Anxiety disorders in the United States make up one of the definitive mental health challenges of our day. With some reports calling the U.S. the most anxious nation in the world, researchers note an exponential rise in levels of depression and other anxiety-related conditions over the past few generations. The use of anti-anxiety medications doubled between 1997 and 2004 (from 900 million to 2.1 billion) and estimates today are that stress-related problems in the U.S. alone account for $300 billion of medical care and lost productivity.
Many factors influence the precipitous rise of anxiety, including rapid social change and increased media consumption. But whatever the roots of the problem, church leaders are faced with a formidable challenge: to be voices of peace amid the worry and fear, while often dealing with anxiety themselves.
Pastor and best-selling author Max Lucado’s latest book, Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in the Chaos (Thomas Nelson), is a pastoral invitation to embrace and foster that peace. The pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, Lucado is widely known for bringing an accessible pastoral perspective through his preaching and writing with 97 million books sold since his first in 1985.
Outreach editor-at-large, Paul J. Pastor, caught up with Lucado to discuss the new book, the pandemic of anxiety in our culture and Christian leaders’ call to help usher people into Christlike lives of genuine joy and peace … after truly seeking it for themselves.
Max, all of your nonfiction books began as sermon series at Oak Hills. Why did you choose to preach and write about anxiety for your congregation?
I’ve been at Oak Hills since 1988, so I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of preaching. Anxiety is a timeless problem, surely, but I had a series of conversations with people struggling with anxiety and felt it was vital to address.
My favorite go-to passage for myself on that topic is Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I bet that would make a great outline for a series on anxiety, I thought. And that’s where it started.
Between 1988 and today, as a pastor have you sensed that anxiety is a rising tide? Are there changes as one generation fades into another?
Pretty much any research study on this topic expresses dire concern about anxiety today. Also concerning is our inability to effectively treat it—especially among younger people.
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo sets the context: It appears that children these days feel the same level of stress as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s. That’s a very dynamic statement. Our level of anxiety is increasing and particularly sharply in the United States. There is more anxiety in the United States than in the developing world. And guess what? We’re seeing that when people from developing countries move to the U.S., their anxiety increases.
What’s causing that, in your view?
Two things: Our secularism is increasing, which removes God from conversation, and our levels of information exposure are increasing—bad news reaches us at such speed that we have no time to digest it. My parents or my grandparents would have heard about a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster, hours, days, even weeks after it happened. But today? Minutes. Seconds. It’s constant. The speed at which we receive bad news overwhelms our ability to process it. Those two factors come together in a unique way in our era, contributing, I think, to this spike in anxiety.
But this positions the church and the pastor so well. We, aware of the bad news that our communities are hearing constantly, become a voice that can reintroduce God into the solution. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul writes. Well, if you don’t have a Lord, you don’t have a place for that kind of joy. If we can remind people that there is a sovereign God overseeing the affairs of mankind, then we can rejoice in his presence. This isn’t to say that we dismiss real problems or are naive about them. It is to say that we ought to filter the events of the world through the awareness that there is a good God on the supreme throne. That’s the role of a pastor—to reiterate that there is a good God on the supreme throne overseeing every detail in the world.
I haven’t read every book on anxiety, but I have read quite a few. It occurred to me that if you don’t have God in the solution, it is a bit like fighting a tornado with a toothpick. Even our best efforts to fight our anxiety—even if needed and helpful—won’t really be enough in the end.
You mentioned the role of the pastor. Part of that role is to “name” problems correctly—to help church and community identify both struggle and solution. Can you help us name the difference between anxiety and fear?
I appreciate you asking the question that way. I’ve done a couple different series on fear and anxiety, and there is a special kind of guilt that Christians feel about their own fear or anxiety, since many of us believe we are not supposed to feel those things. Guilt and shame only complicate the situation, though.
Anxiety and fear are similar, but not the same. Fear is the healthy response to a threat. Anxiety is the unnecessary meditation on that threat. Fear sees a bear and says, Run! Anxiety says, Don’t ever go outside because you might see a bear. Does that make sense?
It sure does.
Fear, then, is a healthy response. It keeps me, for example, from stepping into oncoming traffic. Anxiety is an unhealthy trepidation. It is more of a paralyzing overstatement and expectation of fear.
The apostle Paul says, “Do not be anxious.” We pastors love doing word studies. The Greek for “anxious” is better translated into English (because of its tense) as “do not be in a perpetual state of anxiety.” That fuller translation helps us capture the root of what I’m talking about: an ongoing, persistent state of fearful and negative expectation.
