My Idolatrous Anxiety

A close relative once told me, “Matt, you’ve always been a worrier. Even when you were a child—the one time in life when you shouldn’t have a care in the world—you always seemed on edge or troubled about something. I have never been able to wrap my mind around it!”

Her description of my besetting nervousness is dead-on. Though the veneer of my life has looked radically different at various stages in my twenty-seven years, one common, invisible thread has weaved its way through every season: anxious worry. As a kid, my anxiety fed on a buffet of legitimate life-difficulties that probably would have caused anyone some soul trouble. However, as an adult who is overly concerned about living a life free from practical difficulties (I think most of us fall into this category), my worry is almost never ignited by real situations in the present but rather by undesirable circumstances that might await me in the years to come.

My future-oriented anxiety has many objects. This week I may fear that my body might one day fall prey to some vitality-devouring illness. Next week I may worry about the financial woes that would accompany a possible job loss. These types of things happen to a lot of people, so it isn’t all that crazy to think they might happen to me. But there are other times when I am utterly swallowed up by fears that the rational part of my brain knows are stupendously irrational. For some time I have suspected that I might have a bit of a problem. I don’t believe I have a chemical imbalance that necessitates anti-anxiety medication (I’ll explain why). I just believe that I, like many other people, have a “worry enzyme” embedded into the sin-stained DNA of my fallen personality.

Before God resurrected me from spiritual death, I coped with my anxiety by ingesting mind-altering substances or by engaging in fleshly behaviors that distracted me from my fearful obsessions. Sin was my go-to treatment. But today I have a new, spiritual nature, and the sins that once offered some sense of relief now only inflict further pain on my soul. Iniquitous medication is no longer an option—which should be okay, right? Because coming under the loving provision of a kind and sovereign God who promises to work all things for my ultimate good should alleviate my fearful fretting, shouldn’t it? Sure—theoretically. Yet my anxiety has persisted. And that’s not a knock on God or his ability or willingness to still my worrisome soul; it’s a knock on me. Being the prone-to-unbelief person that I am, I have found it terribly difficult to pull my eyes away from my fears and open my ears to the peace-inducing truths that the Spirit is always trying to communicate to my heart.

God wants us to be free from worries. He desires 100% percent of each of our souls to be available to enjoy and glorify him—unhindered by the paralyzing effects of anxiety. Jesus urged his followers not to be anxious about material needs (Matthew 6:25-33) or the future (Matthew 6:34) or even to fear what man can do to them (Luke 12:4). Paul tells his readers to be anxious for nothing—literally, for nothing (Philippians 4:6). Peter echoes the words of Paul, instructing believers to cast all their anxieties on God (1 Peter 5:7).

Yet I struggle, as I think so many of us do, to obey these commands.

A while back, I asked the Holy Spirit to help me unearth the reasons for my seeming inability to subdue my anxious tendencies. It didn’t take terribly long to realize that, for me, the primary hindrance to living a life free from worry is not my inability but my unwillingness to do so. God would not insist that I cease from my worries if I were utterly unable to cease from my worries. With every command God gives, he also supplies the power to obey by means of his Spirit who indwells us. God’s obedience-producing power isn’t some far-off thing that is out of reach; it is immediately close and accessible. Therefore, I am not unable—I’m just unwilling.

Why am I unwilling? Finding the answer to this question was the next step in my soul-excavation. And I think, after much prayer and sober reflection, I’ve discovered the answer: I am an idolater. Every time I’m in a fearful funk and try to set my mind on the truths of God’s affection for me, his commitment to me, and his resolve to allow nothing—no suffering, no guilt, no demonic oppression, not even death—to separate me from his love, I scarcely find encouragement. These staggering realities should send my soul flying high into the inconceivable peace of God (Philippians 4:7). They don’t, though. “Yeah, I know, but . . .” I say to myself, as I go on festering in anxiety.

