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.