“I have been up for three nights with my kids. My husband just lost his job and my work is pressuring me for more hours. I am stressed to the max! On top of that, I feel guilty because I know the Bible says to not be anxious but pray. I feel like I am failing as a Christian and the stress is killing me.”
Amy’s story is familiar in my work as a psychologist. Is Amy wrong for being stressed when the Bible commands us to “be not anxious”?
It helps to understand the distinction between the stress you experience in your body versus the Bible’s instruction, “Do not be anxious.”
Most people are familiar with the phrase “fight-or-flight.” It is the body’s natural ability to prepare for danger. It is called the “stress response” and releases epinephrine, glucocorticoids, prolactin, and other substances to your eyes, lungs, stomach, and muscles to combat physical threats. The bad news is that prolonged stress raises blood pressure, can burst white blood cells, attack your digestive system, damage the heart, and may even mess with the neurochemistry in your brain. The stress response is awesome if you are running from wild bulls but not helpful if you are #46 waiting in line at the DMV to renew your license.
How do we turn on the stress response when being chased by bulls but turn it off when we’re waiting in line at the DMV? Does the body trigger stress all on its own, or does it wait for us to give it a cue? It’s both.
Stress is a physiological event that can occur even during surgery when unconscious. However, anxiety requires consciousness. You have to interpret an event as dangerous to cue the stress response in the body. Science has established that stress is triggered by the perception of threat, real or imagined. What you believe is threatening defines anxiety.
Jesus experienced hematohidrosis while in the Garden of Gethsemane, a rare physical condition of sweating blood that can occur when a person is suffering extreme stress. But He intently focused his prayers on God’s will and was confident God would deliver him from Satan’s threat. Jesus was not anxious about God’s ability to defeat Satan because he believed in the power of God, even though His body’s stress response was overloaded. You can be stressed, but not anxious.
The key to anxiety is belief. If you believe the snake in the road will kill you, it will create anxiety. If you read books, watch videos and learn there are no poisonous snakes where you live, you might reduce your anxiety. Snakes may trigger the natural stress response, but you would reduce anxiety because of focus and meditation on what you learned.
To “be not anxious” requires shoring up everything that strengthens your beliefs about the fears of life. It is not simply the intellectual process of learning and studying the Word of God, but organizing everything in your life that reinforces your faith.
Creating the action to “be not anxious” requires an atmosphere where the spiritual mind can thrive. We send our children to school expecting an environment of academics, exercise, friends, teachers, meals, and aesthetics that will stimulate their thinking. We must do the same in our homes and families for our spiritual life. The world’s threats become anxiety when it captures our thinking. It is why we are instructed to “Guard our minds with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
The apostle Paul said, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:1-7).
Paul is not saying that prayer and thanksgiving will eliminate the stress response. The nervous system is still likely to fire if you fall off a cliff, lose your home, stay up with a screaming child for three nights or lose your job. Even though you are a Christian, life circumstances will provoke the nervous system, sometimes severely and debilitating.
What Paul is saying is that you should not be anxious. It assumes individual will and volition. Your ability to choose the thoughts, values, and beliefs that reduce the threats God identifies. You might be stressed, but God’s truths will provide perspective that calms the soul rather than perpetuates fears based on materialism or humanistic self-sufficiency and dependency.
“Be not anxious” is more than saying, “I am sorry you lost your job and your kids are driving you crazy. Just pray and it will stop your anxiety.” Our faith is more robust. The word of God reveals strategies and practices for good works, justice, ethics, communication, community, sex, marriage, children, worship, money, death, abuse, beauty, courage, grief, and more.
To “be not anxious” is complete assimilation of God’s word and its application to daily life. It requires integration to our life’s individually and relationally so that “we can comfort those in any troubles with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
If your friend is Amy, and she has been up for three nights with her kids, her husband lost his job, and work is pressuring her for more hours, how would you put “do not be anxious” into practice? Volunteer to babysit, cook her a meal, meet for prayer and study once a week, promise to call her every morning until the storm passes, and share her grief. Apply everything you have learned about life and godliness from the Word of God and let her see.
Dr. David Zuccolotto is a former pastor and clinical psychologist. For 35 years he has worked for hospitals, addiction treatment centers, outpatient clinics and private practice. He is the author of The Love of God: A 70 Day Journey of Forgiveness.