Last in series: What to do with your fresh anxieties every morning
WHAT VINCE DOES WITH FRESH ANXIETIES
A couple weeks ago, Kyle, my co-pastor, noted for us that — quite significantly — Anxiety and words associated with it like “Fear”, “Afraid”, “Worry” appear over 500 times in the Bible!
He encouraged us to wonder if anxiety is such a big deal in the Bible because
What if worry/anxiety/fear/overwhelmed-ness are the punchline of the brokenness of humanity?
Maybe unaddressed anxiety is the biggest cause of us making choices that don’t serve us
That’s provocative, right?
What if, contrary to what is commonly heard in a lot of religious environments, the deepest problem with humanity is NOT that we are all so rotten and bad?
What if the deepest problem is that we are anxious, in-over-our-heads, over-burdened, insecure control freaks?
That has a different feel to it right?
What if this is actually the helpfulness of talking about that most touchy of subjects, sin?
What if the voice of God, steering us away from sin, is NOT meant to make us feel like children being talked down to
But meant to reveal to us how over-extended, how over-image-conscious, how isolationist we are, how afraid we are to ask for help because we might appear weak or stupid
It is sadly so common today to hear in religious settings that God’s voice is like that of a parent telling a bunch of children to grow up, act like adults!
But Jesus, in a way, took the exact opposite approach
He said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18)
Far from a message of, “stop being so childish!”, this sounds like Jesus is saying, “taking on the identity of ‘the adult who’s got this’ is what is killing you!… recognize just how small and in-need-of-help you really are!"
I wonder if you’re like me, and that makes you far more interested in considering the idea of sin in your own life
Because, unlike being talked down to, if this message of Jesus is the voice of God, that makes me feel understood!
God gets me!
I won’t deny I feel over-extended
I won’t deny I feel in-over-my-head often.
I won’t deny I feel isolated and like I have to defend every decision I’ve ever made, because otherwise someone will get to say “I told you so"
I won’t deny I’m insecure about what people think about me and make choices based on that… which later I’m not proud of
I won’t deny I’m afraid to ask for help or appear weak
Maybe many of the unhealthy choices we make or behaviors we get stuck in that are destructive to ourselves or to others are just coping mechanisms as we flail about drowning in unaddressed anxiety
I’m anxious and in trying to cope I take anger out on my spouse or parent or sibling or co-worker, or perhaps the unsuspecting waiter or customer service employee
I’m anxious and in trying to cope I overeat
I’m anxious and in trying to cope, I just can’t get out of bed
I’m anxious and in trying to cope I self-medicate with pornography
I’m anxious and in trying to cope, I blame someone else for my problems
So, as we each struggle with our own personal brand of these sorts of coping mechanisms, what if the entry of God’s voice into our lives is the most welcome, helpful thing we could possibly imagine?
As we hope you’re getting a taste of in this three week series looking at the different ways BLV’s preaching team members deal with anxiety,
Our experience is that...
God responds in powerful, helpful, life-changing ways when we bring our anxiety to him
Again, maybe that is the most fundamental human behavior of all… bringing the inevitable anxiety of life to a higher power
Well, for my turn at giving you all a "day in my life” when it comes to anxiety, I want to start us with an encouragement taken from one of the personal letters in the Bible’s New Testament.
It’s become a sort of banner quote for me, because it has a turn of phrase in it that, to me, really captures what it is actually like, day-in, day-out, to follow Jesus’ words to become like a little child (rather than tirelessly living to convince myself and the world that I’m such a put-together adult)
This is from a letter written by St. Paul to a younger man he was mentoring, Timothy
The larger paragraph this quote comes from has another more famous quote in it you’ve likely heard (that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil)
This paragraph is about those things (money especially) that pull us out of a child-like orientation to God, and inflame that harmful “overly-adult” self-identity of in-control, on top of life, appearing strong or powerful to others
Here’s the part I want to pass on:
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain… 11 You [Timothy], flee from all this (the love of money, etc.), and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6)
“Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life."
That’s the turn of phrase that grabs me.
Because it really does feel like I have to fight to not be pulled back into that human default of over-extending myself and trying to prove myself.
Like I have to actively exert effort to take hold of something other than anxiety.
And if this is the essence of Godliness, it really does feel tied to contentment
"Godliness with contentment is great gain," Paul writes... that feels so true!
The moments in my daily life that are the greatest gifts to me are the moments of contentment, of joy, of feeling totally happy and peaceful.
My days are, I’m sure like all of yours, filled with pressing matters, unresolved issues, conflicts straining significant relationships
Moments of contentment, peace, joy in the midst of all that, where all of the pressure and burden of those things doesn’t feel like it’s on me (but instead on God, who is just calling me to become like a child)...
