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When God Doesn’t Take Away Your Anxiety

A question I’m often asked is, “How did you stop having anxiety?”

I haven’t.

Then comes the inevitable follow up: “You mean, you still feel anxious?”

Every now and then, yes.

“You mean, God hasn’t healed you from it?”

These questions are not uncommon to me and I imagine they’re not uncommon to others in the church.

The giant chasm which exists between faith and mental health would suggest that this will always be a difficult topic to discuss. Many Christians, including myself, do not understand how these two things, God and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), could possibly co-exist.

I’ve had numerous conversations with people who ask me about my faith and its role in regards to how I cope with anxiety. Where does God fit in?

They might expect me to give them cookie-cutter” answers like “Because I’m a Christian, I don’t struggle with my anxiety.” Or “trusting in God removes all anxiety.”

But as someone who has suffered from anxiety and is still affected by it at times, I can only tell you that there are no simple answers.

Instead, let me offer you five things to keep in mind if you’re a Christian struggling with anxiety.

 

1. God can heal us from anything, even anxiety.

As a Christian, I believe that God can do anything. Nothing is impossible for him (Luke 1:37). Does this include healing people from illnesses, including mental illness? Yes.

I know people who have personally experienced God’s healing from different neurological or psychological disorders.

Yet for me, and perhaps to others, the question remains: is there room for God amidst an anxiety disorder when He hasn’t taken it away? Where is God when the breakthrough hasn’t happened yet?

The answer is not so black and white.

 

2. Having anxiety is not a reflection of your lack of faith.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard well-meaning churchgoers tell me, “You just need to pray about it more; you really need to go before the Lord.”

Let me tell you about my going before the Lord.

As someone who dealt with panic attacks and anxiety disorder throughout college, I can say that I wasn’t only just going before the Lord, but I was face-down-lying-on-the-bathroom-floor going before Him.

If you have been there before, you will know what I mean. Our body meets the end of ourselves. All dignity is pushed aside, and we beg and plead, often on our knees. Or in my case, on my hands and my knees.

Take this from me, God. I cannot do this anymore. It’s just too much.

 

3. Healing comes in many forms.

The night that I lay face down on the bathroom floor of my apartment, God did not take away my anxiety disorder. He did not miraculously heal me from my anxiety in one instant act of extraordinary intervention. I didn’t automatically stop having panic attacks. I still had to catch my breath and count to 10 in the middle of a work meeting to avoid a potential breakdown.

My experience wasn’t one of immediate relief. It wasn’t a miraculous healing that some encounter in church pews. Instead, managing my anxiety was a long and drawn-out process.

It was the result of many months of intense counselling sessions and emotional energy. But in that process, I found relief. And I experienced some healing.

It all started by going to speak to a complete stranger about my fears. She taught me tools to help stop the onset of a panic attack. I slowly learned how to manage overpowering feelings of anxiety.

As I accepted the fact that I struggled with a disorder, I also began the frightening process of opening up to my family and friends. I took a step back and observed the bad habits I needed to break, and I even had to say goodbye to some unhealthy relationships. The process was anything but easy or formulaic, but it allowed me to slowly regain that peace of mind that Philippians talks about.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

So did God heal me? Did I achieve breakthrough?

Not in the way you would think. Not in one heavenly instant.

I have no shame in admitting to you that my prayers didn’t result in the end of my disorder. Healing takes place in many different ways. Sometimes, it’s the immediate relief from anxiety during a worship service, and sometimes it’s ongoing treatment from a doctor.

What I can attest to is that God gave me the peace and determination to manage those days where anxiety was too close for comfort. And through that, I found grace, and ultimately, freedom.

 

 4. We are not alone in our anxiety.

It’s important to recognize that God does not promise we will never experience hardship.

I would still feel a sense of nervousness from time to time, even after attending a counselling session. I still had the occasional random panic attack in the supermarket (bless the dear woman who consoled me in the freezer aisle). We will never live a life free of adversity.

But God does promise that He will be right there with us when we go through those difficult times.

How comforting it is to know that I am not alone in those moments of darkness! I have the companionship of one who has already overcome anxiety. He’s been there, done that.

In Matthew, it says that Jesus overcame the world. He knew what it was like to feel overwhelmed. To feel anxious. He knew pain and suffering. I don’t know about you, but that’s a huge relief to know I am not isolated in this fight.

 

 5. The road to recovery can be slow and messy.

I’ll be honest with you: today, I still struggle with anxiety from time to time. I still have those moments of uncertainty. My faith does not remove the voice of negative self-talk.

