Anxious or Faith-full
Last night I was sharing with few people a little about how God gets my attention at times when I start feeling anxious because I am stressing out about losing something or things are not working out my way. As I was waking up this morning it occurred to me that anxiety, just like faith, is a spontaneous reaction that develops naturally inside the heart as a result of what I am focusing on, the nature of the object of my attention.
I have been realizing for some time that faith is not something that I work up but is something that happens inside of me whenever I come to know someone who is worthy of my trust. It is true that I need to make the choice to exercise faith at times whenever circumstances cause my feelings to forget how trustworthy God really is, but that is not the way faith itself is spawned. If I have not already come to know God at a more intimate level and have spent time dwelling on His character and studied the life of Jesus and come to see and experience how trustworthy He really is, then during times of testing and stress it will be nearly impossible for me to trust Him and have any faith on hand to exercise.
But what I think I am now starting to perceive is that anxiety may well be something of a very similar nature. We tend to assume that anxiety is something that just happens to us or maybe something that we might occasionally choose (though I can't imagine why anyone would want to choose to be anxious). Anxiety is very intertwined with fear and fear often comes into play when we start to feel like we are losing control of situations around us. So the issue of control is very much involved in anxiety.
Over the past few years I have begun to sense that anxiety is always directly related to the source to which my heart is looking to receive life, identity, value and significance. Of course the problem lies in the fact that it is impossible to receive any of these, at least the real genuine thing, apart from the only real Source which is God Himself. We may say that we know that, but it is so easy to be deceived even by our own heart and still look to other sources to try to find significance and value.
We look to all sorts of things like wealth, good looks, physical strength or beauty, intelligence, social status or even the amount of affirmations we receive. We spend years trying to measure ourselves against those around us – which is what the whole scholastic grading system is all about. We look at the way we dress and even the status of the companies that make our clothing. Our sense of importance is affected by the kind of car we drive or the skill with which we can put on makeup or the looks of the hair we still have on our head.
We strive for years to achieve the right to attach some letters after our name to give us a title so that we can receive more respect from others and be considered smarter than others around us. This may give us leverage when it comes to earning more money or prestige, but those things too are immersed in the game of trying to achieve value by our own accomplishments. All of these things are involved in attempts to feel more important and valuable and to satisfy our deep cravings, but they still remain largely unsatisfied much of the time.
What is it about events like graduations, birthdays, weddings or even victory rallies that makes them so intense emotionally? Part of it is the fact that we look to those times as opportunities where we might receive a little more recognition and hopefully feel better about ourselves. We believe inside that now that we have finally achieved that degree or education level that now we will feel better about ourselves and be able to climb the social ladder a little higher; now that we are older maybe we will get more respect or more privileges; now that we are married that maybe our new spouse will make us feel more alive and excited; now that we have been elected by a majority that somehow our newfound position of power will make us feel more important and we can finally fill that empty void that haunts us.
But all throughout our attempts to reach most all of these achievements we experience enormous amounts of stress. We assume that this is just part of the cost of moving forward, that stress is unavoidable, that we just have to learn to manage stress and that it simply has to be factored into the cost of living as we know it.
Of course we are aware that a huge industry exists around the idea of stress-management. There are countless classes, seminars, books and counseling gurus that are eager to cash in on this lucrative market. And there is no shortage of customers for these, eager to try to reduce their painful levels of stress that is draining the life from them and stifling creativity. But is the best we can do is to learn how to manage stress? Is it really the answer to just accept stress as inevitable and learn to cope with it or try to suppress it or avoid it?
A curious thought just came to my mind. Why is it that we have never heard of seminars or classes on faith management and control? Why is it that we don't see anyone struggling with too much faith and needing to suppress it or try to eliminate the side effects it is having in their lives?
But wait! Maybe we are in fact seeing that very phenomenon taking place after all. Maybe stress actually is faith – but faith that has been placed in the wrong things or people. Maybe stress is the natural outgrowth, the emotions that are spontaneously produced whenever we we believe we can satisfy our emptiness, our cravings to feel valuable and loved, with activities that cannot deliver what we really need.
For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)
The Bible likens our vain attempts to satisfy our soul thirst to looking for water in broken cisterns. Now it seems to me that if I was very thirsty and found a cistern which I knew had been collecting rain water for some time, that I should be able to safely assume that it would be able to satisfy my thirst by having some stored water in it for me to drink. In fact, the more I think about this analogy from the Bible the more sense it makes. After all, we have seen the rain of heaven's blessings pouring down on other people's lives and it seems only reasonable to assume that they should by now have a rich reservoir of blessings inside of them as a supply for our emptiness.
But then to our dismay – at least if we pay attention to what is really happening – when we drink out of those reservoirs that we are confident contain resources and value that we so long to feel ourselves, that instead of feeling filled and satisfied we still feel thirsty and now confused as well. And I would suggest that feeling thirsty and frustrated is largely because the source we expected to satisfy our thirst only gives a false satisfaction or pleasure that lasts a few minutes at best. This will certainly contribute greatly to increasing our stress after awhile.
As I looked at this verse from Jeremiah in context I was amazed at how much wisdom and clarity can be found on this subject in the surrounding verses. Take a few minutes to see what God has to say to you on this subject and listen to His Spirit for yourself in this chapter.
