Second in series: What to do with your fresh anxieties every morning
This Sunday is the second of a three part series on anxiety that Kyle started last week and Vince will finish next week. Today is my turn to tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve had to learn in order to deal with it myself.
Anxiety has unfortunately been a part of my life from a very early age. My earliest memory is an anxiety memory actually. I remember sitting on my dad’s lap in an airplane and he was pointing out the window showing me the clouds below and the ocean below them, and all I could think of was that we might fall out of the sky, and I was crying and he was telling me to not be afraid, but I just cried like only a three year old can.
This story illustrates a central theme in my life, of being anxious and God trying to reassure me and I’m just not getting it.
And in this journey I’ve been on with God, there have been several lessons I had to learn. I am not going to share all of them in one sermon because this has been a central and lifelong issue for me with lots of stages of growth. Hopefully however the ones I’ve chosen to share here can be helpful to some of you where you are today.
The first lesson I had to learn about anxiety was that at least some of my anxiety came from resisting the possibility of pain and suffering in life. The more I would resist the possibility of a bad thing happening, the more anxious I would be. It is when I came to accept that yes, bad things can and do happen, and some number of them will happen to me, that things got actually a bit better. The fact that bad things happen is something that we know just from simple observation of life all around us. The Bible says that as well.
A Second lesson came with choosing to invest time in prayer. About twenty years ago or so I felt that God said to me that if I invested more in prayer, the anxieties would get better. I wasn’t taking super seriously his suggestion though, so he did something to get my attention.
Do you ever have a dream and feel like it’s saying something to you? Do you ever think maybe the dream could be from God? Now I’m not at all saying that EVERY dream is from God and that we should pay attention to EVERY dream, but when a dream confirms something God has been saying in other ways, and it resonates with a theme in the Bible that Christians have encouraged through the centuries, it’s worth paying attention to.
One thing to know about how God speaks in dreams sometimes is that they can be quite symbolic. So I had this dream, and in the dream, I was on a camping trip, and there were tons of mosquitoes, and there was a river there, and when I went into the river and was swimming in it, the mosquitoes didn’t bother me. The symbolism for me was quite clear. The mosquitoes represented the anxieties, and the water represented the Holy Spirit, and so when I spent time in God’s presence, surrounded by him as it were, I was going to have less anxiety. That was the message God was emphasizing to me in the dream.
What happened is that I learned to enjoy prayer a great deal, and prayer became a central way that God taught me to deal with anxiety. The connection between prayer and anxiety in the Bible is most clearly spelled out in Philippians 4- Last week Kyle mentioned that there are some Bible passages that we go to over and over again. John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement used to say that these were like vitamins, he would go to these verses over and over again. This is one of those verses, it says:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Really wonderful stuff there. Many, many people have felt spiritually fed by this promise for years and years (me too!). BUT the first thing I notice is that something seems out of place here with the thanksgiving part. What is that doing in a passage about anxiety? Well folks I find that for me, when I’m anxious it can be very hard to pray, or that when I do pray, I am praying out a place of fear rather than a place of faith. What thanksgiving does is help me to make that transition from the place of fear to a place of faith. What does that mean and what on earth is Paul wanting us to be thankful for when we’re anxious?
I used to be very resistant, and I still am, when people would encourage me to thank God for the difficult situations I am facing. That just did not compute for me. What did make sense is when I read somewhere that we can be thankful because we know that God is at work in the situation to redeem it.
By thanking him ahead of time for how he is redeeming it, we are making a statement of faith. Now folks I can tell you from personal experience that that works. If I find myself anxious about something, before I pray about it, I start by giving thanks to God for how he is using the situation for good. That then gives me faith to pray for the situation itself.
When I’m done praying, I find I also need to surrender the outcome. By praying for it, I did not just guarantee the outcome that I prefer. God is not my personal butler or my Santa Claus in the sky. It took me a long time to figure this out, but in the end I follow him, he doesn’t follow me.
