Fighting Anxiety With the Old Testament
This is the third in a six-part series of essays from a cross section of leading scholars revisiting the place of the “First Testament” in contemporary Christian faith. —The editors
I am a millennial statistic. Dubbed “the anxious generation,” most of us are stressed, and we experience work-disrupting anxiety at twice the average rate. We are leaders of the mental health crisis in a world where many think anxiety is generally on the rise.
Until recently, I didn’t think I was an anxious person. Then, in a single year, I finished writing my PhD thesis in England, worked multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills, tore my MCL (with a wife 36 weeks pregnant), became a first-time father, found an academic job, got a work visa, moved across the Atlantic, found housing, completed my first term of teaching, and defended my doctoral thesis. By no means was all of this bad or world-ending—some of it was very good. But at the end of it all, I was burned out and anxious.
My story isn’t unique. Workplaces are increasingly mobile, creating the risk of isolation and overwork. Young people are told to go anywhere and do anything, but their mental health is paying the price. And that’s to say nothing of weightier problems like addiction, abuse, chronic illness, joblessness, homelessness, and a host of others that afflict so many today. A thriving wellness industry has risen in response, complete with Instagram therapists, wellness dogs, and stress-relief toys. As a Christian, you can feel tension—even guilt—when a doctor or a self-help book improves your mental health more than a Bible reading.
As someone who has sought professional help for anxiety, I can say that my own recovery has always been rooted in the Bible, especially one Old Testament passage: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). If you accept the wisdom of the media, or even of some Christian leaders, my deliverance shouldn’t have happened this way—not with the help of that dry, dusty Old Testament. But as others buy a casket and recite a eulogy for these texts, I find them bounding with life.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one. Many of our most therapeutic worship songs brim with Old Testament references, including “Raise a Hallelujah” and “Blessed Be Your Name.” Fleming Rutledge’s award-winning bookThe Crucifixion notes how communities that endure generations of marginalization find solace in Old Testament stories of exile and deliverance. This is seen in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King employs Old Testament themes, including an allusion to Psalm 30, to comfort his anxious audience.
The texts of the Bible—especially the Old Testament—are ancient, and they were written long before our mental health crisis. But they’re neither irrelevant to our concerns nor merely a backstory to the more useful New Testament. In fact, by telling the stories of various individuals and their toughest experiences, the Old Testament is not so ancient—it delivers a special form of group therapy.
Learning from Experience
The relevance of the Old Testament for addressing anxiety begins with its composition. It is the product of dozens of authors over a whole millennium. So it catalogs an overwhelming number of traumatic events, from the murder of Abel and Israel’s oppression in Egypt to the rape of Tamar and the exile to Babylon, to name just a few. This is different from the New Testament, which is so focused and was finished so quickly that similar first-century events—the destruction of the temple or the eruption that leveled Pompeii and may have killed dozens of early Christians—are not recorded.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Old Testament is more saturated with the Bible’s famous “fear not” statements than the New Testament. These documents distill the wisdom of centuries, ushering us into the counsel of the eldest elders and the wisest sages to learn what it means to trust in God.
One of the ways the Old Testament brings comfort to the anxious is by its dependence on two personable literary genres. The first is historical narrative, which is found in books like Genesis or Joshua. Unlike some social media profiles that are carefully crafted to present only the best, most exciting, and successful sides of a person, these narratives reveal a more complete picture. Characters are presented with both achievements and frailties. There is Moses, the scared speaker (Ex. 4:10); Ahaz, the desperate monarch (2 Kings 16:7); and Naomi, the bitter mother-in-law (Ruth 1:20–21). These characters remove the stigma of anxiety and remind us that God works through broken people.
The Psalms complement the narratives by offering snapshots of individuals responding to anxiety. Rather than a tidy summary packaged for retrospective sharing, David’s penetrating question, “How long, Lord?” (Ps. 13:1), invites us into his active suffering and gives us permission to plead with God to end our suffering, too. Asaph expresses the inexpressible when he says that God has given him only “the bread of tears” (Ps. 80:5). Most importantly, this group of human voices provides theological solutions: “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Ps. 118:6). The comfort of the Psalms is especially felt by recalling that they are songs meant to be sung and they are the inspired Word of God. This means, as John Calvin noted, that when we sing the Psalms during trials, it is as though God’s Spirit is singing through us.
Of course, the texts of the Old Testament don’t always seem like a good resource for fighting anxiety. There are moments that feel like a literary gut punch, including Micah’s promise of judgment on the people of Israel (Mic. 2:3–5), and stories of severe testing, such as Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1–18). Far from comforting us, these texts only increase our anxiety. But if we read them closely, we find that each story is redemptive because the anxiety is momentary and meant to draw us closer to God in faith and hope. It’s never the intent of a biblical author to constantly tease a believer’s fears or to pry away their faith in a good God.
