Resources on Anxiety

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

Anxiety: My Thorn in My Flesh

I woke up last week with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Nothing, in particular, was wrong, but that didn’t stop my mind from racing through every possible thing that I could worry about. And then it latched on to something. And I began to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. And then “but, what if?” And then it latched on again. And I continued to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. Again, and again, and again. For days. Every night I’d go to sleep praying about it. Every morning I’d wake up early with the same dread, and the cycle would begin again. It was exhausting.

It’s not the first time I’ve gone through episodes of heavy anxiety. Sometimes I know when to expect them, other times they seem to come out of the blue. During the worst of the anxiety last week, I read an article that explained anxiety better than anything I’ve read before: “Anxiety: Post Traumatic Stress for Something That Never Happened… But Might.”

Concerns that any “ordinary person” would have about normal things – children, finances, career, relationships, health – skyrocket. Your mind immediately imagines the worst possible outcomes of reasonable concerns. A loop of anxiety that begins with an initial surge of panic and ends in the replay of catastrophic outcomes runs in your mind. This cycle is repeated dozens of times in a given day and you cannot make it stop. As much as you try, you’re unable to let go of things “like normal people do.” Once your mind locks on to something its nearly impossible to get it loose. Someone captured the sensation of acute anxiety as a relentless “embracing of dread.” It comes complete with physiological effects; shortness of breathe, increased heart rate, disorientation, exhaustion.

Can I tell you the encouragement in knowing I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one who feels this way? After sharing the article with friends, I realized that the struggle with anxiety is something that many, many people have in common. I decided to write about my experience with anxiety and some of the coping techniques I have found helpful.

First, I want to address some myths about anxiety.

  • Anxiety is just a lack of trust in God. I’d be the first to agree that I don’t trust God as I should, none of us do. But anxiety is much more than a lack of faith or trust. I want nothing more than to lay every anxious thought at the foot of the cross and allow God to handle it all. But that doesn’t make the anxiety go away.
  • Anxiety is all in your head. Anxiety involves your whole body. It’s not simply thinking worrying thoughts. And many times addressing anxiety means addressing your whole body.
  • Anxiety is just “spiritual”. Again anxiety involves your whole being. There is a spiritual aspect that must be addressed, but it’s not as simple as praying and reading your Bible more and you’ll be anxiety free.
  • Anxiety is sin. Because our whole beings are affected by sin, sin will always be a part of what we do and what we struggle with. Sin can make us anxious. The effects of sin can make us anxious. And our fallen bodies can struggle with anxiety regardless of how strong our faith is. We can sin in our anxiety, but anxiety itself may or may not be the result of particular sin.
  • Christians shouldn’t use anxiety medications. This one is a touchy issue. There are many people who are strongly against the use of medications to treat depression and anxiety. However, there is good research that suggests that medications are necessary and helpful for addressing the physical/biological aspect of depression/anxiety. We don’t stigmatize diabetics for needing insulin. We should be as kind to those suffering from anxiety and depression.

Second, I would like to give a little advice to anyone currently struggling with anxiety. There are many, many physical and hormonal imbalances that can cause us to be anxious. Low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B-12, and magnesium can lead to high levels of anxiety. For women particularly, low progesterone levels can cause all kinds of problems and especially bad anxiety. For men, low testosterone can cause both anxiety and depression. Thyroid is another big contributor to anxiety levels.

My advice is to get your doctor to test your levels. If your anxiety levels make going to the doctor extremely hard, I feel your pain. Regarding avoiding doctors, my approach is often like Jane Eyre: “I must keep in good health and not die.” But these vitamin and hormone problems can be fairly easy to treat and are worth pursuing. It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether anxiety medications might be helpful for you. I realize the hypocrisy of me saying this since I haven’t gotten up the nerve to do so. Yet.

Even with treating the underlying causes of your anxiety, you may continue to struggle with anxiety. What I want to talk about next are some of the practical things that I’ve found helpful in fighting the good fight against anxiety. These are not meant as replacements for medication or medical treatment. They are simply ways of coping.