When we are praying out of a sense of gratitude and faith rather than anxiety, we can be more open to the way that God is working in a situation. This is very important, because if we are intent on just praying that God would take the anxiety causing thing away from us and nothing else, we become like a two year old throwing a tantrum because they are not getting what they want.
This is not limited to two year olds by the way. I have a very distinct memory of being at Target when Nathan and Sam were about 6 and 8 years old. I would not buy them the Pokemon cards they wanted, and no amount of saying No was doing the trick. They wanted their Pokemon cards and they were not taking no for an answer. I ended up leaving the store pulling them along in a waterski position with both of them grabbing my hand with their two little hands and trying to dig their heels in, but their shoes were slipping on the tile and I just kept going. I’m sure I have been like that with God about things I’m anxious about many times, trying to get him to do things how I wanted and when I wanted.
In the end however God is above all a loving parent, and he will not give us what is not good for us. He wants what is best for us, even though we may not understand it on this side of heaven.
When we pray in our anxiety then, it’s important to be able to say, like Jesus said to the Father in Gethsemane before he was crucified, Father you can do all things, and I know you can take this away from me, but not my will Lord, but yours be done.
You see wanting God’s will above our will, even above our desire to escape anxiety, brings freedom. It brings a sense of surrender. If we know that in the end, God is doing something for our good, then we can be grateful for it, and we can accept it.
As I said earlier, so much of anxiety comes from our lack of willingness to accept the reality of something. In Counseling, one of the new techniques that everyone is excited about is Mindfulness. One of the precepts of this technique is accepting reality for what it is. The reality is that bad things can and do happen. That is something we must accept.
The good news is that we don’t have to accept it with a fatalistic resignation. We accept the reality that bad things may happen with a hope for how God will bring good things out of it. I believe this is what Paul means when he says that God’s peace will guard our hearts as a result of this prayer. It is not because we prayed, and we have this amazing faith and ability to control God so he answers our prayer the way we want to so that we have peace. We have peace because we are aligned with God no matter what happens.
Now if we are following God, it is entirely possible, and even likely, that we may have some difficulty accepting his will, however in prayer, what can happen, and hopefully does happen is that we become more open to accepting God’s will for us. This in turn also gives us peace and reduces our anxiety levels.
The other piece of this prayer thing is that as we grow in prayer, we also grow in faith. The more we pray, and we see that God answers our prayer, the more our confidence in his reality increases. The more confident we grow in his presence in our lives, the more confident we become in his ability to intervene. This also contributes to our inner peace after we pray because we become more and more confident over time that God will answer the way he wants to answer. And if we are following him, then we want his answer not ours anyway.
The problem for me, and maybe for you as well, is that I want God sometimes to follow me, and not me to follow him. Somehow he doesn’t seem to go for that .... what happens then is that I need to learn to accept his will instead of mine. It’s interesting in that same letter of Paul to the Philippians, just a few chapters before, it says that Jesus learned to put God’s will above his own will right in that moment of his greatest anxieties. When he was facing his upcoming death, he chose to put what God wanted first, even when it meant laying his life down. That is our choice as well every time we are faced with anxiety. Will we accept God’s will for us regardless of what our desires are?
Another reason I can feel better is because I have more hope that God will get what he wants out of that situation. He will either change it, or he will redeem it, or he will do both in some combination. Whatever he decides to do, I can be at peace about it.
I wish I could tell you that this is where I’ve arrived and that now I have peace that passes all understanding. I don’t. But what I can tell you is that I am much more at peace now than when I was in my twenties. The thing is that this is not a formula prayer, this is a workout type of prayer. This is intended for us to practice on a regular basis, like going to the gym three times a week.
What happens as we do this on a regular basis is that our faith increases. As we see God answering prayer over and over, and as we see him redeeming things over and over, our faith grows. Our physical muscles grow with regular exercise. Faith is the same way, as we exercise it in prayer on a regular basis our faith grows. As it grows, the sense of peace we get from prayer grows as well.
