Is it a sin to be anxious?

Steve November 2013Teaching shared by Dr. Steve Grcevich of Key Ministry at Martindale Christian Fellowship Church, Canton, OH, January 25, 2015.

I’d like to thank Pastor Steve for again inviting me to share with you today. Since the last time I was here, I’ve assumed a substantial (but unpaid) staff position with Key Ministry.

We work with churches to help them minister with families of kids and teens impacted by mental illness, trauma and developmental disabilities. One of the many barriers our families encounter in trying to be part of a church is the perception on the part of many Christians that our ongoing experience of mental and emotional distress is a direct consequence of patterns of sin for which we bear personal responsibility.

Let’s talk about why this is a big issue. Here are some findings from a research study published seven years ago by Dr. Matthew Stanford from Baylor University titled Demon or Disorder: Attitudes About Mental Illness and the Church…

▪ 30% of attendees seeking help from their church for themselves or a family member because of a mental health condition reported negative interactions counterproductive to treatment.

▪ Women are significantly more likely than men to report being told by their church that they don’t have a mental health disorder (37%), discouragement from their church about the use of medication for mental disorders (23%), and report negative interactions with their church (41%).

▪ Reports of negative interactions from church attendees fall into three categories: abandonment or lack of involvement by the church (60%), mental disorder considered the result of demonic activity (21%), and mental disorder considered the result of a lack of faith / personal sin (19%).

▪ 15% of adults who sought help from their church for a mental illness for themselves or a family member reported a weakening of faith as a result of their interaction, and for 13%, their interaction resulted in the end of their involvement with their faith.

Lifeway Research was involved with Focus on the Family in a large research project entitled the Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith, the results of which were made public last Fall.

Lifeway 2

Lifeway 1

In addition, 23% of pastors indicate they have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind, but only 12% of pastors surveyed were ever formally diagnosed. Pastors in the Midwest were significantly more likely to report undiagnosed mental illness.

The research appears to suggest that we have a lot of people within the church who struggle with emotional distress who have been badly hurt by their interactions with pastors, church staff, counselors and the reactions of fellow believers. Clearly, there’s an established perception among the majority outside the church that those struggling with more serious or chronic mental health concerns won’t be welcome at church…and that’s a very big problem when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s command to make disciples.

I want to share with you a comment “Kristin” left on our blog when we were discussing the perception in the church that sin causes mental illness…

Twenty years ago, I was repeatedly told by many people that I just needed to pray harder and that if my relationship with Jesus was better, my severe depression would be healed. I bought into that for a while and did everything humanly possible to pray, study the Bible go to church and so on. But my depression was not healed. I left the church for several years, but returned hoping that not all Christians thought that way. Of course, I also didn’t tell too many church friends about my mental illness.

Fast forward to the present. I now have 2 children with severe mental illness. Last year, my daughter was forced to join a Sunday School class in which she knew no other child. I tried in vain to explain that she had severe social anxiety and needed to be in a class where she had a friend. Because of that, she wasn’t happy in Sunday School and ended up quitting the children’s choir too. We hardly ever go to church any more. I write this with tears in my eyes because I want to find a church where my kids and I are accepted, and yes, even given “special” treatment from time to time…

I guess I got off topic of your blog post, but the idea of mental illness or any illness being caused by sin is still very prevalent in out churches, as is the idea that we should be able to pray it away.

When I accepted Pastor Steve’s invitation to come back today, I’d felt led to discuss this topic with you, and in order to make this conversation as relevant to as many of you as possible, I thought we’d focus on the topic of anxiety, because the Bible probably has more to say about anxiety than any other mental health condition we encounter that presents a barrier to people being part of a local church. Everyone in this room today has personal experience wrestling with anxiety, even though most wouldn’t qualify for what my peers would characterize as an anxiety disorder.

As I was reading and studying and preparing for this morning, God threw a big wrench into what I planned to discuss. I’m sure that none of you have ever arrived at a certain conclusion about God, Jesus or some issue/subject and started flipping (or in my case, clicking) through the Bible looking for Scripture to support your argument? For those who go to Bible College or seminary, I’m pretty sure that’s not how they tell guys to prepare to teach from the Word. That was what I intended to do, but lo and behold, I was struck by the extent to which my response to anxiety is a problem in light of the way God wants me to live. The experience was humbling.

