In the second episode of our biblical counseling series on TGC Q&A, Andrew Dealy answers the question, “How do I overcome anxiety and depression?” He addresses:
- Fighting guilt and finding resilience (0:37)
- The natural response to a fallen and broken world (1:22)
- Lessons from Matthew 6:25–34 and Philippians 4:4–9 (1:56)
- Learning not to be ruled by our emotions (3:09)
- Jesus fighting anxiety in the Garden (5:15)
- A great hope to overcome anxiety (7:22)
- Deciphering the factors that feed anxiety (8:10)
- Finding purpose in our struggle (13:55)
- Medication as a personal help (14:28)
- Expected pain and suffering in the Christian life (15:27)
- Being honest about our pain (16:47)
- No promise of answers to all of our questions (17:32)
- Self-forgetfulness instead of an inward focus (18:00)
- Practical tools for overcoming anxiety and depression (19:03)
- An invitation to carry our struggles to God (19:56)
Find more from TGC on this topic:
- Explore the Topic of Fear and Anxiety
- The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life
Recommended Reading from Andrew Dealy:
- Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest by Ed Welch
- Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness by Ed Welch
- Spiritual Depression by Martin Lloyd-Jones
- The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith
- The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Andrew Dealy: Hi. You’re listening to TGC Q&A, a podcast from the Gospel Coalition and this is the Biblical Counseling Series featuring hopeful answers to your questions on navigating fear, anxiety, ministry and marriage and everything in between.
My name is Andrew Dealy and I am the executive director of the Austin Stone Counseling Center and the director of soul care for the Austin Stone Community Church. Today I’ll be answering some important questions we’ve received from you on anxiety and depression.
Andrew Dealy: One of the questions we received says this, “As a believer, how do I fight guilt when I experience anxiety and depression? How do I find resilience when I don’t even have the strength to pray?”
This is a challenging question. No doubt the feelings of anxiety and depression are difficult to wrestle with in this life and so the first thing I want us to understand and to know is that as a child of God, God loves you where you are, God knows and empathizes with you in your pain, that he is aware of your hurt and he knows it intimately. You have a sympathetic high priest who is with you in that difficulty.
The way the question is worded, though, it says, “What do I do when I feel guilt?” The feeling of guilt generally implies that we have done something wrong, it means that we have erred in some way. I’m going to offer, although, not all people and all theologians agree on this, I’m going to offer that perhaps the feeling of anxiety and depression is actually not something that’s wrong, not something that you’re doing wrong but rather is unfortunately part of the natural reality of living in a broken and fallen world.
Let me walk you through why I believe what I do about anxiety and depression and then we’ll move into so what do we do with it? In general, I treat emotions and feelings as information. They’re helpful at enabling us to understand how we’re viewing and interpreting our reality. If we were to look at the two primary passages on anxiety we would look at Matthew 6, 25 through 34, and Philippians 4 verse four through nine, and both these passages the apostle Paul and Jesus speak to anxiety directly. Jesus says, “Do not be anxious but instead look to the birds in the air, look to these creatures that God cares for, look to the grass to the field that God provides for that, consider that you can’t change the color of your hair.”
It says stuff like that, which is fascinating. He’s taking our eyes off ourselves and saying, “Hey, look at creation. Look at what God is able to do and recognize, ‘Man, you don’t have as much power as you need” but if you were to look at that passage where he says, “Do not be anxious”, at no time are you going to see him say, “Do not be anxious but instead feel something else.” He’s going to say, “Do not be anxious but instead do these things, engage in these practices.”
Likewise, the apostle Paul in Philippians 4, four through nine, is going to say do not be anxious but instead [inaudible 00:03:14] make your request be made known to God. He also is going to give us practice as we deal with our emotions. At no point does Paul say do not feel anxious but instead feel happy or feel joy or feel these things but rather he says, “Here’s what we do when the feeling of anxiety comes upon us.”
In both of those passages scripture teaches us something about how anxiety works. Anxiety comes in and we feel it. What emotions will tend to do is try and rule us. Anxiety will say, “Hey, it feels dangerous so now respond with control. Respond with self-protection, respond in these ways to try and relieve anxiety.”
But instead what Jesus and the apostle Paul invited us to do is instead of trying to control or let anxiety, the feeling of anxiety rule us, they invite us to look to God, our creator, to understand he is in control and to lean in to him.
When we feel anxiety it’s actually the first temptation … This is the way I phrase it and that’s partly why I don’t call it sin, feel anxiety, we’re being tempted to live and operate and to evaluate our circumstances as though God is not …
We’re being tempted in that moment when we’re dealing with depression and anxiety, we’re being tempted in that moment to believe that we’re the ones that have to be in control of what’s going on because God isn’t going to do anything.
