Why Can’t I Stop Worrying?
I would not describe myself as someone prone to anxiety or worry. I’ve never had a panic attack, and I prefer to insulate myself from trending news and media. However, in the past couple of weeks I have found myself (to use a phrase which is waxing tiresome) in unprecedented territory. There are moments when I have felt waves of near-paralyzing anxiety. What is going on?
I want to offer two practical suggestions for Christians, which I offer only because these are the things I most need to hear and practice.
1. Stop idolizing nonchalance.
This is perhaps our biggest need as Christians right now if we want to be heard and taken seriously. People might argue back: “You don’t want to create a panic”. That’s true, and that’s wise. However, the panic is already out there. More importantly, the panic is already inside most of us, if we’re being honest.
I don’t see Christians’ chief temptation coming as a desire to stir up panic-anarchy. Our chief temptation is saying things like: “God’s sovereign”, or “I’m trusting God”, or “I’m not too worried about all this coronavirus stuff; it’s just annoying.” Those statements may all capture things we are truly feeling at any given time. And we need to be able to preach the good news of the love of Jesus, of God’s unchanging nature, and the priority of eternal life to ourselves and to others.
What I’m referring to is different; it is the air of subtly communicating: “Because I’m a Christian, I’m not worried. And if you were a Christian, of if you were a more mature Christian, you wouldn’t be worried, either.”
Yes, trusting God is ultimately the solution to our fears, now and always. Here’s the problem: The pressure we feel to display nonchalance, which can genuinely emerge from trusting God, isn’t at odds with the world. In fact, it is pulling in the same direction. It doesn’t take being born again to want to appear cool, collected, and calm during a crisis. No one wants to be seen as that person who’s sanitizing their frozen vegetables and starting a toilet paper pyramid scheme, even if that’s how we’re feeling on the inside.
Here’s the reality: There’s a disease going around which is the most potent combination of lethal and contagious that we’ve seen for a hundred years. As a result, world economies are hitting the pause button—hemorrhaging billions of dollars and thousands of jobs every day. It’s like being a boxing match, and getting a knock-out punch to the gut and the head at the same time.
So even if, for whatever reason, we do not feel particularly anxious, we need to recognize that anxiety is a very natural response right now. We should be cautious not to replicate the error of Job and his friends: Saying things which may be theologically true, but not practically helpful. We should move towards others with transparency and vulnerability, allowing God’s strength to shine in our weakness.
2. Feed on Scripture, Not the News.
I confess I have been particularly susceptible to this pitfall. It’s a slippery temptation, because it comes packaged in the wrapping of preparedness. "If I can stay ahead of the curve, stay ahead of the trend, then I’ll be able to take care of myself and my loved ones," or so the thinking goes. It’s the twisted half truth of "knowledge is power," which happens to be the oldest temptation in the world. The Fall of humanity came from eating from a tree literally called "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." By eating from this tree, Satan promised, Adam and Eve would gain knowledge. And by gaining this higher knowledge, they would become like God.
God wants us to be smart. He says that the wise man “walks with his eyes in his head, while the fool walks around in darkness.” (Ecc 2:14). But there’s a fine line between not burying our heads in the sand and taking refuge in statistics, predictions, and probabilities. Anxiety is a seductive addiction. The more I worry, then the more I think and talk about the problem, which then leads me to a heightened plateau of anxiety, which provides me with a nervous-energized buzz which I interpret as being more prepared, more safe. Temporarily, anxiety appears to have delivered what I wanted.
All of this is illusory. The truth is, none of us know what our lives or this world will look like in a few months. But that’s always been the case. That’s the nature of what it means to be a creature, and not the Creator. David wrestles with this desire to know things he can’t in Psalm 131:
Oh 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 marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
The way to calm and quiet our souls is the pathway of Psalm 1. The one who finds his delight in God’s word, and meditates on it day and night is like a tree, planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
The image of being a tree which yields its fruit in its season is particularly apt. There’s a seasonality to our produce sections, and also to our spiritual lives. Because of our union with Christ (the Vine), different seasons yield different spiritual fruit (Jn. 15). The difference is, we can’t predict which season is coming next.
What we can know is this: As we cling to God and his Word, we will continue to flourish and grow, no matter what.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana.
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