My trembling heart is not treasuring God; or the unbreakable union with him that I have through Jesus; or my sure destiny of forever enjoying the pleasures of his love and the splendors of his glory. The continuation of my anxiety in the face of these fear-crushing, gospel realities reveals that what I am cherishing most in my fretful obsession is not what the gospel gives me. My heart is treasuring the idea of an easy, comfortable life. I am not longing for God to be my all in all; I am longing for God to guarantee that no harm, discomfort, or suffering (whether deserved or not) will taint the trouble-free life I am trying to live. Of course, I know God doesn’t promise to spare me from such things—which is why I worry, sometimes spending countless hours a day tormenting myself by envisioning possible difficulties that might lie ahead.

As my Spirit-directed soul-excavation came to a close, I rediscovered a life changing truth that I have long known but failed to apply to this area of my life: repentance is the threshold to freedom. If my happiness is rooted in knowing and walking with God, and if my peace of mind is totally wrapped up in all that he gives me in the gospel, and if my purpose in life is to glorify and enjoy him forever, I truly have nothing to worry about.

  • When my greatest joy is to live in fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I don’t have to fear having my joy taken away from me because nothing can separate me from the triune God (Romans 8:38-39).
  • When my greatest treasures in life are the gifts God gives me in Christ—namely, his enduring love, his empowering presence, and his sovereign resolve to work all things for my good—fear of losing my most prized possessions can’t control me because I know that God will never take away these gifts from me (Romans 11:29).
  • When my greatest purpose is to live for God’s glory by enjoying him thoroughly, no undesirable circumstances can rob my life of meaning because I can glorify and enjoy him in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12-13).

As I have sought, by the help of the Spirit, to keep myself from idols (1 John 5:21) and to abide in the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5), my chronic worrying has greatly diminished. Anxious proclivities still exist within me, like a thorn lodged in my flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). But continually striving to turn away from idolatrous longings and continually asking the Holy Spirit to help me treasure God above all else continues to subdue the paralyzing anxiety that has haunted me for all of my life. Repentance has truly set me free.

NOTE: Because I have been able to effectively subdue my anxiety by repenting of idolatry and abiding in Christ, I do not believe I have a chemical imbalance that necessitates anti-anxiety medication. However, I know that some of you do, and I don’t want you to walk away from this article feeling even a smidgen of guilt for being unable to treat your anxiety solely by spiritual means. If you need medication, you need medication—and there is no shame in that. Praise God for medicinal blessings that are available to help us alleviate the pains of physiological brokenness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Lyle Nelson

    Been there, done that; and, Matt, your analysis was VERY helpful in diagnosing why I am the way I am. For some strange reason, I find reassurance in Jesus’s comment that “in this world we will have trouble” (John 16:33). So there’s no use worrying about IF we will have trouble,because that’s a given; the only questions are what kind, how long etc. etc. It’s part of life in a fallen world. One caveat: this does not free us of the responsibility of being good stewards of the assets God has given us, and doing what we can, within reason, to avoid trouble, such as good planning, taking proper precautions to avoid unnecessary risks etc. Great post!

  • GrumpySmurf

    Yeah, I’m not going to write anything you are going to like. I think, frankly, this is a dangerous, and irresponsible article. When you say such things, you run the risk of spiritually immature people reading them and seeing it as sound spirtual advice. What it is, is the writings of a person who is likely barely old enough and spiritually mature enough to be saying such things or giving any such advice. The Bible is our go to, yes; but not for everything.

    Try this: substitute “my idolatrous heart murmur” or “my idolatrous brain tumour.” Don’t say it’s different; it’s not.

    I hope you are prepared for the responsibility of any damage you may cause, I rather suspect you aren’t.