With that in mind, what’s the opposite of anxiety? Does it have a corresponding virtue that carries a positive sense of expectation?
As in the expectancy of something good?
Exactly. In the book, I talk about the possibility of living a life of “less fret.” We need to learn how to quickly deal with our fear and worry before it becomes anxiety. We do that by doing in faith what Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord.”
For example, right now, my church is talking about some potential staff changes. Nothing unhealthy, but moving people around. Well, I have a couple meetings later this week that I’m not looking forward to, to be honest. I know that there is likely going to be pushback, and I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have an answer yet to all the questions that will come. I’m still in the situation, and I can sense myself getting anxious.
I’d love to say that I never have anxiety, but I do. I woke up at 5 a.m. thinking about these meetings. It’s not that anxiety never happens. But the Lord wants us to have tools to deal with it in a healthy way.
So if I practice what I’m preaching, I’m going to celebrate God. I’m going to rejoice in my heart as an alternative to letting anxiety take root. I’m going to take joy in God, then ask him for help, because the Bible says to be anxious for nothing, but in everything to ask for help. So I am going to ask, specifically, “Lord—can you go ahead of me into these conversations? Can you lift my cloud of confusion?” Then I’m going to do my best to leave this situation with God, believe it’s going to be better and meditate on good things instead of focusing on what could go wrong. I’m going to choose faith by turning my mind into an expectation of God to work in this situation for good.
There’s an acronym that I have here (we preachers love our acronyms!): CALM. Celebrate, Ask, Leave and Meditate. I am working to practice this myself. None of us are immune to anxiety.
Can you give some more background to CALM? How does it connect to Paul’s words in Philippians?
Well, this points to the fact that human beings are complex. Our souls are intertwined with our bodies and minds. One of the things I would say to someone who feels that they live in a state of perpetual anxiety is not to be embarrassed to seek professional help.
Personality plays a part here. So does our past. Many of us have learned anxiety from our role models. In a lot of cases, it takes counsel or professional help to truly expose those realities and offer solutions to respond to fear and anxiety in a healthy way. Sometimes medication is appropriate, long or short term, to help balance out some of the brain chemicals responsible. Such questions get beyond my paygrade (or most pastors’) real quick, but some people need that kind of assistance in their lives.
Then, I would give a lot of thought to practicing thought management. Peace can come as we learn to manage our thoughts. The apostle Paul wrote to “take every thought captive.” Stepping forward in faith doesn’t mean that we never have negative thoughts, but I think that it does mean that we respond to such thoughts soon, before they morph into anxiety. You see this in Scripture. One example is found in Psalm 121:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
That image represents an intentional choice on the part of the writer to focus their attention on God. We need to stand on the promise that God is with us in that way as well.
What would you say to a leader who is profoundly struggling with focusing in faith for themselves, let alone helping their community?
First, you’re not alone. Again, I’ve been at this church since 1988. For 20 years, I was the senior pastor, for nine years I was the teaching pastor, and then as of last April, I’m the senior pastor again. I’ve seen pastoral work from multiple angles. I know anxiety—it can attack a pastor at any point. About 1990, I developed insomnia as a result of the anxiety of church work. I had to go on some medication for a while, and seek help. And you know what? I think I came out of that a better pastor.
Two things have really helped reduce anxiety for me throughout the following years though. First, identifying what I do best and focusing on that. That is terribly difficult. But if I find myself anxious, it’s usually because I have found myself drawn into an environment or activity where I am uncomfortable or underequipped. For me, that might be some kind of management work or fundraising. When I am involved with those things I feel anxious. Why? Because I am not very good at those things. I love to preach, and I love to write books. I feel very little anxiety in preparing sermons or preaching. So if I can determine what I do the best and do that the most, then delegate or recruit others, that’s the ideal. It doesn’t mean we can always get out of those responsibilities, but recognizing that about ourselves is a healthy first step.
The second thing that has helped reduce my anxiety as a pastor is that I simply cannot “fix” people. And I am not responsible to do so. I’m a pastor. But only Jesus owns a church. While I’d love to fix people, I can’t. If I think I can, I’m setting myself up for anxiety.
In part 2 of the interview with Max Lucado, he discusses the American culture of anxiety and how Christians can live with peace and joy.
Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach magazine. His most recent book is The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Volume Two). He lives in Oregon.