I would like to thank the pastor who anonymously, but transparently, shared his story with our readers this month. We tell this story to encourage and offer hope, especially to those who have or experience bouts of anxiety.
The year of 2019 began for me with a heightened sense of anxiety. This new anxiety was compiled with old health concerns over how I had lived during my college years and a worrisome family health history. Will I live long enough to raise my two young sons and provide for my family? The logical answer to these worries—it seemed at the time—would be to work harder, take on more responsibility. I can do this. I can do this. Bring it on.
“ I began to notice that something was wrong emotionally. ”
But in early January, I began to notice that something was wrong emotionally. There was so much work to do and so many deadlines to meet. As a pastor, I was always taking on other people’s problems in addition to my own. People sick and people dying. People to visit and people to comfort. Sermons to prepare. A congregation to stand in front of every week and make a good impression on. This is too much. How will I get it done? I don’t think I can. I started to break down in tears just thinking about it. What’s wrong with me? I don’t cry about these things.
“ It was as though a mental fogginess had taken over my brain. ”
It began to take me a much longer period of time than usual to be able to focus enough to begin large tasks or projects. It was as though a mental fogginess had taken over my brain. Something is wrong with me. What is it? Still, it continued.
“ I found myself suddenly awake with alarm. ”
Then one night in February, I found myself suddenly awake with alarm. There was a cold feeling in my chest and I was filled with fear and anxiety, although I was unable to determine exactly why. This anxious discomfort continued for two days and was quite concerning to me. Since then, these panic attacks have continued. Although an attack itself may last only a few seconds, I have experienced as many as 15 in one day. Usually the extreme anxious period lasts two to four days, followed by a break of two to three weeks where the anxiety levels drop off but do not diminish entirely.
“ I felt totally out of control with what was happening to me. ”
In February, each week seemed to grow worse and worse. I felt totally out of control with what was happening to me. I am the Outreach and Discipleship Pastor at my church and preach about 30 percent of the time. Being overwhelmed and confused made doing my job difficult. The weight of the anxiety consumed me and I didn’t know how to deal with it. When is this going to stop? How can I get through this? How am I supposed to care for others when I can’t care for my own heart? How did I end up here? After all, I have been a Christian for 12 years.
I grew up in a small city in Wisconsin. I have one older brother. My parents divorced when I was six but amicably co-parented. I spent half of the week with each of them. Anxiety and depression were a regular part of my childhood. My mother suffered from bouts of depression while I was growing up and her mother, as well as most of her siblings, struggled with depression. My father did not suffer with depression but was anxious about many things. Despite that, he told us not to worry and taught us that “everything will work out in the end.”
As a child, I was generally very happy. My mother used to call me “sunshine” because of my happy disposition. However, academically and athletically, I have always striven to be perfect. To keep from becoming overly anxious about performances that disappointed me, I would simply determine to do better. In college, alcohol also became a primary means of alleviating performance-based anxiety. A second area of anxiety with which I always remember struggling is a desire to receive the constant praise and approval of others, coupled with a fear of offending others.
Added to these oppressive mindsets were difficulties with my brother’s health. Seven years ago, my brother fell over and was not able to get up due to muscle spasms in his back. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is a rare blood cancer that is medically incurable. This was very difficult for me to deal with; however, I did all I could to have “enough faith” and enough prayer to see my brother healed. And for a time, it seemed like he had been!
Then two years ago, the cancer returned. I just couldn’t accept this. I didn’t have a category for God healing only partway. Although my brother had a stem cell transplant two years ago, the reality of this disease involves a continuous physical deterioration of the body. I continue to find this very difficult to accept. It’s easier not to think about or to pretend it isn’t a very real possibility for the outcome of his earthly life. Here was a situation that wasn’t going to “be okay.” This was a new cause for anxiety.
Another drain on my emotional and spiritual well-being is the depth of suffering that I am invited into as a pastor. Much can happen in a short period of time. Someone loses their spouse to cancer or finds out a family member has died unexpectedly; an elderly member dies as a result of a fall; a small child has a tragic fatal accident. And the list goes on and on. Being aware of and being invited into this type of suffering in peoples’ lives—particularly in the lives of people I love—has become very difficult for me.
“ I am blessed to belong to a pastoral staff that provides an understanding and supportive environment for its leaders at all times. ”
I knew it was time to ask for help. A humbling gesture to be sure, but a first step to “putting behind” and “moving forward.” I am blessed to belong to a pastoral staff that provides an understanding and supportive environment for its leaders at all times. I did not hesitate to share my experiences with my colleagues, particularly our lead pastor, as well as some others I was close to in our church family. I was met with no judgement, only prayers, loving encouragement and practical resources. Our church’s biblical counseling ministry helped me to overcome any embarrassment or shame in sharing my story. In addition, I asked a trusted, mature brother in Christ who is part of that ministry to work through this with me. Our lead pastor also put me in touch with a local biblical counselor and I began meeting regularly with him. Initially it was difficult to process how to even view this struggle as the emotional responses continued to intensify. I had never experienced this type of anxiety.
