thunderstorm, crouching outside the tent to avoid getting struck by lightning. College applications, the possibility of rejection. The professor made the connection I had missed. Fear is anxiety. We are all anxious.
Scripture makes this connection as well. The words fear and anxiety can be interchanged in most translations. The most well-known is “Be anxious/fearful about nothing” found in Philippians 4:6. Furthermore, God knows that one uniting thread of fallen humanity is fear. “Fear not” is the most frequent command given in Scripture. If we aren’t willing to count ourselves among the afraid, then we miss out on all the incredible promises coupled with the “fear not” commands.
In grad school I misunderstood my professor because I did not have a depth of understanding of what anxiety means. The word “anxiety” has taken on a meaning and use of its own in today’s parlance. We are so anxious about everything that the word means nothing. I hear, “That gives me anxiety” about things like missing a favorite T.V. show or wearing the same dress as a friend to prom. We have overused “anxiety” so much that we are disconnected from the real situations that actually provoke anxiety. This is dangerous.
It was dangerous for me because I was resistant to understanding how fear played a role in my life. That meant I didn’t have a grounded understanding of coping with fear/anxiety. I was left to myself to navigate the true anxiety and fear I experienced daily. This left me scatter-brained and unfocused. In addition, denying things that made me afraid disconnected me from living a present life vitally connected to Jesus Christ.
But reconnecting our understanding of anxiety to fear gives us a clear and focused understanding of what true anxiety is. When do you feel your heart racing, thoughts jumbling, hands sweating, and stomach clenching? This is fear. This is our body, soul, and mind telling us, “Warning! You are not safe.” Reflecting on this is hard; it brings us face to face with our anxiety, but this is a better place to be.
God’s Promises to the Fearful
From this understanding we can navigate fear/anxiety in a way that brings us into the presence of the Living God. God’s promises to fearful people come vibrantly alive when we are honest about our fear. These are never commands given in isolation, but commands with an invitation: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6). “I am getting wonderful things ready for you!” (John 14:2). “Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 38:41). The more willing we are to reconnect with what actually makes us afraid, the more we crave the comfort and promise of Scripture in our fear. This is the best place to be.
This past year I have had more anxiety inducing moments than any other year in my life. My mother-in-law passed away. Death is terrifying. My husband and I had our first child. Life is also terrifying. I have been tempted to disconnect from the fear and anxiety of these experiences, to numb myself, to soldier on with a stiff upper lip, but my weakness and fragility catches up to me. I only have one person to turn to in the midst of this fear: My Father, my friend, Jesus Christ, the risen Lord.
In this season the verse that has been most alive is, “The Spirit intercedes for us when we do not have words” (Romans 8:26-27). I don’t have words. I am watching the bookends of life and death and everything in between and I am stunned with fear. But I trust the Spirit praying on my behalf and I receive the gentle invitation to join the prayers. I talk to God about my fear all the time.
I misspoke when I said I only have one person to turn to in the midst of fear and anxiety; I also have people around me with whom I can share my fears. They also know Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and point me to Him. They might share my fears with me. This seems counter-intuitive, but it helps! It makes me feel less crazy to actually be afraid. They also share confidence in the promises God gives us. We point each other to those promises in earnest.
Today, if I was back in class with the professor who made the claim that we are all anxious, I would throw my hand in the air and add my name to the list of fearful people. We are all anxious. We are all afraid. This draws us to the only one who can look our fear in the face and say, “Enough. She is mine.” Jesus left his earthly ministry with one of my favorite command and promise invitations: “Fear not little flock,” this is the command, “It is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom,” this is the promise and invitation (Luke 12:32). Let us embrace our fear and anxiety with a posture that leads us into these promises each day. And let us do so in the community of the church with our fellow family members in Christ.
About the Author:
Rebecca (B.A. Wheaton College, M.A. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a biblical counselor with The Field School and Cross Care Counseling. She lives with her husband, Ben, and son, Caleb in the South Side of Chicago. They attend Covenant Presbyterian Church.