Christian Counseling: Anxiety: Friend or Foe?

It would be highly uncommon for a person to rejoice about feeling anxious. More true to nature, it feels disruptive, intrusive, irritating and even maddening and depressing, depending on its strength. The majority of Christians believe it is morally wrong to feel anxious about anything as suggested by the poor English translation of Philippians 4:6, "Be anxious for nothing." That, of course, leads many to wrongly confess their lack of faith in God to take care of them. The reality is assessing anxiety and reactions are a matter of discernment and avoiding simplistic black and white thinking. Anxiety can be unhealthy, as well as necessary and productive. 


The truth is no one is exempt from feeling anxious, many times over. Jesus felt and expressed it as evidenced by sweating drops of blood in the Garden and repeated prayers about His impending, tortuous death, yet without sinning. Who would not feel a good amount of anxiety about that? God is not condemning spontaneous, natural occurring anxiety in our corrupted and pain-filled world. He is not against anxiety, but against our negative response to anxiety or how we choose to deal with it.  The Philippians' message is not about having it or feeling it, but, as the Greek language tells us, it's about not allowing ourselves to over think or permitting a care to go too far. Our response should not be to dwell on it and permit it get a hold of us to the point that it takes over first our minds then our lives. That would make our anxiety an obsession, which can lead one beyond simply feeling anxious to being anxious; that is, a change in character, which can result in a lifelong problem. 


Philippians tells us what to do when anxious--pray about it, as Jesus did. Let me ask, "Do you think God is implying that we shouldn't or can't do anything else but pray, since that's all He said?" I don't think so. Scripture is very limited in its scope and details (about 1600 pages). In Matthew 19 Jesus said that the only cause for divorce was infidelity, but elsewhere God tells us divorce is permitted for things like abandonment, neglect of marital duties (food, clothing and conjugal rights) and the leaving of a non-Christian spouse (Exodus 21:7-11, still active, and 1 Corinthians 7). Jesus singled out infidelity to make a point; a sharp contrast to the almost unlimited reasons for divorce people (and God giving into the people) wrote into the law. Either that or He and Paul had different beliefs and the Word is inconsistent, which I don't believe. Many times Scripture assumes we have a base of knowledge and does not repeat it when introducing a change in topic or something new. If God did that every time, we'd be left with a Bible that would be a hundred thousand pages long.


Understanding the biology and psychology of anxiety gives us additional ways of managing or eliminating anxiety, such as meditation, mental imagery, relaxation, medication, changing belief systems, developing confidence in God and healthily in oneself, etc. We don't use these in place of God, but in addition, especially when one has been sorely overcome by anxiety. We can use various tools to help us deal with anxiety, such as our God-given brains that can heed God-given guidance to acquire understanding, knowledge and wisdom that we can apply to issues, such as anxiety.


But to our point. Alice Park wrote an article called "The Two Faces of Anxiety" (Time Magazine, December 5, 2011) in which she rightly said that philosophers and poets (she forgot psychologists) have always know there is an upside of anxiety. She quotes the likes of T.S. Eliot who said anxiety is "the handmaiden of creativity." It's an article worth reading.


Anxiety helps keep us from harms way--physically, emotionally and spiritually. Reasonable and brief anxiety cautions one to look for traffic before crossing a street. I have learned to trust the emotional feeling of anxiety that is connected to a person or relationship. Understanding it has saved me from making some poor choices. Also, anxiety helps us perceive and evaluate real or imagined threats. It stimulates us to think and act. Spiritually, a little anxiety about failing to please God and suffering the consequences of sin can keep us from doing wrong. 


Finally, in counseling, some anxiety is unquestionably necessary in order for a client to make progress. If a person is completely comfortable with counseling, something is wrong. Likely the therapist is not doing his or her job. A therapist is to be comforting in the support, acceptance and caring he or she gives, but he or she also leads clients to look at painful problems and tough responsibilities, which take courage to face. 


Don't worry about worrying, it's not all bad.

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