Five Lessons Learned from Counseling those with Anxiety
Fear…Anxiety…Worry. In the cursed world in which we live as fallen image bearers, this pattern can often be a part of the human experience. Many times, it is caused by sinful unbelief or idolatry. At other times, it is a physiological response and at other times, it’s a mixture of both. Having spent years walking alongside many for whom anxiety is a reality, there are many lessons I have begun to glean. Here are five of those lessons learned from counseling those with anxiety.
1. Scripture Speaks to this Issue
The Word of God speaks to our anxieties and regularly seeks to call us out of it. In our day, however, the Scriptures are often not brought to bear in the face of our anxieties. Perhaps that is because many people believe anxiety is merely a clinical issue, far removed from the church or the Scriptures, or perhaps, more likely, because in the midst of very difficult anxieties, Christians have not learned the pattern of reaching for the truths of Scripture. I believe, and have seen countless times, that thinking, or cognitions, must be addressed in counseling. The way we perceive things, how we are conditioned through years of thinking patterns, and how we tend to accentuate certain thoughts above others, all must be addressed when we deal with anxiety. The Scriptures are the best filter for how we go ought to go about this task (i.e. Jesus’ teaching on anxiety- Matt 6:25-34, considering our thought life -2 Cor 10:5, Phil 4:8, Ps 56:3, as well as dwelling on God’s goodness- Ps 77:11-12).
The Scriptures also reveal deep truths regarding our tendency to create false gods and idols, which cause anxiety, when elevated to an unholy, or ungodly place. For instance, when our job, family, reputation, money, etc. become an idol, the Scriptures call us to repentance. A byproduct of idolatry is that we often feel anxious when our idol is not “worshiped” by others, when it fails us, or when it is ultimately exposed as a false god. Here, the wisdom of Scripture can produce the fruit of peace when we filter our lives through its pages.
In addition to the application of specific texts and passages of Scripture, it is important to consider how Scripture as a whole speaks to certain issues. Specifically, we must be careful, in any situation, but particularly in our dealings with anxiety, to look at the patterns of Scripture, understanding how Scripture as a whole teaches a specific doctrine or speaks to a particular concern. And this is where historic confessions aid us. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith provides a helpful framework, which arises from the pages of Scripture, through which we can understand how the various passages of Scripture we are using fit within the overall united message of the Scripture. This guides us from taking passages out of context, or placing emphases in places that are misguided. It also helps us to not treat the Bible simply as a pill box from which we gather various medication, but as an entire course of treatment in our moments of fear, worry and anxiety patterns.
2. A Right Understanding of the Doctrine of God is Crucial
Every doctrine of the Bible is important and crucial for our growth in knowledge and godliness. However, in dealing with anxiety, one doctrine that is often abused, misinterpreted or flat out forgotten is an orthodox doctrine of God (theology proper). For the counselor, a thorough understanding of the doctrine of God is a necessary component to helping others with anxiety. To attribute finite qualities to God, to consider Him less than omniscient, to argue that he is mutable (even if only to try to make Him seem relatable to His creatures), to view Him as passible, or to misrepresent Trinitarian orthodoxy, are all to be avoided in our faith pilgrimage and particularly in our counseling. It would benefit every counselor to rightly and deeply understand an orthodox theology proper. Confessions help us in that regard. For instance, if a counselor is knowledgeable of the Doctrine of God from the pages of Scripture as faithfully confessed in the Second London Confession, he will more likely correctly represent God in his counseling. We live in a day when many churches are putting together smaller and more “succinct” statements of faith. Often, one of the shortest sections is the doctrine of God such that those crafting said statements seem content wherein a simple statement regarding the Trinity is given. But is this all that our God reveals to us about Himself – that He is Triune? Is there not immense value in a fuller understanding of this God? Take note:
“The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.” (2LCF 2.1)
Doesn’t an anxious person need to understand that God isn’t subject to passions as we are? Doesn’t the unwavering immutability of God when understood by the finite mind along with an understanding of His absolute sovereignty, and His love aid in moments of deep fear? And isn’t it helpful to understand that God is not made up of parts, such that His love isn’t just one “part” of Him, but rather that He is love (contrast with the idea that He appropriates an outside principle of love based on His own “changeable” whims)? All of these deep theological truths about God are necessary, but most acutely so when we are anxious. Counselors need to know more, not less, about the doctrine of God. Some of the most fruitful counseling moments I have experienced have been in times of discussion regarding some aspect of the doctrine of God (i.e. impassibility, simplicity, etc.). Counselors do not help as they ought, if they misrepresent the God of the Bible. If they misrepresent the God of the Bible, they actually offer idolatry as a solution to human frailty. What we need, and what I need when I’m anxious, is not a God brought down to my level of understanding, who is simply “slightly bigger” than my problems. I need the God of the Bible in all His splendor to be proclaimed to me boldly.