THOSE are worth actively fighting for throughout my day
One American theologian, Daniel Fuller, refers to this “fighting the fight of faith” as a daily exercise in “finding a happy heart in God"
As if that’s the goal of every day of your life if you want to follow Jesus and become like a little child:
To TODAY, given all the stresses and anxieties of today, find a happy heart in God.
Find contentment, find joy RIGHT NOW - not when things are different, not after to-do lists are finished, not once unresolved problems are resolved, right now - those things still outstanding
I think everyone I know would agree: that absolutely feels like a fight!
Well, let me tell you what this often looks like for me...
So, most days, I wake up, and Keziah and I have the goal of getting Ezra ready for the day while also getting ourselves ready…
BUT top of the mind for me are things like
To-do list items for a work project only half-done,
Worries about a hard conversation I’m supposed to have later that day,
Uncertainty about that email response I’m waiting for
This is one of my life-long struggles…
Staying present with whatever is in front of me, when my thoughts are occupied elsewhere
I am a card-carrying perfectionist, and the things throughout my days that most prick that character flaw in me are “unfinished matters”
And this costs me!
Keziah has been with me for like a decade now, and she can notice when I’m doing this… she’ll say: “you don’t really seem like you’re here”
And my 3 year old Ezra in his own way can notice… “Daddy! Play with me!” he’ll yell jolting me out of a thought or trying to write out a note for later on my phone
So, as I’m brushing my teeth and taking a shower...
I notice that my anxiety is pulling me away from the present
So I begin, in my head, as a prayer, “fighting the fight of faith”, trying to find a happy heart right where I am
I’ll pray something like:
“God, I am choosing to believe that a happy heart is possible for me right now, even as I’m feeling anxious. That you have that for me and want to give it to me.”
That’s usually how it starts for me… The active effort I’m putting in is just trying to choose to believe something other than the loop of stresses on repeat in my head
I’ll take some slow, deep breaths and I imagine breathing in the contentment and joy God wants to give me, and breathing out the burden and stress I am carrying
And, as small as it sounds, this really does work to ground me… I don’t necessarily feel different, but I feel grounded… and that’s a good thing…
Prayer often works this way
The book of Psalms, the prayer and song book of the Bible, is full of prayers where the writer is expressing to God something they long to be true as if it is already true
The goal is not to live in a dream world or to be dishonest, but to give ourselves a chance to change the radio station…
It’s so easy for us to immediately agree with whatever cynical or pessimistic thought is playing through our heads, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy
We’ve closed ourselves off to any other possibilities
God seems to know that humans default to the negative, the pessimistic, the critical, and that we need help to live in encouragement and peace…
In my experience, these Psalm-like prayers where we express something as if it is already true (I believe God that you have a happy heart for me right now, even with these pressing problems in my life) -- they then go to work inside of us after we’ve prayed them and do indeed bring our reality closer to encouragement and peace
So, once we’re all ready for the day, the three of us are off… we drop Ezra at daycare for the morning, and I drive Kezi to work before I get started working myself
At this point, I get a great indicator of how I’m doing in the “happy heart” department so far
The indicator is: how much do I give people the benefit of the doubt in traffic?
Traffic is like the ultimate test of peace and contentment and joy…
Because even more so than social media, you so rarely experience consequences for your actions
You can curse someone out, really let them have it
And they will never know it! (insert Ron Swanson giggle)
Our filter is totally down
So what comes out of us is the most raw thing inside us
If I have anger in me, even if I’m not aware of it… when that dude cuts me off, it’s coming out!
If I have sadness in me, even if I’m not aware of it… when I catch another red light, I’m going to feel exhausted with the day
So Keziah and I are getting increasingly better at just noticing when traffic gets to us…
We’re not trying to shame ourselves
We just take our reactions as data points…
Huh… seems like I must have some unresolved anger
So I take that as another reason to intentionally fight the fight of faith…
“God, I’ve obviously got some anger in me right now… I don’t even know what I’m angry about… But could you help me find contentment and joy right now, even so?
Trying to pay attention to my emotional reactions to things that happen to me and seeing those reactions as an opportunity to fight for a happy heart has been really helpful!
I feel a little less controlled by my anxious emotions, and more like I can be in control of them
Alright, sitting at a coffee shop or at my desk in our basement office, I’m ready to work
At some point in the morning, my brain is feeling scattered, so I decide to take 5 minutes in prayer to ground myself again
This time though, because my whole issue is feeling scattered, I can’t even formulate a sentence of prayer in my head
So I decide to use a prayer tool called the Divine Hours
The Divine Hours are collections of prayers and scriptures set for four different times a day, spanning a whole year
Because these prayers are already written, I don’t have to come up with something to pray myself - that’s great!
A side note: this is one of the most common bits of advice I give people on prayer:
We NEVER do ourselves any favors if we enter into prayer with pressure
To perform, or to say the right thing, or any kind of pressure, period.
