A chain with a link that has broken and is being pulled apart.

My hangover was terrible, but I could survive that.

The nausea was palpable, but I knew it would pass.

The discipline was severe, but I deserved it.

What I couldn’t bear was the guilt.

Our family tree is marked by a blight of alcoholism. My dad made it clear: alcohol abuse leads to trouble and that trouble leads to misery. More than once I promised that I would never get drunk.

Then why did I? Why did I, at the age of 16, get so ragingly inebriated that I could not drive? Why did I drive anyway? Why did I drink so much that I went to bed with head a-spinning and stomach a-turning?

When I awoke the next morning I had a pounding head, a disappointed father, and most of all, a guilty conscience. It sat in my gut like a concrete block.

Have you felt it?

Your descent may not have involved alcohol. Yours involved sex, fist fights, theft, lies, drugs or angry outbursts.. Your guilt may be the result, not of a moment in life, but a season of life. You failed as a parent. You blew it in your career. You squandered your youth or your money. Guilt. This guilt is one of the seeds that produce the weed of anxiety.

Surprised? Lists of anxiety-triggers typically include busy schedules, unrealistic demands, or heavy traffic. But we must go deeper. Behind the frantic expressions on the faces of humanity is unresolved regret. In fact, history’s first occasion of anxiety can be attributed to guilt.

“That evening [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and they hid themselves among the trees” (Genesis 3:8).

What has happened to the first family? Up until this point there was no indication of fear or trepidation. They didn’t hide from God. Indeed, they had nothing to hide. “Adam and Eve were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25).

But then came the serpent and the forbidden fruit. They said “yes” to temptation and “no” to God. And, in a moment, everything changed. They covered themselves with leaves and hid in the bushes. They did what anxious people do; they engaged in a flurry of cover-ups.

Note the sequence. Guilt came first. Anxiety came in tow. Guilt drove the truck. Anxiety bounced in the flatbed. Adam and Eve didn’t know how to deal with their failure. We pay a high price when we don’t appropriately respond to ours.

Let’s go back to the story of 16-year-old Max, the teenager who wakes up in a pigpen of guilt. Suppose he opts to treat his sin with an Adam and Eve approach. He downplays and/or dismisses the event. Maybe he opts for the road of self-punishment. Then again, he could just get drunk again and escape the guilt, for a time, till he sobers up.

What will happen to Max if he never discovers a healthy treatment for failure?   What kind of person does unresolved guilt create? An anxious one; forever hiding, running, denying, pretending.

Guilt sucks the life out of our souls.

Grace, on the other hand, restores it.

No one had more reason to feel the burden of guilt than did the Apostle Paul. He was an ancient version of ISIS, taking believers into custody and spilling their blood. (see Acts 8:3). He was a legalist to the core. (see Philippians 3:4-6). He had blood on his hands and religious diplomas on his wall. But then came the Damascus Road moment. Christ found Paul, and Paul found grace. He was never the same. “But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile—now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone” (Philippians 3:7).

I can bear witness to the transforming power of this grace. For four years I lived with the concrete block of guilt; not just from that first night of drunkenness, but a hundred more like it. The guilt made a mess of me and I was headed toward a lifetime of misery. But then I heard a preacher do for me what I’m attempting to do for you: describe the divine grace that turns prodigals into preachers. When he asked if anyone would like to receive this grace, iron chains could not have held me back. Truth be told, chains had held me back. But those chains of guilt were snapped and I was set free.

That was forty years ago. In the intervening years, I’ve known anxiety. But I have never had an anxious moment that was due to unresolved guilt. In Christ, I found a forgiveness that is too deep to be plumbed, too high to be summited. Do you know this grace? If not, we may have stumbled upon a major source of your anxiety. You thought the problem was your calendar, your marriage, your job. In reality, it is unresolved guilt.

Release it to him. Tell him what you did and tell him you are sorry. Ask him to replace your guilt with peace, tranquility, and hope.

