When you think about anxiety, what comes to mind?
Fear or doubt? Lack of control? Worry or dread? Even panic?
I ask this question for a very important reason. When we started with the COVID season, we were in lockdown, and I noticed many different issues arising for people — including significant mental health concerns. There was one particular case that really caught the attention of my wife and me, and it involved a young lady at church.
She was 28 years old — a very beautiful, successful woman from a wealthy family within the church. She had a great job. She was educated by the best universities around the world.
She seemed to have everything.
And suddenly, during lockdown, we got the news that she had taken her own life. She knew Jesus Christ, but whatever was going on inside of her led her to make that decision.
We were devastated.
I thought a lot about mental health after that tragic event, and it led my wife and me to start leading some discussions about mental health within our church. In my Latino culture, and potentially in other cultures as well, the church can often fail to embrace issues of mental health with maturity.
The message from people in the church sometimes seems to be, “If you are having a mental health issue like anxiety, depression or panic attacks, just pray, pray, pray — and it’s going to fade away.” Or on the other side, “These issues are a sign that you’re not doing a good job as a Christian, that you lack faith.”
And that’s really unfair. Consider what it would feel like if you came to someone and said, “I think I’ve come down with a disease. I feel sick.” You would never expect someone to respond, “That’s a sign that you are a bad Christian. That’s a sign that you are a weak person.”
A response like that would signify a huge lack of compassion — and a lack of understanding about the mind, about the body and about God. What’s worse, that person is choosing to judge you over a trial in your life instead of offering help.
But sometimes that’s exactly what we do as Christians with mental health. We judge people instead of realizing that just like the body gets sick, the mind gets sick.
A Biblical View of Anxiety
In Philippians 4:5-7 (NIV), the apostle Paul writes: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This passage is really interesting for multiple reasons, and I believe it holds the key to how we should think about handling anxiety as Christians.
The church Paul is writing to here — the church of the Philippians — was heavily persecuted. The town of Philippi was very proud of being Roman, and they saw Christians as a threat. Philippian Christians were constantly exposed to persecution, jail, even murder.
And Paul was in Rome, captured, knowing that soon he would give his life for the cause of Jesus. And in the middle of this awful situation, he tells us: Be gentle. Think about others. The Lord is near.
These are incredibly profound messages for Paul to be sharing — especially because he turns our focus outward rather than inward. Did you know that when people are depressed, psychologists have measured the two words they repeat the most: “I” and “me”? That does not mean that being selfish got them into depression, but it does mean that when we are in a state of deep anxiety, what we usually think about the most is ourselves: My situation. My pain. My loss. My darkness.
That’s why psychologists say that one tool to fight anxiety and depression is helping others. Thinking about others starts to take the focus away from the self, and when we focus on being gentle to others in the midst of a hard situation, we can open ourselves to feeling the Lord closer.
When I would go to visit with our church partners in the field, sometimes I would find myself struggling with different things mentally. But when I was with the pastors and children, listening to their pain and their joy, I would start to feel closer to the Lord. Instead of focusing on my own pain, choosing gentleness toward others, listening to them and caring for them would often help when I was mired in anxiety.