A couple weeks ago I began this series on overcoming anxiety by looking at how the world treats anxiety. The world’s solutions are not solutions at all because they merely mask symptoms but never address the root of the problem. This week, I want to examine the nature of anxiety itself and answer some preliminary questions about anxiety and the Christian.
What is anxiety from a biblical perspective? Perhaps the closest English word for the Greek term often translated worry in the New Testament is the word care. To care about something or someone can be a positive or negative trait. The usage of the term in the New Testament bears this out. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12:25 Paul wants all the members of the church to care for one another. This type of care is a concern for the welfare of other Christians. When used in this way, anxiety or concern for another person is a mark of loving that person. Parents care for the welfare of their children, pastors care for the spiritual condition of their congregation, and teachers care about the progress their students make in learning a subject. But as every parent can testify, the care a father has for his children, which is a mark of love for them, easily can become a sinful anxiety over their safety. Furthermore, some things in this world that occupy our cares should not be of concern to us, but we worry about them all the same.
The root word behind the Greek term for care or worry has to do with that which monopolizes the heart’s concern. In many cases, heartfelt concern over someone or something is accompanied by a state of fear, apprehension, and/or nervousness. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term related to anxiety referred to a burden someone carried or a weight on someone’s shoulders. When we think about our own worries and anxieties, we can relate to these definitions. We are anxious because we care, but sometimes that care produces in us fear and nervousness. Care often feels like a heavy burden we can’t shake or a weight that presses us down and makes it difficult sometimes even to move or breathe. People who are depressed sometimes describe the way they feel as suffocating, unable to get out of bed, and unable to face anything God’s providence might bring that day. Phobias often result from a person caring about his own life but crossing the line where self-preservation becomes an obsession marked by fear and paralysis. However worry is manifest, though, it all comes back to the same root idea: we have a concern or a care that presses upon our hearts and minds, sometimes to the point where we feel like we can no longer function.
Why does this happen to us? Why do natural cares that we have become sinful anxieties? While anxiety is often the result of a spiritual weakness, it also can result from physical problems. For everyone with anxiety and for everyone trying to minister to someone with anxiety, this distinction is crucial. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions, and medical problems require medical solutions. To complicate matters, many times something that starts as a spiritual problem results in a medical problem as unhealthy patterns of worry and anxiety begin to take their toll on a person’s physical and mental health. Trying to sort all of this out is not easy, but for a person who struggles with anxiety, finding out if any medical problems are causing it or exacerbating it is a wise step.
According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety can be caused or heightened by a number of medical issues, including heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, COPD, asthma, medication to treat various illnesses, chronic pain, IBS, and tumors. If someone suddenly begins to suffer from anxiety seemingly out of the blue with no major life changes, a visit to your primary care doctor is advised. Anxiety might be a sign that you have a medical problem that can be treated and, if left untreated, could result in major health complications or even death. As a point of clarification, I am not talking about medical problems that require anti-depressants or other similar medications. I am speaking of the kinds of problems listed above. A sudden onset of anxiety can be a symptom of something more serious and should be taken seriously.
In extreme cases where a person becomes suicidal or has thoughts of harming himself, immediate help should be sought. Call a friend, a parent, a brother, a pastor, your spouse, or anyone you trust. In dire situations, safety is the first priority, and then we can work toward discovering the problem and working toward a biblical solution. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you are so depressed or anxious you are thinking of harming yourself or taking your life, call someone right now. Get help immediately even if you think you do not need it.
If a person’s anxiety is not the result of a medical condition, how should it be treated? Is there a place for the use of medication? What did Jesus have to say about overcoming anxiety? We’ll take a look at these questions next week.