But I do have confidence in one thing: God meets me where I am. He has been with me every step of the way, from diagnosis to recovery. And looking back, I can certainly attest that I am not the same person I was several years ago as I sat in the doctor’s office discussing different side effects of anti-depressants. I can confidently say that the worst is behind me.

When I hear that there is no room for God in the whole “mental health” debate, I want to remind those people of one of the key issues at the centre of this whole conversation: God loves people in their humanity and we are to do the same of one another. Despite our perceived “weakness” and our human tendency to fear and to feel insecure—God still uses us to inspire, to lead and to love others. He uses anxious people.

I am the most peaceful I probably have ever been on my journey, but every now and then, I still feel a little off. But it’s encouraging to know that I don’t have to be perfect.

I don’t have to feel perfectly. I can just be. And that’s perfectly okay.

My Antidote to Panic Attacks: Worship

I’ll never forget the first time I had a panic attack. It was in my second year of university and I was doing what any normal 19-year-old American girl would do on a Thursday evening—buying a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at the local supermarket.

It hit me as I was scanning the freezers. As a surge of adrenaline rushed throughout my body, I had to stop and catch my breath. My fingertips began to tingle. My palms and feet started to go numb. The room started to turn. “What’s happening to me?”

My heart started to beat a thousand times a minute. My legs began to feel weak, and I felt as though I would collapse at any moment. Gasping for air, I leant against a freezer door. “Deep breaths, Rachel. Breathe in and out. In and out. Just breathe.”

Next thing I knew, I was sitting on the floor of aisle 9 with my back against the freezer doors, framed by tubs of Haagen Daz ice-cream and berry-red popsicles. Hysterical, curled into a ball, and with tears streaming down my face, I must have looked a pitiful sight.

“What’s happening to me?” I cried. My knees were pushed into my chest, my head was bowed, and my shoulders rose and fell with every sob. “What is going on?”

With every second that ticked by, I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins, shooting up and down my arms like an electric shock. Like waves on a seashore, the first wave swept through, then drew back for a moment—giving a sheer second of relief—only to be swallowed up by another pounding wave of dread.

At that moment, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Are you okay, dear?” The voice of an older woman broke into my whirlwind of chaos. With bloodshot eyes and mascara running down my cheeks, I looked back at a woman in her mid-50s. Holding a box of Cheerios in one hand and a bottle of Windex cleaner in the other, she was looking at me with a concerned expression on her face.  “Are you okay, dear? Can I help you?” she asked again. “No, I’m not okay.” I replied with a muffled voice, “I don’t think I’m okay.”

What I said next was one of the most important declarations I had ever made. It was the turning point. “But I haven’t told anyone that yet. I need to tell someone. I think something’s wrong. Really wrong.”

Since the age of 19, I have suffered from anxiety. I’m one of the millions of people who struggle with this mental health disorder. In college, while other 20-somethings were busy worrying about what to wear out on a Friday night, I would retreat to my dorm room googling my latest symptoms and thinking that I had some form of cancer (stage III, most likely). Otherwise, I would be frantically checking my phone every two seconds to see if my friend had replied to my message. “Of course she won’t. She’s seen the real me. And she’s decided I’m not worth it.”

Now, at 26 years old, I want so badly to declare that I have conquered all this stuff, that I have overcome all the complexities of this disorder. I wish I could say that my anxiety is a thing of the past, that it is no longer knocking on my door to wake me up in the morning or leaning over my bed to watch as I toss and turn at night. But I haven’t conquered it, and it’s not a thing of the past.

Perhaps the most discouraging thing about anxiety is dealing with it as a Christian. In many parts of evangelical America, admitting you have anxiety is kind of like admitting you have a problem with alcohol. Or drugs. Or one-night stands. Or eating a Big Mac in your dorm room at 2.a.m. It’s a sinful “habit” and it will sweep you to the margins, out of sight and out of mind of middle-class American churchgoers.

Or at least, this is how some churches have often made me feel. A deep and all-consuming guilt was all packaged, gift wrapped and hand-delivered to me each and every morning I stepped inside a church building. And while I don’t believe for a second that the church will ever be perfect, I had expected a more loving and accepting response than the ones that I had received.

Since that humiliating incident in the supermarket, I have been navigating my identity as a Christian with anxiety. I have had to embark on the painfully slow process of finding that “thing” that brings me rest and respite from the isolation and exhaustion that comes from anxiety.

