Jesus Jukes and Anxiety

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25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

28 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

31 “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God[a] above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

34 “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” – Jesus

I’ve had people read this passage to me before. I’ve had it explained to me by eager, goodhearted people who only wanted to help me. People who said the words like they were sharing brand new information and then waited for it take hold, for the light to return to my eyes, for the words to move across the wild sea of my mind and subdue it to a still. God’s got you! They half laughed, slapped my back. You don’t need to worry! 

 

Which is true. I do believe this. I believe God’s in the mix of all that’s going on and works with us on our one-step, two-step back toward the good path of health and wholeness.

 

But in the moment it feels categorically false, and the falseness of it pours through you like the coldest water. I remember long nights with those words, always out of reach. I remember repeating them, over and over in meditation as if they were the bridle that would lasso my mind into obedience. And I remember it never working. Not once.

 

I have prayer journals filled with my objections to this divine piece of advice. Mostly I call it shit. A dangerous teaching that is counterintuitive to everything I know about anxiety and how it works, what role we play in perpetuating and what internal agreements we need to square with ourselves if we are to manage it.

 

Sometimes, anxiety is a self-inflicted wound. Efforts to simply stop feeling anxious inevitably turn into value judgments about why you can’t. Why you can’t handle it. Why you’re so weak. Why you’re so screwed up. And before you know it, there you are: lying sprawled on the ground with your haywire heartbeat and shortest breaths and your whole body throbbing with the reminder that you are not trusting Jesus.

 

I fought anxiety all the way to the therapists couch and when I tried to explain to her all the ways it outmaneuvered me, all my failed attempts at trying to take captive thoughts, my therapist started nodding at me like this is exactly what she was expecting to hear. Like she had heard it a million times before. And then she looked up at me and said this:

 

You need to yourself off the hook.

 

It took time. A long time. It took new habits and a new diet, positive reinforcement and a reconstructed thought patterns, but eventually, I learned to stop fighting my anxiety. I learned to accept it.

 

Guilt and isolation soon fell away when I learned about how many people struggled with anxiety. When my mom opened up to me about her own history of it, I realized that the deck was somewhat stacked, I was bent toward this. My therapist talked about my brain as if it were another patient in the room and I don’t think she knew how nice that was. How sane it made me feel to be disconnected from the wild sea for an hour so I could study it, learn its’ movements, see the senseless ways it behaves. Love it anyway.

 

In accepting my anxiety, I accepted a part of myself. I began to appreciate it. I have learned things on that therapist’s couch and in late lonely nights waiting out a renegade thought, that I would’ve never found anywhere else. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned how to breathe. I’ve learned how to listen to my body and mind and know exactly what they need. I’ve learned I’m strong.

 

As I thought about what I was going to write today, that passage in Matthew came to mind, and I felt my lungs clench at the sound of it rolling through my mind in the voices of so many that had spoken it over me. But then I listened to it again. I opened up the Bible app on my phone and read it again. And again.

 

I think he’s talking about hope.

 

I refuse to read these things, even the words of Jesus, as if any of them had the slightest clue about anxiety and depression, neurotransmitters and cells flooding with cortisol. But I think they knew something about hope. I think they embraced the actuality of the world, the reality that things weren’t what they were supposed to be and weren’t going to change by the flick of a wrist, but by the steps of their own two feet. By the hard work of leaning into the hard things, learning the strength of your soul to survive them.

 

And I don’t think Jesus was simply saying TRUST ME. I don’t think he was trying to say that it would all happen just like that. I think he was just setting that star in the sky. That big bold promise that I know I’ve reached out to in my darkest nights, the nights when I needed someone bigger than me to pull me through. I think he was saying: God dresses the field down to the tiniest details, God feeds the birds to their too fat to fly, but guess what– you matter to him the most. He is in this with you. You are not alone. It’s going to be okay. You are going to be okay.

  • I love this series. I can relate to so much of it. Thank you for sharing your insights. I’ve been on the receiving end of those sorts of Bible verses, too, and they didn’t help in the slightest. What helped was a doctor giving me a referral to a mental health specialist.

  • SurvivorGirl

    Ben, when you wrote about having a “bent” toward anxiety, I immediately envisioned how we all (since we have our own “bents” toward something) must look a bit like question marks. Rather than having answers/relief for so many of these things (and looking like exclamation points – certainty?), we live with these things that keep us questioning, searching, seeking. Maybe that comes off as silly, but I think it’s making sense to this question mark. 🙂 xo

  • Rea

    This is so well said. I have a bent toward anxiety. A bent that I sometimes try to ignore until it’s too late and I’m having a panic attack in the middle of church. Readjusted meds, trying to remember all of the things that I need to do to stem the tide…all of these are necessary. But the hope that God is in this with me…that’s the rock underneath it all.

  • Francis Perry

    Been there, and done that… worse in the middle of the night, as all things seem to be. As your therapist said, it helps to separate yourself from the issue/disease/affliction/habit. There’s me, and there’s this Anxiety thing. Approach it cautiously. Use your senses… touch the furniture, smell the air, hear the sounds outside, even if you don’t turn on the light. Separate yourself from the bloody thing. You had it before, you managed before. You’ll manage again. Look at it from a distance. “Well… there it is again. What do you know.”

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