Anxiety and the Disciplines of Grace

Should a believer who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks medicate or meditate? I don’t know. I know those for whom medication has worked well and those who never feel quite themselves on medication. There is also the danger that the medication for anxiety or depression is treating only the symptoms, not the causes. A kind of middle ground is to use medication to provide enough relief to catch your breath, work on the root causes, and develop nonpharmaceutical approaches to anxiety. Without shame or a sense of defeat, believers battling anxiety should consult with trained professionals and doctors.

However, we should also lay hold of all the spiritual resources God has provided. For those I love who are battling anxiety, I would like to outline some spiritual disciplines that help us defeat anxiety. Everyone’s battle with fear and anxiety is different, so some of these suggestions will help some people more than others. None of this a formula that magically drives anxiety out of our lives. They are disciplines that open us to God’s help by intentional and regular actions.

  1. The discipline of grace. This phrase seems contradictory because God’s grace is given freely without regard to how much self-discipline we have. But being given grace freely and enjoying it freely are not the same thing. Often anxiety feeds off the feeling that everything depends on us being good enough or working hard enough.Daily resting in God’s grace and the work Jesus did on the cross can set us free from the hell of never being enough. This means daily thanking God that we are saved by grace, not our works. We don’t have to be good enough for God—He loves us right now. We can take a deep breath of His grace and breathe out all our striving to earn God’s love and salvation. It is ours in Christ Jesus. Whew!
  2. The discipline of adoption. We are especially vulnerable to anxiety when we are young and our identity is still being discovered. It is easy for our identity and our worth to get wrapped up in the how others see us. Believers are called to anchor our identity in what God’s Word declares us to be. We have been adopted as children of God and are now joint-heirs with Christ Jesus (Romans 8)—we are royalty and seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). We can walk around like we own the place because in Christ we do!Our identity isn’t found in our career or academic success or failure. It is, of course, good to pursue excellence in all we do, but our main call is to love others as God has loved us. We are free to fearlessly love others because God has adopted us and poured out his love in our lives. Daily basking in the spirit of adoption can draw out the poison of anxiety and fear (Romans 8:16).
  3. The discipline of the fear of the Lord. Some who suffer from anxiety simple aren’t being afraid of the right thing. They are paralyzed by the fear of failure or the fear of other people’s opinions when they should be afraid of God. This may seem like an odd cure for anxiety, but it works this way. Caring more about God’s opinion is liberating because God already loves us. He also understands us and looks right into our heart. God, unlike people, is concerned with the intent of our heart, not the perfection of our performance.Fearing God frees us from the anxiety produced by perfectionism. I can do my best and offer it up to God in the knowledge that he knows my heart and he will bless my efforts. We are all little boys offering a few loaves and fishes for Jesus to bless and multiply. We give all we have, then rest and trust God to bless. We can live for the applause of heaven instead of the applause of the world.
  4. The discipline of self-control. The need to control everything and failure to control anything are both sources of anxiety. Trusting God’s grace can cure the need to control everything. But we also need the work of God’s Spirit that gives us self-control. Anxiety will feed off our inability to control ourselves and our immediate environment.Routines often increase our peace by bringing order to our lives and extending the rule of God over the details of our days. Regular sleep, balanced meals, daily exercise, and a clean house bring a blessing of “shalom” to our homes and our days. It is important not to make achieving this orderly life just another source of anxiety. Since all this involves changing habits, it is best done little by little. It is important to celebrate every bit of progress in these areas and avoid the set-up for failure inherent in an all-or-nothing approach. God helps us. Making my bed in the morning helps too.
  5. The discipline of simplicity and contentment. The ability to enjoy simple pleasures really is a discipline—one that our consumer society actively wars against. Advertisers depend on our discontent to sell us products, so we must actively resist impulse buying in response to the false promise that the right product will satisfy our emptiness. (Ok, I’m back. I drifted off into a day-dream about getting a faster computer for my blogs.) Some say social media has become a fountain of discontent and depression because it invites us to compare our lives unfavorably with the idealized and false images others post. Regularly unplugging from the internet and texting can unplug us from a lot of anxiety.Another expression of simplicity is doing the small Godward motions. These are all the little external things we can do that are Godward and that help our hearts move closer to Him. Sometimes I kneel because I need my heart to kneel. I lift my hands because I need my heart and focus to rise toward God. I stop and gives thanks for my lunch because in the middle of the day I need the contentment thanksgiving nourishes.
  6. The discipline of a clear conscience. Being completely surrendered to God’s will often does wonders for a believer’s anxiety. It is hard to be confident in God’s favor and protection when we know there are areas we have made off limits to God. Areas of quiet rebellion steal our peace. Of course, Satan, the enemy of our soul is quick to accuse us and convince us God is about to whack us. It’s all nerve-racking!Keeping a clear conscience really combines several disciplines: honesty with God about what we have not surrendered, confession of our rebellion, and obedience to all God has asked of us. All this requires taking time before the Lord asking Him to search our hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit will faithfully show us the disobedience or rebellion that is stealing our peace and disrupting our relationship with God. Again, God is not looking for a perfect performance; He seeks a surrendered heart.
  7. The discipline of God’s presence. The Bible declares that corporately and individually believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are filled with the presence of God. Where we go, God goes. We are never alone. We are never without his strength, wisdom, grace, and power.However, we must consciously practice the presence of God and defy the sacred/secular split that the world demands. Religion with its buildings and rituals often reinforces the lie that God is relevant and present only on Sundays and at churches. However, John 17 declares that through the Holy Spirit we can abide in Christ and the Father and Son can dwell in us (v. 23). The reality that we carry in us the very presence of God should empower us to live fearlessly.

Conclusion: Many who battle anxiety will also be helped by the disciplines of silence, solitude, study, and submission. Submission can be especially helpful as it frees us from defending our turf, demanding our rights, and watching for offense. There is both power and peace in the meekness that comes from knowing you are a child of the King and have nothing to prove.

We should also directly ask God for wisdom on how to walk free of fear and anxiety. After asking, we should actually take time before the Lord to listen to anything he says. It is important not to get hyper—spiritual. To handle the anxiety before my graduate oral examinations, I played pinball for an hour. It worked wonders. God’s prescriptions are tailored to us and without terrible side-affects. He who the Son sets free is free indeed.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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