Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Three Follow-Up Reflections on Anxiety

This morning I just wanted to offer three follow-up thoughts to my reflections on anxiety. Thank you to all who commented and offered feedback!

1. A Blog Post Never Tells the Whole Story.

It’s easy, I’m sure, on the basis of one blog post, to assume that you know me as ‘that preacher’ who yells and tells you to get over your sin and doesn’t seem to deal with any genuine struggles of his own. But that’s just not the whole story.

A quick search of this blog for ‘depression’, for example, will land you on a couple posts where I’ve mentioned and reflected on my own battle with depression and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. There are many similarities, I think, between depression and anxiety.

And if you were to talk to me about anxiety — the real, genuine, gripping, out-of-nowhere kind — in a personal, conversational context, I could tell you about loved ones very close to me with whom I’ve had to work through these issues. I’m well aware — from first-hand experience — of how paralyzing mental states like these can be.

If anything, reflecting on the comments has helped me to remember not to think that one blog post someone writes tells the whole story about who they are or what they believe. I’ve just been reminded of one of the inherent limitations of a medium like a blog post.

2. Diagnosis Does Not Equal Pastoral Practice and Treatment Is Not Uniform.

When I wrote about anxiety as sin (since ‘whatever does not proceed from faith it sin’ and we have specific commands to ‘be anxious about nothing’), I was making what I believe is an accurate diagnosis, tracing the theology of worry and anxious thoughts from a couple New Testament passages.

But — and this is a big but — you ought not assume by the diagnosis that I then believe that everyone who is anxious needs to have ‘That is sin!’ thundered at them from a pulpit.

In point of fact, the reason why I wrote the article is that I was battling with anxiety myself last week and the post was a result of my own meditations on the texts and preaching truth to my own heart. That’s not what every anxious person needs to hear in every situation. It’s not even necessarily what I need to hear in every situation! But it is what my heart needed to hear last week. And that’s why I wrote it.

I would expect the wise under-shepherd, like the True Shepherd, to know his flock well and to be able to lead them well through valleys of despair and anxiety by whatever means are most appropriate in a given situation. Comfort, rebuke, prayer, time to just listen, careful working through biblical texts, and helping in consultation with doctors, are all valid approaches that a shepherd may take.

Just because I say something is a sin doesn’t mean that we ought to be harsh with people and treat every instance of that sin the same way. Far from it. God’s patience with us compels us to be patient with others; that’s a lesson I’m still learning, but I believe it is very important when it comes to moving from theology to pastoral practice.

3. This is Ground I Don’t Want to Give Up.

I do believe there are physical factors at play when people are anxious. There are also physical realities in my anger when I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. There are physical realities at work when I’m impatient in general — it is in my genes! We live in a physical world and we are physical people and we would be foolish to think that our behaviour is only spiritual.

However, acknowledging outside factors does not cause us to abandon the notion of responsibility (if we’re consistent). God ordains all things, but I sin; and I am responsible. I have a predisposition to anger, but when I sin, I am responsible. When an abused child grows up to abuse his children, we understand and we feel pity for the man, but he is clearly still responsible.

Having multiple contributing factors at work in our choice of actions (and there are always multiple contributing factors) does not change the reality that any word, deed, or thought that falls short of the glory of God as revealed in his will is sin.

I don’t think that we have to think too hard to realize why this is a relevant and important concept to grasp in our day. There are genetic and physical causes being ‘discovered’ all the time for actions that the Bible condemns as sin. Where will we draw the line? We don’t want to deny the genuineness of the physical, emotional, and mental struggle of an individual with predispositions to certain conditions, but that desire to not condemn the individual must never move us to refrain from condemning what the Bible calls sin and —¬†being moved with compassion like Jesus¬†— loving and helping those caught up in it.

And I think it’s becoming ever more important in our world that we refuse to give up this ground.

4 Comments

  1. anxious in ulster

    23 January, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I don't doubt your integrity, just your arguments. Some unanswered questions…
    What is the genre of the Sermon on the Mount?
    What sort of theology is Jesus employing? Wisdom? Law?
    Did Jesus feel anxiety in Gethsemane?
    Were humans created to feel anxious? (Can you enjoy sports without feeling some tension? Can you avoid danger without some worry?)
    Why does worry about "secular" matters express a lack of faith in God, but a worry about the Church express Godliness? Is God less sovereign in the Church?
    If a neuroscientist manipulates your nervous system to produce anxious feelings (as in the Penfield experiments) are you sinning?

  2. anxious in ulster

    23 January, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    But it's not nice to have your personality critiqued online…I didn't notice anyone doing that, but I didn't read all the comments. It's horrible when this happens, and I'm sorry it happened to you. There's obviously more to you than one blog post.
    But this "all worry is sin" trope is simplistic garbage. I think this reformed trope needs to be squashed.

  3. anxious in ulster

    23 January, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Finally, you have not established a slippery slope from "some worry isn't sinful" to genetic determinism. There's just a vague association in some people's minds. That does not constitute an argument.

  4. Thank you, Julian. I appreciate your (very well-done) follow up. If you haven't already done so, I would suggest linking the two posts in an obvious way. Even though a pastor with a blog cannot say everything in each post (or each sermon), what he does say will have a ripple effect in the lives of his readers. Imbalance cripples Christians and destroys the Church's testimony.

    Your last paragraph and closing sentence are spot on. I am in full agreement with you. I just see such a huge need in the Christian camp for pastors to teach their flocks what it really looks like to patiently and lovingly come alongside other fallen human beings to offer gospel grace and help (without any guarantee that sinners will respond well to those loving overtures). I've known lots of sincere Christians who can quote Scripture and boldly call out sin without compromise, and yet who have little to no idea of how to relate patiently and prudently with those who live in total ignorance of Scripture, and in such a dark and backwards world. They are bold, but they are bruisers.

    Thank you. May God bless you–your work, your church, and your family.

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