Worship, I have discovered, is that special space where I open up to the Father and receive His peace—the kind of supernatural peace that Paul talks about in Philippians 4. Here’s why worship has become my antidote to moments of anxiety.

1. Worship is a peaceful state of mind

Worship is a state of mind, not just a supernatural high on Sunday mornings. Initially, I saw Sunday worship sessions as the only time I could receive God’s peace. However, I realized that worship isn’t just meant for large gatherings or small group settings. Worshipping the Father is a constant state of mind, an ever-present mindfulness of His goodness and grace in my life. Practicing a heart of worship—whether praying during my work commute or listening to a Bethel music playlist as I clean my apartment—has been an integral part of my healing journey from anxiety.

 

2. Worship is a safe space

Getting a handle on my anxiety has meant that I’ve needed to get real with God. And that means getting up close and personal, divulging all of my doubts and secrets to Him like you would to your bestie over a cup of coffee. Creating a safe space where I can speak to the Father has been an instrumental part of my road to recovery—particularly picking up my guitar and singing Scriptures over myself and my family. I believe that there is power in declaring words of life to change the mess in our lives. Worship is a powerful weapon against worry.

 

3. Worship paves a direct path to God

I love the quote by American author John Paul Jackson: “Peace is the potting soil of revelation.” I find that it is often in those moments of fear, that the channel of communication between me and God is most fuzzy. But I also know that it’s in those moments when I feel at my weakest, that worship ought to be the next bullet-point on my to-do list. Setting aside space for God to speak to us in the midst of fear is a powerful step to leaving our anxiety at the door. It is in those “thin places” where we hear from and speak to God, that faith takes authority over fear.

 

I want to be careful here, as I don’t want for a second to portray to you that I have this all figured out. Navigating anxiety can at times feel nearly impossible. More often than not, it feels like treading water in the deep end of the pool—when you have never taken a single swimming lesson in your life. And there is no one around to throw you a life jacket the minute you start to go under.

God has so much more in store for us than a daily battle with fear. I pray that as we cultivate a lifestyle of worship, we may find ourselves free from the chains of anxiety that have kept us from stepping into the thing that God has called us to do.

When My Spouse Couldn’t Read My Mind

“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.”

I remember clutching the book Eat, Pray, Love with dear life one night in my apartment in Washington, DC, in the US. As I sped through the pages, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this true? Can this kind of honest and revelatory love really exist?” The words of the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, sunk to my core. While I desired what she crafted on paper, what I didn’t fully appreciate was how un-romantic this kind of love would be. Let me explain.

I’ll never forget an argument that my husband and I had. I called it one of the “big ones”. It all started with me complaining about how James didn’t buy me a bottle of wine at the supermarket for a party we were going to that evening. I was offended, grace was not extended, and he reacted. What unfolded over the course of the evening (which felt like a lifetime) was a long drawn-out argument, the kind of heated debate that feels like it’s going on for hours and only seems to conclude when you reluctantly hit the “pause” button to order a pizza.

You’ve probably guessed that the argument wasn’t actually about a bottle of wine. In fact, it had more to do with my insecurities and the realisation that my husband couldn’t read my mind. He wasn’t acting exactly the way I thought he should. He wasn’t meeting my unrealistic and fanciful expectations.

When James and I got married, we were given a lot of helpful advice such as “Discuss your expectations” and “Don’t criticise each other in front of others”. The one that really hit home for me, though, had to do with grace. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Give each other grace. Neither of you is perfect.

I didn’t give James the benefit of the doubt that night. He probably didn’t extend that to me either; it takes two to argue, after all. What I’ve slowly gathered since “the big one” was this—my husband isn’t perfect, and putting unrealistic expectations on him is not only unhelpful but also toxic to our relationship.

What I have learned since the fateful wine bottle argument is that sometimes my husband forgets to pick up items at the grocery store. From time to time, when he’s engrossed in a task, he may also forget to perform basic human functions like eating a meal. (How anyone can forget to eat for a period of three hours is beyond me.) And sometimes, the trash will overflow if I don’t remind him to empty it. If grace is left at the front door, I might be tempted to get a little annoyed or resentful over what I have previously called his “cute quirks”.

However, after being married now for the past 2½ years (I am by no means claiming to be a relationship guru), I have come to understand that marriage isn’t about “changing your spouse” into the perfect Hollywood image of a “knight in shining armour”. If anything, you will discover that the guy has plenty of kinks and dents in his armour.