Today, we’ll turn to God’s Word to understand how we’re to interpret experience of anxiety and how to respond when others around us are anxious…or suffer from some other mental condition or distress.

Let’s pray…Heavenly Father…I’d ask that you’d prepare all of us to take one step closer to you as a result of our discussion today. May we take to heart your wisdom and truth so we might better reflect your love to a hurting world, and may everyone here today quickly forget anything that fails to reflect your truth. This I ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

For the sake of clarity, let’s start with a few definitions…

Anxiety is an emotion…it’s a necessary emotion, a signal to us that something is wrong. Comparisons can be made between anxiety and pain. Both are essential, but the chronic experience of either anxiety or pain can be debilitating. One sign that the hearts of those who turn away from God may be hardening is the absence of anxiety prior to or while engaging in destructive or sinful behaviors.

When I use the phrase “to be anxious” I’m referring to a chronic state of anxiety…when we experience a sense of apprehension or dread often accompanied by hyperarousal of our central nervous system in the absence of any imminent danger or threat.

People with anxiety disorders have reached the point that anxiety significantly interferes with their ability to function (occupationally, academically, relationally).

Do you where anxiety is first discussed in the Bible? Check out Genesis 3:7-10…

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Anxiety is a characteristic of our human nature in a fallen world. Within four verses of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, anxiety enters the picture. It’s interesting that we see two things in this initial description of human anxiety…

1. We try to manage our anxiety by formulating a solution to the immediate problem without turning to God and…
2. We often respond to our anxiety by hiding or running away from God.

Some of us struggle with more of a predisposition toward anxiety than others.

This is a hot button among Christians. Our brains serve as the bridge between our physical serves and our spiritual selves…and there’s an incredible deficit of knowledge in terms of how our brain works compared to what we know about other organ systems. We know genetics play an important role in our ability to manage our thoughts and emotions. We know that environmental factors affect the way our genetic predisposition is expressed. We know that trauma and neglect increase the risk for significant anxiety in children and adults. At the same time, the Bible says that we will be held accountable for our actions, many actions or behaviors identified as symptoms of mental illness are characterized in Scripture as “sin”, and our “medical” models don’t leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.

We know very young children who bear no moral culpability for their actions experience anxiety. Persons with social anxiety experience activation of the amygdala, one of the structures in the brain that makes up the limbic system, a brain circuit involved in the regulation of emotion. As a result, they are often prone to overreact to relatively innocuous social cues. Kids with anxiety also experience a failure of the brain’s prefrontal cortex to accurately assess the level of risk in a given situation. The end result is a child who interprets risk differently than their peers and experiences fear in situations that most of their peers tolerate. From a spiritual standpoint, they’re prone to misinterpret the attributes of God and may be more apprehensive about engaging in spiritual practices and activities that may lead to growth.

When we talk about mental conditions or patterns of behavior regulated by the brain we’re prone to dichotomous (all or nothing) thinking. I’m often asked whether kids do or don’t have control over their thinking, emotions or behavior. My answer is less “black and white” than some would like. Genetic factors, environment and life experience make it more difficult for them…and many of us to control our thoughts and behaviors. They may need to devote much more mental energy and effort than others without their condition or predisposition to emotional self-regulation or impulse control, but they’re still responsible. When we say that kids or young adults need “structure,” we’re referring to environments that minimize the presence of distractions and the need to process information that detracts from one’s ability to self-regulate.

Our anxiety has the potential to undermine our trust in God…we take things into our own hands with disastrous consequences…Think of Abraham and Sarah…their failure to trust God’s promise to give them a son resulted in the development of nations engaged in existential conflict to this very day! The anxiety of the people of Israel in response to the reports of the Promised Land brought back by the twelve men sent to be advance scouts led to forty years of wandering in the desert.

Over time, we’ll develop a misrepresentation of who God is if our anxiety is unchecked. Consider the example of the lazy servant in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Jesus engaged in a fairly extended discussion of anxiety during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:25-34. Let’s take a closer look at what he had to say…

25 Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Do you place more importance (or find yourself thinking more) on acquiring the money to provide for yourself, on maintaining your physical condition, on having the right clothes, on building the savings to retire or finance your kids’ education? I do…every day!

26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

How much time do you spend worrying about the “barn” in which you gather?

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Jesus says our anxiety about daily provision is indicative of our lack of faith.

