Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Gospel Hope for Common Struggles Part 1 of 2: Anxiety

The Boston Center for Biblical Counseling (BCBC) hosted their inaugural event – Anxiety & Depression: Gospel Hope for Common Struggles  Saturday, May 5, 2018 at Lortimer Hall, 88 Tremont Street, Boston

This past weekend, some people from Emmaus City were able to join nearly 300 people from the greater Boston area for a morning seminar that provided an introduction for how the Gospel of Jesus in the Bible speaks to the common human condition of anxiety, as well as depression, which so many experience and endure on a regular basis.

Alasdair Groves of CCEF New England was the main speaker, and was joined by Jeffrey Monk, Ph.D., Jennifer Huang Harris, M.D., and Executive Director of BCBC and City on a Hill Pastor Fletcher Lang, for a panel discussion. 

The goal of the BCBC is to work with churches and people throughout the greater Boston area to answer:

+ How do we develop and foster a culture of care among people in our cities? 
+ How do we equip local churches to counsel each other and the people in the places where they live, work, and rest? 
+ How do we continue to grow and develop counseling services that are Gospel-centered, clinically-informed, and connected with the people who Jesus is moving in and through?

The notes in the following post will focus on Alasdair's morning session related to an introduction to anxiety and a glimpse of how God responds to us in our anxiety in the Scriptures.

The Boston Center for Biblical Counseling Gospel Hope for Common Struggles Part 1 of 2: Anxiety with Alasdair Groves

Anxiety and depression are some of the most universal human experiences.

+ Everyone will experience anxiety. 
+ If we're welcoming, safe, and open in a community of people, we will interact with those who have experienced depression.

We can be encouraged that even though we continue to hear more and more about rising anxiety in our culture through books, articles, podcasts, etc., there is a growing awareness in our society about how people are experiencing and dealing with anxiousness.

For a helpful definition of anxiety, we could describe it as "the experience that something you care about is in danger." With this definition in mind, when we are anxious, it can help us see and know what we truly care about the most. What we are most anxious about is what we care most about.

Anxiety, from a biblical perspective, can be a good thing. 

In 2 Corinthians 11:28, St. Paul writes:

" ... there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. ... "

Because of Paul's love for Jesus and His Church, and his firsthand experience of what can be done to hurt, steal, and attempt to kill those who love Him and this world (see 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 for context), he was anxious for the people in the cities.

When someone or something is beloved, good, and treasured by us, and they or it is harmed, it is a good and healthy response to experience anxiety. The question is, what do we do with our anxiety and where do we take it? In other words, do we experience anxiety as our pathway to approach God on His throne of grace to help us in our time of need because Jesus was and is human (and divine) and knows what we are experiencing (see Hebrews 4:14-16)?

Our anxiety based on care for others is an invitation into relationship with the living God. 

God wants to receive and carry our every concern because He cares for us. 

Cast all your cares [all your anxieties, all your worries, and all your concerns, once and for all] on God, for He cares about you [with deepest affection, and watches over you very carefully].  + 1 Peter 5:7

In the midst of this request by our gracious God in the Scriptures, it can be so hard sometimes to believe that there is a God that even exists, not to mention a God we can learn to trust with our anxieties. Yet in the midst of this tension, God calls us to cry out. If we hold on to anxiety, Paul Miller describes such a control over our anxiety "as wasted prayer" in his kind and empathetic book, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (here's a link to the 2nd Edition of A Praying Life).

Anxiety, when we allow it to turn us away from the God who can help, can often cause us to spiral in our ourselves. A broken and fearful response to anxiety that sees it bigger than the God who created us is to say, "I am my best hope." The single most brutal attack when anxiety hits us is to paint God out of the picture and determine that the grace of God cannot meet you in your anxiety. The living Word of God's response to this is " ... What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? ... I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries (or anxieties) about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord!" Romans 8:31-3238-39

Our body and soul were created good by God, there is a mysterious relationship between them, and both will one day be restored fully by Jesus.

This also means that when we experience the darkness, evil, or brokenness in our world, our bodies can pump in a response of anxiety that we can't control and often don't know where it comes from. We don't always have to figure out why, but we always can know the Who who does know why. Our sufferings are always a sign or trigger to run to the living God. Nothing can separate us from His love, including the mysterious as to why we're having an anxious response. 

What are some of the normal reactions to anxiety that keep us turning to ourselves for rescue?

