Worry, Fear, Anxiety and the Gospel of Jesus Christ
By Reid S. Monaghan
In every epoch of history, human beings have struggled to find peace of mind amidst the chaos of life under the sun. Ever aware of the fragility of life and circumstances we can be gripped with worry, fear and crippling anxiety. The soul becomes caged to its own dark meditations and a strange bondage can overwhelm us. Our modern age is certainly rife with concerns of its own: rapid change, global terrorism, and economic uncertainty along with the lingering realities of disease, injustice, death and broken relationships press in on the modern psyche. This spring Jacobs Well will travel together in the words of God which speak to the deepest needs and fears of our lives. God wants to walk us from fear to faith, kindly teaching us what it means to trust Jesus our sovereign King. He is our Lord and will walk with us through the varied labyrinths of this world.
In this brief essay we will endeavor to do a few simple things. First, we will discuss the human experiences of fear, worry and anxiety and define some basic terms. Second, we will discuss the scope and suppositions which are underneath our study together. Third, we will speak of several issues which relate to our fear and anxiety and how these issues are connected to our relationship with God. Finally, we will give a brief outline of the subjects we will address biblically and theologically during the course of this series.
We are Freaked Out
To say that concern, worry, fear and anxiousness are “universal” would be self-evident to some and perhaps insulting to others. Though the degree to which we are gripped by such realities varies by individual and personality, they are indeed universal in scope. Not one of us can expect to sing hakuna matata for the rest of our days1. This world has many problems and troubles and these intersect with our story more often than some would like to admit. Current studies show that just over 18% of the adult population in our country meets criteria for suffering from various anxiety disorders.2 These are beyond the everyday stress, worry and fear experienced which is considered “normal.” Furthermore, when one looks at a list of modern psychopathologies the most prevalent category has to do with our fears.3 General anxiety also appears to be twice as common among the ladies as among men, likely because they have to deal with men.4 Just kidding, but the research is clear that though both freak out a bit, the ladies experience it a bit more. Finally, our own state of New Jersey is number five in the nation in “neuroticism” as we are in the “stress belt” of the northeastern United States.5 Things move fast here and you are expected to keep up or get out of the way. This does not give our own immediate context a peaceful easy feeling.
Furthermore, in our culture we might assume that money and financial security might alleviate one’s anxieties. However, a recent study conducted by researchers at Boston College is showing precisely the opposite. In a survey of 500 people who had an average net worth of 78 million dollars the research is showing that the super-rich are in no way immune to the specters of loneliness and anxiety. Many shared deep insecurity about, above all things, money.6
In every culture and place human beings “freak out” and are gripped with fear and anxiety. There are reasons for this that we will examine shortly. For now we must declare ourselves part of the world in which fear and anxiety will arrive at our doors. What we do with these thoughts and feelings we will examine during the course of our study. Before moving to look at the biblical backdrop for our world being a fear/anxiety producing place, I want to say a few things about the scope of our discussion and some assumptions we will have in looking at these issues.
Assumptions and definitions
I want to say clearly up front that our discussions of fear, anxiety, worry and the various relationships to God are not meant to be clinical in nature. We will be discussing these issues in a theological and pastoral context. There are cases of severe anxiety which call for clinical attention and I am thankful we have a good network of support for such circumstances at Jacob’s Well. However, with that said, it is my strongest conviction that our struggles in this area are indeed holistic and theological in nature. As such, the counsel and understanding of Scripture should not be neglected even in more severe situations. The worldview and teaching of the Scriptures should remain in the forefront of our minds as we wrestle with fear, anxiety and worry in varying degrees.
Basic Assumptions about Human Persons
Any discussion of things which affect both mind and body must proceed from a robust anthropology. Before we can address human persons, we must have an understanding of what a human person is. This is by no means taken for granted today in our culture. Some would say humans are only animals ruled by DNA working out its mechanistic replications due to environmental constraints.7 Furthermore, there is a view of humans which tends to boil down all behaviors into desires for sex and survival as if these are the only aspects of life which matter. Others would see the mind as merely a product of the electrochemical machinations of our brains.8 Of course I use the terms only and merely above as I find no disagreement with humans being partially animal in nature and certainly there is a correlation between the function of the mind and the human brain.9 Yet we resist a pure reduction of man into matter which would eliminate a functioning person residing in unity with his physical body.
The view we are assuming here is a biblical anthropology whereby we consist of a psychosomatic unity. In this view, humans are not seen in either of two extremes. We are not reduced to being bodies alone nor are we seen as disembodied spirits trapped in a body. Soul and body unified as a human person is the view we will follow in our discussions. There is much more to be discussed here so for the interested reader I refer you to several sources on biblical anthropology.10 In light of this view we not only see a reciprocal nature between body and soul; we expect it. The state of the body affects the soul and the condition of the soul affects the body. As such what we believe, trust, assume and place our hope in has a holistic effect on us as human beings.
