Monday, April 20, 2020

Anxiety and the Believer

Sunday I watched several different church services on line, all dealing with the topic of anxiety. It was interesting to see how differently they handled the topic. Some handled it with a black-white approach, claiming faith and anxiety can't coexist. Other's handled it in a more gracious approach like Louis Giglio did in his sermon, "It is Okay to Freak Out." (Passion City Online) He first acknowledged the reality of the anxiety we are experiencing as we live during these times and then challenged us to not make anxiety our permanent residence. I like that!

We are anxious because we're facing a virus we don't know much about and the information we are given daily about it is constantly changing. We are anxious because our government has shut down many businesses and asked us to shelter in place to save lives. This has cost people their jobs, paychecks, and insurance that they had through their employees. People are left struggling to figure out how to pay rent, utilities, insurance policies, car payments, medical bills, and provide food for their families. Parents were also thrust into the role of teacher without any preparation while helping little ones grieve the abrupt end of classes confused by the concept of this thing called a pandemic. We are anxious because life changed abruptly and change is hard. We are anxious because store shelves were emptied by people panicking, leaving others trying to figure out how to get what they need.

We are also anxious because we were created to be relational people, but right now relationships don't feel safe. We are left wondering if we could be a carrier who might contaminate someone we love or if our loved one who has just gotten groceries for us has brought home more than just the groceries. We are anxious because we want to hug those we love and to do so could put them or us in danger. And those of us who have found joy and peace through church life, are left wondering just how safe it will be to return to something we have loved and miss, but could expose us to an illness from which we might not recover.

If that isn't enough anxiety to deal with, in America we have this thing called partisan politics. It was originally designed to provide a beautiful system of checks and balances to protect freedom. But lately, it's evolved into something akin to a very bad, dysfunctional marriage. And, we have all become like children standing outside of mom and dad's closed door, listening to them fight because we think knowledge keeps us safer, only to find we are listening to things we don't want to hear--blame being hurled like fiery darts, shaming words being cast to discredit others' points of view, the assassination of the character of people whose beliefs differ, angry questions thrown down that were really harsh judgments in disguise, and the refusal of either side to take ownership for their own part in the struggle. Every person who grew up in a broken home knows exactly what I am talking about. And, those who know realize the anxiety triggered by this politicians isn't just the anxiety of the present, but also the anxiety of the past brokenness never dealt with.

I confess I've been an anxious person most of my life and probably came out of the womb biting my finger nails. I've also experienced many traumas over time and didn't get help for those until later in life. As a believer, I felt guilt and shame over the anxiety I experienced. Oh, sometimes I could align my thinking to Scripture and change an anxious mood to a peaceful one. But, the anxiety I experienced ran deeper in me. I could go to bed in a peaceful state, only to wakeup in the middle of the night chewing my tongue like yesterdays bubble gum or grinding my teeth so hard they cracked. Hard as I tried I couldn't figure out how I was failing to trust God enough for that to happen.

This last year while we were training our support group leaders, a therapist shared some information with us that was so freeing for me and others who had experienced trauma and anxiety. Simply put anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease. Ordinarily the experience of anxiety is related to our immediate surroundings. We call that ambient anxiety. On a scale of 0-10, people who haven't experienced a lot of trauma live with anxiety levels that fluctuate between 0-5. So, when they experience an anxiety provoking event as an adult they can go up the anxiety scale and then return to their normal state afterwards. However, those who have experienced ongoing trauma have anxiety that is in the background, subconsciously activated and elevated so that they live in the 5-9 range on the anxiety scale. And, when they experience a new trauma as an adult, they are more highly triggered and don't have as quick and as complete of a recovery from it.

In light of this information, I find sermons that simply equate anxiety with a lack of faith hard to digest, especially when Philippians 4:6 is taken out of context and people are told the Bible commands us not to be anxious. If that is true I wish someone would tell that to my sleeping self. When I read Philippians 4:5-9, verse six doesn't sound like a command to me. It sounds like a loving Father asking us to trust Him. Paul's timely words tell us to rejoice in the Lord as He is ever present. He is present even in this pandemic as we face an unseen enemy, food and goods insecurities, financial loss, and relational fears. It is based on this reminder of God's presence that Paul tells us not to give into anxious thoughts but continually bring them to the Lord in prayer. For me that doesn't mean a simple prayer like "bless us in this pandemic." It means being radically honest with God about what I am experiencing and what I am feeling. It means setting aside the tendency to judge myself harshly and being curious about where the anxiety is coming from. Is it because I am forgetting how big, how good, and how loving my God is? Is it because this current crisis we are facing is scary? Is it because the feelings of this current crisis are bumping into feelings I experienced through past traumas? Is, is it because I am giving ear to the Enemy's lies and not taking my thought's captive to God's truth?  Or, is it because there are areas in my life that my knowledge of God still resides only in my head and not in my heart?

