Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?

Some Christians would say “no.” After all, the Bible tells God’s people not to be anxious. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). If the Bible tells us not to be anxious, and Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then it appears that Jesus never worried and was never anxious about anything.

As I have written before, “don’t worry” is not the eleventh commandment. When God tells us not to worry, he is promising to take care of us. We can tell God about anything that worries us, and we can trust him to take care of our problems. Worry and anxiety can be powerful temptations to sin, but anxiety in itself is not sinful. It is part of what happens in this world, more to some people than to others.

Anxiety is like anger. Anger can cause people to sin, but anger itself is not a sin. Evil things in this world make God angry, and they should make us angry. At times Jesus was angry. He was angry that the teachers of God’s Word were misunderstanding the Word and teaching others to misunderstand the Word. He was angry that the Temple was being misused. Jesus never sinned, but he was tempted by anger. Instead, he used the energy of his anger to fix the problem that made him angry.

Was Jesus ever tempted by anxiety? Did he ever have a panic attack? Jesus knew that he was on his way to the cross, but he did not dwell on what was going to happen. He was able to take one day at a time, just as he teaches us to do. He says, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). He taught his followers to pray for “daily bread.” Taking one day at a time, Jesus was able to bear the coming torture of the cross, remarking on occasion, “My hour has not yet come.”

Finally, though, his hour came. Jesus had the Passover meal with his disciples and then went with them to a garden called Gethsemane. There he was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37) or “deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The Greek words used by Matthew and Mark are significant. The word for “sorrowful” is somewhat common in the New Testament and covers a range of sorrows. The word for “deeply distressed” is used only by Mark. In addition to the distress of Jesus in the garden, Mark also uses it to describe the surprise of a crowd when Jesus arrived unexpectedly, and again to describe the reaction of the women who found the tomb of Jesus empty. The word for “troubled” is used by Paul (Philippians 2:26) and is also translated “distressed.” It is a compound word suggesting “away from home,” or feeling badly out of place. Jesus, then, according to Matthew and Mark, was feeling a deep and powerful emotion of sorrow, trouble, and distress. He did not keep his feeling a secret, but told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).

Luke uses an even stronger word, “agony” (Luke 22:44). In fact, the Greek word chosen by Luke is the source of the English words agony and anguish. It refers to intense suffering, but only of an emotional nature, never to physical pain. Luke adds the detail that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the garden, Jesus was tempted to leave his mission. He was tempted by sorrow, distress, and agony. Given the descriptions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was suffering from an attack of anxiety, a genuine panic attack.

Other people in the Bible faced anxiety and depression. Elijah was depressed and wanted to die. The book of Job contains nearly a complete medical description of clinical depression. Paul in some of his letters expresses his melancholy feelings. Even Jesus, the sinless Son of God, dealt with powerful emotions of distress and agony.

Jesus prayed for help. He asked first if the mission could be changed, so he did not have to endure the cross. But Jesus also prayed the words he taught us to pray, “Your will be done.” Jesus was strengthened in his agony and was given the strength to complete his mission. Sinners are forgiven because Jesus resisted the temptation that came with distress and agony and continued to walk the path that leads to our salvation.

Jesus has not forgotten how he felt in the garden. When we pray about our feelings, he understands. He is able to help us, because he has faced every problem he allows us to endure. I find comfort in knowing that my Savior understands me so well, that he even knows how my anxiety feels.


“Don’t Worry,” he says

Christians know that Jesus told us not to worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-26, NIV)

Some Christians treat these words of Jesus as the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not worry. They remind each other that Jesus told us not to worry. They try to hide from themselves the fact that they sometimes worry, or else they feel guilty and confess that they have been worried. This worrying turns into a vicious spiral: first one is worried about something, then one worries about worrying, and soon one worries about worrying about worrying.

For Christians afflicted with anxiety, this vicious cycle occurs far too easily. Reminding an anxious person that Jesus says “Don’t worry” only adds to the anxiety—there’s one more thing I’m doing wrong. Telling an anxious Christian to “pray about their problems and trust God” only adds to the guilt and anxiety. As long as the words of Jesus are treated as commands, our efforts not to worry are likely to drive us deeper into anxiety and despair.

Jesus did not mean to be understood in this way. He meant his words to be a promise, not a warning. He told us not to worry because we do not need to worry. God has already solved all our problems. God is taking care of us, whether we can see his care or not. God will not abandon us to our problems, even if we do worry or do break his commands. The forgiveness of Jesus overcomes all our disobedience and all our shortcomings.

Consider this analogy: a man and woman have been married for a year or two. They both work, and they take turns fixing dinner. On the morning of his birthday, knowing that it is his wife’s turn to make dinner, he asks her, “What dinner have you planned for tonight?” She replies, “Don’t worry about it.” Do you think that she means those words as a threat? If somehow she finds out that he has been worrying about dinner, is she going to refuse to serve him dinner? Of course not. When she says “Don’t worry about it,” she is promising that she has all things under control. She will have a dinner ready for him. If she says “Don’t worry about it” instead of describing what she has planned, she probably wants to surprise him with a special dinner on his birthday.

In the same way, when Jesus says “Don’t worry,” he is not warning to punish any person he finds worrying. Of course we cannot make our lives longer by worrying; worrying probably shortens our lives. At the very least, it reduces the quality of our lives. However, worrying about worrying gets us nowhere. Jesus does not want anyone to worry about worrying. He wants us to approach life with confidence, knowing that he is in control and he will not let us down. Even if we struggle with worries and anxiety, Jesus does not give up on us. When we fall, he picks us up and puts us back on our feet. When we do wrong, he forgives us because of what Jesus has done for us. When we worry—and everybody sometimes worries—he says, “You don’t need to worry.” We can stop worrying about our worrying, because Jesus really doesn’t have a problem with our worries.

“Cast your cares on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). Again, this is a promise, not a command. God does care about each of us. He is big enough to handle all our worries, even all our anxiety. The last thing Jesus wants any of us to do is to worry about our worries.