If we treat anxiety that way, if we receive anxiety as, “Hey, when I feel this way I feel like things are going to overwhelm me, I feel like I can’t handle it” and we go, “Okay, God. In this moment I realize now what’s happening. I’m being tempted to look at reality and believe that you’re not a part of this. Thank you for this reminder, although it’s a painful reminder. Thank you for this reminder that shows me, Lord God, that I’m forgetting that you’re a part of this and, God, if I put you into the equation, if when I feel anxious I put you into the equation, you’ve never been overwhelmed, you’ve never been confused, you’ve never been lost. You know what comes next. God, help me trust you.”
Then when we feel anxious it actually will propel us towards God. It will propel us towards him instead of away. I think the enemy often uses the feeling of depression and anxiety to get us to believe that the game is already lost, that when we feel anxious we start to believe, “Oh my gosh, I must be lacking in faith or I must be doubting God in some horrific way” or I must be doing something so terrible wrong otherwise I wouldn’t feel this anxious.
Instead if we recognize that the feeling of anxiety and the feeling of depression is the beginning of the battle, it’s the first warning sign that we’re being tempted to live and act as though God is not there, then we can let that feeling actually propel us towards the lord and towards engaging with him.
Let me give you one more example in scripture of why I think this is a helpful way to think about anxiety and our emotions. If we were to go into the garden at Gethsemane with Jesus before he goes to the cross and he’s in the garden and he’s talking with the father and the scripture tells us that he asked three times, “Father, if there was a different way, man, I want it. If there’s a different way than going to the cross or there’s another way to accomplish this, I want that path.”
In the gospel of Luke it tells us at that moment Jesus as he is beseeching the father for a different path, his body is responding by literally sweating drops of blood. If I were to ask you in that moment, “What do you think Jesus is feeling?” I think honestly if we took the name Jesus out of it and we put in the name Bob and I just said, “Hey, what do you think Bob is feeling?” We would all feel comfortable saying, “He feels anxious in this moment.”
The most natural thing for him to be feeling at that time was anxiety. Now, again, if we take the very basic definition of anxiety as when I look ahead, what I see coming feels overwhelming to me. I want you to think for a moment. Was there ever a time in the history of mankind where it was more appropriate and healthy to feel anxious?
In this moment, Jesus is looking to going to the cross, to suffering a gruesome death, to paying for all the sins of the world and on top of that, to being separated from the father, what was coming was overwhelming. In other words, Jesus’ body in that moment is responding in a healthy and appropriate way.
His body is saying, “I don’t want to feel the pain. I don’t want to suffer this loss. I don’t want to be destroyed.” His body was doing what it should have been doing.
Again, this is why I would say to feel anxious is quite different than being ruled by anxiety. We’re all going to feel anxiety, we’re all going to feel depression in this life, we’re all going to have moments of looking at what’s ahead and feeling overwhelmed, and yet in those moments Jesus shows in the garden of Gethsemane that faith can trump what we feel.
Even as Jesus is sweating drops of blood, as he’s praying to the father and the father said, “No, this is the path”, what does he do next? Even as his body is still screaming at him, he stands and he walks towards the cross.
This is one of the great hopes that Jesus gives us as we deal with depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety don’t get to tell us who we are. They don’t get to control us, they don’t get to determine our future, they don’t get to set the boundary lines for what God can do.
Believe you me, it will feel like they can. Anxiety and depression will want you to believe that they have the kind of control to determine what happens for you next.
What Jesus models is that even as we feel anxious, even as we feel depressed, by God’s grace, by faith, we can still stand and take the next step in faithfulness.
Here’s the good news for us, as we fail on that, where we have failed, Jesus has succeeded. Where we fail and we give into anxiety and let anxiety and depression just absolutely rule what we do next, Jesus offers us grace and offers us a better way to move forward.
Andrew Dealy: As we talk about … Let’s stay specifically with anxiety right now. One of the difficulties of walking or dealing with anxiety is that there are any number of potential causes for us feeling anxious in a given moment.
I think it’s helpful if you’re a person who is dealing with anxiety at this time to spend time really working through the different possibilities and the different things that might be feeding the way you feel currently.
You want to walk through your physiologic factors. I can guarantee you one thing, if you today drank 16 cups of coffee, you know what you’re going to feel? You’re going to feel anxious. Your body is going to respond to that with anxiety. You put that much caffeine in your system and it’s going to have an effect and an impact.
We want to attend to diet, how we’re eating, how we’re taking care of our body. Again, I can guarantee you this, if you haven’t slept in three days, you know what you’re going to feel? Probably anxious and depressed. Any parent out there that has dealt with young kids knows when you go without sleep you turn into a bit of a monster because it’s a form of torture. It’s terrible.