    • mike

      Your metaphors are correct. Anxiety is organic — a mental illness due to a brain wiring problem.
      There is a panic area in our brain for a good purpose — a fright and flight response to deal with emergency situations but that panic button is protected by many neural pathways that filter and modulate stressful circumstances to evaluate whether the panic button needs to be pressed and by how much.
      When there is pathology such as a result of: “As a kid, my anxiety fed on a buffet of legitimate life-difficulties that probably would have caused anyone some soul trouble.” the brain development is arrested by so many stressful issues and modulating brain pathways are bypassed leading to an anxiety issue in adulthood which if not treated early and correctly gets worse and worse leading to isolation and depression.
      Initially, medication is used to dampen the brain panic responses BUT then psychiatrists use cognitive therapy to have the person relearn and use stress modulating brain pathways to filter the stressful circumstances and not push that panic button.
      That is like what the Bible teaches: taking thoughts captive and making them fall in line with how Jesus thought and lived while on earth but also receiving from Jesus power to do all that.
      What Matt has written here is exactly what anxious people need to learn because medication alone is not the answer in the longer term.

      • GrumpySmurf

        Sorry, but that’s nonsense. The Bible is not a psychiatric manual and I tire of people treating it like it is one. The author is not a mental health professional, and *has absolutely no business giving out mental health advice* which is what this article is purporting to do, regardless of what the addendum at the end says.

        The Bible is a historical document tracing our interactions with the living God. Nothing more, and more importantly, nothing less. I will admit, as an recovering alcoholic, the sermon on the mount has given my life guidance (the twelve steps from AA were derived from it) but that is an entirely different thing. In fact, part of the whole twelve step thing, is that we don’t give advice.

        What Matt has written here is irresponsible. I stand by what I said before. Look at the letter following mine. The follow says he outright self-diagnoses what is wrong with himself on the basis of a blog entry.

        Ergh. Infuriating

        • mike

          I see that you are very angry my friend and likely there are reasons for that. Matt’s article shares his story.and story is just that: caveat emptor — buyer beware — it may not be your story. So don’t knock it.
          I spent 15 years in AA and my friend while we don’t give advice we also don’t knock each others story. We practice the serenity prayer which speaks of God and recognize the dangers of HALT where anger is most dangerous. I think you need to apologize to Matt for angry words not fitting the Serenity Prayer.

          • GrumpySmurf

            Not angry at all, actually. Just calling it like it is. I just think it is irresponsible for untrained people to write articles like this, as I have seen the end result of people deciding they don’t need help “because Jesus.” Or because they were peer pressured to stop getting treatment.

            I am reacting the way I am because I was once in my late twenties and knew everything, too.

            32 years of sobriety and being a Christian has taught me the value of humility (granted not shining through here) and of knowing what I need help with.

            The author would be well advised to learn both. I can’t believe no one else can see how irresponsible this is.

          • Matt Moore

            Hi “GrumpySmurf”,

            Did you read the note at the bottom of the article where I stated that “many” people do have chemical imbalances that necessitate medication? Did you notice how I titled this article: “MY Idolatrous Anxiety”? Did you notice my use of phrases like, “for me”? I made continual effort in the composition of this article to communicate that this is my personal experience with anxiety, and that though I think some will relate to my experience (and they did; check out the post on my Facebook Page), it will absolutely not relate to all.

            It seems you, GrumpySmurf, are the person that is making uninformed generalizations by refusing to accept my personal experience as legitimate. It seems that you, unlike me, think your experiences and perspectives apply across the board, to every single person who struggles with anxiety. That is a mightily prideful assumption.

            I’m not going to stick around and argue. I have articles to write (or, from your perspective, have more people to damage). Have a good day!

            Matt

          • GrumpySmurf

            Sir, you would not write these blog posts if you were not trying to sway people’s opinions to your own. That is why they are dangerous. If they were just journal articles written for your own personal gratification, that would be one thing, but they are clearly trying to be persuasive, and that is why they are dangerous.

            Again, not angry. You folks are committing the typical evangelical sin of accusing people who disagree with you of being angry or “in sin.” I’m just saying you need to be aware of the dangers of what you write. What is it evangelicals like to say when people won’t take their rebukes? Oh yes, “be a man.”

            Be aware that your post kicked over a hornets nest with vulnerable people I know. You have hurt people. That is why I am saying the things I am. You can chose to react to it however you wish. But don’t pretend or kids yourselves that your reactions resembles anything Christlike.

