Health anxiety

Some things come naturally. Like flinching when something is about to hit us. Blinking to protect the corneal surface of our eyes. Dropping a hot pan before it burns us. Built-in reflexes keep us safe. They protect us, just like the arm that extends instinctively when we fall.

We are embodied creatures and, in his kindness, God has designed us such that we do instinctively protect our physical frame.

Indeed, even pain itself, though we act so instinctively to avoid it, is actually a gracious gift. It warns us of danger and damage; it alerts us to the need to act. Without pain terrible damage would be done.

Health is also a good gift from God. We are right to seek it and right to want to preserve it. John prays for it and Paul suggests remedies to obtain it (3 John 1:2; 1 Timothy 5:23). One day, in the new creation, perfect health will be ours and pain and crying will be no more (Isaiah 65:20; Revelation 21:4). The leaves of the tree of life which, we are told, are for the healing of the nations will have completed their work (Revelation 22:2). We will, finally, be fully and wonderfully healthy. Health is good.

But good things have a habit of becoming god-things. They are invariably the biggest rivals to wholehearted devotion to God. Most of us can see when wicked desires are taking hold of our hearts, but good desires tend to come in under the radar. They seem so reasonable; so sensible; so justifiable; so… good. But when a good desire really takes hold it can become life-dominating. And when that happens, when it becomes our ‘must-have’, our ‘can’t bear to be without’, our ‘preserve at all costs’, then it really isn’t good anymore. For at that point it has become an object of worship. It has become our god.

Things would, of course, be much easier if we could only accurately define the tipping point. That moment when something good transitions and becomes something rivalling the Lord. But that isn’t easy. The transitions are subtle, gradual. Is there a single moment when reasonable precautions to avoid getting sick – contracting Covid-19, say – become unreasonable preoccupations and godless fears? Is there a single moment when someone who is wisely protecting their God-given body becomes someone worshipping the idol of good health?

Responding appropriately to concerns about our health requires (at least) two things. First, we need to remember that we have a heavenly Father who cares for us. The worry of Luke chapter 12 is precipitated by precisely that kind of amnesia. God cares for the tiniest part of his creation, the birds, the flowers – so of course he will care for you, Jesus tells his followers (Luke 12:22-31). Trust him.

But we also need to remember our capacity. ‘Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?’ Jesus asks. ‘Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?’ (v25-6) Get yourself in proportion, Jesus is saying, you are not God. And it’s not your hand on the tiller of the universe. It’s mine. So trust me.

If anxiety about our health begins to cloud our sight of his fatherly care, and if anxiety about our health puts all the responsibility on our own shoulders, then it is a problem. Once these things have begun to interfere with our capability to love and serve God and others, it must mean worshipping health is rivalling our worship of God.

That doesn’t, of course, mean we should become health reckless or health dismissive. Health is still good and worth having. And because we are all different, activities that are wise and reasonable for some won’t be sensible for others because of particular vulnerabilities. But where measured judgment about wise living has morphed into terrified incapacity driven by anxiety and fear, we have a problem.

Solutions will generally cluster around a determination to make more of Christ. As a determination to worship, love and serve him more than anything else grows, excessive worries about health will begin to shrink. Start small but start specifically. Identify a loving activity which others like you are doing but that you are avoiding. Ask God for help and begin to do it. Then stick at it. Let new loving habits drive out the anxieties that have taken hold.