This is why it’s great to experiment with all kinds of prayer… then you have a nice, full tool belt…
If one prayer tool isn’t working (because it’s making you feel pressure), you can try another… that’s the whole point of tools… they make things easier!
In this case, for me, the thought of “expressing myself” was putting pressure on me… I didn’t know what the heck was going on in me right now; I was too scattered…
So just trying on for size a prayer someone else had written sounded great
You can find multiple-volume book-sets of the Divine Hours on Amazon
Or the way I access the Divine Hours is through a mobile webpage
Totally free, and automatically updated to whatever time of day it is… The url is on the screen if you want to save it (I added a Safari bookmark to my iPhone’s homescreen)
So I pull it up on my iPhone and take 5 minutes to read through the prayers
And, again, totally grounding experience!
After working for the morning and then eating lunch, I need to go pick up Ezra from daycare
As I take the 10 minute walk through my neighborhood to his daycare, I ask God in my head, how can I find a happy heart right now?
And I hear: Relax! Listen to some music or a podcast while you walk -
So I put my headphones in and turn on NPR’s Comedy News Quiz “Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me” or Bill Simmons’ Podcast on sports and culture
Ok, if I can break and go meta for a moment with you all
I had something here in my first draft of this very talk I’m delivering right now, and I was really attached to it. It was a great line!
BUT... Kyle suggested I cut it
This selfie was supposed to be me angry, but I think it just looks like me confused
I tried a selfie with me rolling my eyes… but that looked weirder… anyway...
Each week, when one of us is writing the talk for the following Sunday, we go through a re-write process with the other
And this gets at another life-long struggle of anxiety for me
I don’t like criticism
I have physical responses to my anxiety around criticism
I feel heat in my chest, a lump in my throat, tenseness in my neck
Going through my mind are all sorts of thoughts, from intensely insecure to intensely arrogant
Does Kyle think I’m a crappy writer? Is that why he asked me to cut this?
Wait a minute! Kyle doesn’t know better than me… I’m going to keep this line in my talk!
But, hang on, am I being a hypocrite? I mean I gave Kyle a suggestion last week and he took it
God, he’s so much more Godly and mature than I am… I am such a wreck
No! What am I saying? I need to explain to him why he just doesn’t get it and I know best here!
You ever have this type of experience of anxiety?
Insecure… arrogant… insecure… arrogant… a ping-pong game in your head?
When I’m experiencing this, is it a big signal for me to once again return to fighting the fight of faith for a happy heart
I’ll pray: “God, I’m not going to find joy right now looking for approval from Kyle or by showing Kyle who’s boss”
“Would you give me joy right now, straight from you… would you settle my spirit right now”
And immediately I’m thinking more clearly about the feedback Kyle gave me
This isn’t a matter of my identity. This is just Kyle offering a suggestion… I feel my defense-systems go down… I can relax my body
The final portion my day is picking up Keziah from work, and then she and I and Ezra have dinner before we put Ezra to bed, maybe watch something on Netflix, and then we go to bed
The most consistent anxiety in that part of my day-in, day-out… Dinner!
What in God’s name are we going to have for dinner tonight?
Why didn’t I think about this sooner? And we have a kid!
Man, he eats a lot of carbs… does he get enough vegetables? Do I get enough vegetables? Holy Crap, it’s 6pm already.
So many evenings, staring at an empty stove or a sink full of dishes (I hate dirty dishes!) I return to the same sort of deep breathing prayer I started my day with
Imagining I’m breathing in contentment and joy from God, and breathing out anxiety and burden
And almost always this leads to Keziah and I just spending 5 or so minutes expressing out loud to God things we’re thankful for (and now Ezra is getting increasingly interested in this activity too, which is fun)
We’re thankful for quick, simple meals like eggs and hashbrowns… thankful for jobs that provide for us enough to go out to eat every now and then when we’re too tired to cook, thankful for this good thing that happened at work… and on and on...
As we rattle off more little things, and some big things, we find that... really, honestly... our hearts are feeling happy.
And that is what I want to leave us with this as we finish this series on anxiety...
One of the most important questions I ask myself on a daily basis is:
How happy is my heart in God right now?
NOT: How comfortable do I feel?… not how much fleeting pleasure am I enjoying?
BUT: How joyful and content do I feel, at a deep level? How satisfied, how fulfilled am I?
And if my response is “not very”
Then that is not insignificant! That is not secondary! That should not be brushed aside.
That is a cause to put up a fight.
God is actively interested in this.
If any of us are to have any kind of enduring, positive, Jesus-like impact on our world, on those around us
Our anxiety levels matter!
Your anxiety level matters!
You and I will not get far in pursuing a dream, or standing for a cause, or taking a risk, or just living our lives if we are not actively engaged in fighting the fight of faith on behalf of our own hearts
So, on that note, would you stand with me, and I want to pray for each of your daily fights for a happy heart...