Living with Anxiety: Part 3 When it is absent

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When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.
– Psalm 94:19

Much like the stress we would all like to avoid but know we can’t, anxiety haunts us the same way. Some level of anxiety can be good, but even more so, some times we can get anxious just but its sheer absence. It makes us anxious when we observe a situation from a distance that we deem as requiring urgent intervention but the people directly involved don’t seem to be concerned. Think of a horror or suspense movie when the heroin is walking down the dark hallways, about to open the door and we know the predator is right there willing to attack. We yell at the screen (or in our heads) “don’t go in there”, “turn around and run away!”.

Surely such is the case with the story of Abraham and his Son Isaac told in Genesis 22. The Lord instructs Abraham to:

“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

He is commanded to murder his own son, on command from God.

As the narrative progresses we see Abraham leading his son up the hill to burn an offering to God, not telling Isaac that he is the offering.

We, the readers, know what Abraham knows and the tension mounts along with our anxiety. “Abraham, stop, how can you do this?”. “God, stop this, how can you command the murder of an innocent child?”.

But, no intervention comes, instead:

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Finally, as the story reaches its climax and our anxiety is as high as it could be…

11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

Finally, the Lord intervenes. The one who started it, is the only one who could stop it.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Finally, we have relief. Isaac is saved, a more suitable and traditional sacrifice is provided.

This is the cycle of anxiety. An event we don’t understand or don’t think we can control happens (or we preview it happening). Then our emotions take over and overwhelm us, inhibiting our ability to respond appropriately to the situation. It’s easy for us to get overwhelmed by events in society such as terrorism, crime, death, illness, or divorce of those close to us. We want to fix the situation, but feel we can’t and that can raise our anxiety because we care about these people, even if it is a broad concept of society.

Scripture is full of anxiety inducing stories, many of which are the “difficult” passages that we just don’t know what to do with. When we talk about walking in the tension of scripture, say between the teachings of Christ and the apparent opposite ethic present in the Old Testament, we literally mean sometimes we have tension or anxiety. How are we to understand the totality of scripture, in light of Christ’s teachings and a loving God?

This is the tension and anxiety present in any honest follower of Christ and it is an anxiety that only He can take away. Through prayer, honest searching of the scriptures we can know Him better. We won’t likely ever truly know how it all fits together, but we must continue to trust in the God as revealed through Christ and continue to be taught through the Spirit in all of scripture.

Living with Anxiety: Part 2 What is it?

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Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
– Proverbs 12:25

I’ve dealt with anxiety longer than I’ve been a Christian (about 8 years at this point) and I realized today that I’ve never really done a study of any significance on how the subject of anxiety intersects with my faith, beyond the most superficial (God is in control). As I outlined in my previous post I have an underlying assumption that seeking professional help is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether it’s delving deep into root causes or learning coping techniques from a therapist or trying medication monitored and prescribed by a physician, none of these are inherently bad so long as the Christian takes responsibility a) for their treatment and b) doesn’t eject their faith or see their treatment as somehow separate from their faith. We need to submit all thing to Christ and not see any particular thing as separate from Him.

So, having set that base parameter, I wanted to use this post to start looking at what the meaning of anxiety is in Scripture. It won’t all fit in a single post, so this will spill over, but I’ll make a beginning.

First, let’s define what anxiety is in a Scriptural context: The Encyclopaedia of Christianity rightly notes that anxiety “is an emotion that functions on different levels. Any adequate definition must therefore take account of these levels, explaining and distinguishing them, and finally weaving them philosophically or theologically into an anthropological whole. (1) Looking at the use of the term “anxiety” in Scripture, the Eerdmans Bible Dictionary notes that “various degrees of anxiety, ranging from concern to fear and dread, are depicted in both the Old and New Testaments.” (2)

Anxiety is not just one “thing” in scripture, or more accurately, it does not manifest for one reason and in one way alone. There’s no “sola anxietus” (ok, I totally made that up). Eerdmans notes that in scripture anxiety may manifest for reasons of the natural parental concern towards a child, (1 Sam 9:5), reasons of personal distress (1 Sam 1:16), loving concern (2 Cor 11:28), natural disaster (Jer 17:8), and of course, the Psalms and Proverbs are replete with tales and warnings of an anxious life (Psalm 127:2, Proverbs 12:25). Finally, Jesus and the epistle writers have much to say on the subject, but we’ll get to that in subsequent posts.

