Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. – Matthew 11:28
These words of Christ reach out and beckon our anxious souls toward a mysterious and perfect peace. And yet, for many people suffering from crippling anxiety, the “rest” promised in this passage feels just out of reach.
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in America today. Multiple studies have shown that ever since the 1930s (the era known as the Great Depression), people in America have reported feeling increasingly anxious. Levels of anxiety today are higher than they have ever been in our nation. Perhaps you are currently experiencing the devastating effects of anxiety in your own life or in the life of a loved one. If so, read on.
Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
Counselors look for several symptoms in order to identify an anxiety disorder.
Ask yourself whether you or someone close to you is experiencing the following:
- Excessive worry almost every day
- Difficulty controlling worries or fears
- Restlessness or feeling on-edge
- Easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mind going blank
- Excessive irritability
- Muscle tension
- Problems sleeping
One telltale sign that you or someone you know is facing an anxiety disorder is that your worry is negatively affecting your functioning and your quality of life. Anxiety disorders cause excessive worry about multiple topics in multiple contexts. In other words, the anxiety is not isolated to a single issue.
The effects of anxiety of this magnitude on a person’s life can be disastrous. Anxiety stifles action, robs us of contentment and joy, creates barriers between us and those we love, monopolizes our thoughts, steals our time, silences our prayers, isolates us, paralyzes us, and inhibits us from living the rich, abundant lives we were made for. On top of everything, it often leads to an array of physical problems and illnesses. What is the remedy to this thorn in the side of modern Americans?
The Lord of Peace
Christians suffering from anxiety often turn to find hope in the many profound Biblical passages on this topic. Among the most prominent are the following:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. – John 14:27
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. – Colossians 3:15
Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. – Psalm 55:22
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. – 1 Peter 5:7
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
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:31-34
In these passages, Jesus, Paul the apostle, and David all seem to be addressing this common condition of fallen humanity we call anxiety. I cannot imagine a more practical answer to the dilemma of an anxious heart than “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
The words, “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you” flash like a beacon from a lighthouse through a blanket of dense fog, shining the pure light of hope on the darkness of discontent.
But the question remains: Why do so many people, having seen the light of hope on the horizon, continue to drift through life lost in the darkness of fear and anxiety?
As Hannah Whitall Smith wrote, “Christians, who have given themselves into the care and keeping of the Lord Jesus, still continue to bend beneath the weight of their burden, and often go weary and heavy-laden throughout the whole length of their journey.”
It would seem that even Christians (and those who know the Christian message) are not immune to anxiety and its effects. Not only do many Christians struggle with worry, they often struggle with the guilt of struggling with worry. In other words, the negative effects of their anxiety are doubled by the anxiety they feel about not being “good enough” Christians to overcome their anxiousness.
Unfortunately, the ministry of the church to people suffering from anxiety often consists solely of offering platitudes such as, “Just give it to God.” Phrases of this kind, which are actually very wise counsel, cease to be helpful when they are said flippantly, without engagement and empathy.
Faith should have a tangible effect on our everyday lives, including our mental and emotional struggles. However, healing was meant to occur in fellowship and in relationship. The church would do well to encourage more open, honest expression of struggles and trials amongst its members. That is where the real healing work of God begins.
The Purposes of a Lighthouse
We often think of lighthouses purely as warnings to mariners about nearby rocky shores that could dash a boat to pieces if not avoided. However, a lighthouse serves multiple purposes, all of them necessary and vital. I like this description of lighthouses from the National Park Service:
[Lighthouses] serve to warn the sailor of dangerous reefs beneath the sea or perilous rocky coasts on land, and to guide ships into a safe harbor or back out to sea. So the message of the lighthouse might be – STAY AWAY, DANGER, BEWARE, or COME THIS WAY. Every lighthouse tells the mariner, ‘This is exactly where you are.’
What this tells us is that a successful mariner must not only see a lighthouse, but also know how to respond to its message. A mariner who merely admired a lighthouse without changing course in any way would not benefit from its light. A mariner who responded identically to every lighthouse would end up lost or possibly shipwrecked.
