By Dr. Robert Kellemen
Does worry, doubt, or fear get the best of you sometimes? Do you wonder where anxiety comes from and how to defeat it in your life and the lives of those you love?
Then we need a biblical anatomy of anxiety.
God intended for us to experience a mood that is the “flip side” of anxiety. If we are to understand the “disorder” of anxiety, we must understand the “order” that sin has disordered. What normal, healthy, God-given process has become perturbed in anxiety?
Anxiety is vigilance out of control and out of context. God designed us with the mood of vigilance which is meant to move us to relationship and impact. With vigilance, God puts us in fast motion, urges us to act quickly in response to a life threat.
Anxiety is “stuck vigilance.” Vigilance is proper, constructive concern for the well-being of others, the world, and self. Anxiety is vigilance minus faith in the Father. Vigilance results in tend and befriend behavior. Anxiety results in flight or fight behavior.
Anxiety is vigilance that does not turn us back to trust. It leads us to a toxic scanning of our environment. God says, “Be vigilant! Be alert! Take your stand, and having done all, stand firm! Quit ye like men!”
Anxiety says, “What if? I can’t handle this! I have to run. I have to fight. I have to self-protect!” Anxiety is scanning without standing. Instead of scanning and standing, we scan, and scan, and scan… It is continual worry. Continued “what if?” thinking and feeling.
The Family Tree of Anxiety
Vigilant faith, anxiety, and anger are cousins. Their family tree? Vigor, from which we gain three related words: vigilante, vigil, and vigorous. Anxiety and anger involve vigilance without faith and without love. They are non-trust, non-relational responses to threat.
Vigilance, on the other hand, is a trust, relational response to threat. It relates to others by protecting the person being threatened. It relates to others by engaging, challenging, confronting (not attacking) the person doing the threatening. It relates to God by trusting that what He calls me to do, He equips me to fulfill. In God’s Kingdom we are either worriers or warriors!
The Anatomy of Anxiety, Part 2: Sentry Duty
A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words
Picture the difference between anger, anxiety, and vigilant faith like this:
*Anger: The Fight Response to Threat—Attack: Vigilante Justice.
Taking matters into my own hands.
*Anxiety: The Flight Response to Threat—Retreat: Vigil without Action.
Taking my safety into my own hands. “If I worry enough, at least I feel as if I have some control.”
*Vigilance: The Faith Response to Threat—Befriend and Tend (Engage and Protect): Vigorous Response.
Taking the safety of myself and others and surrendering it to God’s hands while I take a stand for God’s plan. It is befriending and tending to others even when I am threatened.
Called to Sentry Duty
The root “vig” relates to sentry. God built into our brains a sentry. A sentinel. Adam went off sentry duty when he allowed his wife to be attacked by Satan without intervening. He failed to use his vigor—his energy, force, power given to him from God to “keep the garden” and to “cleave to his wife.”
Where does fear fit into this equation? We know that fear is a God-given emotion. We are called to fear God. Why did God create us with a capacity to fear, and how does fear run amok?
Fear is our response to uncertainty about our resources in the face of danger. We are assaulted by a force that overwhelms us. Then we are compelled to face that we are helpless and that ultimately our safety is out of our control. Faith faces this reality by trusting in the unseen reality of a God who cares and controls. Fear compels me to face my neediness.
Anxiety is fear without faith. It is vigilance run amok. We scan the horizon constantly, fearfully, but without ever taking action or responsibility. And without clinging to God.
Jesus models constructive vigilance in the garden. He faced His dread of death (Matthew 26:39). And He placed faith in His Father’s good heart and strong hands (Matthew 26:39).
Jesus’ disciples modeled destructive fear and anxiety. Peter at one point chose the fight response of vigilante justice—cutting off an ear! At another point Peter chose the flight response of vigil without action—denying the Lord three times. All of the disciples displayed the inability to hold a vigil. “Could you not keep vigil with me one hour?”
Faith or Fear?
Healthy vigilance and a godly response to fear prompt us to relationship: trusting God with faith. And it prompts us to impact: protecting others through vigilance with vigor.
Abnormal, unhealthy, sinful anxiety prompts us to retreat from relationship: we turn to inward scanning without relational trust in God. And it prompts us to retreat from impact: we experience vigilance without vigor as we self-protect instead of lovingly and strongly protecting others.
