This is an election season in America, which means you are likely anxious, fearful, and worried. This is by design. And it’s only getting worse.
For as long as there have been democratic elections, there have been politicians seeking to use the fears and anxieties of the people to win votes. But what has increased—and increased exponentially in the past few decades—is the rate at which we are being bombarded by such anxiety-producing political rhetoric.
In the era before the American Revolution, a citizen may have heard such anxious news a couple of times a month. By the time of Lincoln and the telegraph, the rate had increased to several times a week, and with the advent of the television, several times a day. In the age of the internet, though, we may be exposed to fear-mongering messages several times an hour.
Fortunately, we Christians have an antidote, for the Bible has much to say about anxiety, fear, and worry. In fact, there is a political leader in Scripture from whom we can learn much about dealing with anxiety and fear: King David. But before we consider how to cope with these emotions let’s look at what we should know about them.
Understanding Anxiety, Fear, and Worry
They aren’t interchangeable — The primary difference between fear and anxiety is the timeframe. Fear is an emotional response to a real or perceived immediate threat; anxiety is an emotional response to a real or perceived future threat. Fear is a warning system that alerts us to danger right now, while anxiety is a warning system of impending danger. Related to anxiety is worry: a repetitive pattern of thoughts and mental images that causes us to inordinately focus on our anxiety and fear.
We need anxiety and fear — What happens to someone who doesn’t feel physical pain? The answer is he or she suffers immensely. People with leprosy lack the ability to feel pain, and the results are that they often lose body parts due to repeated injuries. Pain sends the body a signal that something is wrong, and when we don’t receive the warning we cause even more damage to ourselves.
Fear and anxiety can serve a similar function, warning us of impending danger. Like pain, fear and anxiety are God-given capacities that are to be used for the right purposes. In we are in physical danger we can be motivated by fear to escape and seek safety. Similarly, we need anxiety because we live in a broken world that poses many future threats, both to ourselves and to our society as a whole.
The problem comes when fear and anxiety cease to be warning signs and become sources of continuous distress, or when we are fearful and anxious over the wrong things, in the wrong way, or to the wrong degree. (While some anxiety is normal, it can become disordered and debilitating. If you have persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for six months, if the anxiety interferes with daily functioning, and you have anxiety-related symptoms [e.g., trouble sleeping], seek help from a counselor or physician.)
We don’t need worry — In their limited roles as mechanisms for signaling pain, evil, or danger, fear and anxiety can be signals that God intends for us to take action. Worry, however, should not be part of our life at all, because it causes us to focus on our concerns, rather than on God. Here’s how David can teach us not to worry.
How King David (and King Jesus) Can Help
Out of all the people in the Bible there’s probably no one who was more afflicted by fear and anxiety than King David. Fear and anxiety were, for him, like constant companions. We can’t really understand David, or his Psalms, without understanding his anxiety and fear. But by understanding how David dealt with these emotions, we can also learn how we too can respond appropriately.
Identify the source — To overcome his fear and anxiety, David frequently engaged in godly self-reflection. In Psalm 139:23, he wrote, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”
Follow David’s lead by asking God to test you as you fill in the blanks in the following sentences:
What I need most is ______________.
What I want most is ______________.
What I most want to avoid is ________________.
What I feel most powerless about is ______________.
What I’m most concerned will happen is _________________.
The way you answers those questions likely reveals your sources of anxiety. We feel anxious we won’t get what we need or want—or that we’ll get what we don’t want or can’t avoid. We also become anxious about concerns that make us feel small, helpless, or lacking control.
Take a moment to identify and write down a list of thing you are anxious about, both for yourself and for our country.
Classify your anxieties — On a sheet of paper draw a large circle, and then a smaller circle within the larger one. In the small circle, write down the items from your list that you can do something about, the things you have the ability to take action on. In the larger circle, write down the things that you can’t control or affect.
The items in the small circle should be things you can, with God’s help, do something about today or in the near future. The ones in the larger circle are not for you—they’re for God. Either God has given us the capacity to handle the future threat, or he expects us to put our trust in him to handle it.
If the Lord hasn’t given you the power to act directly then you need to let go of the anxiety, so that you can find, as David writes, “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy” (Ps. 94:19). Identifying our anxieties can help us to know whether to take godly action or seek God’s consolation.
Put your trust in King Jesus — Trusting God is the attitude of our heart, soul, and mind in which we have complete faith in the goodness, power, and sufficiency of God. It is not a passive submission or surrender to circumstances but rather an active process that we develop through such disciplines as gratitude, remembrance, Scriptural engagement, and walking in obedience.
None of us fully trusts God, of course, for if we did, we’d never be tempted to sin. If we completely trusted him we’d never doubt that his holy will is best for us. Nevertheless, we can learn to grow in trust God. And by putting our trust in him we can be fear from worry, knowing that no matter who wins the next election that King Jesus remains, now and forevermore, the king of glory (Psalm 24:10).
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from material in Joe Carter’s new work, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).