3. We Must Understand Human Beings As Body and Soul
Due to the fall of mankind, human beings are subject to the curse, and our bodies are not as they will one day be. Anxiety often is a spiritual and/or psychological issue, but it can also be the result of our physiology. How we eat, whether we are getting enough sleep, how well we exercise, as well as how our body is functioning as a whole can all affect the experience of anxiety. Recently my wife, who is not prone to much anxiety at all, was diagnosed with an overactive thyroid. One of the symptoms is that she occasionally, from out of nowhere, experiences brief periods of inexplicable anxiety. For her, this is a felt, physical anxiety, without any thoughts behind it – anxiety experienced, even in the midst of great spiritual joy.
Should she pray, rest in God, open the Scriptures? Absolutely. However, hers is an example of how body function can affect the feelings of anxiety. For many, the body alone is blamed for an experience that really has faulty thinking or spiritual causes as its root. For others, there can be a mixture of both. The point here is that in my work with individuals, I have seen anxiety stem from various causes, both body and soul, and it is important to consider this reality. It is also to this reality of being both body and soul according to His humanity that our Lord Jesus entered, (Baptist Catechism Question 25: “How did Christ, being the Son of God become man? Answer: Christ the Son of God became man by taking to Himself a true body, and a reasonable soul…”), and it is in Him that every believing human will enter into glory.
4. The Local Church is a Crucial Component to Growth
People are often prone to withdraw from others when they are anxious. However, the body of Christ is crucial in our journey, especially when we are wrestling with fear and worry. We need the God-given rhythm of “one sabbath in seven” as a pattern in our lives. We can find a balm for our anxious souls when we live according to the creational Sabbath pattern God has given (2LCF 22.7-8). One benefit of keeping the weekly sabbath is that it gives us one day every week free from the cares and work of this world. We’re also are given a weekly emblem of the rest to come (Heb 4:9-10). Gathering with the saints on the Lord’s Day is crucial, and aid for our anxiety often comes through our relationships within the body of Christ, particularly within our own local church. Talking through fears with a trusted friend, getting biblical counsel from a wise sibling in Christ, and experiencing the accountability of the local church, are all crucial in our moments of anxiety. Additionally, the ordinary means of grace, observed each Lord’s Day, serve to strengthen and increase our faith (2LCF 14.1). The Lord ordinarily uses preaching, prayer (1 Pet 5:6-7) and sacraments to grow us and nurture us in grace.
Amidst our anxieties and fears, we need the Word proclaimed and seen in visible signs. This is acutely so when our fears cause us to doubt God’s goodness, covenant faithfulness or His promise to save. The church is crucial, and particularly when we wrestle with anxiety.
5. Patience and Humility Are Required
For the anxious person, and for the person(s) offering biblical counsel, patience and humility are required. The anxious person often wrestles with a desire to have or feel more control over certain circumstances. A patient, humble reliance on God – a child like faith – is a needed posture while wrestling through anxiety. Much anxiety, although not all, is sinful, and as such, a humble reliance on the Scriptures and the calls to repentance contained therein need to be humbly embraced. For the counselor, a needed reminder is that working with a brother or sister who wrestles with anxiety also requires patience and humility. And patience is required, in that it can often be long, difficult work (1 Thess 5:14). Humility in that we must not view ourselves as the Messiah, or with a prideful self-focus concerned more with our ability to help versus focusing on God’s work in that person’s life (1 Pet 5:5). Quick fixes are often not the answer, and a counselor who is focused more on their record as a counselor rather than being a servant of Christ will often do more damage than good.
These lessons are not the only lessons I’ve learned, nor are these five given in exhaustive detail. Rather, these five simple lessons have been my experience over many years, and lessons I still need to incorporate in greater fashion in my own life. I have wrestled with anxiety. I have sat with many anxious persons. The hope of the Scriptures, the resurrection of our bodies to come, the glory of the gospel, and the call to repentance and trust are all wonderful ropes to cling to in the midst of anxiety. Until our Lord returns, and the believer’s anxiety is completely vanquished, let us press forward and with the Psalmist exclaim, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (Ps 56:3-4)