  • Destress your life. I know that we can’t always control our level of stress. Kids/parents get sick and need help. Crises arise. Life is tough. But where we can reduce unnecessary stress, it is helpful to do so. Sometimes it means saying no and not overextending yourself. Knowing and acknowledging our limits is a good thing.
  • Rest. Our society does not like to rest. We push and push and push until we drop. Our bodies and minds and souls need rest. We were created to rest. It reminds us that we do have limits and that’s a good thing.
  • Exercise. Our bodies were also created to work and work physically. I’m not suggesting we all need to run a marathon, but regular exercise is a good way to combat anxiety. Several friends recommended gardening as a type of exercise which goes well with my next point.
  • Get outside. Living in the land of eternal summer, it’s often too hot to be out much here. But getting outside even for short periods of time can be very helpful in dealing with anxiety. It does us good to get away from all the electronics in our lives. Granted, with wifi, we can take them with us, but maybe leave those at home and go for a walk.
  • Limit your time on social media. Many new studies show the negative effects on our mental health in spending so much time online. We fear missing out. We get depressed by how much better others’ lives seem to be going. We worry over every piece of news, real or “alternative”. We spread ourselves too thin.
  • Eat well. This is not a plug for any particular diet or fad. Eat regular meals of real food. Our bodies need fuel and running on caffeine, chocolate, fries, and alcohol will take a toll. Not to say anything is inherently wrong with those things, just that all things should be done in moderation. We need balance.
  • Talk to a trusted friend. Everyone who struggles with anxiety and the cycle of intrusive worries needs a safe person to talk to, someone who can listen and encourage. It’s so important to have someone you can tell about the “crazy” and know they aren’t actually thinking you’re crazy.
  • Hug someone. We were created for community, and we need physical affection. Hugs from friends or from our kids or from our spouses can be calming and encouraging. It’s a reminder that we’re loved.
  • Pray. I know it seems obvious, right? Of course, we should pray. But in the grip of anxiety, it’s often extremely hard to remember to pray. We have a God who hears us and who cares. He’s called us to cast every anxiety on him (1 Peter 5:7). He’s told us not to worry about tomorrow because He is sovereign (Matthew 6:25ff). He’s told us to be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6). He’s promised us His peace (John 14:27).
  • Read the Scriptures. There is a great comfort to be found in the words of the Bible. The passages above are all great places to start when addressing anxiety. My go-to place is Psalms. As Christina Fox wrote in A Heart Set Free:

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)

  • Sing or listen to hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Music speaks to my heart and soul. In my times of deepest struggles, there are many hymns and songs that have ministered to me. These words come back to me again and again. I’m convinced that many of the hymn and song writers have struggled with anxiety and depression. Some of my favorites are hymns such as Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Jesus I am Resting, Resting, I Need Thee Every Hour, Blessed Assurance. There are many songs by Indelible Grace that have helped me. Some of them are Give to the Wind Thy Fears, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul, Poor Sinner Dejected With Fear, Pensive Doubting Fearful Heart. Sandra McCracken is one of my favorites. Her Psalms album is excellent: My Help, My God (Psalm 42). JJ Heller is another favorite. So many of her songs have encouraged me: Have Mercy On Me. To lift my spirits, I really enjoy Rend Collective Experiment: Joy Of The Lord.
  • Do something for someone else. In my experience, anxiety tends to be very introspective. It can help to shift your focus from your fears to doing something productive for someone else.
  • Remember your own history. If anxiety isn’t a new struggle for you, it can help to remember that you’ve been through these struggles before. It helps me to remember that I’ve felt this way before, that the intensity of the struggle did pass, and that I did feel better again. It also helps me to reflect on my track record of being anxious over things that turned out to be nothing. My anxious feelings aren’t the best indicator of actual problems.
  • Remember your God. For all that is changeable and uncertain in the world and in my life, one thing is secure. God is my refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1). No one can pluck me from His hand (John 10:28-30). Nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:31-39), not even my “what ifs”. He will never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). And these promises are true for every one of His children.

There is much more that could be said about fighting anxiety, and many good books have been written on the subject. This is not an exhaustive list, just some encouragement from one anxious Christian to another. Feel free to comment and add any encouragement you might have that I didn’t discuss.

A few things I’d like to encourage you to remember.

  • You are not a bad Christian because you struggle with anxiety and/or depression. Many strong believers have struggled before: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, to name a few.
  • While we shouldn’t ignore our feelings and intuition, we need to remember that our anxious feelings lie to us.
  • You are not a weak person because you struggle with anxiety. Everyone struggles with something.
  • You aren’t going crazy, although anxiety can make you feel that way.
  • God isn’t punishing you.
  • God hasn’t forgotten you.
  • God will not abandon you.

One day, this struggle will end. Maybe on this side of glory, but maybe not. By God’s grace, a day is coming when everything will be made new and there will be no more tears or sadness (Revelation 21). Until that day, God will give you the grace and strength and mercy to fight each day. Like manna, that grace comes with enough for today and a promise for more for tomorrow. Don’t give up hope.

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NASB

A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament

When going on a trip, I always grab a couple of books to read and make sure my nook is loaded and charged. Our trip last month was no exception. We were headed up to see my in-laws and help them pack. In addition to my usual historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy books, I made sure to take a new book by my friend, Christina Fox, A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament.  The book is due out this week, and Christina had sent me a copy and asked me to review it.