Don’t drown in the bilge of your own condemnation. God is ready to write a new chapter in your life. Say with Paul: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14).

© Max Lucado
April, 2016

32 comments on “The Unspoken Source of Anxiety

  1. Wow, did your 4/14/16 ‘unspeakable guilt of anxiety’ ever speak to me. And now I may begin to see why you write so clearly,, so meaningfully. I had never thought about your younger life..from prodigal to preacher, from wayward to winning,.Thank you, Max Lucado; thank You Lord!.
    from a hopeful pray-er:
    Only child of brilliant father with major, long term alcohol problem
    Mother of 2 men who are plagued also
    Grandmother of 2 teenagers who edge toward the brink

  2. Dear Max,
    Thank you for sharing this time in your life when you needed God’s grace. I had thought you were masterful in your understanding of God’s nature because of the life observations that came your way as a pastor. To know you have struggled very humanly as I have gives me hope.
    Some days it seems I can feel in my spirit the accusations Satan makes at me before the Father. I’m ready to receive victory over the daily struggle to shake off my guilty chains. Maybe it really can happen.
    Thank you for your walk and your ministry, Brother Max.

  3. Praise God for His grace, and for your willingness to be transparent. All my life I knew only legalism and condemnation, which fueled my anger, depression and addictions, but I also heard the call of His grace years back and now daily through Gods Word and amazing people like yourself, I am free, joyful in my soul and able to be a light for others. Thank you, Max! You’re a daily blessing to me.

  4. You have a ear to God, an ear than not only listens …..but repeats your understands to others benefits, as well!! I am a receiver of some of that, and I thank you for sharing what you learn **+** I’ll be listening

  5. I suffer from chronic depression and severe anxiety disorder. These are medical conditions, not spiritual ones. For example, taking a shower can bring on an anxiety attack. Hardly the result of guilt.

    You do a grave disservice to the many millions of people throughout the world who deal with mental health problems. I consider myself a deeply spiritual person, and find great comfort in my faith, but I seek medical help for medical problems. As Emily Dickinson once wrote “Faith is a fine invention when gentlemen can see, but microscopes are prudent in an emergency.”

  6. Powerful! The answer to much that’s tormented me for 49 years! I’ve been set Free Indeed! My heart has been HEALED, MY SOUL REVIVED, RENEWED AND FIXED OF HIS VICTORY TO, THROUGH AND IN ME, THANK GOD, Inthank you for hearing HIS HEART!!! This has ministered to my soul. My heart is being cleansed, my mind is being renewed, NO MORE CHAINS HOLDING ME IN MY MIND AND MY BODY!!!!! I AM HIS GRACIOUS GIFT!!!!!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your personal story and Christ’s redemption! I have not met a Christian yet who didn’t need to forgive themselves. They say, ” I know God forgives me but I can’t forgive myself!” That is a lie from the pit of hell…. You can’t know God forgives you and not forgive yourself!

  8. Thank you Max. You wrote that just for me. I have lived with a lifetime of anxiety. I never thought of my younger years as a source of that anxiety. I always blamed it on current situations. It have gotten progressively worse over the years and I’m about to turn 50. Now I better understand.

  9. My depression and anxiety comes from being a 24/7 caregiver to my husband. Christ has washed away all the guilt…. many times. It’s not guilt, that’s got me, it’s the despair that comes with my day to day task for the last 15 years., especially since my health is breaking.

  10. I have once more discover the incredible and unconditional love of God for me through these words… for the last week I have been dealing with guilt and shame for letting my self control down and allowing temptation to win. I have condemned myself to the point of total anxiety… I love God with all my heart! I have experienced His love, presence and I have concrete evidence that He listens to my prayers… still I was weak… Reading this from Max has brought peace and grace back to my soul… Thank you God for your love and for speaking to me through Max…
    I am releasing this guilt and shame I feel to You my loving Father, I acknowledge that what I did was wrong and I am ready to fill that space with peace, tranquility and hope! Thanks Max! May the Holy Spirit continue to guide you in your faith journey! <3

  11. Thank you for this insightful, encouraging, informative article. It applies to me along with others. Satan is so good at reminding us of our guilt.