Another thing about faith is that we find out how much we believe only when we have to act on what we believe. One of the things I am terribly anxious about is heights. When Nathan and Sam were young kids, our church had a tradition of an annual camping trip for fathers and kids. We would go to this place called camp TimberLee in Wisconsin. This one year was the first year they had a climbing wall there, and many kids and parents were trying it. I did not cherish the idea, but I wanted to set an example for Nathan and Sam that I would face my fear, so I went up. Going up wasn’t the problem though, I was more worried about rappelling down. The guy told me that the pulley system could hold the weight of a car, but believing him in my head didn’t really help my anxiety. It wasn’t until I took the first jump from the top and I felt that this rope and pulley system worked just fine, that I felt the anxiety lift, and I was like “o yeah, I got this, let’s try the next harder wall”. You see it was acting on that faith that made it real. Until then it was just in my head and did nothing to help my anxiety.
Interestingly enough, in my work as a counselor, one of the most proven therapies for dealing with anxiety is to have people face their anxieties in very small and manageable doses. It’s called systematic desensitization.
Someone could know in their heads all the right reasons why they should not be terrified of elevators, but it’s not until they are able to take a ride in an elevator, out of their own choice, that the anxiety will at first increase for a short while, but then it will break. When they act on the reality of what they believe, when they act on their faith, is when it goes from the head to the heart.
One example from my own life comes from last week-end. I will give you a quick run through of the 24 hours from Saturday evening at 5 pm to Sunday evening at 5 pm.
It had been a very long couple of weeks. I had been out of town, came back, and had a major assignment due in one of my seminary classes. And it was one of those classes where the whole grade is based on one paper, and it still needed a lot of work, so I spent all day Saturday working on that. Then Marijean had bought tickets for us to go to a concert that I really did want to go to, and she had also bought tickets for us to go see a musical on Sunday that I really did not want to go to.
On top of that, I had the sermon to prepare for this week, and a bunch of other work stuff on my mind. Saturday night then, starting at 5 oclock, as we were driving to the concert, I was starting to feel anxious. Things were not going to get done, and I was not going to get any rest this weekend. Not a good combination.
So I did the first helpful thing: started to talk to Marijean about how I was feeling. I then asked how she would feel about someone else from our family going with her to the musical in my place. Marijean was flexible about that and she agreed, and that immediately made me feel better. I was going to have some space on Sunday so I could do more work and get stuff done. Then I was debating whether it would be better for the anxiety I was feeling if I took a Sabbath on Sunday.
You see the Sabbath option would allow me to feel more refreshed and connected to God, that way I could do the work in his strength, and not mine. The other option would be to use the precious time to work on the sermon. I decided that it would be a better investment to take a Sabbath. It is one of the ten commandments, and I figured it’s better to take a step of faith in that direction than invest in my own strength to get work done.
So the next day, last Sunday, I wake up, go to church, and after church another anxiety hits me. As I was helping fold chairs, I touched a chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the seat. Yuk right? Well for me it’s a bit more than yuk. It’s an anxiety that builds and I have to deal with it somehow. Now in this situation I went and washed my hands shortly thereafter. Some of you might think that’s a reasonable response, others might think it’s an overly anxious response.
The problem with responding to this kind of situation out of anxiety, is that it doesn’t get better. It creates more anxiety. In order to keep my germophobia from getting out of hand, I have had to face it. I had to resist washing my hands more than I should. I make myself use public bathrooms more than when I absolutely have to. The reason I do that is that I know if I make decisions out of anxiety, the anxiety will get worse. If I face the anxiety, it will get better. It’s almost as if our brain believes the reality we act on rather than the reality of the words we tell ourselves.
