Transforming the Anxious Mind

One of the things I’ve seen over the last ten years is more and more people I minister to are struggling with anxiety, fear and worry. I’m not talking about the anxiety one gets when you don’t receive a lot of like’s for your Facebook post or when you are texting a friend and watch the parade of bubbles on your phone anxiously awaiting their response. I’m talking about anxiety that cripples.

I believe we all know what its like to be afraid when confronted by a threatening stranger, or to be anxious before a test or job interview, or to worry about the outcome of a medical test. Can you even imagine living in a state of perpetual calm, free from uncertainty, risk, danger, or threats? Fear and anxiety are a part of life, and often a useful part, at that. Fear warns us of an impending danger, like when our car starts to slide while driving in the rain or when a suspicious character comes knocking on our car window at a red light. Feeling anxious can motivate a person to be better prepared for an important staff meeting or to take extra precautions when travelling to an unfamiliar part of town that is somewhat sketchy. Since we need them to survive, it would be dangerous to eliminate all fear and anxiety from life.

But not all fear and anxiety experiences are good for us. For some people, anxiety becomes overwhelming, characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of apprehension, worry, tension, and nervousness over everyday situations that most people face with little concern.

Seventeen years ago when I moved here to take a position with The River Church Community I began to experience apprehension, nervousness, and worries over my work. Surrounded by men and women that had graduated from some of the finest universities in the country I began to doubt myself, and my ability to succeed in that office environment. I found it difficult to sleep at night as I worried about personal finances and how would I survive if I didn’t improve at work, many of my insecurities became a chorus of fear and anxiety in my head. People who I confided in told me how great I was, how gifted I was, but nothing could quiet those anxious and fearful voices within me. My mind was generating an endless list of possible catastrophe’s—“I won’t be effective as a pastor, I’ll fail to meet my goals, I won’t have enough money to live on if I lose this job, nor will I be able to contribute to my retirement savings, and so forth.”

I found not only was I not sleeping well but also I was easily agitated, unable to relax, irritable, with an occasional angry outburst. I’d even break down in tears at times for no apparent reason. My worries were relentless and impossible to control. Despite my best efforts at distraction and reassuring myself that everything will be fine, I had this sick feeling deep in the pit of my stomach that my life was unravelling.

The verse so many people quoted to me during those difficult times was I John 4:18 (NKJV), “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines torment as “great physical pain or mental anguish; a source of harassment or pain; to pester or annoy.”

This best describes what I was going through seventeen years ago. My feelings were unstable. Fear and anxiety rushed in so quickly I found myself backpedalling as fast as I could. This separated me from God’s comforting and reassuring voice. Sometimes our pain and our fears can speak louder than the voice of God. There are times where our fear and anxiety paralyze us, cripple us so we attempt to “put on a happy face” because our pride and fear of what others would think of us if we admitted we were on the verge of a breakdown.

Ephesians 4:27, “…and do not give the devil a foothold.”

When we passively accept these fears and anxieties, we have given the devil a foothold to harass us. He comes in and magnifies, terrifies and torments us with these fears, worries and anxieties. Some of us have also given him a foothold by allowing our pride and fear to keep our weakness hidden. Without Christ, we have no defense against the devils accusations.

God’s response to my fear and anxious thoughts was repeating himself over and over again, “I am with you.” But my anxious thoughts kept pushing God away believing I hadn’t done enough to deserve God’s love and grace. John Wesley calls this a “scrupulous conscience.” As a perfectionist, I had a pretty fragile conscience, low self-esteem and tons of guilt that acted as barriers to receive His words of assurance and grace. Yet God did what he does best, he just kept repeating himself.

God was revealing more of himself to me through these simple words. The constancy of His steadfast love was like an ice pick attempting to break up the iceberg of fear and anxiety within me. He was challenging my belief that was rooted in the abandonment I felt from early childhood that “no one cares for me.” This was the root of my fear and anxiety. That was the memory that needed to be healed.

Not sure why but when I would pray (more like cry) for God to heal me I’d grab one of the many crosses I had on the walls of my room. He began to reveal to me that the cross in my hand was a symbol of His love for me. So I began to grab one and set it before me every time I prayed to remind me of God’s love for me. So not only was His voice reassuring me of His presence but also the symbol of the cross was reminding me of His love. God was demonstrating to me His patience, mercy and love to me. This spoke to that critical voice in my head (my stepfather) that demanded I get over it! “Suck it up and get back to work.”

God was bathing me, immersing me in His perfect love. The words he had spoken to Isaac and to Moses so many years ago he spoke to me, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” God spoke words of comfort and promised His presence. I eventually responded in faith. God’s presence is our remedy for fear, anxiety and worry. Without the awareness of His presence, we cannot be empowered to face our fear, anxiety and worry. And we cannot know His comfort and security.

I think it was Ed Welch from one of his books who said, “If the kingdom of heaven was going to come with power, the old order would have to be terminated.” And this was what God was doing through His repeating that He was with me.

I’ll end with two scriptures and a quote that has built a solid base within me.

Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

This “you are with me” mindset has to be fostered, developed otherwise we resist the grace of God that he gives. This pressing into God is warfare against that resistance within us. This resistance doesn’t allow healing to take place. Our healing starts out as small cups of living water that eventually become rivers to flush out the fear and anxiety.

Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Intimacy: “In our rapidly changing society we can count on only two things that will never change. What will never change is the will to change and the fear of change. It is the will to change that motivates us to seek help. It is the fear of change that motivates us to resist the very help we seek.”

Lastly, the prophet Isaiah takes the closest human relationship and says that the Lord’s faithfulness and presence are even more certain.

Isaiah 49:14-15, But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though say may forget, I will not forget you.”

God’s grace, kindness and steadfast love drove out these fears, anxieties and worries that had kept me bound for months. Perfect love is revealed to us as we abide in God’s love. 1 John 4:16 tells us, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected in us.’

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16)