“ But God has intervened in an incredible way over the past seven months through His word, prayer and His people. ”
1. God revealed to me a sinful decrease in my commitment to prayer.
2. God blessed me through the encouragement and support of my local church family, especially some who had also struggled with panic attacks and anxiety.
One shared an excellent book which God used to show me another area of sinfulness in my life. I realized I had a strong desire to be famous for Jesus, rather than to glorify Jesus. I love Jesus deeply, and so it was a devastating realization that my selfish desire to promote myself was at His expense. I questioned if I should continue as a pastor. However, God, in his grace, reaffirmed my calling and encouraged and strengthened me to confront this sin, confess it, and continue to strive to remove it from my life and ministry.
“ I have come to recognize that God’s grace turns God’s standard into a goal—a goal that Christ has already achieved on our behalf and for which He empowers us to attain. ”
3. God has shown me the sweetness of having to depend on Him and Him alone to bring me through something that I ultimately have no control over.
I still have periods of panic attacks and sustained anxiety every two or three weeks, and I cannot control whether they come or not. But God has given me great trust and encouragement in Him and His purposes for this trial in my life. The panic attacks and anxiety do not have a major effect on my life anymore, as they did when they first occurred. I am able to work through them by His power, trusting in God and His provision.
“ My prayer is that He keeps this season of anxiety as long as He needs to in order to produce in me what He desires so that I can best serve Him and others. ”
My prayer is not that God removes the panic attacks and anxiety immediately (though that would be great!), but that He keeps this season of anxiety as long as He needs to in order to produce in me what He desires so that I can best serve Him and others. One of my most common prayers since I have been a believer is, “God, break me down in the areas You need to so that You can build me up to become the man that You want me to be.”
4. God has provided growth in practical areas that has given me greater work productivity and has lessened my anxiety.
5. God has used several particular scripture passages to teach me truths I had not fully grasped before.
Hebrews 12:3-11: I have had a very clear sense from the beginning of this trial that God has been disciplining me in several ways. This passage has encouraged me during this time to not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord. Although it is unpleasant in the moment, God promises that it will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness in my life if I allow Him to train me by it.
James 1:2-5: This is the passage on which I was meditating when I was first able to joyfully and tearfully thank the Lord for this trial, and ask not that He take it away immediately (as much as I would have preferred that), but that He would keep it as long as He needed to accomplish that which He desired. It also reminded me to ask God for wisdom in the midst of the trial. There have been several times through this trial that I have felt (in a spiritual sense, not an emotional sense) God strengthening me in my faith.
“ “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” ”
Romans 8:31-39, especially 32: Perhaps this is the Scripture that God has used most in my struggles. This has been a beautiful reminder of God’s gracious and loving care for me and it has also given me a correct perspective: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Psalm 23: This passage has been an incredible reminder to me of God’s loving care for me as my shepherd. He gives me rest and peace in Him. He restores my soul and leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. He is with me through every valley. He lavishes abundance upon me in the presence of those who want to destroy me (i.e., Satan). His goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life. God is for me and not against me! He has committed Himself to me (steadfast love) through His son Jesus. He has chosen to dwell within me until I am able to dwell with Him for all eternity!
“ Unless the Lord protects my house, my trying to protect it in my strength is useless. The Lord alone is protecting my house! ”
Psalm 127: God opened my eyes to His gracious provision through this Psalm. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. God, who did not spare His own son, IS building my house. Even when I fall short and fail, He is still building my house because He is for me and not against me. Unless the Lord protects my house, my trying to protect it in my strength is useless. The Lord alone is protecting my house! V. 2 “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for the Lord gives His beloved sleep.” It is not about my performance; it is about my faithfulness. And it is ultimately not even about my faithfulness (though I must strive to be faithful through the Spirit), but it is about God’s faithfulness to me in Christ. God empowers me to be faithful and He is gracious to me when I am not.
“ God may interrupt my day and my agenda is not always the same as His agenda, but if I acknowledge Him in all my ways, He will bring me to the right destination. ”
Proverbs 3:5-6: This passage helped me to recognize that what is most important in each day is not a particular destination, but that I am faithful to God in each moment. God may interrupt my day and my agenda is not always the same as His agenda, but if I acknowledge Him in all my ways, He will bring me to the right destination.
“ My anxiety no longer controls me. ”
Philippians 4:4-7: I am able through the Spirit to rejoice always in Christ. This rejoicing in Christ allows me to respond reasonably (without anxiety) to the situations I experience because the Lord is with me and the Lord will someday (maybe today) return to make all things right. Because of all of this I am able to thankfully give all my anxieties to God and trust that He can handle them better than I can. I have the ability in Christ to not be anxious about anything. I do not need to micromanage what God does with those situations or try to take those anxieties back from God, but I can trust that He will do what is ultimately best, whatever that may be.
“ “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). ”
I would say that I haven’t yet found freedom from anxiety, but I have found freedom in the midst of anxiety, and that is a beautiful place to be. I do still hope to be free from anxiety. Scripture commands us to do so (Matthew 6:34; Luke 12:22-31; Philippians 4:6-7). But I am so incredibly grateful to have freedom in Christ in the midst of my anxiety. My anxiety no longer controls me. I am able to control it through the power of the Spirit within me. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).