It’s not how it is meant to be, I always thought.
The “it” is anxiety. Being anxious and a Christian is not how it is meant to be. But it is how it is.
For me, at least. But helpfully, a book Anxiety and Me: Brief Biblical Thoughts to Help Anxious Believers by former Eternity staffer Gaun Un gives me the news that 1) I am not the only one and 2) it is okay, even normal.
I am not sure why Guan has the ‘gift’ of being a Christian living with anxiety, but for me, it likely started with being adopted – insecurity often comes as part of that package. 18 months in the orphanage will have an effect, but my good fortune was having a significant other at the time –my twin, Peter.
But without meaning to, church experience can give the impression that being a Christian means a confident personality. I mean, it takes confidence to get up and preach, doesn’t it? At least it looks that way. So the ones we most admire exude at least a layer of confidence.
And subtly, the message gets across that we should measure ourselves by our leaders, even if they don’t mean us to. “Imitate me as I imitate Christ, as Paul almost said.
And in my own life, a dangerous tendency to be attracted to legalism, that I might be saved by being ‘good”, or somehow God wants instant sanctification – a perfect life – from me, gave me a burden that plagued my teenage years. A determination to make things right with everyone I could have ever offended drove me into depression then a massive breakdown. This extreme anxiety stripped every sense of self-confidence away, leaving me with only a sometimes-faint conviction that God loved me. I was bedridden for weeks. Decades later, I am still aware that It could happen again.
So when someone comes along and incredibly gently, gives me assurance that God actually understands, that his perfection does not push me into despair, and that God’s goodness gives hope – it’s wonderful.
Thank you, Guan.
Here is an extract from his book, Anxiety and Me: Brief Biblical Thoughts to Help Anxious Believers based on the shortest of Psalms, Psalm 131: expect to be refreshed.
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me. (Psalm 131:1)
If I was writing this psalm, I’d say something like: “I do not concern myself with the things that I don’t understand. I won’t bother with the things that I don’t know.”
But David, in writing the psalm, says something different. He writes: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me”. The word ‘marvellous’ here is not a synonym for ‘amazing’. It can also mean ‘difficult’—the Holman Christian Standard Bible puts it this way: “I do not get involved with things too great or too difficult for me.”
When we see a night sky filled from edge to edge with star after star, or we feel the soft touch of a new-born child; when we see the ocean cover the horizon and the waves crash against the shore, or we climb to a height to look out over an expanse of nature—all these things remind us of how much happens beyond our control and outside our understanding. And the only right reaction is wonder and humility, knowing how far we are from accomplishing such things by our own hands.
That is why Psalm 131 answers anxiety with humility—“my heart is not lifted up”. That is the safe ground that says there are things outside my control and outside my reach, and that is good.
The answer the world gives is that “You can do it by yourself !” And the world suggests in constant, subtle ways that everyone else is managing just fine.
How can we be okay with things being out of control? Why isn’t David more concerned?
The simple answer is because he knows God is good.
I know that seems like the simplest of Sunday school answers, but here’s what it means: in my anxiety, as I wrestle with my decisions and what they all mean, and as I whirl around in the “dizziness of freedom”, and as I try to play God over my own part of the world, the psalm tells me to stop and look outside myself.
One of the constant, niggling questions that anxiety asks is: “How can I do all of this by myself ?”
The answer the world gives is that “You can do it by yourself !” And the world suggests in constant, subtle ways that everyone else is managing just fine. And maybe, if you find the magic bullet, read the right book, or just buckle down and work harder, you too can assemble all your stuff into some sort of meaning for your life. “You can do it!”
But the gospel gives a different answer: “You can’t do it – but that’s okay because you’re not supposed to do it all by yourself.” You can’t do it all by yourself because you’re not meant to. You weren’t made to do it all.
Sometimes my kids try to be helpful (emphasis on sometimes). On one holiday, as I was carrying things downstairs to load the car, my then six-year-old said, “I can help”, and rushed in to take a suitcase. The problem was that the suitcase was adult-sized and heavy—it was simply too much for her. She tottered under the weight of it for a few steps, determined to do it herself, while I was right there, ready to take it from her.
Our psalm reminds me of how often I act as if I can do it on my own, struggling to take the weight of the things that I believe are in my control while God is waiting to take the load.
I act as if I am God over my domain, as if I have complete control over all these decisions and choices and outcomes when the God of creation is standing next to me running the universe—a universe that includes the domain I think I control.
And we have a word for God’s willingness to take the load: grace.
Grace is the shortcut to the biblical idea that nothing of what we have—especially the new life that is ours in Jesus—is because we have earned it. Nothing of what we do, no earthly merit, no work of our hands, could earn what God gives us freely because Jesus died for us.
And grace meets our anxiety head-on. Grace means that we can look outside ourselves and see that within and beyond our domain, within and beyond our anxieties, bigger than all the things that we can control, is the God who is in control of everything.
This is the God who shaped the stars and fashioned the Milky Way—the God who keeps every atom vibrating and every heart beating. This is one way that David knew God was good: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1).
And even better than that? He’s the God who knows you: knows every hair of your head, every beat of your heart, every depth of your despair and every edge of your anxiety. And he is willing to take the load.
In anxiety, it is good to humbly realize that there are things not in our control – because God is in control, and he is good. And it is good to realize there are things we do not and cannot know – because God knows, and he is good.
The wonderful and infinite goodness of God is greater than our anxiety, and that should give us pause and lead us to a humble quietness – just as in the psalm:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me. (v. 1)
© Matthias Media. Extract from Anxiety and Me. Used by permission. Available from: matthiasmedia.com.au/aam
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