  12. I Love reading your work Max. I especially love how God works through you to reach so many in need.

  13. To those who responded mentioning mental health issues: I don’t think Max would deny imbalances that cause such distress. I believed he is addressing unresolved guilt that has not fully recognized and accepted the Grace of God.
    We live with the reality of mental health issues and they should not be ignored.

  14. I wish I understood the message here. Fear seems to drive my anxiety, not guilt. Not that I don’t have guilt in my life, but it seems that the anxiety happens in areas of life where I have been hurt, and am afraid of it happening again. I just don’t understand where fear works into this whole thing…confused.

  15. Your description is from a heart that has experienced this separation of God. I had am a Christ follower and have an anxiety condition, created from 15 years of drug prescription I believe. In reading your testimony I had to think deeply what would this guilt be. It has been my behavior toward not doing some things I should be doing to help with my husband and my household and necessary paper work. Connecting the guilt to the anxiety is a vicious cycle, that doesn’t get any easier as habits become behavior. In His Grace I Pray, Joyce Gillespie

  16. I remember reading about your having an occasional beer and hiding the fact from family and others. This was after your ministry started. I am surprised to read of your alcohol addiction prior to this. The desire for alcohol remains and being aware of addiction tendency is important. Perhaps a warning about this to others is in order.

  17. Beautifully written, Max. I appreciate your work so much. God’s grace truly knows no bounds.

  18. I had my first anxiety attack at ten years old, I’m not being a negative Nancy just trying to understand. I didn’t know what was happening and thinking back I’m not sure what I could have been guilty about at ten. I’m currently facing a battle with anxiety and being told I’m not really sick that it’s just an excuse. I’m also not sure as to why I am guilty about feeling something I cannot control. It is painful, and exhausting. I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, I pray and seek Gods guidance on my life as I raise my two boys. I worry about everything and so maybe I have forced myself into guilt. If I do wrong by anyone I apologize and forgive even when no one offers an apology back. The way I read this is that my anxiety is my fault for being guilty about something I have done. What I am facing, I feel, is an attack from someone who has belittled me, made up horrible lies and stories about me, threatened me, called me some pretty harsh names, etc. I know for a fact I haven’t done anything to this person except try to be accepted into their life and later defend myself, I’m just not the type of person to be cruel to another human being. Like I said I’m just trying to understand, it’s the most difficult thing I have ever faced. I cry out to God daily to give me strength for my boys and His grace for myself.

    I’ll most likely regret even posting this.

  19. Specifically to the alcoholic or family of those. Mr. Lucado speaks truth, but many of us have already been driven from God’s path for us by those with the ‘just stop’ message. There are many roads back to God. One of the oldest and most successful paths takes us through 12 steps. It worked for us. In those simple steps, after 42 years of alcoholism, both of us turned our lives over to God. Then, we were able to accept His grace and move beyond guilt.

  20. Dear Max, thanks for sharing your anxiety experience with us. Maybe the guilt that brought your anxiety is doing the same with me. Thanks for your inspiring texts, it always speaks to me a lot. God bless you!

  21. Max, I love you brother and am so thankful for those formative years that the Lord grabbed ahold of us and the people we admired showed us grace and invested in our futures. You’re a champion my friend, and a testimony of God’s power through grace to change the lives of thousands upon thousands.

  22. Dear Max,
    I write this with tears in my eyes. Even though I am only 22 years old, I can relate with every single word in this lesson. It is like you are just describing my experience through life. Anxiety and alcohol has been part of my life since I was 17 years old and even though I am not where I wish I was, it is really encouraging to now your experience and how you overcame it. Please keep encouraging others, you are a true blessing. May God bless you.

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