It was August of 2009, an hour west of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was sitting shotgun in my boyfriend’s Jeep with his dad in the back seat, driving cross-country from southern California to Chicago. We were on our way to attend seminary, or so we thought. An hour after we stopped for lunch, both my boyfriend and I were overcome with sudden exhaustion. There would be no staying awake.
I was woken abruptly by my boyfriend’s father urgently calling out his son’s name. I looked up just in time to see us drifting off the highway. The Jeep jerked right, then left, eventually sliding perpendicular on the road. The cruise control was still on, and we were traveling fast.
We spent the next two weeks at a hospital in Flagstaff. My boyfriend, who would later become my husband, had shattered his skull on the steering wheel when the Jeep tumbled down the road. He was flown to the nearest hospital and underwent emergency brain surgery. His life was saved.
For years after, I didn’t feel any effects or undergo subsequent surgeries as he would, but I did gain a crippling anxiety. I realized the life of the person I loved more than anyone in the world was fragile. I was reminded of this as the fractures in his skull deteriorated. This left room for bacteria to enter his brain, resulting in two separate cases of bacterial meningitis.
“God Is Good All the Time”
Anxiety and fear plagued me day in and day out. My mind would spin out of control, imagining the worst possible scenarios for my husband — and later, my children. I read books and blogs, talked with trusted friends, and yet I couldn’t rid my mind of these poisonous thoughts.
“Even if the very worst occurred, I knew that God was still sovereign and still good.”
I prayed fervently over my fears, and by God’s grace, my anxiety slowly began to fade over the next few years. Eventually, a new thought surfaced in my mind (or better yet, an old one which I had forgotten): God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. It was something we used to say in church when I was a child. But what had been meaningless to me when I first heard it became my only lifeline.
The Place of Peace
When scenes of my family dying played through my imagination, I would tell myself that God is good. I knew that the things I was imagining could very well happen. God had never promised they wouldn’t. But my peace was not ultimately in avoiding loss.
Even if the very worst occurred, I knew that God was still sovereign and still good. I couldn’t lose the one person that was closest to me, because I was held by his sovereign love. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just beginning to see how the love of God would help me overcome my anxiety.
Through chronic migraines, disability leaves, and severely strained finances, we became hyper-aware of how intentional God was in growing our faith. We began to thank God for all the suffering we’d been through. We knew that, without it, we wouldn’t have even a fraction of the faith in God we’d been given, nor of the love for him.
Our Idols Make Us Anxious
It was then that a lesson a pastor had taught me years before finally made more sense. What was my real sin when I was so consumed by fear? I had always thought it was a lack of trust — and, of course, that was part of it. But I know now the fuller answer was that I loved something — in this case, someone — more than I loved God. In other words, my problem was idolatry.
“We can turn even the best things in our lives, even our godly pursuits, into gods themselves.”
I loved my husband and children more than I loved God. I loved not being alone more than I loved God. I cared more about my family and the comfort of always having them near me more than the glory God would receive if he decided to take them from me. The problem was not that I loved God’s gifts too much. God does not give us the good gifts of family, health, or possessions and then sit back and wait to see if we enjoy them. The problem was that I loved them more than God, more than seeing and beholding and receiving more of him.
My affections needed to change trajectory. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). Slowly, I was being stripped of my idolatrous love of my family and my own comfort. God has been good to bring us through physical pain, poverty, and emotional instability to further his kingdom.
I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to understand that about myself. But idolatry is a subtle thing. We can turn even the best things in our lives, even our godly pursuits, into gods themselves. I had slowly, even unconsciously, broken the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37–38).
Tear Out the Root
The quest to conquer anxiety can be an uphill battle. It seems to grow and fester despite our best efforts. This is often because we’re treating the symptom rather than the cause.
“Only a deeper and richer love of God will be sufficient to uproot our idols and put our fears and anxiety to death.”
John Owen states in his book The Mortification of Sin, “A man may beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary; whilst the root abides in strength and vigor, beating down the present fruit will not hinder it from bringing forth more. . . . Leaving the principle and root [of sin] untouched, perhaps unsearched out, they make but little or no progress in this work of mortification [killing sin].”
Examine your heart. Are there idols embedding themselves there? Stop beating down bitter fruit and uproot the sin — the idolatry — in order to kill it. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind as Jesus tells us to in Matthew 22. Make the pursuit of him your first priority, setting aside the love of lesser things. Only a deeper and richer love of God will be sufficient to uproot your idols and put your fears and anxiety to death.