As you may be aware, I’ve struggled most of my life with anxiety. I’ve been doing some research into Christian books on anxiety and worry to get a feel for what resources are available to recommend. The good news is there are solid books out there. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of books that aren’t so good.
So first, let’s consider the good ones.
A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament by Christina Fox
Christina’s book, though not explicitly about anxiety, remains my absolute favorite and my top recommendation for anyone struggling with anxiety, worry, doubt, or depression. You can read my full review here.
A Heart Set Free is a book about learning from the Psalms of Lament how to cry out to God. Instead of pretending our emotions don’t exist or that we aren’t hurting, we need to learn how to lament, how to express our emotions in our Christian walk:
In fact, the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament, give us a structure for how to express our feelings. They remind us what is true. They point us to God’s love and faithfulness. They help us journey through the dark valleys until we can emerge on the other side and bow in grateful worship. (17)
One thing that I really appreciate about Christina’s book is her balanced approach to the cause of anxiety and depression. Sin is at the root of our pain, but our pain is not always the direct result of sinful behavior on our part:
Sin is the cause of all our pain and sorrow. It might be the sins of others committed against us that bring us feelings of shame. It might be the effects of sin on the creation around us that bring a natural disaster, resulting in loss and our subsequent grief. It might be the brokenness of our bodies, causing us emotional turmoil or the failure of our minds to work as God intended. It might be our own sinful responses to what happens in our lives. It might even be a combination of all these, but at its root, sin is what brings us all our sorrows, griefs, and fears. (39)
I highly recommend this book to anyone, male or female, young or old. No matter your struggles, God speaks to us through the Psalms of Lament, and through the Psalms of Lament, we can learn how to speak to God.
Christians Get Depressed Too: Hope and Help for Depressed People by David Murray
David’s book is also not specifically about anxiety. However, like Christina’s book, it’s easy to apply David’s advice to anxiety. This book is short, but filled with practical helps for those suffering from depression and/or anxiety and also for their loved ones.
David addresses the common pitfalls and shortcomings in the counseling and advice given to those struggling with depression and anxiety:
There are three simplistic extremes that we should avoid when considering the cause of depression: first, that it is all physical; second, that it is all spiritual; third, that it is all mental. (20, nook edition)
Instead of these simplistic approaches, David recommends a balanced approach that addressed the whole person and may include the use of medications:
For Christians there will often need to be a balance between medicines for the brain, rest for the body, counsel for the mind, and spiritual encouragement for the soul. (30, nook edition)
We are body and soul, and as such, David reminds us that our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are intertwined:
We cannot separate our thoughts from our feelings or our feelings from our behavior. What we think affects how we feel. What we think and feel affects our physical health. Our thoughts, feelings, and physical health affect what we do. (33, nook edition)
If we aren’t careful about how we address depression and anxiety, we run the risk of teaching a prosperity-type gospel of mental health:
If we come to the point that our default position in dealing with the causes of depression is that it is sin until proven otherwise, we are getting painfully close to the disciples’ position: “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents?” (John 9:2). It is also a position that is somewhat akin to the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, in which the diagnosis for trials is personal sin and the prescription is more repentance and faith. (50, nook edition)
I strongly recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression or anxiety. If you have a loved one suffering, the book would also be a help for you in understanding and supporting them. Pastors and church leaders would benefit, as well, from the advice David gives.
Thinking Through Anxiety: A Brief Christian Look by J. Ryan Davidson
I found Ryan’s book through a friend’s recommendation. It’s a short book, but it’s one I really appreciated. Like David’s book on depression, Ryan takes a balanced approach to the causes of anxiety. He also offers practical and spiritual advice on addressing anxiety. As the title suggests, Ryan emphasizes reordering our thoughts when we are struggling with anxiety:
Oh how our anxious hearts need the regular experiential presence of the Lord through the Scriptures in order to be calmed and corrected in our fears, false assurances, and idolatrous ways. (28, Kindle edition)
Another aspect of Thinking Through Anxiety that I really appreciated was its gospel-centered message for anxious believers. When we can’t trust our heart, mind, or feelings, we can trust in the finished work of Christ (31-32, Kindle edition). We belong to Christ and nothing, not even our own anxious fears, can separate us from Him:
We should boldly tell ourselves that our righteousness is in heaven; that our sin has been taken away and that there is no sin that will stand against us in the last day. We are united with Christ because of His life, death, and resurrection and because of the sealing work of the Holy Spirit, we are treated in the courtroom of heaven as Christ is treated—perfectly righteous and accepted in the sight of God. (32, Kindle edition)
Ryan also offers the best hope there is to an anxious believer. There will be a day when all our pain, fear, and sadness are washed away. Even if we struggle with anxiety all our lives, there is great hope and joy in our future:
Therefore, in our continual wrestling with fear, worry, and anxiety, we need to constantly remember, that we are assured resurrection and ultimate freedom from every sin and infirmity on the last day. Our struggle must be framed with the reality of who we are in Christ. This One, who will not bruise a tender reed (Isa. 42:13) is the One to whom we are indivisibly united, even as we battle with anxiety. (65-66, Kindle edition)
As with Christina and David’s books, I would wholeheartedly recommend Thinking Through Anxiety. It was a great encouragement to me. Of all the books that were strictly about anxiety, this was the most helpful that I read.
Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands by Shona and David Murray
Last year, David Murray and his wife, Shona, released separate books for men and women on overcoming burnout. I read both Refresh (for women) and Reset (for men) and while there are slightly different applications and illustrations the substance of the books is identical. For this review, the quotes are from Refresh.
Shona opens the book with her own story of coming to the end of her rope physically, mentally, and emotionally. Her personal fight with anxiety, depression, and burnout has given her insight into how to encourage others. Shona starts with some warning signs for women, particularly mothers:
If you are a mother, you have little joy in your children and even wonder if they are worth all the effort. You feel trapped in an endless circuit of seemingly menial diaper changes, meals, lunches, dirty floors, crying kids, laundry, and generally being everybody’s gofer. There is no clocking-off time, and you fall into bed at night exhausted, weary, with no sense of accomplishment, and dreading the next day. You hold yourself responsible for every accident, mess, crying fit, episode of bickering, and every failure of character in your children. (31, Kindle edition)
Can you relate? I suspect we all can. Change some of the details to work or social situations and all of us know this cycle of being overwhelmed. Shona and David believe that the demands of our lives, our work, and even our society are running us ragged. We’re exhausted from the stress and worry. We’re beaten down by the constant barrage of negative news and social media. We need to stop and rest.
The weights accumulated imperceptibly; they multiplied a little every year until life slowly yet inexorably crushed us. Now, our minds are frazzled, our hearts are pounding, our bodies are breaking down, our relationships are straining, our sleep is declining, our quality of work is suffering, and our happiness is a distant memory. (118, Kindle edition)
Refresh and Reset give practical advice for fighting the burnout many of us are facing. Suggestions include getting enough sleep, fasting from digital media, regular exercise, pursuing hobbies, and taking a Sabbath rest. The focus of the books is on living lives filled by God’s grace. We truly can rest in His mercy and grace:
As we enjoy the benefits of a quieter inner and outer life and build God-given refreshings of grace into our lives, we find time to pause, to calm down, and to think about who we are and why we are here. (110, Kindle edition)
While these books aren’t specifically books on anxiety, the advice would be useful to those struggling with anxiety. My only quibbles with the books were the refresh-gym and reset-garage motifs which felt forced and the attempts to feminize or masculinize the advice. Certainly, there are differences in application or illustration for men and women when it comes to burnout. But in the end, the substance of what men and women need to hear is the same.
I appreciate Shona and David’s work on these books. I know they have a heart for those who are hurting. I’d recommend these books to anyone struggling under the weight of the world.
The next books were ones that I have mixed feelings about. Some of the advice is helpful. But each of these books takes an unbalanced approach to worry and anxiety. In these books, the formula is simple: anxiety = worry, worry = sin, therefore cure = repentance and obedience. This is exactly the kind of oversimplification that David Murray addresses in his book on depression.