Again, how is your sleep rhythm? Are you getting a good amount of sleep every night? Are you taking care of your body? Exercise, one of the most practical things that you can do right now if you’re someone who is struggling with anxiety and depression is do some form of exercise.
I want to be clear. I’m not talking about some high interval crushing workout here. I’m talking about go for a walk. Like just go for a 10, 15 minute walk. It’s a great way to start your day. Get out in nature, see God’s creation, recognize you’re not in control but he is and let your body just calm down.
Other factors to consider with anxiety apart from physiological, sleep, what you’re eating, exercise, relational realities so if you’ve got relationships that are fractured or broken, difficult family of origin story, or relationships with your parents or siblings are in a difficult time or fractured or just that you haven’t connected with anybody, that you lack community, those types of things are also going to likely lead to an increase of feeling anxious on this life.
Attend to media consumption. In our day and age you’ve got to spend time assessing this. What are you putting into your brain? Galatians 6 tells us God is not mocked. To what we sow, we will reap. If the types of shows that you’re watching, the type of podcasts you’re listening to, the type of news outlets you’re feeding yourself on trade in fear, don’t be surprised that anxiety is going to be a marker in your life. If what you’re feeding your brain is this constant sense of the whole world is ending and everything is chaos the natural emotional response is going to be anxiety and depression. Attend to the type of media that you’re putting into yourself.
I’ll give you an example from a client I had. I had a client that I was working with for about a month and a half. He was dealing with severe anxiety. He had basically panic attacks near bedtime and couldn’t get to sleep, which was creating a self-compounding problem. If you can’t sleep, anxiety is going to continue to increase over time.
I’ve been with him for a month and a half. We did the Philippians four reality of the Matthew six, talked about Jesus being with him, the provision, looked to creation and see that God is caring for it, know that you don’t have to be in control because your loving, heavenly father is in control but we were getting nowhere.
I finally, being the good counselor I am or lame counselor because I should have done this way earlier in the process, asked him about a month and a half in, I was like, “Hey, can you just tell me your bedtime routine? What do you do before you go to bed?”
He told me, “Around 11, 12 o’clock, I start getting ready for bed, do these things and then I”, no joke y’all, “Put on a horror film.” He was watching a horror film every night before going to bed and had no conceptual connection to that causing anxiety for him.
I, again, being the brilliant counselor I am, said, “Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea. What if we don’t do that this week and see if maybe that’s influencing whether or not you can sleep and whether or not you feel anxious?” Shocker of an ender to the story here, he stopped watching it and he started sleeping well.
Don’t underestimate the small things. What you are putting into your brain, what you are feeding your thought life is going to have an impact on your felt experience of depression and anxiety. Attend to those realities.
Lastly, the one that we’re probably more commonly used to thinking about is spiritual realities. How is your connection with the lord? How is your time connecting with him and his word through prayer? Through fasting? Through community? Through gathering together with the body of believers, which, obviously, in this season is uniquely challenging but that’s going to have an impact as well.
If you feel disconnected from the lord it’s going to be hard to believe that his promises are true. It’s going to be hard to believe that he is in control and that he’s at work. We want to have rhythms of spiritual disciplines that really attune our emotions to what God says is more true than what we can see and feel in the moment.
In all of those, if I got somebody coming in with anxiety, just to give you all a little bit behind the scenes of what I di, if I’ve got somebody who is struggling with anxiety for the first time or if it’s been a long time, one of the first questions I am going to ask is, “Hey, when was the last time you had a physical? When was the last time you went to the doctor and got checked out just to make sure that everything is fine and feeling the way that it’s supposed to?”
Because for some people in this life, they are going to deal with depression and anxiety on a neurochemical level for their lives. This is the second Corinthians 12 reality, Paul talks about in second Corinthians 12, the thorn in the flesh that he had from the lord. We don’t know what exactly that was. We just know that it was really painful for Paul. When we’re told in second Corinthians 12 that Paul prayed three times, “God, can you just take this away? Can you make it better? Can you provide relief?” God’s response was, “No, my power is made perfect in weakness.”
For some of us, in this life, the persistent annoyance of anxiety and depression, the clinical reality of anxiety and depression for us is going to be that thorn in the side. It doesn’t control or tell us who we are. It doesn’t define our identity but we might have to wrestle with it for the rest of our lives.
We know that God’s purpose even in giving us that difficulty is to draw us near to him. As Paul responded after God said, “No, my power is made perfect in weakness”, Paul then says, “Okay, then I am going to proclaim my weakness to all people that they might see God, that you are great, even though I am weak. They will see, God, that you are awesome and powerful, even though I am feeble and in need.”