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

We don’t look any different to the rest of the world when we worry about material things.

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Guess what? When we occupy our minds with meeting our material needs (or wants) in order to relieve our anxiety, we make those needs our “idols” by elevating them in importance in reference to our relationship with God. You and I just violated the First Commandment by prioritizing these things ahead of God!

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Guess what…I’m guilty. I worry about my life every day. How long I’m going to be able to be able to practice with excellence in the face of larger forces (government, insurance companies, hospital systems) that see people like me and practices like mine as problems to be eliminated. How do I pay my bills when the money I’m paid is shrinking and college tuition is exploding? I bet you’re guilty too!

Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t waste mental energy and effort on stuff we can’t control!

In Philippians 4, (Philippians 4:6 is the ninth most-searched verse at BibleGateway.com), Paul casts a vision for the attitude God calls upon us to reflect…

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I think a little context is important in fully appreciating these two passages… Jesus’ words…as well as Paul’s were shared with people who had far more reason to worry than most of us here today. I’m embarrassed by the stuff I worry about in light of what we’re told in Scripture.

Tiberius was the Roman Emperor and Herod Antipas ruled in Galilee as a puppet king at the time of the Sermon on the Mount. Daily subsistence was a BIG concern to Jesus’ audience. Herod raised taxes to nearly unprecedented levels to fund construction projects of benefit to the societal elite and to support his extraordinarily lavish lifestyle. Tax collectors had the ability to extort, publicly abuse or torture those who fell behind in their payments, and those who had to borrow to pay their taxes (at interest rates ranging from 25-100%) ran the risk of having to sell their land or their children to creditors as debt slaves, and losing their place in society. Some who lost homes and inheritances became sharecroppers while others moved to the cities and sought to survive as best they could. Girls sometimes resorted to prostitution. One of Herod’s sparkling new cities was Magdala…home of a young girl named Mary who we meet later in the Gospels.

Paul was writing to the church at Philippi about thirty years later…likely chained to a Roman guard! He was writing to people who faced true persecution…with the knowledge that many or most of his fellow Apostles were already dead, generally by very unpleasant means. Despite his circumstances, his faith had become so strong and he was so tied into the Holy Spirit as a source of strength that Paul could experience peace and contentment.

Therein lies a HUGE challenge for many who are anxious…and unfortunately for Christians counseling many who are anxious…many with anxiety start to question or doubt the depth of their faith when they don’t experience the same peace.

So, how do we apply this? What do we do with this part of our nature?

Are any of us exempted from Jesus’ command not to worry? No.

Might some of us struggle with Jesus’ command to not worry more than others? Yep.

The reality is that we all struggle and fall short of God’s standards for when it comes to controlling our thoughts and tongues and emotions…people identified with mental health conditions…anxiety disorders, ADHD, mood disorders have a much harder time than others managing these emotions and have to devote much more mental effort to obtain the same result as someone without the disability.

As Christians we’re called to pursue truth…I wanted to conclude that it’s not a sin to be anxious, but a cursory review of Scripture revealed to me that there are some places in my life where I’m clearly falling short. Our human nature makes it impossible for us to uphold God’s standard…perfection. Fortunately, God had a plan to overcome that. We also know that the process of becoming more like Jesus in terms of our faith won’t be complete on this side of Heaven.

I see teens and young adults who develop addictions or serious mental health complications (sometimes to the point of developing suicidal thoughts or plan) as a direct consequence of pursuing activities that the Bible unequivocally characterizes as sin. Most teens (in my experience) are ill-prepared to manage the intensity of emotions they experience after crossing sexual boundaries. I had one young man with autism as a patient who is now serving a sentence in state prison after he felt compelled to act out in person the kiddie porn he saw online. I saw a girl of middle school age last week unable to concentrate in school for weeks and now failing after watching a lesbian “love scene” on Netflix.

I’ve also been privileged to serve with some incredible people in the disability ministry community who have devoted their lives to serving and honoring God and demonstrate no pattern of habitual sin who have suffered for years with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions.