As we begin a discussion of “freakin out” I did want to provide some very cautious definitions. I am using the label “freakin out” to encompass several conditions of the soul, namely, worry, fear and anxiety. I do not intend philosophical precision in using these terms only to broadly describe our human experience. Dr. Ed Welch gives the following helpful example:
To deeply understand fear we must also look at ourselves and the way we interpret our situations. Those scary objects can reveal what we cherish. They point out our insatiable quest for control, our sense of aloneness. Even the vocabulary of fear indicates that the problem can be deeper than a real, objective danger. While “fear” refers to the experience when a car races toward us and we just barely escape, “anxiety” or worry is the lingering sense after the car has passed, that life is fragile and we are always vulnerable. The terrain is fear and anxiety. You are familiar with it, and you are not alone.11
We will follow this basic understanding that fear is concern of harm coming and worry/anxiety is a projection of such into the unknown. As human beings our fears and anxiety are byproducts of and reactions to the world. What we believe about and our response to circumstances in our world therefore matter greatly. Furthermore, as human beings who are made in the image of God, our fears and anxieties are directly related to our belief in the truth about God, ourselves and our circumstances. The goal we have is not to eliminate all fears but rather to see God transform how we experience life in a fearful world. Faith rises and trusts in God and can indeed overcome negative fear and anxiety. Yet before we look at the path ahead, we want to see biblicaly why this world is such a strangely fearful place? To these issues we now turn.
Fragmented and Fearful
If you look at the grand narrative of the Bible we see right at the beginning why the world is at once a good and hostile place. The earliest chapters of Scripture tell us that the entire world is the creation of God who made all things good (See Genesis 1-2). Human beings, made male and female in the image and likeness of God, are said to be created very good. The early creation is described as a primordial paradise, a place perfectly suited for human beings and their fellowship with the creator. The first pair of humans, by their own desires, disobeys God and the world is placed under a curse and severe consequences (See Genesis 3). There are many dramatic results from this human rebellion which make this world a hostile and fearful place. Though human beings were made to be in intimate communion with their creator, they are now separated from him, under a dominion of darkness, fighting with one another and destined to die. Welcome to the party on planet earth; welcome to a good world pervasively stained with sin. The following is a just a brief description of the unfolding cosmic struggle of which we are a part.
Drama with God
The result of our fall and sin is that we desire our own ways rather than following our creator. The essence of the disobedience of the first humans is that we are separated from the God we were made to worship and know in intimacy. As such we feel a sense of isolation in the universe while surrounded by the masses of humanity. Furthermore, we feel guilt and shame for our own sin and we find no remedy. Finally, as humanity suppresses the knowledge of God we are given over to our own paths which results in destruction (Proverbs 16:25, Matthew 7:7). As we invent ways in our rebellion to make ourselves happy and safe apart from God the alienation deepens and we find no peace for our souls. Read Romans 1 for a great description of all of this.
Drama in Nature
The world which was originally a hospitable Eden has been darkened by struggle, pain and death. As a result, we feel quite at home on the earth but also find deadly peril in nature all about us. The rains which feed us also sweep us away. The seas that make our environment hospitable to life rise up and consume us. Unseen organisms which balance the ecosystem also cause sickness and disease. Our own use and abuse of the natural world threatens us with environmental disaster. The Bible describes creation as good but in bondage to decay awaiting liberation (Romans 8:18-25) and as such is a beautiful design and a fallen catastrophe. Our place in nature can cause us great joy and fill us with great fears and worry. We also feel responsible for creation and the environment in a way that turtles do not. This too freaks us out and currently causes us to fight with each other. This of course is another problem we face. Can’t we just all get along?
Drama with Each Other
Another reality under the sun is the constant enmity between human beings. In the very beginnings of the Bible we see one brother murder another (Genesis 4:1-10) and we have found ourselves at war ever since. People have fought with one another for all of human history over land, tribe, honor, race or ideology (both religious and non-religious). Modern humanity is somewhat of a puzzle to me. We think ourselves enlightened and wise and grown past our barbarous past while sitting comfortably just on the other side of the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. On a micro level each day we politic at work and fight one another in our homes. On a macro level we drop bombs on the masses and shell cities with artillery. This too can cause great fear and anxiety in the soul.
