When I was 18 years old, I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. I could not make a phone call without sweating. I could not sign my name with someone watching. I could not speak to strangers without turning red. I could not go to school without a knot in my stomach. Coupled with depression, my body could not take it. I lost 10 pounds. I developed insomnia. I dreaded school every day and contemplated suicide.
How is one supposed to rise out of these crippling feelings?
Philippians 4:7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything…” and then goes into a to-do list that many believe will bring about the peace of God. At times in my life, I have repeated that verse to myself as if it were a magical incantation. But it didn’t work. Instead, my attempts to “stop” being anxious merely resulted in the suppression of my feelings, shame and more anxiety.
Telling someone with an anxiety disorder “do not be anxious” is as effective as telling a person with a cold “do not be congested.” Unless one has been gifted with the spiritual gift of healing and is casting out the illness, the phrase is useless, bringing about shame and defeat to the one hearing it.
My own faith struggled because I had been brought up to be self-sufficient, successful and responsible. I feared that I would be rejected, cast aside, mocked and damned for my anxiety. I tried to hide it and to out-perform. Each small error made me feel worse, like I had been found out. An imperfect paper. An A- on a test. A social gaff. Lack of boyfriends, income, popularity, whatever it was only continued to prove that I did not measure up, that I was disappointing God and my anxiety furthered my belief that I was unacceptable.
As a young adult, I confided in a mentor that I did not want to be anxious anymore and that I was going to pursue not being afraid. With great wisdom, she prompted me not to pursue a negative, but a positive. What did I want instead of fear and anxiety? Peace? Trust? Assurance? She recommended to me Mark Buchanan’s book The Holy Wild. I wanted to learn how to overcome fear … She insisted I needed to meet God instead.
“Can God be trusted?” Buchanan asked (26). “This book is about resting in the character of God. I take it to be that resting and trusting are near synonyms: I rest where I can trust … It is hard for us to rest in God because it is hard for us to trust” (21).
I had never thought of it that way before.
In The Holy Wild, Buchanan introduced me to the God I did not know. The One who meets people in their weaknesses, mourns with those who mourn, and enters into their suffering.
The God who meets me in my anxiety and does not reject me for it.
As my beliefs about God began to shift, I started to experience relief from the anxiety that had hounded me from my youth. Instead of suppressing the anxiety in me, I grew curious. Why was I anxious? Why was I afraid? What did I fear was going to happen? What did I believe about myself, God and others?
As I answered these questions, I unearthed deep-seated beliefs that I hadn’t known were there. I found a god who was ready to ridicule and smite me. Not a God who died for me in love, but one who held his death over me as an IOU. I had believed that somehow if I was good enough, I could relieve Christ’s suffering on the cross.
The god I had believed in was not a god who would provide my daily bread or forgive my sins, but who expected me to fend for myself and give more than I had to offer.
That god had to die.
I now believe that the calls in Scripture to not be anxious are not the imperatives to “just stop” as they are often wielded against those who struggle. They are instead invitations to rest in the God who cares for them. “Do not be anxious about anything… and you will receive the peace of God…” is not a command that can produce fruit by mere will-power. It is an invitation to rest in God’s care, allowing him to sift through our anxious thoughts (Psalm 139:23). Peter wrote, “Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). If I believe in a god who is indifferent to my circumstances, the anxieties return to me threefold. If I bring my fears to the God who actively cares for me, my anxieties are received without judgment and love is given in return.
My journey of seeking to know this loving God began over a decade ago and while I have experienced great victories over fear, there are days when it catches me by surprise.
Last summer, I experienced paralyzing anxiety attacks over finances. I tearfully confessed to my bewildered husband that I didn’t know if God would meet our needs—nor did I want to risk finding out. I feared financial ruin and embarrassment. Then my dad had a heart attack. The next day my pregnant sister was diagnosed with preeclampsia. Her son was born a month early and was in the NICU. A week after my dad’s heart attack, we traveled across the country to the funeral of a dear friend who had taken his own life.
The crises left me overwhelmed. I had nothing left to give. I was numb.
That same week, my husband practically dragged me to a conference on God’s healing. Despite my resistance and complete lack of faith, God showed up for me. A stranger prayed a brief prayer for me which resulted in me bawling my eyes out as God’s Spirit poured over me. It was mysterious and odd and more supernatural than I am comfortable admitting. My rational mind was lucid. My body was a wreck. My spirit was cleansed. I got up from the floor and haven’t had a single anxiety attack over finances since.
The Father of Compassion who met Hagar in the wilderness, Gideon in a valley, Elijah in a cave, Naomi in her grief, and the thief on the cross, came to me in the middle of my fear and healed me.
My mission now is not to stop being anxious, but to remember who God is and his love for me. When I feel anxious, I do not suppress my feelings, but bring them to him in vulnerability and, yes, fear. It is there, in the midst of what I am experiencing that he cares for me.