Overcoming Fear, Worry, and Anxiety by Elyse Fitzpatrick
Worry is so common that we forget it’s actually a sin. … [I]t’s just as sinful to worry as it is to disregard any other command from God. (emphasis original, 90, nook edition)
Little faith! Think about those words. The Lord equates our worry with a lack of faith. (94, nook edition)
God has directed His children not to worry; He’s classified worry as sin. Why? Because worry flows out of a distorted or incomplete view of His nature and character. … Worrying is also sinful because it elevates our thoughts and abilities to a godlike position. (94, nook edition)
We can’t stop our hearts from pounding or our stomach from being tied up in knots. We can’t control our physical symptoms. But we can, by God’s power and grace, offer our joyful obedience to Him – and trust that He will give us confidence and calm in the midst of the storm. (121, nook edition)
Running Scared by Ed Welch
At first, my interest in fear and worry was limited to quieting them for the sake of my own personal well-being. Now the stakes are much higher. My worry is a sign that I am in danger. When in doubt, pray. I am not sure of all the ways I am called by God to act, but I am certainly feeling more desperate, so I can pray. (78, nook edition)
Fear and worry reveal that our faith is indeed small. If you are looking to plumb the depths of worry, you can find it in your mixed allegiances. (85, nook edition)
In other words, worry is usually about seeking something other than God’s kingdom. Worry is a sign that we are trying to have it both ways, with one foot in the kingdom of the world and the other in the kingdom of heaven. (88, nook edition)
The sin-fear connection is inescapable. Therefore, when confronted with worries and fears, we should encourage our instincts to look at our own sin so that we can be people who make peace rather than break it. (216, nook edition)
Without forgiveness of sins, there can be no peace in our relationship with God, and when there is no peace with God, we will have no peace. If you are finding peace elusive, either you still don’t believe you are forgiven or you don’t really care that you are. If you know that sin is your most profound problem, more critical than anything else that worries you, you will know a resolute peace. (220, nook edition)
Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry by Amy Simpson
Worry is a rebellious choice we usually don’t take very seriously. But it is serious. Willful worry amounts to rejection of God’s character and damages our capacity for the life he calls us to. A close look at Scripture show us worry has always been a frequent point of correction between God and his people because it undermines that very faith he requires and rewards. Worry is still chronically undermining the faith and courage of Christians in this age. It is rooted in a theological misunderstanding of who God is, the nature of life in this world and our place in the universe. (16-17)
Choosing to worry is a sin, an act of rebellion against God, a rejection of our assigned place in the universe, a barrier in our relationship with a God who wants us to live is bold purpose rooted in his character. Worry is essentially a spiritual problem, which ultimately cannot be overcome merely through an act of the will – the solution is rooted entirely in who God is. (127)
Be quiet and allow the Holy Spirit to remind you of what the Bible teaches us about God’s character and capabilities. Reminisce about the specific ways God has taken care of you and other people whose stories you know. Express your confidence in God’s wisdom and love, even when life is a bruised and bloody mess. (143)
Why Worry? by Robert Jones
Worry, like other problematic emotions (such as envy, anger, and despair), serves a revelatory function. It reveals the remaining double-mindedness within our souls. As we will see from Jesus’s teaching, worry expresses our remaining inner pockets of idolatry and unbelief. (5)
By his death, resurrection, and ascension he has given new hope, new power, and new identity to all who trust in him. He came to forgive us for our worrying and to help us to change our patterns. While God might not reverse the tough situations that you worry about, he specializes in pardoning, cleansing, and helping you. (5-6)
Worry expresses lingering idolatry in the heart. It signals that in some way you are trusting in yourself—that you are building your life to some degree on things or people other than Jesus. Your anxiety automatically indicates that your heart allegiances are temporarily divided. (6-7)
The antidote to worry, then, is to trust in God. We must replace anxiety with a growing focus on God’s provisions and priorities. (17)
Because of the limited understanding these books have for the root of anxiety, the advice is one-dimensional. As a result, some of these books minimize the usefulness of medications to treat anxiety. All of these books place a heavy burden on those who suffer from anxiety.
Are we all sinners? Absolutely. If we look hard enough, can we find sinful attitudes and behaviors that we should repent of? Of course. Does that mean that all anxiety is rooted in sinful attitudes and behaviors that we need to repent of? Not necessarily.
Let me give an example. Sometimes I go to sleep at night content and peaceful. I have cares and concerns, but nothing is weighing on me. But in the morning, before I even open my eyes, I am gripped by fear, panic, dread, and anxiety. My mind races to figure out why I’m anxious. It may very well latch on to something, but was that what caused the anxiety? No. Often illness or hormones are the root cause for me.
When anxiety grips me that way, being told to look to my own sin is like heaping burdens on me. No one wants to be anxious. Many of us who struggle with anxiety are hanging on to the promises of Scripture and our faith as tightly as we can. We know our sins. They’re painfully clear to us.
Instead of introspection, what we need are words of comfort and hope and a reminder to look away from ourselves to the One who saves. At the foot of the cross, we can lay our burdens down and cast all our cares on Him. He is the God who hears.
I hope these short reviews will help others who are looking for resources on anxiety. My prayer is that we may all know peace, real, lasting peace.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30, NASB