Fear of God roots us in the essence of existence not in the externals of our situation. Where does fear drive us? To protect ourselves through the flight response of anxiety or the fight response of anger? Or to God, our Protector who empowers us to tend and befriend (“Guard the garden!”)?
The Anatomy of Anxiety, Part 3: From Fear to Faith by Love
A Theology of Anxiety
To develop relevant, effective “methods” of helping one another to deal with anxiety, we first need a biblical, accurate “theology” of life. In a “theology of anxiety,” we address: a.) the core question we all ask, b.) the core issues we all face, c.) the core longing we all pursue, and d.) the core fear we all face.
The Core Question We All Ask
The deepest questions in the human soul are God-questions. We all ask the core question, “How can I experience peace with God?” Such peace, biblically speaking, involves shalom—harmony, wholeness, oneness, communion, and fullness. Therefore, the ultimate focus in spiritual friendship is to assist each other in our quest for peace with God.
Put practically, when I am ministering to a friend struggling with anxiety, I am asking myself, “Where is my spiritual friend doubting God’s accepting grace in Christ? Where is he or she doubting God’s affectionate sovereignty?”
The Core Issues We All Face
The core issues we all face in life are relational issues because God created us in His own Trinitarian, communitarian, relational image. Therefore, relational issues become our predominant diagnostic indicator. The fundamental lens through which I interpret life is the lens of relationship.
So, when I am ministering to an anxious friend, I am asking myself, “What relational separation issues might be lying hidden beneath my spiritual friend’s specific fears?”
The Core Longing We All Pursue
Created to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, our core longing in life is for relational connection, communion, and peace—not simply the absence of hostility, but the presence of unity and equality in diversity. Since the deepest longing in life is relationship, the greatest power we have as spiritual friends is our relationship with one another.
Practically speaking, in ministering to a friend battling anxiety, I am asking myself, “How can I offer my spiritual friend tastes of Christ’s mature love and grace?”
The Core Fear We All Face
The core fear in life is shameful separation. Adam and Eve said it well and experienced it first. “I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” Anxiety is the hiding disease. We fear exposure.
In ministering to a friend fighting against such relational fear, I am asking myself, “What core nakedness is my spiritual friend terrified will be exposed?”
The Anatomy of Anxiety, Part 4: God’s Peace for Our Anxiety
Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear
In 1 John 4:18, God tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear”—phobos, phobia, terror, panic, separation anxiety. Such fear involves paralyzing apprehension that causes me to flee what I fear or become paralyzed when facing my fear because I doubt my relational security and acceptance. What overpowers such fear of rejection, separation, and condemnation?
God’s answer is faith in perfect love—perfect agape, sacrificial, giving, grace-oriented love. Anxieties and phobias signify a failure to apprehend and apply God’s powerful promise of gracious acceptance.
Spiritual: Faith in God—Accept God’s Acceptance
We need to help one another to reject Satan’s condemnation narrative—his lie that we are unforgiven because God is unforgiving. We need to move with each other from alienation to communion through reconciliation.
We need to make real in our lives the truth that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. We need to make real in our lives the truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. As Martin Luther often said, “sanctification is the art of getting used to our justification.”
I would add, “peace and freedom from anxiety is the art of getting used to our reconciliation.”
Social—Faith in One Another—Trusting My Brothers and Sisters
Since mature love casts out fear, I need mature relationships with my brothers and sisters to conquer anxiety. I need to move from separation to community.
The temptation in anxiety is to do the opposite of what we need—to avoid people due to fear of rejection. Instead, we need to experience our partnership in the Gospel. We need to forgive and accept one another as Christ has forgiven and accepted us.
Self-Aware: Faith in Our Acceptance in Christ
Since mature love casts out fear, I need a mature biblical attitude about who I am in and to Christ. I need to see the new me. This is not about “self-esteem,” or “self-image,” but about “Christ-esteem” and an accurate biblical image of who I am in Christ.
This moves us from the paralyzing terror of nakedness that leads to the fear of exposure and rejection to the bold freedom and confidence that comes when we know we are unashamed and without blame in Christ Jesus. I must face my existential doubts (my doubts about my acceptance in Christ) in order to face, understand, and overcome my specific anxieties, fears, and phobias.
The Anatomy of Anxiety, Part 5: Why Am I Afraid?
What Is the Biblical Portrait of Phobia, Fear, and Anxiety?