Drama with Demonic Powers
In addition to our struggle with nature and one another, spiritual powers of darkness war against our souls. (Ephesians 6:10-20) Demonic and deceitful influence can bring false accusation and oppression upon people (John 8:44, 1 Peter 5:6-11). If you have ever looked into the face of pure evil the fear that it can bring does not depart with any sort of ease. The denial of God and the war against God by Satan and demons is often ignored but never absent from the world.12
Drama with Death
Finally, the great enemy of death itself looms large on the horizons for every human being with physical and psychological suffering along the way. Death is a peculiar thing. It is at once one of the most common and “normal” things about life but feels to be an alien invasion to it. The loss of loved ones, the death of a child, the finality of someone passing from this life and the regret of years lived without meaning haunt the human soul. Modern humans live with little discussion and answer to death. Some resigned to think that it is the silent snuffing out of life while others simply never prepare for its coming. The book of Hebrews teaches us that it is appointed for us to die and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This too brings pause to the thoughtful soul.
It is in this world: a world of death, fighting, disaster, disease and rebellion against God that we find ourselves. It is in this world Jesus taught us plainly “You will have trouble.” (John 16:33) In this world, there is no way to avoid concerns, cares, worry and anxiety. It is in this world where we must face up to our fears.
Before we describe the journey ahead in this series I want to be clear that worry, fear and anxiety are not categorically “bad” things. Fear can be useful as it can keep us from true dangers. Concern for the future can cause us to pray and plan well in light of God’s leading. We clearly see this in the Scriptures. In the book of Nehemiah, the disastrous state of Jerusalem caused a man deep concern and led him to faith and action (See Nehemiah 1-2). In the New Testament, Paul lists two times in one of his letters to the Corinthians that his spirit was anxious and concerned for a friend as well as the new churches (See 2 Corinthians 2:12, 13 11:28). Furthermore, Jesus, who was fully human and lived without sinning (Hebrews 4:14-16), was so psychologically burdened the night before he was crucified that he was physically devastated (See Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22)13. These are simply a few examples to show that fear and anxiety in and of themselves are part of the human experience and not in themselves sinful. In fact, an unmoved apathy towards the concerns of our lives, other people and the fallen world is profoundly at odds with the demands of love.
Key questions for us are as follows:
- How will we handle fearful and anxious thoughts and emotions when they come?
- Will we go to God or run from God in our fears?
- Will worry cause us to seek other gods to save us or will we turn to the God who is mighty to save?
- In the anxiety of the day and our worries about tomorrow, will we take our seats in a den of idols or truly place our faith in Jesus, the living God?
- Will fear and worry cause us to pursue selfish paths of self-protection or will we be free to love and serve others?
I hope these questions help us to see one thing clearly. How we respond to God in our fear and anxiety will make a huge difference to our daily experience and our usefulness in the mission of God.
Our Study Together
Over the course of the next few months we will wrestle together with many issues related to our fears and anxiety. The following will serve as vignettes or abstracts for the ground, God willing, we will take together.
Where We Stand or Fall
There are several doctrines of Scripture which are crucial for us to understand in order to find peace of mind and rest for the soul under the sun. In this message we will discuss four foundational truths which settle the heart in the hands of the Father. The sovereignty of God, the love of God, the presence of God’s Spirit with us and in us and an eternal perspective for our longings for safety and security will be examined. These foundational truths will set the table for the practical teaching of the Scriptures to come.
Worried about Tomorrow
In this message we will examine the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 6 about worrying about the future. We fear the future for many reasons. We wonder if we will be safe, if/when will we be harmed, and the quality of our health and the stability of finances. We also have a profound desire to “make it happen” and control everything which can cause deep worry about days ahead. We also worry about the future of our families and whether we can keep everyone fed and a roof over our heads. We care deeply, so we worry. In this message we will look at trusting in our Father to face the future which always remains an unknown to us as we rise each day.
Anxious about Today
In our second message on worry/anxiety we will look more closely at how we face each day and its challenges “with God.” As we head out to our various duties many can have anxiety about not measuring up, not getting it done, being hurt by others and not being in control. Each day we are tempted to pray “my kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as I try to make it my heaven.” When we fear this won’t happen, we freak out. So we will focus in this message on prayer and fellowship with Jesus throughout each day to deal with the soul’s burdens as they arrive in real time.
One of the most repeated imperatives (commands) in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.”14 Interestingly we are also called quite clearly to “fear God and keep his commandments.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14) In this message we will look at how the fear of the Lord begins a life of wisdom and how in fearing God we learn to not be afraid.
Disappointment with Idols
As human beings we are made to trust and worship. God created us this way yet we so often trust and worship everything but God. When we trust other things and they let us down, we get stressed out, worried, freaked out and even despair. A sure sign our worship is being misplaced is when we freak out over things which are not eternal. One thing is sure in the affairs of human beings: when our gods fail us, our world comes crashing down. A key question for us is this: when our idols fail us, where will we turn?