As I confess my anxiety and pray about these things either aloud or in letters written to God, I find myself experiencing something awesome, which I believe is the working out of God's peace taking hold and guarding my heart. I find myself connecting to the reality of God's presence in my life. The  experience of loneliness I felt in dealing with anxiousness dissipates into a feeling of connectedness. I find myself being comforted by the great I Am who is all powerful, all knowing, and sovereign over all that pertain to me and I am overwhelmed with awe. I also find myself being counseled by the Holy Spirit as He lovingly shows me where and how my past and present are colliding and then helps me sort through it and move past it. All of this helps my head knowledge of Him work its way to my heart where it begins to govern my actions and reactions to life. I also find that instead of my anxiety triggering panic, it has begun to "trigger" a desire to turn to Jesus, knowing His ears are turned towards me. In that sense the anxiety has driven me towards Him, not away.

After I have acknowledged the truth of what is going on in me and laid out my concerns to Him, I am more free to follow Paul's instructions to shift my focus from the problems going on to what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and praise worthy, which is Jesus who is the very  embodiment of all these things. I can also look around for those things in the midst of all of this hard. It means identifying those who are performing acts of valor in the midst of this pandemic--from the essential workers in groceries stores to medical personnel putting their lives on the line to care for the sick. I can also focus on spring beauty that is blooming all around me, the miracles of babies still being born, and the art projects my grand kids are creating. I can take the time to commend others for their servant hearts, kind words, or sacrificial acts of giving. As I notice and keep track of these things, I can see how God is still actively working through it all.

My prayer is that we, as believers, will be transparent about our own struggles and gracious with others who admit they feel anxious, understanding that though we are all walking through the same storm, our experiences in the storm can be very different based on our emotional make up, our resilience, our past trauma experiences, our ambient anxiousness, and our willingness to be curious about our own reactions to life. I will close by encouraging you to meditate on Paul's words that were penned after he had endured much suffering that earned him the right to tell us to practice the things we have learned, received, heard, and seen in him.
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand, 
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication 
with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, 
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely,
whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, 
if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--
practice these things and the peace of God will be with you.
Philippians 4:5-9      

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Fear Will Lose its Grip

My earliest memory of fear is kind of funny. When I was three or four years old, my dad watched westerns on TV and in those westerns there were lots of battles between cowboys and Native Americans. At that time we lived in West Texas and drove into El Paso to get groceries and as we drove home at dusk the terrain looked similar to the terrain in the westerns. I often became nervous and hypervigilant as I gazed out the car window, expecting Native Americans to come over the hills on horses to attack us. It was an irrational fear, but I didn't realize the shows were about a different time period in history and we were not in any danger of being attacked.

There were times I embraced fear and faced it for fun's sake. For example, as a child I sometimes got to stay up late and watch scary shows with my parents. As each show built towards it's climax, I found myself  moving closer to one of my parents until it was over. Sometimes my dad growled or grabbed our legs as the tension was mounting, and we all screamed and yelled at him, while we were moving closer to him to feel safer. I loved the closeness I felt as we snuggled to watch those shows. I also loved the memories of those shared experiences as they gave us something common to talk about in later years.

One fear I've never had a desire to face or overcome is my fear of snakes. My first encounter with a snake was when I was riding a bicycle with training wheels on it. I rode down the street, and then when I came back to our house, there was a huge coiled rattlesnake in the road. I stopped just short of it, jumped off the bike and ran to the house. I entered the house and calmly announced the snake in a manner that belied the huge fear pounding in my chest. The fear of snakes grew more when I was a teen and was hiking with my dad. We came upon a loud sound echoing in a canyon. All of a sudden my dad took me firmly by the arm, turning me around as he started walking faster. I had never seen him look that concerned. So, I asked him what the sound was. He told me there apparently was a large den of rattle snakes somewhere in the canyon we were approaching. He explained that the sound we heard was them rattling at the same time and that because of the echo, he couldn't pinpoint where they were and knew it wasn't safe to proceed in that direction. To this day if I see snakes in person, I am frozen with fear and scream.

I 've had other fears that weren't as terrifying, but were just as real and impacted my life in huge ways. I feared my parents would get a divorce long before they did and lived trying to control things out of my control to prevent that. I feared abandonment and developed people pleasing tendencies that made relationships unhealthy. I feared the airplanes that flew overhead during the Cold War years and would plant myself near my parents when I heard them. I struggled with anorexia and spent years fearing food and the number on the scale until it consumed my life. In high school I feared death and refused to sleep more than few hours at a time and lived exhausted through my teen years. As an adult I feared I would not be able to walk again after I suffered a severe break to my ankle and I pushed myself more than was healthy, which increased the arthritis in that joint. I have feared I might lose one of my children to asthma, a ruptured spleen, pancreatitis, celiac disease, or other health issues with which they have struggled. I have feared social situations and speaking engagements to the point I avoided both even though I much wanted to do those things. There were times I have feared being outside in wide open spaces, walking on wet pavement, or feeling strong winds blowing in my face. And, as an abuse survivor I have feared both what I remembered and what I couldn't.