A mariner who ignored the warning of a lighthouse and plowed ahead blindly would do so at his own peril. Many sailors owe their lives to the guiding beam from a lighthouse, and yet the lighthouse did not take the wheel and navigate for them. They had to change their course in response to what they observed.
In the same way, to escape the fog and storms of anxiety, we must not only see the light of Truth, we must navigate our lives according to its message. We need to recognize when the lighthouse is telling us to STAY AWAY from the perilous shores of regret, or when it is guiding us safely past the DANGER of isolation.
We must be able to distinguish when its message is “BEWARE your own willpower and strength,” and when it signals for us to COME THIS WAY toward purposeful, meaningful activity.
You may have seen the light, but what have you done with it?
Christians have the blessing of never drifting beyond sight of the eternal lighthouse of God’s truth and love. Christians can always evaluate their position in life by looking to the creator and lover of their souls, who blazes through the fog in letters as bright as daylight: “This is exactly where you are – in my everlasting grace and protection.”
When Peace Feels a Long Way Off
Despite intellectual knowledge and even trust in the truth of God, people with anxiety disorders can often feel like a vast ocean lies between them and the peace promised in Scripture.
If God is faithful, why are so many people living outside of his promises?
There are probably a whole host of valid answers to this question, but I will address it from the perspective of a Christian counselor. I often hear pastors and teachers urge Christians not to use the services of psychologists or counselors. This comes from a lack of trust in what is thought to be a more secular, scientific method of healing. People are told to simply “have more trust” or to increase their faith, which often simply heaps more anxiety on them.
I found blogs online alerting Christians, in the strongest possible terms, of the inherent dangers of consulting a professionally trained counselor. They warn believers about counselors bringing their minds under the control of dark forces that seek to destroy them. Essentially, the message was “Go to God, He will solve your problems for you. Don’t trust anyone who isn’t God.”
I believe that this message usually stems from good intentions on the part of church leaders – intentions to protect people from being led away from an abiding trust in the Lord by a worldly-minded therapist or counselor who believes only in the power of human intervention to address mental and emotional problems. I would agree with them that ultimately, it must be God that we trust for healing. However, is it not possible that counseling is one of the many ways that our wildly creative Father achieves His master plan?
Time and time again I have seen counseling help people in authentic, powerful ways. I have seen it guide married couples back from the brink of divorce to a loving relationship. I have seen it improve men’s ability to gain control over emotionally abusive anger and learn to love in new, gentle ways.
I have seen it help even the most distressed, suicidal individuals find hope and renewed purpose. I have seen it bring discernment, where before there was confusion; direction, where before there was wandering.
I believe it is God who does the healing and renovation every time, but it is often within the context of counseling that He does it. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
As a counselor, I am content to be “nothing” in terms of ability to ultimately heal. My desire is to actively participate in God’s plan for healing, so that He will be glorified when the restoration is achieved.
How Can Christian Counseling Help?
The first thing that Christian counseling offers is compassion. Most of us in the profession were drawn to it by our empathy and our desire to connect with people in need. A good counselor will listen to you in a way that helps you begin to feel cared for and understood.
Counseling is a place where you are free to take off the masks you wear throughout your days and truly be yourself. As a Christian counselor, I want to honor the dignity of your unique story.
When it comes to dealing with an anxiety disorder, Christian counseling is an ideal treatment. The way to overcome anxiety is not by fighting against or resisting it through willpower (which often only increase anxiety levels), it is only by shifting the focus away from the distress and on to an external purpose or meaning.
Whether it is the meaning of life or the meaning of a relationship, a call to meaningful action is the best place to start. A Christian counselor can help you discover the purpose you are called to fulfill and help you create a plan to pursue it.
Christians can navigate the storms of anxiety in life with the courage that comes from confidence in the God of the universe.
Consider these lines from Walt Whitman’s Passage to India. They describe well the life we are meant to live in Christ:
Sail forth! Steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!
If you are facing anxiety and think that your life or relationship could benefit from the type of insight and compassion that Christian counseling can provide, please contact me or one of our other counselors to schedule an appointment.
“Please, Lord,” courtesy of Diana Simumpande, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Overwhelmed,” courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lighthouse,” courtesy of Kyaw Tun, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Peace in the Storm,” courtesy of David Marcu, unsplash.com, CC0 License