"Humble yourselves, therefore,
under the mighty hand of God
so that at the proper time He may exalt you,
casting all your anxieties on Him
because He cares for you."
1 Peter 4:6-7
When I put her down to clean house, she follows me from room to room looking worried. There are times I sit down with her and I feel her trembling, which is what she does when she realizes we are getting ready to leave the house without her. Her anxiety seems to have risen to a whole new level and it grieves my heart because she gets so anxious anticipating a possible abandonment that she can't enjoy time she spends on my lap. In watching her, I realized I spent many years living with the same kind of anxiety and I couldn't enjoy life or enjoy God.
Anxiety is a common human experience and rises during the holidays. It increases when many lose jobs or are suffering economic set backs or facing rising costs that are not met with pay raises. There is also the anxiety that comes with living under the threat of terrorism as the idea of going to crowded places to shop where an active shooter might show is unsettling. There is more anxiety because of the fires and the weather following that may can cause mudslides and floods that impact life and property. And rebuilding is never easy. There is also anxiety that comes from wanting to have the perfect Christmas, give the perfect gifts, and respond perfectly to the gifts we receive. There is the anxiety in anticipating family dysfunction and family drama that erupts when people with unresolved baggage come together and pretend everything is alright. We also struggle with anxiety because there is always extra costs during holidays and our tendency to go overboard in gift giving, realizing we have to be accountable at some point to pay off the debt after Christmas.
For believers, anxiety tends to create toxic shame because we believe we aren't supposed to be anxious. But the truth is we all experience anxiety. We just tend to deny it or to hide it, choosing to live a lie instead of honestly acknowledging it. Because of this, we don't resolve it and it festers and grows. There are several reasons we experience anxiety. First, we live in a fallen world and may have experienced painful or traumatic events that altered brain chemistry. A normal healthy response to early trauma includes anxiety. I think of those who experienced childhood trauma at such a young age they didn't have the mental or emotional capacity to process it. Their body responded with surging chemicals designed to keep them safe, but they were too young to know how to use that energy. So, the anxiety was imprinted in such a way that it recurs when it gets triggered now by things that the mind remembers subconsciously--a smell, a sound, a season of the year, holiday lights, etc. As they experience triggers, anxiety rises often without a person even knowing its source.
There is also anxiety provoking things going on in the here and now. I think of those who've been given a diagnosis of cancer, once, twice, or maybe even thee times. If we put ourselves in their shoes we realize they face mortality daily in ways we don't. They face difficult decisions about therapies that potentially poison their bodies to kill the cancer. They face soaring medical bills and battle insurance companies who refuse to pay because they value profit more than people. Anxiety also comes from not being sure they can tolerate chemo and the shock of their balding heads. It comes from wondering if their faith will be strong enough to endure the illness and its treatment. It comes from wondering if they will suffer well and continue to be a light or be able to experience God and His love while knowing He can heal, but may choose not to.
There is anxiety when families deal with sick children. I follow the posts of two mom's whose children were born with heart defects. One, a little girl named Charlie who has gone through two open heart surgeries. They found out while Charlie was still in the womb that half of her heart hadn't formed. The road they travel is long and death will always be a very real possibility. They walk closely with God and the song they sing over her has continually declares yes to God's will and yes to His ways. But there is anxiety to be reckoned with when Charlie faces life threatening bumps of all sizes and fights to survive with half a heart that loves big. The other child is sweet little Caleb who has already been given a new heart. But the new heart didn't stop the anxiety from reoccurring when the drugs preventing rejection left his immune system compromised and vulnerable to blood and eye cancer with which he's battled brave. I know his mama and am sure she experiences anxiety when he gets sick, even in the midst of a great big trust she has placed in her God.
There is anxiety felt in families struggling with addictions. Anxiety rises at holidays as each wonders what they will face. Everyone walks on eggshells, fearful they will say or do something that will cause a relapse and the drinking, the drug use, or the porn use will start up again along with the chaos and wounding behaviors that follow. There is also anxiety because holiday stress could trigger an addict to drink, snort, shoot up, or return to the darkness of his or her infidelity through internet porn--the fix that degrades the whole family, leaving it open to all sorts of dark spiritual influences that can pass to future generations.
There is anxiety in families in which mental illness dwells. Will this be the holiday the depressed caves to suicide? Will mom (dad, or a sibling) be calm and happy, agitated and angry, depressed and unavailable or on a mania high? Will the fear instilled by the paranoid come to fruition? All the while the children are trying to figure out if there is something they did to cause the illness or if there is something they can do to bring stability to the instability--a responsibility way to big for little shoulders, causing anxiety to be their norm.
There is anxiety in homes where marriages are broken. Each family member experiences it as they find themselves wondering if the next mistake made, the next thoughtless word, the next problem with the kids, the next financial setback or argument over money might be a final trigger that ends the marriage for good, fracturing a family into two. Anxiety also comes to the children overhearing arguments and assuming responsibility to smooth things over so mom and dad stay together.
