Where does anxiety come from? If you ask the average American (and possibly even the average American Christian) they may tell you that they are anxious because they have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is something we have like cancer or diabetes, not necessarily something we do. Now there is no question that for some, anxiety disorders are part of how we answer this question. But generally, I think a diagnosis of anxiety may be less helpful than we tend to think.
Mike Emlet earned his MD from the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a family physician for over ten years before becoming a biblical counselor. In his book Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications he argues that “psychiatric diagnoses are descriptions, not explanations.”[i] In other words, they tell you what a person is experiencing, but not why. He illustrates this principle this way:[ii]
Consider this list of symptoms: red face, bulging veins at the temples, scowl, raised voice, hurtful words, clenched fists, stomping feet. What does this describe? Anger, of course! It’s a good thing to be able to recognize those as symptoms of anger.
Now let’s imagine I was manifesting those symptoms, you rightly concluded that I was angry, and you asked me “Why are you so angry?” What if I responded, “I’m angry because I have a red face, I’m scowling, and I’m yelling.” Would that answer your question? Of course not! Because those symptoms are a way to describe anger, but they don’t tell us the root of anger. They tell us what, but they don’t tell us why.
Here’s why this matters: we do something similar when we diagnose anxiety disorders today. We have over fifty different anxiety disorders mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, often called DSM5. But all of them describe what the anxious person is suffering, but they don’t explain why. Dr. Emlet summarizes, “the most significant limitation of psychiatric diagnoses is that they describe human thought, emotion, or behavior but do not explain why the person has these experiences. This creates confusion and misunderstanding among the public, which perceives the system to be more definitive than it is.”[iii]
You don’t have to agree with or understand everything Dr. Emlet is arguing to understand what the Bible tells us about the root of anxiety. Look at the text with me again: (6) Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, (7) casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.
Here’s something that will revolutionize the way you think about this verse. You ready? Here it is. This is big stuff now. Okay, here goes. That word casting in verse 7 is a participle. Life-changing stuff, right? In all seriousness, it really is. What that means is, the word “casting” is not a standalone idea, it’s continuing the idea from the previous verse. If you look at the passage it may look like verse 6 is talking about the problem of pride and verse 7 is talking about the problem of anxiety, but that’s not true. These problems are connected. In verse 6, Peter tells us that we should humble ourselves. In verse 7, Peter tells us how we can humble ourselves: we humble ourselves by casting our anxieties on God.
Now let’s turn that around for just a moment. If casting our anxieties on God is how we humble ourselves, then not casting our anxieties is an expression of pride. Wait a minute? Are you saying that my anxiety is somehow connected to pride? How can that be? Isn’t that a bit harsh?
Tom Schreiner explains it this way: “How can anxiety and worry be criticized as pride? We can see that it might be a lack of faith, but does it make sense to identify worry as pride? Worry is a form of pride because when believers are filled with anxiety, they are convinced that they must solve all the problems in their own strength.”[iv]
Think about all the things we’re anxious about. Maybe we’re anxious about finances because we believe it’s up to us to make sure our finances are under control. Perhaps we’re anxious about our health because we believe there’s nobody else we can trust to look out for our well-being. When we’re anxious about the people we love, are we struggling to believe that God loves them more than we do? When we’re anxious about what we see on the news, are we struggling to believe that God is really in control? Are we anxious about uncomfortable situations because we want to be in control? Are we anxious about spiritual matters because we struggle believing the Gospel is true?
Each of these examples is rooted in the pride of unbelief. We don’t trust God, we trust ourselves. Instead of trusting in the promises of God, we trust our own power to control things ourselves. Even in my anxieties over preparing this sermon, what was it rooted in? My own ability to say something helpful instead of trusting God to speak to you through His Word.
Do you struggle to accept that our anxieties are rooted in some form of pride? Why? Is it because you misunderstand pride? It’s not always a braggadocious arrogance. Pride is ultimately trusting ourselves instead of trusting God. Or are you struggling because this feels like this is blaming the victim? I would suggest to you that this gives the anxious hope. Consider this: if anxiety is merely a medical diagnosis then there’s nothing we can do about it. You have as much control over anxiety as you have control over whether you get diagnosed with cancer. But if we understand anxiety as rooted in pride, then there’s something we can do about it.
So here’s my challenge to you: examine your anxieties. Look carefully and thoroughly for any traces of pride in your anxiousness. Probably not the arrogant strong pride that is overconfident, but the cowering weak pride that believes that no one (not even God) can be trusted. If God reveals any pride at the root of your anxieties, then confess that to Him. But don’t stop there. Because ultimately the Scriptures don’t highlight our anxieties to spotlight our sin. They highlight our anxieties to spotlight the One who cares for us more than we could ever imagine. And to learn more about that and the remedy for anxiety, come back tomorrow.
[i] Michael R. Emlet, Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses & Medications (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2017), 17.
[ii] Emlet, 17–18.
[iii] Emlet, 24. Emphasis added.
[iv] Thomas R. Schreiner, The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 240–41.