Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make known your requests to God.—Philippians 4: 6-9
My mom took another slow sip of wine as she shared, “It’s not good to worry. Anxiety isn’t from God. I just need to have a stronger faith. So should you,” she added, somewhat reluctantly.
We had been discussing, in general, the surge in anxiety levels for so many people in our circle of friends and acquaintances. In my family of origin, and among myself and my own children, various forms of anxiety are peppered throughout our collective medical history.
I thought about the polarizing responses to anxiety that float around today. Extreme secular views believe psychology alone has the answer and can resolve, through medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy, significant relief from panic disorders, OCD, PTSD, and generalized anxiety. The other end of the spectrum belongs among the Christian circles, in which scripture verses—like the one at the beginning of this article—are quoted to justify how faith alone can heal or, at the very least, help us to overcome our anxiety.
As with most things, a healthy mixture of both science and faith is warranted regarding any complicated topic. And mental health is a complex topic.
In my book, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, I offered a rudimentary explanation of the differences between grief and depression. I’d like to mention that I have always been an advocate of proper medical intervention, and I have never understood how faith alone can suddenly “cure” a person who suffers from mental torment. I think it’s best to provide a brief perspective on what anxiety is, and why it cannot simply be overcome by faith, nor cured by a pill.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders—5 defines anxiety broadly as “disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.” In order for a person to be officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, certain criteria must be met. It’s important to note that anxiety, like depression, is a real medical and psychological problem.
These diagnoses are not something that a person can just “snap out of” or “outgrow,” as I’ve been told about my daughter with OCD and generalized anxiety. They require treatment, often including years of intensive therapy, to learn techniques that reorganize their faulty brain patterns, plus medications that will stabilize deficient or excessive neurotransmitters that cause the anxiety.
Somebody who suffers from anxiety can very much be a person of strong faith. He or she may believe in God’s goodness and mercy, and have a deep personal prayer life. The physiological changes in the body that trigger anxiety are not a reflection on the person’s faith in God. The psychological traumas that subsequently create waves of anxiety are not an indication that a person has a weak faith.
We can turn to scripture, yes, and read several verses that tell us not to be afraid or have any anxiety or worry, but believing these will not magically dissipate the suffering of mental torment. Mental illness, such as anxiety, may be a mysterious aspect of suffering that can, in some way, draw a person closer to the suffering of Jesus.
Psalms and the Book of Lamentations provide comfort to those who suffer from mental illness. Verses, such as this one, tell the person that they do not have to feel ashamed of their condition, nor does this reflect poorly upon their faith in God:
“My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; remembering it over and over, my soul is downcast. But this I will call to mind; therefore, I will hope: The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness!”Lamentations 13: 17, 20-23
Anxiety—as a cross—can paradoxically increase faith, because we become more dependent on God for strength to face another day, face another fear, practice another technique, enter into daily life. If we look to the example of Jesus and His approach to all those afflicted with various ailments and torments, we understand the nuances that contribute to the totality of a person—their integration of mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health.
The following statement from the Catholic bishops in New York summarize how we, as the faithful, can approach anxiety, whether we are facing it ourselves, or we encounter others who suffer from it. In turn, as we become more merciful, we also become the mercy of Christ.
“We have no better example of how to respond to those with mental illness than that of Jesus Christ. Time and again throughout the New Testament, we encounter our Lord’s mercy toward this population. The curing of this affliction in men, women, and children was a central part of Jesus’ healing ministry. Always, we saw Him engage these individuals in the same way he would engage anyone else, with tenderness. We are called to do no less.”‘For I Am Lonely and Afflicted’, Toward a just response to the needs of people with mental illness, A Statement of the Catholic Bishops of New York State, February 4, 2014.