We live in an anxious age and most of us battle some form of internal anxiety. But what I think is missing from recent discussions about anxiety is a clear understanding of its spiritual nature: a theology of anxiety. If we can understand how anxiety works and how it can entangle us, hopefully we can be free from its clutches.
I began studying the nature of anxiety as a naive 24-year-old trauma and hospice chaplain. Every day I would walk into rooms and help deliver bad news or help someone die or cope with a significant shift in their quality of life. My job was to be present to people in their most horrific moments and do my best to attend to them and to God. I was a type-A, proactive, quick thinker. None of those traits are helpful in the face of overwhelming grief and pain.
I had to learn that my impulse to do something or say something was an anxious response, not a helpful one. I became helpful only once I began to increase my capacity to not: not speak, not act, not quote that Scripture. To not try to shrink the situation down to a manageable size so I would feel better. In my early days as a chaplain, most of my initial responses were anxious, not helpful. I was quelling my own anxiety, not actually serving the people in front of me.
Your Need… or Theirs?
We experience chronic anxiety when we don’t receive what we think we need in any given moment. In those early days as a chaplain, I thought I needed many things: the answer, to make it better, to be impressive, to say or do the right thing, to be liked. When someone is screaming at me, ‘How could God allow this to happen?’ I had to overcome my felt need to have an answer so I could be present to what they actually needed.I had to overcome my felt need to have an answer so I could be present to what they actually needed. Click To Tweet
Each of us believes we need things that we don’t actually need, and when we don’t receive them, we get anxious. What is something that you think you need that you don’t actually need? This felt need, this ‘thing that I think I need that I don’t really need,’ is evidence of what Thomas Merton coined ‘the false self.’ The false self generates massive anxiety in our lives because it presents a false gospel, a false sense of security. It invites us to find our security and trust in it instead of in God.We are often way too tolerant of anxiety because we don’t consider what a spiritual dark force it really is. Click To Tweet
Paying Attention to the Right Things
Twenty-six times in the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and others warn us against the sarx (flesh), anthropos (old man), and autos (the self).We are warned to be wary of, crucify, die to, and be suspicious of either the flesh, the old man, or the self. I think this flesh/man/self is our false self and that anxiety is an early detection system that we are depending on our false self instead of resting in Christ. We are often way too tolerant of anxiety because we don’t consider what a spiritual dark force it really is.
In Romans 6, Paul urges us to be careful not to offer ourselves to sin, as sin will drag us down the path of death. I believe anxiety operates this same way. Not that anxiety is a sin, but that anxiety, like sin, is a force that drags us down a dark path and keeps us from resting in God. If we give ourselves to it, we end up consumed by it instead of living free in Christ.
One sign that I am anxious is when my mind races around and around, thinking over and over about the same thing. I have yet to successfully worry my way to peace, but if I don’t intentionally intervene, I will allow my mind to keep spinning. That is because my false self is presenting me with a false gospel: the lie that I can worry my way to peace, the lie that I need this person’s approval to be ok, the lie that I need to be understood. And following a false gospel leads to death, not life.
My growth as a chaplain came when I could name my anxiety, die to it, and walk into a room no longer needing the answer, or to make it better, or any number of things I thought I needed that I don’t actually need. And when I began to understand this, I experienced a whole new vista of peace. It felt miraculous. That is when I discovered another set of messages my false self was sending me: It is all on your shoulders. You have to know what to do and say, and if you don’t do and say the right things, I will condemn you.
But the true gospel offers us messages of hope and freedom: God is already at work in this room. God is ahead of you and with you. It is not on your shoulders, you do not need to know what to do. You can walk in and just be present to God and to these hurting people. When I lean into these truths, the difference is palpable.
Nowadays I am a suburban lead pastor, so the intensity of my role has changed, but the dynamics are the same. I face daily decisions, sometimes moment-by-moment: am I going to indulge the false self or die to it?
As you are walking to that meeting with that difficult person, as you are struggling with imposter syndrome, as your faith is shifting while you are leading a faith community, as you are wondering how to handle the critic or manage yet another person in crisis, you can pay attention to what is making you anxious, name it, die to it, and give it to Christ then rest free in him. For example:
“Lord, as I walk into this elder meeting, I know I tend to want to always know the answers. But you died to free me from always needing the answer. Help me to see that you are already among us, and to listen well to these good people. Thank you for freeing me from the need to know.”
”As I go into this meeting with this difficult person, show me where you are at work and help me to serve this person, not my own need. Thank you that because my identity and security is in you and in whose I am, not who I am, I can walk away from this meeting being misunderstood by them and be all right. You have given me the capacity to love them even though they want to harm me.”
This will take time and practice, but perseverance will lead to an invasion of grace into our anxieties and the flow of freedom that comes after dying to our false selves. It is for freedom that we have been set free, and experiencing the peace that comes with following the true gospel is worth it.