Anxiety is common to all people, but it’s an occupational hazard for those of us in vocational ministry. The reason is that much of the anxiety we experience cannot be separated from the cares of our life multiplied exponentially by the cares of the people we serve.
Anxiety is an emotion… we know that, but it’s more than a feeling. Anxiety often includes a physical reaction, because it is entwined with our bodies. There are numerous examples of this in Scripture (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29; Job 3:26). This makes perfect sense, because God created us both body and soul, and the interplay between the two is constant (Ps. 31:9-12). We are complex creatures who need God’s revelation to help us understand how anxiety works in our hearts and in our ministry.
Anxiety distracts our hearts
There are numerous ways to look at anxiety through the lens of Scripture. We could think about anxiety as a distracting care, which is what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:25-34). Employing two different but related words, Jesus teaches us that to be anxious is to have our minds and hearts torn between two worlds, dividing our mental energy, and clouding our spiritual vision. Anxiety is not something we have, like the flu or cancer. Instead, anxiety is something we experience. It is a common emotional struggle, a human response to things that happen in our fallen world.
Therefore, if we struggle with distracting cares (the feeling that our minds and hearts are torn between two worlds), then it doesn’t take much creativity to imagine how much our inner turmoil magnifies when we are called to serve others who have just as many distracting cares as we do. In ministry, their distracting cares become our distracting cares.
- It doesn’t stop with us being anxious about our finances. The financial troubles of sheep in our flock also burden us.
- It doesn’t stop with us being anxious about our children wandering away from the Lord. The pain of every parent of a prodigal in our church becomes our pain as well.
- It doesn’t stop with us being anxious about our doctor’s appointments and our CT scans. The diagnoses of the sheep occupy our minds, too.
- It doesn’t stop with us being anxious about how our own soul is doing, but the spiritual health of every member of the church becomes our concern.
Therefore, we can relate to the apostle Paul’s description of anxiety in ministry: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).
Anxiety Pressures Us
Loving people creates a weight that threatens to crush us, a burden too heavy to bear alone. The pressure that Paul writes about is the burden of the physical or mental distress he feels for all the churches he helped to start or shepherd. We can only imagine how many people and needs this would have entailed. And if that weren’t enough, this “daily pressure” comes on top of “other things” he has already mentioned—including “imprisonments” and “countless beatings;” being shipwrecked and surrounded by all kinds of dangers; and personal hardships such as sleeplessness, hunger, and thirst (2 Cor. 11:23–27). Pressure on top of pressure. Talk about anxiety!
Paul’s pressures were also sometimes accompanied by despair (2 Cor. 1:8). This shouldn’t surprise us since many of us struggle with depression alongside anxiety. But Paul always knew to turn to “the God of all comfort,” and so he assures us that God “comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). This truth is for all believers throughout all time. Paul wrote this comforting promise while in the furnace of personal affliction. His mental suffering was so extreme that he and his companions were “utterly burdened beyond [their] strength” and “despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” Nevertheless, these servants of God turned the eyes of their hearts to Christ.
Anxiety Drives Us to Christ for Hope and Help
Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’m not an apostle. I haven’t planted dozens of churches. How does this help me?” Let me show you two ways that it does.
First, Paul reminds us that God graciously orchestrates suffering to strip his children of self-reliance—of the pride that feeds so many of our other sins and hinders our usefulness. In the case of the apostle and his friends, God used overwhelming pressures to accomplish their Christian growth and perseverance. “That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead,” they said (2 Cor. 1:9). Setting our hope on God alone, not on the lessening of our pressure or on the improvement of our circumstances, is the ultimate remedy for anxiety.
Second, the example of Paul and his friends directs us to discipline ourselves to look to Jesus. Their testimony was that “on him we have set our hope” (2 Cor. 1:10). Hope delivers us from the crippling effects of anxiety because it helps us to cling to an immovable anchor: the truth that God is for us in Christ (Rom. 8:31). The promise of ultimate deliverance in Jesus breathed life into the suffering apostles so that they could press on during unbearable pressure. The same is true for you and me. When we have moments of panic, we can stop, take control of our thought processes, and choose to believe that God’s love for us in Christ is greater than any pressure that tries to hijack our peace.
Paul overcame the crippling power of anxiety by counseling himself with biblical truths that countered the lies that his flesh was tempted to tell him. Perhaps Paul struggled with some of the same lies we sometimes tell ourselves, like: If my ministry is blessed by God then suffering should be the exception, and therefore, I must be doing something wrong. Successful ministry is not supposed to be this distressing. If I was in the will of God, then things would be going better. But that’s not true. In place of lies like these, we must remind ourselves of Christ-centered truths, such as: Suffering puts Christ on display in ways that comfortable living cannot. Enduring pain in ministry makes Jesus shine brighter, which brings more hope to those I serve. Our suffering is essential to effective shepherding, because it opens the door to the authentic delivery of the comfort and peace of Jesus to his people when they suffer.
- Reflect: Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-11. What might the God of providence be seeking to accomplish in your heart through your current trials?
- Act: Memorize Romans 8:31. As you review this verse, meditate on God’s love for you in Christ.
- Act: What are some of the “other things” in your life or ministry that contribute to the pressure you are feeling? Talk to the Lord about these things.