I don’t remember the exact date, but it was a Friday night at church. It was the last night of a week of congregational prayer, and that’s when it happened – I had my first panic attack. It actually wasn’t the worst panic attack I’ve ever had, but that day, something inside of me “broke.” I spent the following year battling deep unbelief and paralyzing fear on a daily basis; I couldn’t even open my Bible or pray without anxiety and fear gripping my heart. I’ve often thought of that period of time as the year when I was an atheist wrestling to live as a believer. It was as if my five senses did not and would not align to my heart’s faith. During that period, I also learned much about me and much about God. At the end of that period of my life, I had an amazing and very important conversation with the Lord in which he literally removed the besetting unbelief and exchanged it for faith. The turning point of that conversation was when I faced the basis of my unbelief. It wasn’t an audible voice or anything like that, but I felt God pressing on me that my unbelief was deeply rooted on my [false] expectations of Him and not on His immutable and flawless character. In other words, He wasn’t the cause of my unbelief and fear; my heart was the cause.
It’s been about nine years since the Lord restored faith, hope, and joy to my heart. It has also been about nine years since He has chosen not to remove anxiety and panic attacks from my life. In fact, since yesterday, I’ve had two anxiety attacks. Has God failed me? I’m a pastor, a husband, and a father; why is God allowing me to still be affected by this? Could I even function in my different roles while struggling with this? These are some of the questions that from time to time come to my mind and the truth is that I still don’t have all the answers. However, with the hope that this may comfort you in your own struggles or equip you to help those around you, let me share some of the things I’ve learned while enduring this ongoing struggle:
The anxiety and panic attacks may never go away
I remember constantly praying, “Lord, take this away please!” I knew He could but I also knew He didn’t have to – as he did with Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Somewhere along the journey, this reality became a “breakthrough” in my life – God didn’t have to remove my “thorn” and therefore, such deliverance didn’t have to be the sole focus of my prayers. Up to that point, I had been measuring God’s involvement in this area of my life by whether he removed my struggles or not. Only by his mercy do I now know that even in the valley of the shadow of death, the LORD is with me, and I don’t have to fear evil. So instead of praying, “remove the storm,” I know pray, “remove the storm… but if you don’t, go before me, hold my hand, and never leave me.”
Anxiety and panic attacks don’t necessarily disqualify you from ministry, but they do make it more difficult
I love standing before God’s people and proclaiming His word! I count it a joy and a privilege to be an under shepherd in Christ’s church and can’t see me doing anything else in life. However, there are many Sundays that while I’m preaching, I’m terrified while praying that my throat doesn’t shut or that I don’t pass out behind the pulpit. It’s not the pressure of public speaking or just common nerves; it is anxiety and panic that just overtakes me in different, and sometimes arbitrary, settings. By his grace, He has not allowed anything beyond the anxiety up to this point. This could prevent me from public ministry in the future, but it doesn’t have to. I want to remain in ministry as long as God allows it. Until then, I know that things will be more difficult for me, but that my God is the One at work and that He does it for His name’s sake. I may have it harder that other ministers of the Gospel who do not struggle with this, but at the end of the day, all of us are equally needy of His sustaining and empowering grace.
Anxiety and panic attacks don’t always make sense
One of the more common things that those of us who struggle with anxiety and panic attacks hear from others that genuinely want to help us is, “it just doesn’t make sense… I don’t get it.” The truth is that many of us are aware of this but it doesn’t necessarily alleviate our suffering. You see, there is a rational fear that begins in the mind and can end in the mind – like fear of a noise you heard at night, but then you remembered that it was dryer that you left running. Then there’s a rational fear that overtakes our heart but is overcome by God – like the fear of eternal condemnation that is conquered by the hope of salvation and eternal life in Christ’s righteousness and substitutionary atonement. But then there is irrational fear that seems to begin out of nowhere and overtakes not only our minds and hearts, but also our bodies. This is how anxiety and panic attacks work. Once you have one, something “breaks” inside of you and there is nothing more terrifying than having another one. Logic and Truth eases the mind and the heart but not always the physical manifestations of fear.
So if you are trying to help someone that struggles with anxiety and fear, do try to bring logic and Truth, knowing that although we do listen and appreciate it, it doesn’t always help. Sit with us, pray with us, remind us of Jesus, and perhaps watch us crumble down and rise back up again by God’s grace. You didn’t fail at helping us, that’s just how it goes down sometimes.
Some people need medical help
When I first began to struggle with anxiety and fear, I thought it wouldn’t honor God if I chose to get medical help. I didn’t want to rely on something other than God and I didn’t want to be “drugged up.” However, I now understand more about how some medicines work to help certain chemical imbalances and I’ve seen Christians be greatly benefited by medicine – without turning into zombies. I still haven’t sought medical help, but I am willing too – I first need health insurance! I’m not saying all medicines are good or that the medical route is for everyone. However, we should not think that seeking medical help equals not trusting God.
God is enough
I know this may sound like a cliché, but it isn’t. After almost nine years of suffering with anxiety and panic attacks, I still struggle at times questions that remain unanswered and some uncertainty about the future. But there is one thing that I am certain of – God is enough. Even in the darkest moments of paralyzing fear and engulfing panic, He is there, holding my hand, never letting go. Furthermore, this trial will end one day. In heaven, the greatest treasure will be the only Treasure – Jesus. However, in His presence, there will also be no more death, tears, fear, anxiety, panic attacks…etc. He will be enough for our peace and joy in eternity and He is enough now.