Is it a sin to experience anxiety? Clearly…the answer is no. Did Jesus sin in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was sweating blood? Impossible. Might we engage in sinful patterns of thinking or behavior in response to anxiety or experience an increase in anxiety as a consequence of sin? Maybe. But do I see evidence from the Bible or my clinical experience that mental illness (or any other disability) is a punishment from God or a consequence of sin, outside of the consequences of living in a fallen world experienced by believers and non-believers alike? No.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in John 9:1-3 when he and his disciples came across the blind man. The assumption of the day was that his disability was a consequence of either his personal sin or sin committed by his parents.

Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Think of anxiety is a signal of something we need to respond to…HOW we respond to the experience of anxiety is what matters.

Consider anxiety a sign…God’s “push notification” …the blinking yellow light that tells us there’s something we need to pay attention to.

What should we do when we’re struggling with chronic anxiety? ”Being anxious?”

▪ Consider a little self-examination…is there an issue with your patterns of thinking or behavior that needs to be addressed? We’re all prone to thinking errors or distortions. In Romans 12:2 the Bible says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Any thought patterns of yours that need to be “renewed?”

▪ Turn to God! But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. In the Psalms, we have many fabulous examples of what this looks like left to us by King David.

▪ Ask for wisdom and discernment. Pray for clarity about the situation and be prepared to listen. I’m surprised by the number of Christian families who are embarrassed to be in our office with our kids. Maybe God will direct you to a physician, a psychologist or counselor as His instrument of healing? Could He heal you or your loved one supernaturally? Absolutely! Is it more likely that he’ll direct you to someone he’ll use as an instrument of healing? Probably. We have a saying in our office…”God does the work…we just collect the money.”

▪ Practice, practice, Practice! One of the key components of cognitive-behavioral therapy is exposure. Exposure involves putting the person being treated for anxiety in the environment or situation that evokes distress after they’ve been equipped with tools and strategies for managing through those situations. For some of you who worry about provision, you may need to practice generosity. For those who struggle with a need to be in control, it may involve lots of prayer for the ability to exhibit grace while learning to submit. For some who fear sharing their faith, it may involve signing up for a short-term mission trip or service project.

What if our anxiety persists? We have to be open to the possibility that our suffering serves a larger purpose in God’s plan.

Is it possible that God might want to use our anxiety for His purposes? What matters to God? In His economy, is it possible that He’s more interested in a relationship with us than He is in our happiness? If God took away the source of our anxiety, would we continue to turn to Him?

When we’re interacting with others who struggle with anxiety…

  • Do we err on the side of demonstrating grace or truth?
  • We need to be VERY careful before we seek to presume God’s purposes in the lives of others.

From some of the stories I’ve heard, I have to wonder whether any of these Biblical counselors ever read the Book of Job? (Job 42:7-9)

7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

To assume (incorrectly) that someone else’s suffering is because of some specific pattern of sin can result in incredible pain and hurt and drive others away from Jesus and away from the their brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s also extremely presumptuous for any of us to claim that we fully understand the mind of God or purposes of God in the suffering of others.

  • How we ourselves manage anxiety can be a powerful witness to others. Jesus suggests this (Matthew 6:32) in the Sermon on the Mount…as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we should look different than the rest of the world. In the passage from Philippians (4:5), Paul echoes this idea when he says “let your reasonableness be know to everyone…with reasonableness implying an attitude of not being particularly concerned about our own rights.
  • Finally, we in the church have to make a conscious decision that we have to quit shooting our wounded. Is it more important to be right, or to be reconciled? I’m reminded of this passage (Colossians 3:21)…

21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.

The perception on the part of those outside the church that people who struggle with mental illness aren’t welcome at church is exceptionally troubling. Let’s say you ARE suffering as a result of sin. Is the church intended to be a hangout for the holy or a hospital for the hurting?

We’re going to be looking at this topic in more detail over the coming weeks in a Bible Study we’ll be conducting online starting today looking at the topic of sin, mental illness and the church. You can join us through Key Ministry’s Facebook page or through our blog http://www.church4everychild.org.

Finally, as Pastor Steve prepares us for Communion, I’m reminded that we may be fallen, but we’re also forgiven, and that through the sacrifice that Jesus made for all of us on the cross commemorated by the bread Pastor Steve is about to break and the wine (or the grape juice) we’re about to drink. In preparation for Communion, not only would I encourage all of us to ask the Holy Spirit to point out to us where our anxiety is a barrier to growing in our relationship to God and guide us in overcoming anxiety that hinders us from sharing the Love of Christ with those around us who are desperately in need of experiencing His love.

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