John tells us that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 John 4:18).
The word John uses for “fear” is “phobos.” It is used 138 times in the New Testament. Interestingly, the number one New Testament command is, “Fear not!”
In a positive sense, phobos can mean reverence, awe, respect, and honor.
In a negative usage, it means terror, apprehension, alarm, and arousal to flee. In Matthew 28:4, we have a word picture of phobos/phobia. When the Angel of the Lord appears, the guards fear and fall like dead men. Thus here it is used of paralysis of action.
In Luke 21:26, phobos relates to uncertain expectations, terror, apprehension that fears the “What next!?”
In Romans 8:15, phobos has the idea of slavish terror as Paul reminds us that we have been given a spirit of sonship, confidence, and relational acceptance, not a spirit of slavish terror about relational rejection.
Fear of Ultimate Rejection
John is quite specific in his portrait as he says fear has to do with punishment. Punishment means rejection, separation, condemnation—to be left as a loveless orphan, to be abandoned as a helpless child.
To understand John fully, we must go back one verse. In 1 John 4:17, John says that “love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment.”
Confidence is openness, frankness, boldness, assurance, concealing nothing, no hiding, no shame, no fear. It is the courage to come boldly before the throne of grace—because of grace! It is the courage to express myself freely and openly in relationship because I know there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.
So What Is Phobia, Fear, and Anxiety?
So, how does the Bible picture and define anxiety, fear, and phobia? We might summarize it like this:
“Phobia is paralyzing apprehension causing me to flee what I fear or to become paralyzed when facing my fear because I doubt my relational acceptance and security, because I doubt God’s grace. My ultimate fear is fear of rejection by God. That fear is the cause of all other fears in life.”
What do I fear?
“I fear God, but not in the sense of reverence and awe. I fear God’s rejection because I refuse to place faith in God’s gracious acceptance of me in Christ.”
Why am I afraid?
“If the God of the universe rejects me, then I’m on my own. And If I’m on my own, life is too much for me.”
Making It Real
Let’s make it real-life practical. Phobia/phobos/fear/anxiety makes me feel like:
*“Life is unsafe. It’s too hard for me.”
*”If I cry out for help, no one will respond. If I reach up to God, He won’t care because He has rejected me. He is ashamed of me and I am ashamed in His presence.”
*”I won’t be protected. There’s no one who cares and no one who is in control. No one is flying this plane!”
*”I am orphaned and left alone because no one cares about me. Therefore, I have to make life work on my own.”
*”But I’m small, childlike, inadequate. I can’t overcome the 800-pound gorilla of life. While I must face life alone, life is too much for me to face.”
So How Do We Diagnose Fear?
Phobias, fear, worries, and anxiety signify my failure to grasp and apply God’s powerful promise of gracious acceptance and protection. Fear and anxiety are caused by my refusal to accept my acceptance in Christ. If I believe Satan’s lying, condemning narrative, then I am left with no option other than trusting in myself. And I am far too small to handle life on my own.
Fear becomes a vicious cycle. Fearing God’s rejection, I reject God’s help, and I end up feeling helpless to face life.
The Rest of the Story: There Has to Be a Better Way
There has to be a better way, don’t you think? I sure hope so!
John gives us that better way when he tells us that “perfect love casts our all fear” (1 John 4:18).
The Anatomy of Anxiety, Part 6: Ten Snap Shots of Anxiety
- Emotions are e-motions. God designed them to set us in motion. They are part of the God-designed motivational structure of the soul. E-motions motivate action.
2. God gave us the e-motion of vigilance to urge us to act quickly and courageously in response to a life need. When vigilance works, we have “mood order.”
3. Vigilance is a faith response to threat. In our faith response, we love God by trusting Him, and we love others by protecting them.
4. However, living in a fallen world, inhabiting unredeemed bodies, and tempted by an unloving enemy—Satan (the world, the flesh, and the devil), our vigilance can turn to hyper-vigilance, or stuck vigilance when we experience threat without faith.
5. In stuck vigilance, instead of a faith response to threat, we have a fear response to threat that leads either to flight (anxiety, panic) or fight (anger, aggression). When e-motions misfire like this, we have “mood disorder.”
6. So when fear strikes, we should be asking, “Where does fear drive me? Does it drive me to self-protection by flight or fight? Or does fear drive me to God, my Protector?”