+ To pull back, not go anywhere, not connect with others, and isolate 
+ To push in, attempt to be "the life of the party," to grab people's attention to focus on my "good" or "energetic" side and cover up what's going on inside  
+ To escape to a drink, a syringe, a medium of entertainment, a sexual experience, or something else so I can have an easy outlet from dealing with the anxiety
+ To keep so busy that I don't have to think about what's wrong and why I'm experiencing life this way 
+ To get angry and lash out in defense at others so I don't feel vulnerable or have to address the heart of the issue 
+ To create enough fun or escape experiences for myself so that they outweigh the anxious moments and push down the anxious feelings 
+ To distance myself from people, commitment, and a full life so that nothing matters so much to me that I will be hurt if I lose it 
+ To self hate in order to beat everyone to the punch I assume is coming 

The Good News is that God is merciful with anxious people like us; the Bible reveals God knows we are broken and our world is broken and He is near.

Again and again, David reminds himself in song and among the congregation of Israel who to turn to when his soul is anxious and why he does not have to fear.

The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the refuge and fortress of my life—whom shall I dread? When the wicked came against me to eat up my flesh, My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell. Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war arise against me, even in this I am confident. One thing I have asked of the LORD, and that I will seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD [in His presence] all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty [the delightful loveliness and majestic grandeur] of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. For in the day of trouble He will hide me in His shelter; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; He will lift me up on a rock. ... Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; be gracious and compassionate to me and answer me. When You said, “Seek My face [in prayer, require My presence as your greatest need],” my heart said to You, “Your face, O Lord, I will seek [on the authority of Your Word].” Do not hide Your face from me, do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; do not abandon me nor leave me, O God of my salvation! Although my father and my mother have abandoned me, yet the Lord will take me up [adopt me as His child]. ... I would have despaired had I not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for and confidently expect the LORD; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for and confidently expect the LORD. + Psalm 27:1-5, 7-10, 13-14

The most common command in Scripture is: Do not be afraid. Why? God loves us and He is the Shepherd we need to rescue us.

God knows us. As a good Father, King, Shepherd, and Friend, He also knows what we need to hear and from whom. When anxiety hits you, do you stop to consider this with Him:

+ What do I treasure and who do I trust right now? 
+ What is my next step with my anxieties? Where am I running? 
+ What are the habits that I've developed in response to my anxieties? What do I think of first? What do I assume I should do next?

The Chief Shepherd, our Good Shepherd, Jesus, is willing to go into the thorn bush of our anxiety to pull us out. And the more we bite, and fight, and struggle, the more the thorns sink in. But He knows the thorns and He can rescue us. He wants to pull us out of the thorns and bring us to streams of living water. It's by His wounds, in rescuing us, that we are healed.

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. ... Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. ... I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me— just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father—and I lay down My life for the sheep. ... “Jesus himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” + Psalm 23:1-4; John 10:11, 14-15; 1 Peter 2:24

Our good Shepherd, Jesus, is Emmanuel, God with us, who is full of compassion. He even has a record of our tears, and delivers us from them. And one day He promises to wipe them all away.

I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?For You, LORD, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces; He will remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; "He will lead them to springs of living water." "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." + Psalm 6:6, 42:3, 56:8, 116:8; Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 7:17

He is not only the Good Shepherd, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. At the cross, we see that He is willing to go through anything for us. He desires to commune with us and gives us a meal of Himself as the Bread of Life, as the Vine, so that we can taste and be filled with His goodness.

How do we remember that we have the God to turn to who reigns in power and love more than the god of our anxiety that turns us to fear?

+ Prayer is utterly vital in the face of anxiety, not as a self-soothing technique (even as prayer can help your body relax and your breathing improve), but that we are talking with the One who knows what we say before we speak and knows what we need before we ask. 
A community that follows Jesus (i.e. His Church) is intended to be a safe haven given to you from Him as a "community of counselors" for you to bring your vulnerabilities, cares, fears, and troubles to; "bear with one another in love" is one of the commands He gives His Church (i.e. Galatians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2) and when His people are following Him, they will, albeit imperfectly, but they are giving to you by Him 
+ Anxiety says, "things are going to go badly, and they are also going to most likely end badly." Jesus says, "Your life matters to Me, and in the end, I am going to make all things new and right." 

Anxiety's tagline says, "Yeah, but, what if ... "

The Bible's tagline says, "Yeah, but what if there really is a Good Shepherd watching over your life? What if He is near and His powerful protection is for you even to protect you from yourself? How can you give Him your anxiety?"

The story of God in the Bible is that Jesus takes the cost of our anxiety, and by His wounds for us, we are and will be ultimately healed.

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Therefore do not be anxious, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. + Philippians 4:5-6; I Peter 5:7; Matthew 6:31-33

Three helpful resources for engaging more with the topic of anxiety and counseling are:

+ Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest by Edward T. Welch 
When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man by Edward T. Welch  
Crosstalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet by Michael R. Emlet

Soli Jesu gloria.

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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