Instead of expecting perfection, I want to celebrate my husband for who he is and for who God created him to be. Choosing to see my husband through God’s eyes has transformed my understanding of marriage—and my role within our relationship.

Now back to Gilbert’s words on soul-mates. If you want a sure-fire way of destroying your marriage, then by all means go ahead and compare your spouse to your long laundry list of “I wish you did this” statements. That will be just the ticket!

I can’t look to my husband to fulfil my every need when he was never designed to. This is an impossible feat and to put that kind of pressure on him will only lead to disappointment and resentment.

On the contrary, marriage will require you to change. That’s what marriage does. It will reveal things you thought you had dealt with long ago—the good, the bad and the ugly. But hopefully, in a godly, healthy and mature relationship, your partner will give you the freedom to let down your guard, a safe space to be vulnerable, and the support to help you sort through your reflections with grace and wisdom.

James and I are not perfect, but I can honestly say that the longer we have been together, the richer our relationship has become. In many ways, he has mirrored to me what it looks like to be confident yet gracious, as well as positive and optimistic yet realistic. In return, hopefully I have reflected back to him how to be empathetic and gentle.

Like “iron sharpens iron”, we aim to help refine one another in order to become the people Christ has called us to be. This always will be an ongoing process throughout our marriage. Like a set of train tracks, our goal is to grow in maturity yet remain parallel to one another as we come up against every curve and bend along the path.

Conflict and differences of opinion are bound to happen within relationships. But instead of nit-picking every little thing my husband has done wrong and trying to “fix” him, I know that ultimately, real change and maturity will only come if Christ works in Him. But I can show him sacrificial love, giving up myself for him—my agenda, my selfish desires. It’s not always easy and it’s certainly not the same kind of narrative Hollywood has portrayed to us at the cinema. But it’s the kind of love worth fighting for.

Why I have Hope (Despite a terrible 2016)

I recently came across an article that reported that Planet Earth, a popular BBC nature and wildlife documentary, has racked up more millennial viewers—myself included—than reality TV shows like The X Factor.

Narrated by one of Britain’s favourite personalities, David Attenborough, it’s not hard to see why viewers have chosen a show about our planet over aspiring singers. There’s no other programme this winter that had me cheering on, as this one did when baby iguanas in the Galapagos ran for their lives from a den of slithering snakes—the neighbours in my block of flats probably thought I was rooting for my favourite sports team! Little did they know that I was being swept up by the intriguing complexity of the “circle of life”.

But this show offers more than just stunning footage of wild landscapes and exotic creatures. I think its popularity can also be attributed to something more intangible but just as powerful: hope. Hope amid uncertainty, opposition, and danger.

As I think about the past 12 months, I can’t help but feel a bit worried, upset, and confused. This year has been a particularly difficult one for many around our globe. Ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Persecution by ISIS and other extremist groups. A political revolution in the United States. An uncertain future for the UK in the wake of Brexit. Putin arming the borders of Western Europe. Climate change and natural disasters. And these are just a few of this year’s top headlines.

I think what our world needs now, more than ever before, perhaps, is a fresh dose of hope. Hope in something stable, something unfailing, and something promising.

As I read about the birth of Jesus in Luke 2 in the days leading up to Christmas, I can’t help but think about Mary and Joseph. While I am no theologian, I wonder if they worried about the world they were bringing this little baby into—a dictatorship under King Herod, a nation of anxious Jewish people, and a seemingly unfulfilled promise of Israel’s redemption.

Nonetheless, Jesus came and it changed the course of history.

I don’t know where you find yourself this holiday season, but I imagine you may have struggled this past year, as I have. There have been many things I have been tempted to put my hope in—my work, my government, my culture—but all have failed me. Our post-modern humanist society would lie to us and say that our national identity, our occupation, our relationship status, and our stuff are the things that we can trust. All these give us security, safety, comfort, and enjoyment.

But what we don’t realise along the way, until it’s too late, is that these things cannot and never will be a firm foundation for us to place the full weight of our lives on. When we thought that more stuff, money, sex, and status symbols would buy us more security and love, we were left lacking and found wanting—devoid of hope.

I would not pretend to have all of my theology worked out, but this I know: the only thing that you and I can rely upon is Jesus. When everything else has passed away, when you lose your successful job, when your relationships break down, when your country is going in the opposite direction of where you think it should go—when all of the things that you thought were firm foundations have passed away, all that remains is the only person that could ever offer complete peace. His name is Jesus. And He offers hope, peace, and love to a world that is hurting and that is broken.

What are you putting your hope in this Christmas?