Sometimes it is not clear what the reasonable response is. Sometimes we should wash our hands, other times it’s overboard. In those situations when I don’t know, I ask someone I trust and go by their call as best I can. For example one of my best friends and I were out to lunch once, and a piece of chicken fell from my plate on the table. He knows about about my germophobia and so I asked him if it was reasonable for me to eat it or not, and he thought it was clean enough, so even though I didn’t want to, I stuffed it in my mouth.
Another similar story happened a number of years ago with my smartphone. I know that millenials make fun of my generation because we carry our phones on our belts, but hey it is what it is, and in this case, the carrier on my belt was a clip on, and the phone slipped from it at the men’s urinal and fell on the floor face down.
You can imagine this was not easy for me. I had to figure out just how much alcohol was OK to use without ruining the device. I once again had to call my friend and say, hey, this is how much cleaning I did, is it reasonable for me to stop now? Then I had to of course resist the temptation of more rounds of alcohol wiping.
This time last Sunday I figured it was reasonable to wash my hands so I did. I then had lunch with a friend after church, and after that went off to the Botanic gardens. They have this cafeteria with lots of windows, so I got some good coffee and sat by a window to do some journaling. I may have explained this journaling exercise that I like to you before, I find it very helpful. I take out three 8.5 by 11 pages of ruled paper. Then I write a letter to God expressing how I feel. I just keep writing without stopping, and if I get stuck I just write “I am stuck I am stuck I am stuck”. After I did that for three pages, I felt like I was more in touch with myself and with God.
Then it was time to go out for a walk around the Gardens. My first spiritual director had taught me this trick, that when I am stuck in prayer, take a walk in nature, it always helps. One of the ways I make it work for me is that I use a bluetooth headset, to pretend like I’m talking on the phone to someone and that way people don’t think I’m weird talking to myself.I get a big one so it’s very noticeable.
As I walked and prayed, I did all the things that I described to you earlier about each one of the things that were on my mind. I prayed about the seminary paper I was anxious about. I thanked him for what he was doing there, and I surrendered the outcome to God, and I let go of my biggest concern about it, and that was whether I was going to have to delay my graduation or not. I said to God that I preferred to graduate as early as possible but I was OK with him delaying it if he thought that was best. I followed the same pattern in praying for things I was anxious about with my work. Then I did the same thing praying about this sermon, because I was anxious about finding time to work on it.
At that point it was almost 5 pm and that’s the end of the 24 hour period…
One important point to make here is that sometimes anxiety becomes something we should get professional help for. Sometimes the answer is some type of psychotherapy, and in some situations medication is the right answer. If any of you feel like you are trying to discern that point, whether your anxiety is at a place where you should get additional help or not, you are welcome to talk to Kyle or Vince or myself, and we can give you referrals to good counselors that we know and trust.
To close then today, last week you heard Kyle mention how much of the Bible talks about anxiety and fear. I believe that a large part of that reason is that faith is involved in this, and that faith matters a great deal to God. What I have found in my journey is that as I have struggled with God around my anxieties, the net effect is that my faith has grown, and I believe that is God’s redemption for me. God has used my struggle with anxiety to help me grow much closer to him than I ever would have, and there is nothing worth more than that. I may not always feel that, but this is one of the enduring themes throughout the Bible, and I do believe it.
To summarize then in a few minutes a few decades of my struggle with this, here are the highlights:
1. ACCEPTANCE We need to first accept that bad things are part of the journey and not struggle against accepting that
2. TRUST Second we need to know that God is at work bringing good out of all the bad things that happen in our lives, and we can thank him for that good he is doing, and pray for the situation
3. OBEDIENCE Third we need to accept his answer to our prayer, we accept his will in obedience, because we follow him, he doesn’t follow us, and we know that in the end what he wants for us is better than what we want for us.
4. DISCERNMENT Fourth we need to do what we can to not live life out of anxiety, but out of wisdom and discernment, living out of wisdom brings life, but living out of anxiety just brings more anxiety
If I could ask you to stand with me, I’d love to pray for us now