Stress is full of fear that our needs are not going to be met, that our feelings are going to be hurt, that our hearts are going to be wounded and exploited and that we are going to be taken advantage of by others. But think about this more carefully. Isn't that exactly what we are trying to do to others to fill up our own emptiness? Aren't we trying to extract a sense of worth, of security, of belonging, of importance by getting it from the lives of those around us? Don't we feel like we are in competition for limited resources and that we have to sometimes push others down or even exploit them to get ahead ourselves?
Over the past few years I have come to observe that abuse and exploitation are at their core really attempts to forcibly extract something of value or beauty or pleasure from someone else in vain attempts to have more value for ourselves. We seldom think of violent crimes as a desire to add value to the life of the criminal, but I am coming to believe that at its deepest level that is what is really going on if we perceived it properly. A rapist craves the beauty or innocence of their victim and tries to take it from them by force. A murderer is taking life from someone else partly because they feel a lack of life within their own soul. Even cannibals have been discovered to be motivated by desires to obtain more intelligence or take on the desirable attributes and skills of their victims by eating their brains. And all of these things contribute enormously to our stress levels.
It is now becoming much more clear to me that stress is simply the natural symptom of attempting to meet my deepest needs by getting my soul's desires from the wrong sources. Anxiety is what envelopes the life and thinking of a person who is not having their needs met and increasingly feels threatened with loss and pain as a result. A person feeling anxiety is expecting bad things to happen, bad feelings to overwhelm them, a dark and foreboding future ahead of them. Anxiety, fear and stress are all aspects of the same thing and are all symptoms of a broken connection with the only Source of life and hope and importance. And all of this is solidly rooted in what we believe at our deepest level about where to get life.
It is easy to rattle off all of these things from the head, but when it comes to real life where the right brain is largely in charge of my feelings and reactions to circumstances it is much more difficult to live out the response of faith. But then again, that is also very likely a symptom that my intellectual beliefs have not yet filtered down into the real regions of my mind and heart where the real living takes place.
It is becoming clear to me that anxiety and faith are two outcomes depending on what and who we have chosen to believe. Both of them are spontaneously generated in the life and are inevitable and dependent on the choices we have been making about where to look for value and identity. Instead of attempting to live with stress and learning to just manage it, it seems much more sensible to take seriously the plain words of Jesus on this topic and see what is really going on.
And He said to His disciples, "For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on." (Luke 12:22)
Like the chapter in Jeremiah about broken cisterns, this passage and similar ones in the gospels are full of instruction and enlightenment on why it is we feel so stressed much of the time. Anxiety and stress are the unavoidable results that will appear sooner or later whenever we put our trust in our own resources or try to get life from those around us while failing to drink from the only fountain that contains the ingredients we were designed to thrive on.
Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)
This all sounds nice and religious and pious and all, but many people immediately begin to tune out at this point because it all sounds far too unrealistic. We want something practical, something that is viable, something that is going to really cut it and address the real, everyday longings and intense situations in our lives. All this religious jargon may be nice for those who are not facing enormous bills, breaking relationships, painful abuse or debilitating addictions. But how does all this apply to those kinds of real-life situations? How can this nebulous idea of 'connecting with God' or 'drinking' from some metaphorical fountain of 'living water' have anything to do with reducing the kind of very real stresses that we often have to face nearly every moment of our lives?
I realize that I have lived a largely sheltered life in some respects. On the other hand I have also experienced quite a number of very painful experiences and intensely fearful situations that are sometimes too intense to even share with most people. My life has not been free of feeling stressed out or feelings of anxiety and I have done just that much of my life. This is not something I am coming up with as just an intellectual exercise for religious-minded people to try out in theory. This is something that I have grappled with and experienced in my own life many times and is an ongoing experiment in what it really means for me to live in Christ and be led by the Spirit of God and to put into reality what these words of Jesus really mean.
What I am seeing more clearly now is that instead of trying to reduce stress whenever I feel afraid, I need to recognize it as a symptom of a misplaced focus of my attention, my heart's attention that is. Whenever God takes steps to arrest my attention when I am feeling more and more anxious, it is always because I am trying to be in control of my life and my circumstances and have lost touch with my choice to depend on Him and trust in His goodness and ability to care for me.
And another important note along this line. I am learning that I am not necessarily in need of working up more faith in God so that He will do things for me that need to be done. Attempting to work up more faith only creates more stress because faith is not something I have to work hard at producing any more than stress. If I am trying to generate faith myself I am actually looking to my own ability to produce faith instead of focusing my attention on the character and person of who God is in my life and His ability to take care of things from a far greater vantage point than anything else that affects my life. As I focus deliberately on God very intentionally and choose to believe what He says about Himself and His feelings and intentions about me, I find that faith begins to grow spontaneously and there is more and more of it available for me to exercise by using my will.
And the powerful thing here is that as faith grows in my heart and my confidence in God becomes deeper and more settled, anxiety and stress simply cannot remain in that environment. Both faith and fear are natural byproducts of whatever it is I focus my attention on to receive life and identity. If I focus on who God is and learn more about His true nature and passionate love for me, the more faith will naturally fill my heart and fear will be banished. If I look to any other source to fill my cravings for life and value and worth, then I will spontaneously begin to feel fear whenever those things fail to meet my deepest needs. I will form addictions to people or things or power or all sorts of substitutes. This is what the whole scenario of false gods is all about.
Have you not done this to yourself by your forsaking the LORD your God when He led you in the way? Your own wickedness will correct you, and your apostasies will reprove you; know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God.... (Jeremiah 2:17, 19)