          • Milton Orgeron

            And what are your comments for if not trying to sway people’s opinions away from Matt’s blog posts to your own opinion? Get your own blog and write counter-posts to Matt’s if it pleases you. Might give you some humility to ease your butthurt.

            All these “vulnerable people” you know really do need help if they crumble merely reading someone’s opinion. Sorry, no trigger warnings or free-speech-free safe spaces on this blog. Go to your nearest elite liberal university for that. Real growth and real healing hurts sometimes. From following Matt’s blog for pretty much the entire time he has posted on it, some 6 years, and having been saved myself and trying to grow as a Christian for nearly 20 years now, I offer merely my own opinion that Matt’s posts reflect one person’s struggles, successes, failures and renewals in the power of the Holy Spirit with a right application of Scripture and faith and trust in the Savior Jesus Christ. It is your judgmental spirit that is un-Christlike, and I pray you will see it and repent of it.

          • GrumpySmurf

            “Elite liberal university?” What kind of childish nonsense is that?

            And you have the nerve to accuse me of having a judgemental spirit?

            Seriously. All I did was say that posts like this are dangerous. Not every Christian is lucky enough to have all their ducks in a row like all you lucky people do.

            I think you folks need to start pointing some of that high powered perception back at yourselves. Believe me, despite what you may think, I’m plenty hard enough on myself.

            As for the author, who posted this, then shut down comments, I should think a bit of old fashioned discussion would be good for the church. after all, this is one area where the church has failed it’s people terribly.

            Since Matt called into question my academic credentials,

            BA, Classical History, mostly focussing on women and children in antiquity.
            MCS, Early Church History focussing on women’s and slaves roles in the early church, and biblical exegesis. (Studied under Gordon Fee.)

          • mike

            As a fellow AAer I think it wise for you to see your sponsor. Not advice, but denial runs deep in our veins my friend. I suffer likewise. You are angry, not humble as you yourself admit and it’s time for step 6 again. If I lived near you I’d invite you to a meeting.

  • Elspeth

    This article resonated with me so much, anxiety certainly being my ‘besetting sin’. Thank you for the spiritual truths you highlight, Matt, such a great reminder.

  • Matt, while I do not have the same anxieties you have, I do empathize. It shows that above and beyond all else, you are human and will remain so till the Father calls us home (hopefully it will be sooner than later). I can relate a little bit, but my anxiety is nowhere near as what you go through. I still have a fear that members of the faith will reject me for being SSA. It is fading as I connect more with people, and realize the lies that the LGBT community have told me concerning matters of faith and Christians in general. It is a recovery process, and I will likely have it the rest of my life, however long that may be (only the Father knows!) All my prayers are with you! Believe me, you have touched a number of people with your words of faith and hope, and real life experiences with God! I am one of them!

  • Beth

    Thank you so much for your insight into anxiety. Your words have helped me tremendously, and in fact were confirmed today by a prophetic word someone ( who knows nothing of my problem) had for me today. I only wish I’d had your spiritual insight when I was your age, instead of now in my 60s. But better late than never.

  • Sur

    Once again you’ve conveyed wisdom gained through seeking our Lord. God bless you, Matt!

  • Lynn Cole

    “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free!” John 8:32 “Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses. He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destructions!” Psalm 107:20
    After years of being tormented by Fear and Anxiety with accompanying frightening panic attacks. Reading all the secular and Christian self help books, trying all the medications, I discovered something too good to be true. That not only was God willing and able to deliver me from Fear, but even commands that we live without Fear! It was all I knew and its stronghold nothing I could free myself from! There is no magic wand for it. There is a seeking that the Lord requires and a turning as in repentence, but the Lord can and will set you free from its grip for the asking! “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears!” Psalm 34:4 Could Jesus be the one step? Can we be set free as promised, even free indeed?! My answer is yes!! This is the Good News of the Gospel that we hear about but seldom due to our unbelief! And God will even help you with that!! “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief!” Mark 9:24