Over the years of doing therapy with Christians I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If only I could trust God more…I say I believe he is good but clearly I don’t trust him because I can’t stop being anxious.” Still others express distress that their faith in God does not change their feelings of hurt over past relational wounds and fears it will never get better.
It seems we believe this maxim: If I really trust in God, I will be at peace. I will not struggle with the brokenness around me or with the unknown future.
Is this true? Is it possible to trust God fully and experience chronic negative emotion?
Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a couple of Psalms.
Because I trust God completely, I bring him my angst again and again.
At the recent #CCEF16 conference on emotions, David Powlison referred to Psalm 62:8a, Trust in him at all times, O people; He noted that this assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? David pointed us to the next line (8b) Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.
Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”
So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder
- He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
- He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
- He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
- He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
- He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong AND loving. You will remain righteous in your dealings with us.
While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.
This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a far better picture of the reality of life hidden in Christ than the false stoic (or Zen) image of being unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust (as much to remind ourselves as in bold assertion), we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.
You can see this pattern also in Psalm 42 and 43 with slight variations: Remember when I used to be out in front leading the worship but now my tears are my only food. Why am I like this? I hope in God. But I am downcast. Day and night God is loving…but it seems you have forgotten me in my oppression? Vindicate me. You are my stronghold so why is this not getting better? Free me so I can worship you…yet I am still in despair even as I hope in you.
If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.
So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your angst, might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?
13 responses to “Does trusting God remove anxiety?”
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Rebecca, The most beautiful poetry comes from our anguished, impossible questions. There’s beauty in hope and hope in asking. A sign of faith.
What a great statement of faith to say “Because I trust God completely, I bring him my angst again and again.” This is a completely different context in which to view our angst or our struggles or our anxiety. These things should not be indicators of whether we love or trust God, but should be directives to bring us to Him with all that’s on our hearts with the realization that nothing can separate us from His love and care through Christ Jesus. I love this perspective and intend to share it with those who allow their anxiety to be what dictates whether they are believing God or not. I’ve been there and still am at times and perhaps, we all have, but that doesn’t mean we need to stay there especially when such great truths as these are made evident and plain. Thank you, Phil, for sharing this truth with us. This truth indeed brings peace to the soul.
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Thank you for stating plainly what has been my experience as a bereaved parent-because I trust Him, I bring Him my angst again and again. I suspect this will be my cycle as long as I live. What a blessing to have it validated by someone else!
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Thank you so much for this! As you know, Phil, I struggle with anxiety and well-meaning, and somewhat uninformed Christians have tried to heal me but also point this concept at me–that my anxiety equates to a lack of trust in God. I recently write about how I don’t live IN SPITE OF my mental illness, but I live for God BECAUSE of it. I see it as a gift (or try to) because otherwise I get mired down in bitterness and disgust.
A few years ago, I interviewed a well-known singer/songwriter in the Christian music industry. I point blank asked him if one song was about a struggle with anxiety and he said that it was. It led us down a path where we talked and mutually encouraged one another in our faith journeys. I told him that I felt like such a failure when, at the time, I would lie in bed shaking and writing Psalm 46 repeatedly in my journal. He encouraged me by telling me it was the very definition of faith to cling to God in those moments.
Your post reminded me of that conversation. I’m struggling with anxiety right now due to a lot of transitions in my life, but your post reminds me that God is using this to build my faith for whatever is coming next. This is a gift that keeps me close to my Savior.
Thank you for your encouraging and scholarly post, Phil!
I’m wondering if you could help. I’m writing a blog for a Christian group. I’m arguing the pros of Christians going to therapy with a psychologist. Can you point me to some specfic places in the Bible that could support this?
Baristakait29, Not sure if Amy Sondova is still following this comment stream. Hopefully, but if not, let me make a suggested thought experiment. Where in the Bible would you look for support for going to see a neurosurgeon? A dermatologist? A massage therapist? A financial planner? Why, if any reason, would we differentiate between these specialists and that of a psychologist? I think the main reason we do this is because we separate these professionals into those that deal with the body and those that deal with the soul. But in fact, everyone always is dealing with the whole person.
And yet, I take your question to be asking how does the Scripture speak about the value of seeking advice and counsel outside of our own interaction with God? That is an interesting question. Is there something about needing other members of the body with specialties (pastors, deacons, mercy-ministers…and counselors/advisors).
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At last! An article that doesn’t make “fixing” the struggle with anxiety sound like take two scriptures and you will be all well in the morning. So encouraging! For myself, I see my repeat struggle with anxiety to be exactly what you say: a call to return to scripture to proclaim the truths, ask for help, and keep on declaring what I know is true, regardless of my feelings that refuse to lay down calm, once and for all. Thank you so much for this article! It will be a blessing to many strugglers and counselors, alike.