Posing the Existential Question
After sharing stories and offering reassurance, Old Testament texts often issue a challenge: Will you enact the faith that you profess? It may seem trite, but it’s exactly what we need to hear if anxiety is at least partly the product of our will—a habit of mind that can be counteracted. When I was visiting a professional for strength-based counseling, this was the issue he kept discussing with me. “Isn’t your God one of infinite love and care? How does that relate to your anxiety?” It’s unsettling to have a non-Christian pressing you on the disconnect between your orthodoxy and your orthopraxy, but he was right. You can only say the Serenity Prayer for so long before the line “courage to change the things I can” becomes less of a statement and more of
Crucially, these commands are not issued from a finger-pointing God who stands back as we are thrown into the terrors of life. This God is ever present, and—even as he commands us—he is already walking with us, leading us down paths that we cannot travel on our own. This is the message of Psalm 23:4, which some translations render: “Even when I walk through a valley of deep darkness, I will not be afraid because you are with me” (ISV, emphasis added). This translation helps us to see that God walks with us, not only as we approach death but in all of the dark moments of our lives. He is always there.
When this ever-present God asks us to be bold and courageous, we find a surprising paradigm for dealing with anxiety. The life of faith is difficult and requires trusting in God beyond what the eye can see. But a life of unbelief is even more difficult because it capitulates to fear and loses sight of God in the ensuing panic. Either way, this isn’t the proverbial case of doubt crowding out faith. Doubt is a tool for questioning one’s fears. It is anxiety itself that undermines faith. Our vocation as anxious believers is to see and appreciate the contradiction between our anxiety and the God who loves us. With the help of other techniques, and possibly medication, we battle anxiety simply by believing God.
This challenge has been impactful for me personally. I am very good at controlling my life. I can anticipate demands, manage projects, and persevere. I plan my days to the hour (sometimes even more detailed than that), and I work with others, whether my wife or a coworker, to make sure I’m covering my responsibilities at home and at work. But in my darkest moments, especially when I’m tired, I get anxious about things I can never control. I fret about plane crashes, cancer—even about interactions with strangers.
If left unchecked, these thoughts become the background noise of my life. So there is grace in being told that my anxiety is creating illusions, or in the words of Martin Luther—a theologian who struggled with anxiety unlike any other—anxiety is all that Satan can do to us now, for the Lord is “a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Prov. 18:10).
As the Old Testament gathers a multitude of characters, from prophets to kings, to reflect on their struggle with faith and anxiety, there is still a sense of incompletion. Their human counsel only goes so far. So, by a chorus of voices, we are vaulted into the counsel of God himself. God backs up Moses with plagues; Isaiah delivers the word of the Lord to Ahaz; Naomi receives an answer to her prayers. These human voices point to a divine solution. Even still, Job cries, “If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together” (Job 9:33).
By the time Jesus reaches Gethsemane, he says he is pained or “very sorrowful” to the point of death (Matt. 26:38, ESV). This expression is derived from the Greek term lýp (pronounced loo-pay), arguably the most feared emotion in antiquity. Some scholars suggest it is the equivalent of our notion of depression. It was so troublesome that the Stoics, Greek philosophers famous for trying to avoid negative emotions, believed there was no cure for it. It was an irredeemable mental state.
As this despairing God-man hangs on the cross, he turns—you guessed it—to the Old Testament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1). Here we enter the mystery of the triune God. As Jesus expresses his dying angst, we can’t definitively know what the Spirit said to him. But it probably had to do with the content of the psalm he was reciting: “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (v. 31).
The final note of hope and expectation in Psalm 22 foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection, and it is an event that has far more implications than we can imagine. If Jesus can go to the darkest mental places of the human mind in Gethsemane and emerge resurrected and vindicated, we also—by faith in him—will be raised to new life and a new psychology. This realization provides great encouragement for the anxious.
For me, anxiety has always been a sense of impending doom. It’s hard to shake, and disaster seems inevitable. There is no counseling session, no piece of sage advice that fully deflects it. But in the therapy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is a promise that our anxiety will eventually end, and this perspective helps us to endure our often-anxious lives. Better yet, the promise envisions total freedom from anxiety, and all mental illness, when we receive new bodies and we rise to celebrate Christ’s victory with minds that know only the “perfect love” of God, which “drives out all fear”
(1 John 4:18, GNB).
B.G. White is an assistant professor of biblical studies at The King’s College in New York City and a fellow at the Center for Pastor Theologians.
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