Dr. Ab Abercrombie
Anxiety can be a confounding and debilitating force in one’s life…and believers are not immune to its affect. Consequently, anxiety is often referenced as the reason for entering counseling. Most who become overwhelmed by this issue have tried numerous approaches before contacting a counselor including prayer, Bible study, and other Christian disciplines. Yet they enter biblical counseling discouraged, fearful, and filled with self-condemnation centered upon what many refer to as a lack of faith.
Other believers have taken a secular approach to anxiety, seeking relief through psychotherapy, medication, hypnosis, and other stress management approaches. Worldly approaches often focus upon external factors and circumstances rather than the fearful heart of an individual. And, there is a growing attitude that excessive anxiety is biochemical, and can only be the managed medically. And while these approaches can yield temporal relief, they offer nothing that is spiritually curative.
The biblical counselor must not be overtaken by the horizontal clutter surrounding this matter. Rather, we must receive the counselee in whatever state they arrive for this divine assignment. It is not our role to rebuke the counselee for a worldly orientation or for the use of secular remedies. At the same time, we must be very careful not to endorse or promote anything but a spiritual/biblical plan of care and counsel.
The frustration sufferers feel concerning anxiety is real, and very likely, lengthy in its history. To intervene biblically will require much perseverance, holding always to the sufficiency of Scripture as our foundation and guide. Transformation and not relief, is our objective…looking for the natural byproduct of God’s Word changing the nature of an individual, rather than providing a temporal respite that does not endure. As Jesus taught the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:13b-14).
In biblical care, we are directing counselees away from short-term solutions that will only leave them to “thirst again”; and we offer the written Word as a drawing pathway to Christ, who is the essential Word. It is that abiding relationship through which Scripture can be discerned and applied, changing not only the symptomology, but the core nature of the counselee.
Therefore, the many passages within the Bible that speak to the issues of anxiety, worry, and fear, cannot be taken as imperatives only. Instead, God’s Word must be applied layer upon layer, bending and shaping the heart toward faith, belief, trust, and obedience. It requires more than scriptural statements delivered as single directives. Rather, the instruction of the Word comes to redefine one’s thinking, emotions, communication, and will so that he/she is empowered by a supernatural integrity that is beyond the scope of flesh alone. As an example, we will address ourselves to one of the oft used passages of Scripture concerning this matter. When addressing anxiety, Paul wrote:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7).
Many counselees know and attempt to apply this passage at the moment of crisis. Already in the grip of panic, one may indeed cry out in prayer, begging God’s help. But in doing so, they are frequently disappointed that the “peace of God” did not follow…only the relentless anxiety, apprehension, and angst common to their condition.
But this segment of Philippians 4 is describing a life position rather than a crisis intervention. Scripture cannot be taken as an incantation that, when recited, magically relieves one’s emotion. Rather it is a transformational truth that must be learned and integrated as a constant and enduring aspect of one’s approach to life. Paul brings further clarification in 1 Thessalonians, saying:
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess 5:16-18).
Notice the wording Paul uses: always…without ceasing…in everything…for this is God’s will.
Consequently, to be anxious for nothing (without anxiety), imbued with peace that is supernatural and guarded with spiritual discernment that protects one’s mind and heart; the believer must be perpetually and unceasingly prayerful, thankful, and fruitful. One must “rejoice always” (in Him), regardless of outcome. These realities will produce obedience to God’s will, which is the most peaceful of all places to reside. Continuing in Philippians 4, Paul offers this additional instruction:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:8-9).
Again, Paul directs the Christian to saturate his/her mind and heart with Christ; not at the moment of conflict only, but as a state of spiritual preparedness, available when temptation and challenge comes. The Word divides us from the world and its methodology of life, teaching us to “dwell on these things”: truth, honor, purity, loveliness, goodness, excellence, and praise. There is no earthly thing that rises to this lofty standard. Christ alone then becomes the orientation of the heart and mind.
Paul ends this passage by reminding the believer to “practice these things” learned, received, and heard. Again, the instruction requires continual repetition of truth, which transforms the patterned responses to one’s inner reality (the heart) and to situational challenge (people, circumstances, etc.). This ongoing practice builds an assurance of peace and stability. Clearly Paul is pointing the heart and mind vertically, just as he did to the church at Colossi:
Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-4).
Chronic anxiety, fear, and obsessional worry, are features typically centered upon oneself. Thus, Paul reminds us that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God”; who is sovereign, all-knowing, holy, benevolent, and good. If we have trusted Him with our eternity, surely we can trust Him with our earthly lives. In trusting Him we find He is far greater than a panacea for our problems and concerns in this world; Christ, “who is our life” overcomes the world (Jn 16:33) and we, as followers of Christ, are equipped to do the same. John wrote:
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith (1 Jn 5:4).
As the Word of God is implanted, Christ becomes rooted within our hearts; shaping a new and eternal identity. Indwelled by His Spirit, instructed by His text, and empowered by His promises, the believer’s view of the world changes. Christ who is the same “yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Heb 13:8), becomes our constant peace, just as He promised:
“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (Jn 14:27).