Social anxiety disorder is a common mental health condition, affecting 40 million Americans. For many, it’s a life long problem. But there is hope. Some treatments reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is currently the most effective.
One of the key aspects of CBT is to gradually face anxiety. I will describe how God did something similar with Moses several thousand years ago.
When you think of Moses, probably social anxiety is the last thing that comes to mind. More likely, confronting Pharaoh and ordering plagues on Egypt? Leading the Israelites across the Red Sea?
The Bible’s description of his struggle overlaps with what we would now call social anxiety disorder.
I will trace the events that molded this great hero of the Bible:
a) How Moses’ earlier life may have formed his struggles with social anxiety.
b) How his social anxiety led him to resist God’s call.
c) How God provided support and challenge to help him face anxiety.
Nowhere to call home
He experienced early trauma, taken from his parents as a baby and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. We know from much research the profound impact on mental health this experience can have.
Moses had great struggles with identity. He saw himself as an Israelite. But his people did not accept him. Moses seems unwelcome either as an Egyptian or an Israelite.
He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man (Exodus 2:11–12). Pharaoh is informed of this, so Moses has to flee to Midian (Exodus 2:15). He also tried to break up a fight between two Israelites but they dismissed his efforts to make peace:
“… Who made you ruler and judge over us? …” (Exodus 2:14, NIV)
His loneliness is reflected in his son’s name (Gershon) which means “a foreigner there.”(Exodus 2:22, NIV) Moses remained in Midian for 40 years (Acts 7:30) expressing no desire to return to Egypt or his fellow Israelites long after the danger had receded.
Moses and social anxiety
Shame is at the core of social anxiety:
“Social anxiety is best described as the fear of feeling ashamed (e.g. of the emotions aroused and their interference in one’s presentation) or the fear of being shamed (e.g. by the negative evaluation of oneself and potential loss of rank), or both.” (David Veale, p259)
Intense fear of shame leads to avoidance of situations that might lead to others judging us. Examples include public speaking, attending parties, or going to church.
When the angel of the LORD appears in the burning bush (Exodus 3) he calls Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses’ response reflects the fear of being shamed and ashamed.
Moses’s first response is often how social anxiety is revealed. Shame is the “emotion of inferiority”. (Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip, p141) Moses is certain God has got the wrong man:
“… Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? …” (Exodus 3:11, NIV)
Moses’ next response reflects another key aspect of social anxiety, fear of negative evaluation:
“… I have never been eloquent …”
(Exodus 4:10, NIV)
Despite reassurance from God, Moses pleads with Him:
“… Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else…. ”
(Exodus 4:13, NIV)
Moses’s fear of being shamed and ashamed makes him reluctant to heed God’s call.
Overcoming social anxiety: reassurance and support
When helping people with social anxiety (or any other mental health problem) our responses can fall between unhelpful extremes.
We often either provide unlimited reassurance (without encouraging people to face their fears) or we lecture people on how to pull themselves together without gentleness or empathy.
God provides a balanced example of how people can overcome social anxiety.
Moses is given patient reassurance:
a) God will be with him when he speaks with Pharaoh (Exodus 3:12).
b) God is the creator of speech, He will equip Moses with the ability to communicate effectively (Exodus 4:12).
But the Lord also provides practical support to help Moses face his anxiety. He sent Aaron (Moses’ brother) to accompany him when speaking to Pharaoh and the Israelites.
Obstacles along the way: facing anxiety is rarely smooth
Moses agrees to follow God’s call. Aaron speaks on Moses’ behalf and they encourage the Israelites that God cares (Exodus 4:30–31). They find the courage to speak to Pharaoh, the despotic head of the Egyptian superpower (Exodus 5:1–4).
However, as predicted, Pharaoh did not agree to let God’s people go. Things temporarily get worse as his demands on the Israelite slaves become ever more unreasonable.
Moses shows great courage in addressing the Israelites, but they will no longer listen to him. This leads him to retreat to his original position:
“But Moses said to the Lord, ‘If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me since I speak with faltering lips?’”(Exodus 6:12, NIV)
Moses gradually faces his anxiety
Although Moses continues to protest (Exodus 6:30), finally he and Aaron confront Pharaoh. The narrative shows Moses gradually taking his place as the leader God had called him to be.
At first, Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1–20). Aaron takes the lead in speaking and also stretches out his staff signalling the start of the plagues against Egypt (Exodus 7:19; 8:16–17).
But as they continue to confront Pharaoh, Moses increasingly becomes the primary speaker (Exodus 8:9–29; 10:29; 11:4). Moses is also now the one who tosses soot in the air (Exodus 9:8), stretches out his staff (Exodus 10:13) and stretches out his hand (Exodus 10:21), bringing God’s judgement on Egypt.
Moses has become the commanding and courageous leader we see leading the people across the Red Sea and through the wanderings in the desert.
But it’s important to note this change doesn’t happen overnight. According to Rabbi Akiva, in a first-century Midrash on Exodus 5:12, the plagues lasted approximately a year.
Overcoming anxiety requires consistent practice at facing our fears.
How God helped Moses overcome his anxiety is a great model for us:
- We need to know that God is with us and will equip us to follow His calling:
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)
2. God calls us to face our fears but we often need people to support us along the way — as Moses needed the help of his brother Aaron.
3. Anxiety is best faced gradually. At first, it was too much for Moses to confront Pharaoh alone. Aaron accompanying and speaking for him gave Moses the courage to obey God’s call. But with time, Moses’ anxiety subsided and he took on the lead role in proclaiming God’s judgement on Egypt.