There is anxiety caused by core beliefs that we developed at such an early age we don't even realize we had them. Yet, these core beliefs impact thoughts, actions, reactions, and feelings. Some of my anxiety inducing core beliefs were: "I am responsible for everyone else's happiness." "My being loved depends on me being a perfect size, a perfect wife, a perfect mom, and a perfect believer." "My value and worth as a person comes from what I do." During holidays, my anxiety can be tied to wanting to find the perfect present for everyone as I answer for every penny I spend. Ironically, it also can come from wanting to have the perfect response to every gift I received. As a person who was a emotionally-reserved introvert, that's always been difficult for me. I don't remember ever getting a gift I didn't love, but know my lack of spontaneous expression left others wondering if I did. That perfectionism gets complicated because having the perfect marriage, perfect family, and perfect holidays depends not just on me being perfect (and I am not), but on others being perfect (and they are not). I realize I've no right to project my perfectionism on others. I am simply called to love well, to extend grace, and to lovingly speak truth. When perfectionism is my goal, I try to control things I can't control and that anxiety rises like a snake ready to strike. My frustrations can grow, and my temper can explode into a big ugly mess.
Over the last few years I've learned some things that have calmed my anxious heart. First, I learned that God doesn't demand perfection. He desires me to be humble and to express my anxiousness to safe friends who are not-judgmental. I am graced with friends who listen well and friends who remind me they hear me and see me and their powerful words remind me that my heavenly Father sees me as well. Sometimes my friends share truth about God's goodness, bigness, and graciousness in non-shaming ways, but most often they just listen, knowing I simply need to bring it to the light. Sometimes they remind me to cast cares on God, because He cares for me and offer to help me do that in prayer. Because I've had a few people in my life who shame with admonition rather than gracing with encouragement, I've learned to share with those who understand God's love and grace and those who understand we live in the hard of a fallen world and will experience anxiety, but whose gentle encouragement reminds me to continue believing our God is bigger than it all!
The second lesson I've learned is when I feel panicked and anxious I can talk freely to God about it because He isn't waiting to strike me with lighting because of a feeling I am experiencing. He's always inviting me to remember who He is and who I am in Him. Remembering God's character, strength, love, and grace has helped me to stay calm through some pretty big events--like an accident our daughter, her husband, and infant son were in. Like an ATV accident our youngest had, leaving him with painful life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured spleen. Like when one of our granddaughters was born three months too soon. Like when I suffered such a severe break in my ankle that the doctors said, "If you walk again..."
The third lesson I learned was that I could dissolve or manage anxiety that was caused or increased because of lies I believed. I learned some of the lies from others who were misguided, some from seeing things accurately while interpreting them incorrectly, some from being tempted by The Enemy who seeks to destroy and to squash faith by whispering lies in our ears. He feeds anxiety when he convinces us women that we are too much and not enough and convinces men that they fall short of what it takes to be a man. He stirs anxiety when he whispers lies about God and His character, stirring doubts about His love, goodness, and faithfulness. He whispers lies about who we are, causing us to forget we are created to be His "image bearers" designed to worship the Creator.
The Enemy would have us forget we are chosen, accepted, redeemed, beloved children who have been bought with the blood of God's own Son and sealed with His own Spirit. He would have us think our circumstances prove we're bad, forgotten, unseen, or abandoned by the God who calls us His own. How the Enemy loves to shame us by telling us anxiety proves we're bad. He shames because shame causes us to hide or deny our reality instead of casting it on Him through prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving. The Enemy uses shame to stir a form of pride that drives us to look "all together" while quaking to the core. He does this because he knows if we hide in shame, we won't experience the care and comfort of God. He knows if we engage with others, we will get out of our own heads and be able to identify his lies, and cling to the Truth. The Enemy deceives so we will feel responsible for things of which we have no control--things like others' feelings, attitudes, choices, beliefs. and actions. He prompts us with the should of shame, the seduction of power, and reminder of sin already confessed.
So, why do I write of all this in a advent post? I write it because this holiday is a Holy Holiday commemorating the birth of our Savior--the God-man who took on flesh to die as a payment for sin, the birth of our Shepherd who loves and seeks His sheep, the birth of our King who had made us joint Heirs with Him. The Enemy wants us to take our eyes off Him and put it on anxiety-provoking things like the creation of the perfect Christmas. If we aren't careful, we will buy into the lies he tells and return to anxiety instead of resting in the Gift of His peace and joy. I wonder what would happen if the goal of perfection were replaced with the goals of connection and loving well through celebrations of simpler traditions, acceptance of imperfection, sweeter conversations, simple gifts, and remembering Jesus.