Navigating anxiety

Imagine your alarm clock going off in the morning, but instead of the alarm sounding on your phone or nightstand, it’s sounding inside of your head. And imagine that instead of waking up to music, or the local news, you hear a collage of voices, reciting a million different questions, doubts, and fears: “What if the car won’t start?” “Why are you always so hard on your kids?” “What are you going to do about your coworker who isn’t a team-player?” “Everyone thinks you’re a failure.” There is no snooze button, no “off” button, no way of silencing these voices. If you sense your heart rate quickening, tension spreading in your arms or chest, and thoughts racing through your mind as you strain to hear every word around you, followed by the growing sense that there is no end, and no way out, you’re learning what anxiety feels like to many people.

Anxious Times

If you cope with anxiety, you are not alone. In fact, you are among a growing number of individuals who wake up each morning to a day filled with anxieties. The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the problem. Each day the numbers paint a grim picture of illness and loss. Financial uncertainties mean worries over a business, mortgage payments that are coming due, plans that have to be postponed or cancelled. There is, presently, no real sense of when this crisis will end. These challenges are only made worse by the reality that many of our normal outlets that we turn to as a way of calming our stresses are unavailable to us. Gyms are closed. Friendships are “socially-distanced”. Hobbies and leisure activities that ordinarily provide respite, may not be open to us. It's no wonder that people are anxious.

Lean into community

There are a couple of factors that make anxiety particularly difficult. First, the stigma often associated with anxiety can leave us feeling as though we are entirely alone in this. Since we still don’t like to talk about anxiety or depression, you may not realize how commonly others face this with you. When I look out over my congregation on a Sunday morning, I often see a significant number of people who are coping with anxiety. Often, I speak to members who had no idea that there were others in the church who also cope with anxiety and worry.

Second, you may feel that being anxious means that there is something wrong with your faith. “Do I not trust God enough? If I had more faith, maybe I wouldn’t have so much worry.” I find some comfort in knowing that no one less than the Apostle Paul acknowledged that he too worried at times: “…I am all the more eager to send [Epaphroditus] to you, so that I may have less anxiety,” Paul writes to the Philippian church (Phil. 2:29). Paul’s concern for the well-being of the Philippian church had him worried, such that he sought ways to reduce his anxiety. So, you are not alone! Even godly people in scripture have dealt with ongoing worries. But what can we do?

Pursue Healing

If anxiety is understood only as a spiritual problem, the remedy is often presented only in spiritual terms: “You just need to trust God more.” “Have you tried praying more?” Sometimes anxiousness has a spiritual component (we’ll get to that in a minute). Yet God designed us as complex creatures, with bodies, minds, and emotions that are all woven together in fascinating ways. Anxiety often has neuro-chemical components that may require medication; there may be psychological aspects that would benefit from counseling with a licensed therapist. There are other helpful tools that can help us manage anxiety, like journaling, exercise, talking with friends you trust, to name just a few. A trained counselor can equip you with essential skills for managing your anxiety in healthy ways. Grounding ourselves by connecting to the environment around us and tuning in mindfully to relax our breathing, are valuable tools for managing our anxiety. Seeking help in these ways does not indicate a lack of faith, or a non-Christian approach to mental health. Seeking out assistance from trained professionals demonstrates wisdom.

The Spiritual Dimension

Still, we would be unwise to neglect the way that our anxieties can reflect the condition of our heart. One of the roots behind our anxieties today is found in our strong desire to want control over our lives, and over others in our lives. We want confidence that the plans we have laid out for ourselves will come to pass. We want to feel in control over the school that we’ll accepted into, the job we’ll get, our health, and the well-being of our families. We want to know that our car will start, our coworkers will follow through on their commitments, and that weather will not ruin our plans for an outdoor wedding.

But we aren’t in control, and these last weeks have driven that point home for us. A virus measuring mere nano-meters has made it abundantly clear that we don’t control our health, the economy, or even the way we learn, work, or worship. Many of the idols that we look to for security, stability, and comfort have been systematically dismantled, and we find that we don’t have nearly the control over our lives that we like to believe that we have. Our lack of control can be deeply unsettling or incredibly liberating.

Look to God's word

The psalms guide us into a fuller expression of all our emotions. Psalm 121 was written to be sung as the Jewish people made their way from their towns and villages, through the uncertain and dangerous terrain to gather for worship at Jerusalem. You hear the uncertainty voiced in the Psalmist’s opening question, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains; where does my help come from?” Is this a question of fear, or confidence? Maybe both. Looking up to the mountains, the poet sees dozens of reasons to be afraid--the scorching heat of day, the darkness of night, the unstable terrain, wild and dangerous animals, and thieves to name just a few (see Ps. 121:5-7). Talk about reasons to be anxious and worried!

Find yourself in God's story

Yet, notice how the Psalmist responds; he speaks to himself! Psalm 121 is a song of worship in which the Psalmist applies God’s promises to his anxious heart. He reminds himself that the very same hands that formed those mountains and set the sun and the moon in place, the same eyes that supervised the forming of galaxies and molecules, are protecting and watching you. He never takes his attention off of you. Every step that you take, no matter how uneven the ground, every moment that you are awake, and every time your heart beats, God is actively watching all of it. There is not one millisecond that passes us by, or one molecule in all of creation in which God is slumbering or sleeping.

Catch a fresh perspective

In fact, we can see something that even the Psalmist couldn’t see, something that can help us face our anxieties. One of the greatest antidotes to worry comes when we focus our eyes on one of those mountains just outside of Jerusalem, a mountain where the Psalmist had likely lifted up his eyes many times. It was on that mountain, called Calvary, that God himself demonstrated just how much he loves and cares for us; it was there that His son Jesus was lifted up on that cruel cross, and it was there that God did not keep his very own son from harm, and allowed his son to be handed over to death itself that we might be brought into his family.

This is the greatest assurance that God will watch over our coming and going both now and forever. Of course we aren’t in control of our lives! Of course we aren’t the all-powerful force behind our lives! But, we can safely surrender the most minuscule details of our day, and the life-altering choices that will affect us into the hands that bore the marks of the nails for us.

So, if you wake up to the alarm of anxiety sounding in your mind each day, you’re not alone. Prayerfully identify those details in your life, the events, people, and plans over you may be desiring to hold more control than is ours to hold. In prayer, acknowledge that you are not in control. Then, through the lens of the cross, speak that reassuring promise to your heart, that promise that allows you to trust in the one who is master of every millisecond and molecule in all creation, and rest in his perfect care for you.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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