7. Faith that works does not shun vigilance. Rather, it controls vigilance. It refuses to allow the emotions to control the mind.
8. God calls us to manage our moods and to master our emotions. We are not to ignore them, stuff them, or harm others with them. David is a biblical portrait of mature mood management. In Psalm 42, he is emotionally aware. “Why are you disquieted within me, O, my soul?” David then demonstrates soothing his soul in God. “Hope thou in God.” As Martin Lloyd-Jones says, David talked to himself rather than simply listening to himself!
9. When anxiety stalks, faith wrestles. Faith talks to the self. “I know God will never leave me nor forsake me. I can do all things through Christ. I am more than a conqueror. Nothing will ever separate me from the love of God in Christ.”
10. When faith wrestles anxiety, we refuse the fight or flight response. Instead, we choose the tend and befriend response. Trusting God’s protection, we refuse to protect our self. Instead, we courageously protect others for God’s glory.
The Anatomy of Anxiety, Part 7:
A Dozen Biblical Portraits of Anxiety
The Bible Is Relevant
Some people talk about “making the Bible relevant.”
We don’t make the Bible relevant. The Bible is the most relevant book ever written.
In fact, we have to work hard to make the Bible irrelevant. We have to work hard to make the Bible boring.
Other people talk about the sufficiency of the Scriptures. I believe 100% that the Bible is sufficient. However, far too many people fail to link the sufficiency of Scripture with the relevancy of Scripture.
We should never talk about the sufficiency of Scripture without also emphasizing the relevancy of Scripture.
The Relevancy of the Bible and Anxiety
What does all of this have to do with an anatomy of anxiety?
Some people think that the only biblical reference to anxiety is Philippians 4:6. They also tend to act like the only biblical counseling that we need to do for a person struggling with anxiety is to quote, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
That’s an amazing verse, but the Bible is not simply a “concordance” on anxiety where we tell people, “take two verses and call me in the morning.”
The Reality of the Bible: The Agony of Anxiety
The Bible presents an amazing array of an anatomy of anxiety. I want to share just a small sampler of those to whet your appetite. These verses and passages realistically depict the agony of anxiety.
The Bible is real and raw. It tells about real people with real problems. It presents real answers from a real God.
One of the myriad beauties of the Bible is it teaches us that we are not alone. Others have suffered like we do now. And others have found victory. This sense of “universality”—that others are in the same boat, encourages us when life beats us down.
A Dozen Biblical Samplers of the Experience of Anxiety
If you are struggling with fear, panic, worry, or anxiety, consider the following samplers as just a few passages you can turn to that depict struggles with fear and anxiety in other godly men and women of the Bible.
*Psalm 27: When fear assaults, David seeks God’s face.
*Psalm 34: Read of David’s fear and broken-heartedness and God’s care and cure.
*Psalm 46: Learn of God’s strength and ever-present help in our trouble and anxieties.
*Psalm 55: David’s thoughts trouble him—ever been there? He is distraught—been there, done that! His heart is in anguish within him; terrors of death assail him. Fear and trembling beset him; horrors overwhelm him. He casts all his cares on Jehovah; He cries out to Jehovah in distress. He pleads for God’s sustaining care.
*Psalm 91: This psalm has been called the 911 Psalm. When you experience terror and foreboding and feel like life is an unavoidable snare and trap, call God’s 911 hotline and find God to be your refuge and shield.
*Psalm 109: David candidly speaks of his wounded heart (109:22). He is poor and needy, shaken and fading away (109:23). Attacked by others, he clings to God.
*Psalm 116: The psalmist is overcome by trouble, afflicted, and dismayed, overly concerned, imprisoned by anguish. Where will rest be found?
*Matthew 6:25-33: Jesus’ teaching on worry and trusting Father’s good heart.
*Matthew 10:26-31: Jesus’ teaching on fear and trusting Father’s affectionate sovereignty.
*John 14:1-31: Jesus’ loving message to His disciples and to us—when our hearts are troubled, when we feel orphaned and all alone, where do we find peace? Do not let your hearts be troubled.
*Philippians 4:1-20: A classic passage on anxiety—but note that it is a passage in the context of a book. It is not simply a verse to quote like waving a magic wand.
*1 Peter 5:5-11: Another classic New Testament passage in a wider context that includes not only casting our care on God who cares, but also discusses vigilance (5:8)—sound familiar?