Sitting on the plane, I opened the book and began to read. My eyes began to fill with tears as I realized that this book was exactly what I need to read at that moment. I read these words:

What happens when we don’t find the answers to our problems, when we can’t find peace through our Google searches, or when the solutions we have found fail us? What do we do when we are worried about our children or fearful about the unknown future? What do we do with those emotions? When the sorrow just won’t lift and the loneliness is more than we can bear, where do we go for help? For some of us, we seek comfort in food, shopping, or Facebook to quell the emotional turmoil stirring in our hearts. We might busy ourselves with projects or work long hours to keep our mind off our pain. We might look at our circumstances and seek to change our situation in the hope that we will finally feel at peace once our life has changed. (16)

You see, as I sat on that plane early in the morning, I was a bundled knot of anxiety, fear, worry, and sadness. I was worried about my son’s ear and how it would handle the flight. I was anxious about all the details that go with travel. I was grieving over broken relationships with family and friends. I was afraid of what the future might bring. And I was doing everything in my power to distract myself (reading a book …) and to control my surroundings so that I, myself, could overcome my circumstances on my own and be ready to stand on my own power for any bad thing the future might bring. And then I read that paragraph. And I stopped. And I cried. And I realized that God was using Christina’s words to get my attention and to work on my heart.

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)

Christina starts the book with the bad news. Our worry, anxiety, fear, doubt are the result of sin:

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)

She goes on to explain that our normal means of coping (distraction, control, or simply giving in to the worry and fear) are not helping the situation. We’re making the problem worse and not actually dealing with our emotions. I was particularly convicted by what she had to say about using “control”:

Some of us try to handle our emotions, such as worry, fear, or anxiety by attempting to control all the things we worry or fear about. We make to-do lists and refuse to rest until each item is checked off . We research thoroughly everything that worries us. Google and Clorox are our two best friends. … Control is something we all desire but none of us have. … Our desire and pursuit of control are in fact a denial of God’s control. We don’t trust that His plans are good enough. We think we know bett er what we need. All the worrying, fretting, and stressing we do over our life situations stem from a lack of trust in God’s good and perfect plan for us. (40-41)

Thankfully the book doesn’t stop there and leave us condemning ourselves for our failures. Christina moves on to share the hope of the gospel for the believer wracked with fear or worry or depression:

The gospel of grace has not only saved us from our sins in the past and those in the future, but also empowers us in the present. It is applicable in our daily struggles of walking by faith. It frees us from the bondage of bitterness, anger, worry, fear, despair, and doubt. (59)

But the journey doesn’t end with recognizing our need for a Savior. Knowing that sin has caused our hearts such pain and accepting the grace that God gives us in our salvation through Christ, we still face the day to day challenge of living in a sinful, broken world. And this is where A Heart Set Free is very helpful.

Christina lays out the format of the Psalms of Lament and explains the various elements. The purpose it to teach us to make our own laments using the Psalms as a model. In the Psalms of Lament, there is a “three-part structure” that we can use in our prayers: crying out to God, asking for help, responding in trust and praise (87).

Using these steps we can begin to learn to express our emotions to God and learn to trust in Him through our painful situations. That last part is the one that really challenged me. Since the death of our daughter years ago, I have learned to cry out to God, to tell Him what I’m feeling. I realized months after Bethanne died that I was angry and that I was hurting. And it dawned on me that there was no use in pretending before God that I wasn’t. He knew. And not only did He already know, He loved me. He loved me even though I was angry and hurting. So I cried out to Him and told Him what was on my heart. And He heard me. The pain was still there, but things changed that day. I knew I wasn’t forgotten or unloved.

When my boys were born, I learned to ask God for help daily. Being a mother showed me how much I needed Him all the time. But I have always struggled with the final step. Having cried out and asked God for help, I tend to short circuit and go back to worry and trying to control my situations. The book reminded me that the next step is to trust God and praise Him:

This step of the laments is the part where many of us get to and we stop. It’s easy to cry out to God and ask for help but to trust Him in the darkness where we cannot see what’s ahead of us? That’s the hard part. (134)

And that’s where I found myself, with tears streaming down my face on that flight, crying out to God, asking Him for help, and then actually finishing my lament. I laid down my own struggle for control and praised God for His love and care and put my trust in Him to take care of my future. It was the first step in a lifelong journey of learning to trust even when life is painful.

I know that life will not be all sunshine and roses just because I’m learning to trust. Christina reminds us of that:

There may also be times when we go through this journey with the psalmist and we respond in trust and worship and still feel grief. We may still feel intense sorrow. This process of following the structure of the laments is not a magical incantation that erases all our emotions. It’s not a step by step list to follow that will take away our problems. But it is a journey that draws us closer to God. (138)

But even in the sadness, I can learn to have joy in Lord. He is my strength, and He will never leave me or forsake me. And that is the hope we can all cling to:

This joy can co-mingle with other emotions. It can co-exist side by side with other feelings and circumstances like sorrow and fear. Even when life is at its hardest, gospel joy is still there. It is always present, like an anchor in the storms of life. (139)

Like Christina recounts of her own life, I have struggled with anxiety, worry, and depression for much of my life. It’s my “thorn in my side” and so far, God has not removed it from me. Christina’s book has offered me hope, though. Not that I can finally fix this for myself, but that when my heart is filled with doubt and fear, when my anxious thoughts consume me, I can cry out to God. And He will hear me. Just like He heard the psalmists in their laments.

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. Thank you, Christina, for writing this gem of a book. I pray many will read it and be helped by it.