This multitude of interpretations is represented in the secular psychiatric community as well. The bible of mental health professionals, the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM), lists at least 12 different anxiety disorder categories. From “Acute Stress Disorder” to “Agoraphobia” to the very large pool of “specific phobias” to “panic attacks”. While these categories may not match up well with the use of the term in Scripture, it does help us to understand that regardless of what angle you look at the problem, it is not just a single “thing”, but an expression that can have a variety of meanings.

Anxiety operates on a spectrum as most of us well know. There is a certain amount of anxiety that is normal, even I would argue, among Christians. At so-called normal levels it can be a trigger or a warning and it only really becomes a problem when it leads us to act stupid or to engage in unhealthy coping strategies. There is also a distinction to be made between individual and group anxiety. In Scripture we can see possible examples in the stories of Judas who betrayed our Lord and the masses of Jews standing before Pilate demanding the murder of Jesus.

Anxiety affects not just out psychology but our physiology; in other words, it affects our thoughts, the way we interpret the world around us, and that manifests through our actions or inactions. My natural tendency is to withdraw and hide from the world, but I know this is far from the best thing for me. It is in these instances where a small group of trusted friends are an invaluable resource, as is a loving spouse if are so lucky to have one.

The Greek word that is most often translated anxiety can also mean “worry, care or free from care” and the Hebrew word comes from a root meaning “care or anxiety”, so the emotion or experience that we call anxiety is not all bad. In fact, it may only be bad in certain doses or circumstances. On a quick glance it may be that anxiety at its root reflects that we care about something or someone and we fear being able to aid the person or situation. This is certainly true for me. Financial stress is a big deal for me because I have a wife and a baby on the way in December, so being able to provide for them is very important and hits me on a number of levels. I might also experience anxiety because I fear not living up to some self-imposed standard of how I should be.

Another dimension to anxiety is its use as a tool of spiritual abuse. That is, church leaders, bible teachers, etc, who will guilt you into thinking that your anxiety is inappropriate, foolish or even sinful because the Bible “clearly” teaches that we should not feel that way. Is this true? We’ll examine that question later on as well.

Anxiety is a multidimensional thing and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that, even in Scripture, it always means the same thing. We’ll delve deeper into specific Scripture passages in the next post.

(1) Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, vol. 1, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 87 (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003).
(2) Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 62 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).

Living with Anxiety: Part 1 Coming to an understanding of my anxiety

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The opposite of joy isn’t sorrow- it’s  hopelessness. The opposite of peace isn’t warfare -it’s anxiety.
– Tim Keller 

I’m anxious today. Yesterday was worse. It’s hard for me to focus and to get work done. I’ve dealt with anxiety for a very long time, in fact for as long as I remember. I had a hard time getting to sleep last night because I became so anxious about our financial situation. The summer months are tough because my hours go down and we have to dip into savings. I’ve been looking for full-time, better paying, work, but it’s been slow going. I’m currently waiting to hear back whether I’ll be invited back for interview #2 for a job. It’s not just financial issues, though that is the most potent at the moment. I also struggle with perfectionism and issues of self-esteem; I have for most of my life.

