Feeling Anxious and Discouraged? You are not AloneBy Garrett Higbee
September 16, 2020
Most of us are quite aware of the endless news cycle of Covid-19 updates, social unrest and political sparring but we have heard less of the profound consequences of increased fear, anxiety, depression and discouragement on individuals and families. We might hear a passing story of more drug abuse, domestic violence, and suicides with little in the way of solutions. Most of us shake our heads, maybe send up a quick prayer and feel a bit helpless. But for pastors and leaders we can’t miss the negative impacts or the opportunity to bring the gospel into the lives of those hurting around us. These emotional high-risk issues may be less popular to report on but are nonetheless real complicating consequences of social isolation, less access to help, and increased stress.
The length of this present trial is wearing people down. It’s also coming at us in many directions. The threat to our health, our safety, our finances, and our social rhythms is wearing people down. We may not all be in the most vulnerable category to catch the virus, but fewer of us are able to sustain immunity to fear, frustration, and times of depression. Hopes that this will all settle down after an election or once they have a vaccine are really not going to reach the core issue.
In this article I want to help pastors and leaders tackle two of the most common struggles that you might be facing yourself and your people are facing right now. Anxiety and despair are on the rise and are common responses to our heart being squeezed by enduring trials and stress. They both have something in common. Enduring trials bring suffering that impacts mood and behavior. They expose the presents of functional gods and have an eroding effect on faith. Don’t get me wrong; people are really suffering, so pointing out sin or unbelief is not our first move in helping them. But earthy comfort, manipulative control, and false peace can easily become substitutions to waiting on and worshiping God. After empathizing and comforting them, a deeper dive into what they want most is part of speaking the truth in love.
When I say unbelief, for most it’s usually not a wholesale denial of God. It tends to be a more insidious enemy, like water under the foundation of our faith. If you err on the side of grace you might tend to think we have every right to be afraid or depressed! You empathized but bring little conviction to turn to the God of real comfort and hope. If you err on the side of truth you might tend to think people need to buck-up, that fear and depression are sin issues that just need a swift rebuke. You may point them to the word of God but make it seem so impersonal thus making God seem less accessible. There is another way; a wise counselor lives in the tension of truth and grace. You feel compassion for those struggling but want to remind them of a bigger picture of a God who wants to meet them in the valley. A gospel that did not just save them but can rescue them even now. In fact, you may need to apply this to your own mood and thinking before you go to someone struggling.
Beware of feeding functional gods.
I don’t know about you but this last several months has tested my faith. I find doubt comes in waves triggered by getting my focus off of the Gospel. If I don’t look through the lens of Scripture, I see things in a very distorted way. When this happens, we tend to go to our idols. The most common idols are control, comfort, security, or pleasure. Circumstances start to create what Paul Tripp calls a “gospel gap.” Or, maybe better said, expose an existing one and widen it. Then we practically forget God is there. We reach for a remote and binge on a Netflix series to distract, or maybe reach for a bottle to numb. I tend to get lost in work which can in itself become an idol. I have seen a growing impatience and frustration in myself.
One of the most disturbing effects of this season is the impact on relationships. When we need grace and need to give grace, instead we start being more demanding or yelling at someone we love. Whether feeding worldly comfort or selfish control we just go deeper in the valley. At the end of the Book of 1 John there is a warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Help your people see the progression of an idol by taking them to James 4. Explore how simple desires have morphed into demands and led to seeking false comfort or security. Finally show them how when they don’t get what they want most they tend to complain, punish, and lose sight of who they should truly fear and serve. Most of us don’t only need comfort we need to repent of acting in unbelief and thinking we can serve our own entitled thinking rather than a faithful God.
Encourage each other to not fall into unbelief (Heb. 3:12-19).
Remember the story of the Hebrews wandering in the desert? It was after a miraculous deliverance from Egypt and God’s obvious provision. They had a pillar of fire at night, a cloud to follow during the day, water in a dry land, and enough manna for each day. Yet they did not focus on God’s faithfulness or provision; they focused on the desert, the lack of variety of food, the hardship of the journey. Their focus led to doubt, complaining, and unbelief. As leaders we need to help our people to see the faithlessness of horizontal complaint and in some cases stir them to vertical lament. Crying out to God in our trial is night and day different than complaining about his sovereign plan.
Self-talk is a big part of unbelief. “How bad does it have to get? Where is the God’s who cares? Am I really going to be okay?” Unbelief is a slippery slope. When fear becomes a habit of worry and heightened anxiety makes you sleepless or sick your heart focus is often the issue. Of course, some have a family history of anxiety issues or physiological complicating factors to consider. But for most of us, if our feelings get the best of us or if our focus is on our circumstances, we are letting our emotions create an inner narrative full of lies and unbelief. Help your people to let the truth of Scripture be the mediation of their heart (Ps. 119: 11-16) not their fears or dismay in light of our present circumstances.
Some are struggling with paralyzing fear and for others it is more like a dark cloud of hopelessness. When disappointment becomes discontent and disillusionment leads to despair we can lose all sight of eternity (2 Cor 4:16-18). Again, the remedy lies in a compassionate directive back to God’s word, His character, and his promises. So, yes, connect with compassion, but when you sense unbelief or idolatry is behind the anxiety and despair, bring helpful correction so that those you love and serve can reconnect to Christ and His word.