When I wrote, Embracing a Feeling Heart, I  read Harnessing the Incredible Power of Fear written by Ken Nichols. He explained that fear is built into our emotional make up from the point of conception and that it was given to us to motivate us to take action when we are not safe. When we perceive danger or potential harm, fear can actually energize us, speeding the blood flow through our bodies, enabling us to think more quickly so we can take action and meet the perceived danger head-on. It can also motivate us to flee or play dead when that would work better. The Bible even tells us that fear can motivate us to seek God and to trust in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. It can even alert us to addictive, self destructive behaviors that are destroying our lives.

Nichols points out that when fear is irrational it can paralyze and control us. This kind of fear most often has a spiritual component to it. Satan, who is a master at deceiving us, feeds us lies that can make routine battles appear gigantic. Because of that Satan can turn us into cowards who live lives  plagued by chronic fear. Or, he can  whisper just enough tidbits of false information to stir just enough fear to cause us to live mediocre lives, requiring very little risk. Satan also likes to stir up confusion which can lead to more fear.

When I was pregnant with our third baby, we had a guy break into our home and as a result I went through a period of time where my life was consumed with irrational fear that hindered my daily life. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't reenter our home after shopping unless my husband was home. I jumped and screamed every time one of my kids touched me unexpectedly. I began to tell myself that I didn't have to be afraid, because the guy was gone and our doors were secure. I also began to memorize Scriptures that had to do with fear. One that I repeated over and over when I fell asleep was Psalm 4:8, "In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for you alone O Lord, make me dwell in safety."  While I think it was normal to experience fear with what had happened, the calming of my spirit with the Word bears witness of the spiritual component to the irrational fear I was dealing with.

During this pandemic, we are experiencing fear. It may come in the form of anxiety, panic, or strong fear. It may be covered by denial or anger, but it most likely there lurking under the surface trying to make itself known to us and we would do well to listen to it. For me, it has surfaced some fear of being around others, which I hate but must admit is probably healthy. It has also surfaced an irrational fear of breathing air as I wonder what little viruses are making their way into my lungs. It has also resurfaced a fear that I have always had of dying alone and has surfaced a fear of not being able to provide for ourselves, which has always been important to us.

Sometimes we intensify our emotional states by believing lies that can stir up additional shame. Some of the lies we tend to believe about fear are:
  • Fear is sin
  • Adults shouldn't be afraid
  • "Good" Christians don't experience fear
  •  I can't survive the experience of fear
  • I am fearful and can do nothing about it 
  • If I feel my fear, it will consume me. 

But the truth is:
  • Fear is a God-given emotion that helps us stay safe and make healthy decisions
  • Emotionally healthy adults do experience fear and that is okay, especially in the face of a pandemic where health is at risk, people have to isolate, and many are losing jobs
  • Christians are not exempt from danger and fear is beneficial
  • Irrational fear can be identified and managed with truth
  • We can learn to tolerate fear when we practice sitting with it instead of numbing it or denying its presence
  • We don't have to be a slave to our fears, we can face them, deal with them, get help and support if need be
  • We are capable of doing work when needed to change our fearful mindset 
  • Feeling and acknowledging the experience of fear can keep it from overwhelming us
  • For the believer death has lost its sting and the truth is that the best is yet to come so choosing to focus on one day at a time, praying for God's wisdom, loving well, and trusting God's numbering of our days is truly done in with a heart that perfectly loves can calm our fears.
This pandemic has stirred in many of us a strong fear of weaknesses in our body and/or our health. The fear of becoming extremely ill, incapacitated and on a ventilator, or dying is real. We want to remember at this time, is that focusing solely on those fears can increase stress, which can cause more physical problems. We have the power to choose to focus on things that bring us joy and fill us with peace and a sense of gratitude. We can focus on the truth that God can manifest HIs strength in our weaknesses and choose to focus on things of eternal value. Those of us who are older can accept aging is a normal part of life. Second Corinthians 4:16-18 offers this hope: "So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." 

Let us remember our God isn't isolating from us, His is with us and His ears are turned toward us inviting us to pour out our troubled hearts to Him. Let us continually lift up our president and vice-president in prayer asking God who has all wisdom and power to guide them as they lead us through this ongoing crisis. Let us continually ask God to protect our medical personnel who are continually facing this virus on our behalf, putting their own lives at risk. Let us continually ask our Jehovah Jirah to provide for the needs of those who have lost jobs. Let us continually ask our Abba to comfort those who have lost loved ones to this unseen enemy. Let us continually be asking the Holy Spirit to miraculously heal those alone in the hospital rooms surrounded by equipment and masked people. And let's do spiritual battle with the Enemy who is feeding us with his ugly lies to keep us paralyzed in fear. While we are isolating for protection, let us remember that our God is more powerful than the threat we're facing and let's use this time to focus on Him and His great love. Our church buildings may be empty this Easter, but the Savior--He is still alive and active in us. There is no better time than now to be on our knees crying out for Nations full of lost, hurting, and fearful souls. Prayer has a way of energizing and clarifying what is truly important to us. Prayer cant each us to love well in ways that we haven't even though of yet. Stay safe. Pray continually. Give thanks. Lets remember that fear will lose its grip when we listen to its message and view that message through God's truth. 


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!