By Jesse Masson
As a counselor, I’ve often heard anxious clients say they feel like they are frantically spinning their tires in the mud. Failure seems inevitable if they rest—but if they keep trying, they fear their engine will break down.
Anxiety is not a mere feeling of a hormonal teenager. It’s a mental health condition that results from elevated stress hormones (i.e., cortisol, the “fight or flight” activator) in the body, causing one’s “motor” to be amped up beyond what is needed.
When this happens, a person may have distressed thoughts, feel isolated, be unable to focus, doubt their sanity, or question their faith (due to their own feeling of uncertainty)—which inevitably affects physical and spiritual health.
This mental health condition is not the product of immaturity, hormone-laced foods, secularism, health trends, or gluten intolerance. Anxiety actually has its roots as far back in human history as we can see in the Bible. People worry, and people have overwhelming thoughts.
Although no magic pill or prayer (or natural oil) will ensure immunity from life’s stressors, the local church can help people manage anxious moments. Here are a few practical steps that you can walk through with people in your church who struggle with anxious thinking.
Pray for them. I must first note that prayer is not a “one-and-done” solution. No one ever felt cared for after having a prayer sputtered over them and being told to trust God with the rest. That’s negligence. I’ve had people in my counseling office as result of this.
That said, Scripture does call us to be prayerful in these moments when it says, “… casting all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, NASB), and “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, NASB).
We can have confidence when the Bible tells us to communicate our hearts to God in prayer. This is also comforting as we trust Him to be sovereign over all things—working for the purpose and good of His will (Romans 8:28).
Know your limits. It’s important to understand what you cannot do in the moment—or long term. Empty words are evident to the one who is struggling.
If you are uncertain how to handle someone’s hurt, refer the person to a professional counselor. Know your community well enough to have a trusted referral list for mental health.
Just because you are a leader at the local church doesn’t mean you’re expected to have all the answers. You will lead your people well by guiding them to solutions that are in the best interest for their holistic health—not your pride.
The church functions best when it’s a wheelhouse of contributing individuals, not the home base from which you are obligated to provide all the answers.
For additional reading on this point, I’d suggest Eric Geiger’s recent post, “3 Ways Pastors Can Provide Better Counseling.”
Don’t say it! Some basic one-liners do more harm than good. Although we may have the best of intentions, sometimes words have a way of jamming our proverbial foot into our mouth.
Phrases like these are best to avoid when helping the hurting in your church:
- Just calm down. You’ll be fine.
- Give it time—you’ll see.
- Have you prayed about it?
- What do you think God’s trying to show you?
- Is there any unconfessed sin?
- If you just _______, you’ll be able to make the right decision.
Although all of these phrases are rooted in truth, the person suffering with anxiety has already had these thoughts—hundreds of times—before seeking help. The best advice is this: Don’t give advice.
If you’re unsure what to do, simply be with that person amid suffering. You don’t have to understand the answer—just try to understand the person. Empathize and be available. Ask how you can be helpful.
If there is not a concrete direction, then defer to continued prayer, and refer the person to a trusted professional counselor. We are united in Christ and we must unite to serve one another well.
- Can Mental Illness Be Prayed Away?
- Pastors at Greater Risk for Anxiety, Depression
- America’s Most Stressed States in 2018
JESSE MASSON (@JesseMasson) lives in Kansas City with his wife, Julie, and their three children. He works with MyCounselor.Online, a Christian counseling organization that offers in-office and video professional counseling.