For some of us, we’re going to have that thorn in the side. Now, that does not mean that we don’t consider medication as an option for help. What we do want to do is talk to the lord about that first. In other words, medication, is it moral or not moral?
It’s neither. It’s neutral. Medication is just a tool that can be used. It’s a common grace that we can use as believers that might be helpful for various things. What we need to know, that medication can be taken in faith and be God glorifying or medication can be taken outside of faith as a power grab to try and control our lives or control what’s going on.
When I walk with clients and I walk through people with anxiety and considering medication, what we do is talk to the lord a lot and ask him, “Hey, is this what you would have us do?” Is this a tool that would be helpful in the season and it’s wise for us to do it or, no, Lord is it actually not time to do this?
Medication itself is not the issue. The issue is going to be what the heart is doing with that. With my clients, again, I’ll ask them if they got a physical, ask to get connected with a doctor and make sure that everything is functioning right and then we’ll roll through things like other physiological factors, social realities and spiritual realities to try and assess other things that might be feeding their anxiety.
Andrew Dealy: Particularly for those who this has been an ongoing struggle for a long time and you don’t see an end in sight, you don’t have clarity that the lord might have you walking through this for a long time, know that that is difficult and painful to digest.
In many ways, I want to say I’m sorry that from a church perspective and a Christian culture perspective, this is an area I think that we have failed in terms of equipping and loving on our people well. In terms of communicating to the Christian life is one that is marked by difficulty, the Christian life is one that is marked by pain and suffering but it’s pain and suffering that is never arbitrary. It’s never accidental but always has trajectory and purpose.
Even as you feel overburdened by what you’re dealing with, as you feel like there will not come an end, God has said there will come an end. There will come a time when this will change. Now the guarantee is not this side of heaven so I don’t want to give you a false hope. I don’t want to give you a false hope here that says, “Hey, just last another week or a month” or if you just read the right verse or pray the right prayer, it’ll be done but rather God has promised he will give you everything that you need to endure in this season as long as this pain is here.
Again, going back to the second Corinthians 12 and even how Paul approached his pain, he wasn’t blithe about it. He didn’t act like it didn’t hurt. He beseeched the lord to take it away because it was painful so for you, child of God, know that God welcomes you before his throne of grace to come and bring your complaint. Bring your complaint of pain to be honest with him, to be like Job, to be like the third of the psalms that are all lament-oriented, to be like Psalm 88 where it ends with, “Man, darkness is my closest friend.”
God can receive that and he is with you in it. You don’t need to pretend like it doesn’t hurt. We can be honest about the pain but we go to the lord in our pain and we give him the truth of what’s going on in our hearts, share it with other people, gather together a community around you that can help you endure in these seasons and know, again, daily, God will provide what you need to navigate it.
There is purpose in it. It’s not accidental. There is trajectory in it and let me, again, give you this perhaps frustrating reality, God doesn’t promise to tell you why. God doesn’t promise to tell you why you are suffering in this season other than the greater meta-narrative of you are being conformed in the image of Christ. As Hebrews remind us, it was through suffering that Christ learned obedience as well, that as you suffer in this life and face difficulty, you are becoming more like Christ.
It may not feel like it but we trust God’s word that that is what he is doing in your life and in the midst of pain. Be honest with your pain. One of the dangers, just moving into some things that I think can also be helpful for us all to keep in mind, one of the dangers with anxiety and depression is it tends to encourage us to just focus on self and to go inside.
If we go inside and get kind of self-absorbed, we will not see light. We will not find help. The help is not somewhere buried within us. The answer is not somewhere buried within understanding our family of origin or our fill in the blank. Rather, the answer is in Christ. This is what Jesus does in Matthew 6 and Paul does in Philippians 4, again, he calls us to look outside of ourselves.
Andrew Dealy: As we come to a close here I want to leave you with a couple of verses I think are really helpful for us to keep in mind as we continue to navigate seasons that are challenging and difficult for us as we continue to face anxiety and depression, which we all will in different forms and in different ways throughout our lives and so Hebrews 4:16 is a passage that I just love, listen to what Hebrews 4:16 says to us, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
We have a heavenly father who loves us, who cares about our pain, who weeps with us, in our hardship and he says, “Come, come to the throne of grace because of what Jesus has done, the throne that used to be a throne of judgment, the throne that used to be a place we ought to be absolutely terrified to go to, is now a throne of grace where he says, ‘Child, come. Come and ask and he will supply what we need in our times of challenge and difficulty” and then lastly let’s let Jesus have the final word here.
This is what he says in John 16 and 33, he says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”