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  • Joe Hussung

Three Questions to Make Sense of Anxiety

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

By: Joe Hussung

The most visceral anxiety I have felt in my life came as my tenure at a church came to an end. I remember spending an entire day pacing my home, laying on the floor, or staring off into the distance in a haze of anxiety, questions hitting me like rapid-fire bullets: “What am I if I’m not a pastor?” “How will I provide for my family?” “What will people think of me?” “Where do I go from here?” My personality trends toward anxiety, but this was different. It felt more destabilizing and confusing. I couldn’t get my bearings straight and didn’t know where to go from there. In that moment, I needed help to see what was happening in my heart and make sense of my experience of anxiety.

What Am I Loving?

Our intuition is to say that anxiety is all about what we fear, but in reality, it is deeper than that. Anxiety is actually about what we love. When we feel anxious, we feel as though something in our life is being threatened. It may be a relationship, our reputation, or our children. We believe something we love is under threat, so we respond with anxiety. One of the first things that is helpful for a counselee to ask themselves is, “What am I loving in this experience?”[1] This is not always a straightforward and obvious thing. It wasn’t for me. I was loving a multitude of things in that moment—some good and some bad. We see in Scripture that, on the one hand, Paul commends Timothy because he was genuinely concerned (anxious) about the churches (Phil. 2:20). On the other hand, in The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says we shouldn’t be anxious about food, drink, and clothing. I desperately needed to see that there were things I loved that were like what Timothy loved, but also things that were more in the category Jesus speaks against. As we help counselees, untangling this complicated web of loves and values is the first step in helping them understand their anxiety.

Is My Love Rightly Weighted?

Not only did I need to ask what I was loving, but also whether my anxiety was weighted appropriately for the situation. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, Paul encourages unmarried men and women to remain unmarried so that they would have “no concerns” apart from those of the Lord, instead of also being concerned for their spouses. This word for concern is the same word translated for anxiety elsewhere. None of us would believe that concern for our wives or husbands, at face value, is sinful. Nor would we believe that concerns about providing food, clothing, or shelter (Matt. 6:25-34) are sinful. What is at stake in these passages is that our relationship to these values is not in the proper place. Either through our misplaced priorities or our perspective of what is and is not true, we tend to weigh the things we love in less than righteous ways.

First, is my anxiety based on truth or fantasy? Paul encourages people struggling with anxiety to think about whatever is true, honorable, and just (Phil. 4:8). Even if we love good things, our fears about the potential threat may be more in our imagination than reality. As counselors, we should be wise here because there are real things to fear. I had some legitimate fears, and so do our counselees. There are people who can harm us, relationships that can end, and people really do lose their lives. To counsel people away from concern over legitimate threats is wrong, and we should avoid it, but we should also help bring people back into reality when necessary.

Second, is my anxiety reflecting God’s priorities? Not only does God tell us what to love and not to love, but He also tells us how and to what extent we should love it. Both the Matthew 6 and 1 Corinthians passages, at their core, speak to a reality in the lives of human beings—we tend to allow our priorities to become skewed. We sometimes elevate some loves over those that should be held supremely (such as God and His kingdom). Or, more often, we tend to elevate them past their appropriate point (such as prioritizing a conversation that will happen tomorrow over paying attention to our children or doing our work). Was my anxiety over what had happened hindering me from greater concerns? Kingdom priorities? Family priorities? It most certainly was, and understanding that helped me to refocus my heart in the appropriate direction.

How Am I Responding to My Experience?

Perhaps the most important question to ask about anxiety is, “What am I doing in response to my anxiety?” Am I avoiding, manipulating, and isolating, or am I engaging God and others? What we do in response to our anxiety ultimately shows us where our hearts are. If I saw that I was loving things I shouldn’t but clung to that love with all I had, I would have revealed something about my priorities. However, if I recognized that temptation and courageously forged ahead with repentance, then although the initial desires may have a tinge of sin, the ultimate response is righteous. Ultimately, the action that comes from the internal experience is what is in view in many of these passages. The end goal is “seeking the kingdom” rather than “striving after these things” or submitting to the Lord and casting cares on Him instead of attempting to do things in our own strength.

Looking Past Future Fear to Future Hope

At every point, I needed to be reminded that there was a much more significant future than the one I feared. These questions can help our counselees see their hearts in anxiety, but we also need to encourage them to raise their gaze past the anxiety to the hope we have in Christ. They need to be reminded of God’s love, providential care, and Christ’s comfort in the midst of suffering. Speaking these truths won’t immediately negate their anxiety, but as their hearts latch on to that hope, it will point them to the one who can.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Has your view on anxiety allowed for some anxiety to be righteous? If not, how can you adjust your view to include this?

  2. Where in your life do you see an unweighted anxious response?

  3. How can you help your counselees turn to the Lord in faith in the midst of their anxiety?

[1] In more extreme cases of anxiety, these values may be very difficult to understand or seem much less connected to the immediate experience.

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