I’m not very good at calming myself down, no matter how many tools I might try. Writing sometimes helps, which is partly why I’m writing this now, but I end up typing really fast and jittery and my brain can’t produce fast enough for my body; I just shake. There are other things like counting backwards, counting the books on a shelf that can calm me down. Sometimes I pray, listen to worship or Taizé music or the sounds of running water. I try to meditate on a verse of scripture but I find this rarely helps since I’m far to jittery and the volume of my anxiety too high. I was hoping my swim earlier would have helped but it didn’t. There are other unhealthy ways that are out there too: over eating or spending, curling up into a fetal position on my bed and still other ways. While I generally manage to stay away from most of those, I know I could slip at any moment which brings about its own challenges. Like many I had a lot of anxiety in University, closely tied to deadlines and grade performance expectations (which I set on myself).

It’s a terrible feeling really and I don’t like it at all. I find it hard to focus, to breathe and to think. I don’t feel motivated to do anything but have learned to push through it at least somewhat, but I’m never as productive as I usually am. I have an appointment to get my haircut in 19 minutes. I don’t want to go, but I will because a) I need a haircut in case I get a call for interview #2 and b) I don’t like breaking commitments made to others.

Anxiety is not actually the problem per sey but a symptom of an underlying problem. I’m not alone of course, anxiety and related disorders seem to be on the increase. I’ve tried medication and it doesn’t do much for me and to be honest, I’m happy about this. I don’t have a problem with psychiatric medicine as a category, but I generally prefer not be on medication for anything if I can avoid it. I also don’t have a problem with seeking “professional help” such as through a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I’ve been seeing professionals for years to help me deal with a host of issues. You wouldn’t necessarily know it though

I went to visit with a friend which helped and the anxiety had subsided greatly, though it was still present. I woke up this morning and felt awesome, I’ve had a great sleep, but now the anxiety has returned. This sucks. Oh well, at least I have something to talk to my counsellor about today.

Scripture has a lot to say about anxiety, though I have trouble really making it part of who I am. The next little while will see a few posts examining this idea of anxiety and how it relates to the Christian life.

Urban Reality: Mental illness

I am a pastor at an inner city church in Toronto, Canada and it is my first pastorate coming out of school. The church isn’t flush with cash by any stretch of the imagination and can only afford to pay me 10hr/week to preach. Still, they do amazing things, particularly on Wednesday nights when they manage to feed 120-200 marginalized people a hot meal. It is pretty impressive how the Lord can use even a small congregation (I regularly get 15 people on a Sunday. Though I have noticed both the numbers and the actual people attending have become more stable since I was hired and the preaching became more regular.).

It is not unheard of to arrive on a Sunday morning to find one of the elders washing vomit off our stoop. The one thing I did not consider when I first arrived was the degree to which I would encounter parishioners with mental illness. Depending on how you crunch the numbers approximately 20% of my congregation – that I know of – struggles with mental illness. Now, mental illness is a very broad term and can cover a lot of different things with varying degrees of severity. I have congregants with most of these. Some of them admit their problems and others do not and some of them know they have an illness but they don’t see it as a problem. Needless to say the one’s who do not acknowledge their issues are harder to deal with.

Even after 9 years as an Emergency Medical Dispatcher for the City of Toronto I still have trouble navigating mental illness issues with all their variety and complexity. It is brought all the more urgently to the forefront in pastoral ministry. I have to consider questions such as how do you communicate the truth of God’s love and His gospel message to such a group?

Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve learned so far in terms of pastoring those with mental illness:

  • They are made in the image of God just like everyone else
  • Treat them with the same dignity and respect as others
  • They must be shown love, grace and everything else we expect to get ourselves
  • They need a pastor who will listen to them and spend a reasonable amount of time listening to them. Ministry in this setting is largely a ministry of presence. Just being there. Sometimes they are lucid, sometimes not.
  • Realize that it’s not your job to ‘fix’ them. Speak the truth and help them understand the love God has for them.
  • Realize that many, many people have mental illness and that you probably aren’t aware of most of them.
  • We are to work towards reconciliation for those who are routinely stigmatized and marginalized by society.

There will undoubtedly be many more lessons I will learn from this unique environment and I will share as I discover.