Trust and Confidence in God
A great image we find in the Scriptures that God himself is a sturdy, strong, secure place. Difficult circumstances are certain to come and the burdens of life will become heavy upon us. Learning to run to God as a present help in times of trouble, a strong tower and mighty fortress is an important rhythm we must grasp in our grappling with fear and anxiety. The safest place is found in one person; the one who is stronger than every enemy we will ever face.
The Arms of Community
We like to tell ourselves that we can go it alone and take the world on our own terms. This posturing is not only foolish but does not help us towards peace of heart and mind. God has gifted us with his community to receive practical comfort from others in times of need. We learn to have compassion and empathize with others and when to have courage and exhort our brothers and sisters forward out of namby pamby land. Life has many burdens that we must learn to carry together. Sometimes we need a hand, sometimes we need to quit whining and lend a hand. God willing, we will seek this balance together.
In all honesty my own personality and constitution teeters between being a visionary focused planner and being a concerned and anxious worrier who freaks out over the smallest of things. I am very much in process with all the matters of which we will speak together during this series at Jacob’s Well. It is both humbling and exciting to take this journey with you so that we might see worry, fear and anxiety properly related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the one who calls us forward with the words “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Long ago a group of Jesus’s followers heard these words and then forgot them as they watched their master executed on a Roman cross. They then remembered these words after they saw him rise triumphantly over the grave. From that age forward many of his people have been bold as lions and peaceful as doves in the face of many a trial and atrocity. They knew the one that held the keys to death and hell loved them and would bring them safely home. They believed deeply the words of their Lord “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Of these men and women…the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11). May we be numbered among them in our day!
Pastor Reid S. Monaghan
Allers, Roger. “The Lion King.” Walt Disney Company, 1994.
Beauregard, Mario, and Denyse O’Leary. The Spiritual Brain : A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. 1st ed. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Cooper, John W. Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting : Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989.
Dawkins, Richard. “God’s Utility Function.” Scientific American 273, no. 5 (1995): 85.
Kessler, Ronald C., Wai tat Chiu, Olga Demler, and Ellen E. Walters. “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12-Month Dsm-Iv Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survery Replication.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 62, no. June 2005 (2005): 617-627.
Koukl, Greg. “All Brian, No Mind.” http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5474 [accessed April 29, 2011].
Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. New York,: The Macmillan company, 1944.
Monaghan, Reid S. “The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology “ (2009). http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/non_reductive_physicalism.pdf.
Murphy, Nancey. Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? Current Issues in Theology, Edited by Iain Torrance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Simon, Stephanie. “The United States of Mind ” Wall Street Journal (2008). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122211987961064719.html [accessed April 28th, 2011].
Smart, John. “The Identity Theory of Mind.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-identity/ [accessed April 29, 2011].
Tyrer, Peter, and David Baldwin. “Generalised Anxiety Disorder.” The Lancet 268 (2006): 2156-2166.
Welch, Edward T. Running Scared - Fear, Worry and the Rest of God. Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007.
Wood, Graeme. “The Fortunate Ones.” The Atlantic 2011.
 This of course is a reference to the Swahili phrase made popular by Disney’s 1994 animated hit The Lion King. The phrase means “no worries.” Roger Allers, “The Lion King,” (Walt Disney Company, 1994).
 Ronald C. Kessler and others, “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12-Month Dsm-Iv Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survery Replication,” Arch Gen Psychiatry 62, no. June 2005 (2005).
 Edward T. Welch, Running Scared - Fear, Worry and the Rest of God (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007), 22.
 Stephanie Simon, “The United States of Mind ” Wall Street Journal (2008). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122211987961064719.html (accessed April 28th, 2011).
 The modern reductionist view is well represented by the works of Richard Dawkins who wrote “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273, no. 5 (1995).
 See John Smart, “The Identity Theory of Mind,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-identity/ (accessed April 29, 2011).For a version of this by a Christian author see Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? , ed. Iain Torrance, Current Issues in Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 For a simple and popular level discussion of this see Greg Koukl, “All Brian, No Mind.” http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5474 (accessed April 29, 2011).
 See Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain : A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, 1st ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2007); John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting : Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989); Reid S. Monaghan, “The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology ” (2009). http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/non_reductive_physicalism.pdf.
 Welch, 25.
 For a balanced and creative look at demonic activity see C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York,: The Macmillan company, 1944). There is also an excellent audio version of this work I would highly recommend.
 Some read the description in the gospel as demonstrating Jesus had stress induced Hematidrosis, a very rare condition where a person’s sweat glands secrete blood. Others find the sweating of blood to be metaphorical. Either way, the intense emotional anguish affected Jesus physically and was in no way sinful. It was a human reaction to facing certain and painful circumstances. The important thing we see in this narrative is that Jesus goes “to God” in prayer during his hour of greatest anxiety.
 Welch, 59-61.