I’d never really thought of myself as an anxious person. If anything, I’d always tended to take my fears by the horns and battle with them until I prevailed. But things started to change when I signed up for graduate school while most of my friends went to work full-time.
A few years ago, I noticed the difference between the careers they’d been able to build and my non-existent one. Many of them were now in managerial positions and other spheres of influence. As I compared the fruit of their labor to my dismal career prospects, I began to internalize a deep-seated anxiety of losing out to them.
I worked myself to the bone for two years to earn as much as they did, even though I was still in school. It was, of course, not sustainable. Close to a breaking point, I finally conceded that I needed God to help me out of this cycle into which I’d unwittingly gotten caught. In His grace, God began to teach me to discern between the voice of anxiety and the truth of His Word.
Anxiety says: It is up to me to achieve this. But I am too inadequate. And what if the worst should happen? I will not survive it.
I noticed four factors in my anxious thinking pattern: (1) a belief that this important goal was my sole responsibility, (2) a belief in my limitations, (3) a fear of the things I cannot control, (4) a belief that not achieving this goal would lead to disastrous consequences.
These four factors paralyzed me because they counteracted each other. First, I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t believe that anyone could offer any sound advice. And what good were their prayers? The mountain of potential unemployment or being stuck in a dead-end job loomed so large that it felt like even God couldn’t do anything about it.
Second, my qualifications felt so redundant to the world that it was impossible to be hopeful about my future.
Third, endlessly speculating about the variables that stood between me and a good job (the shrinking academic job market, the redundancy of my degree elsewhere, the younger job applicants . . . ) didn’t help.
While I thought I was just bracing myself for the worst, it was really a desperate attempt to feel in control (if I can’t do anything about these variables, at least I know they’re there). But the constant rumination only brought more torment.
While the first three prevented me from moving forward, the fourth prevented me from taking a step back to get some perspective. Anxiety enslaved me to the fear that if I didn’t get a good enough job, life would be unbearable. I simply couldn’t accept any alternatives to what I wanted. I belittled the value of the part-time jobs and the talents that God had given me. The combination of these fatalistic perceptions gave me tunnel vision that only saw how much I was in lack and took the joy out of living.
1. Scripture says: Of course you’re too inadequate, you were never meant to do it alone.
Anxiety isn’t wrong when it points out that I am inept. Without God, we are incapable of anything good (Luke 18:19; Jeremiah 17:9), of accomplishing anything (John 15:5), of real wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:19), or of producing work that lasts (Psalm 127:1). But by only highlighting my limits, anxiety conceals the complete picture. In contrast, when Scripture points out our weakness, it also magnifies the loving and powerful God who is at hand to help us (Psalm 16:8).
As I told God that I was anxious about not finding a good job, He opened my eyes to two truths. First, God sees and knows me in inscrutable detail (Luke 12:7). I recalled hearing a pastor say that as much as he loved his daughter, he never bothered to count the hair on her head. It hit me how attentive God must be, how He must care, to be concerned with even the most insignificant facts about me.
I spent weeks reflecting about what it meant to be known and loved by a God like that. It helped me see how thoughtfully and tirelessly God had worked to shape a life that was actually a good fit for the talents He had given me. It was only my comparing what I had with everyone else that kept me from seeing its value!
Once I realized that He’d had my back the entire time, God dropped a second piece of Scripture into my heart that spoke perfectly to my anxieties about my future: “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just where He wanted them to be” (1 Corinthians 12:18).
It dawned on me then that since I was a part of His body, there had to be a place for me. I couldn’t imagine where—especially when the world doesn’t seem to need English doctorates—but I knew I wasn’t that special to be the exception to Scripture. Since God He sees the big picture, He’ll know where I’ll be most useful for His kingdom.
Anxiety governs my life with incomplete information; it is no wonder it throws my life askew. But if the starting point of my thought life is the scriptural truth of God’s love and sovereignty, I see more accurately the One who is with me and can then have the courage to keep going.
2. Scripture says: Even if “the worst” should happen, the world will not end; He looks after His own.
When I want something so badly that I think life will be insufferable without it, I can be sure that a case of misplaced identity is not far behind. I’d tied my self-worth to being able to earn a certain salary. Conversely, it also meant that if I didn’t earn a lot, I’d be worthless. And that became the unbearable reality I was working so hard to avoid.
But Scripture revealed that my fears were the result of a false equation. I’d forgotten that my worth came from being God’s child (Romans 8:14), one who had nothing to her name except a worthy Father. But just by being His, I am conferred a value that is not based on my circumstances and have already been promised a life that is not in need (Psalm 23:1).
When Scripture tells me to pray when I feel anxious (Philippians 4:6–7), it isn’t promising that prayer will get me what I want. I may never get that career or that salary. But the peace that follows prayer tells me that the world doesn’t end even if I never get them, because those things simply aren’t essential for my well-being. And as I give God time to show me His other, better ways of giving His child a full life despite “the worst” happening, perhaps I will discover that I never needed those things to be complete in the first place.
3. Scripture says: You have a choice between believing what anxiety says about you, or what God says about you.
When one has lived with anxiety for a long time, it is often difficult to imagine any other way of life. But no matter how convincing our self-invented statements are about ourselves, they will never override the truth of who God says we are.
One of the most anxious people in the Bible, Moses, was chosen for one of the important tasks in Jewish history: to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity and into the Promised Land. For every anxious speculation that Moses had about this task, God countered it effortlessly.
When Moses was anxious about being too insignificant (Exodus 3:11), God promised that His presence would go with him (3:12). When Moses was anxious about not being believed by the Israelites, God gave him permission to go in His name (3:14–16), and taught him how to perform two convincing miracles (4:1–8). When Moses was anxious about not being eloquent enough (4:10), God promised to give him the perfect words (4:11).
Still he anxiously begged God to send someone else (4:13). Yet, even when “the Lord’s anger burned against Moses” for not believing His words (4:14), He graciously offered another solution: if His presence was not sufficient enough assurance, his brother Aaron could do the parts of the job that Moses dreaded.
Having exhausted all the options of what he could be anxious about, Moses now has a choice to make. In that paragraph break, that blank space between Exodus 4:17 and 18, Moses silently battles between listening to the voice of anxiety—the one that harasses him with all the ways things could go wrong—or the voice of God—the one that promises a solution for anything that could possibly happen.
Moses chose God, and God lived up to every single promise that He made to Moses by that burning bush. As he saw the reality and power of God’s presence, Moses was radically transformed. The man whose anxieties made him think little of the presence of God, and who needed his brother’s company to help him feel secure, became the leader who refused to go anywhere if God did not go with him (Exodus 33:15). After he made the first big leap of faith and took God at His word, Moses tangibly experienced that only the voice of God could be trusted to tell him the truth. And he walked confidently and purposefully into God’s plan for his life.
There are days when I’m still up by that burning bush, haggling with God about how the voice of anxiety paints a truer story of my life than His words. But I do want that same rich reality of God that Moses had, where His presence becomes the only thing that makes me feel secure—not a good salary, not a good career, not the approval of people. So, I’m asking for the grace to be able to listen to the right voice when it comes to that crucial paragraph break of my life story, to let Him transform my life into a story worth telling.