There is no simple solution for when we have too much anxiety. I write “too much” because we’re supposed to have some anxiety in our lives. We’d be severely emotionally handicapped if we didn’t. Actually we’d probably be dead because we’d do something so stupid we’d get ourselves killed because there’d be no fear of repercussions. Without anxiety, you could be falling off a building and you’d be thinking, “I’m moving really fast… oh well. I feel nothing.” What surprises some clients who claim to be struggling with anxiety is I’ll ask, “On a scale of 0-10, how much anxiety should someone feel in your position? And how much do you feel?” It’s like it never occurred to them that they should feel anxious for what they’re going through. Our culture seems to have made like a super villain we need to escape, but anxiety is a gift meant to protect us (and make life more exciting). Sometimes we feel more anxious than we should, which should be addressed, but ultimately, anxiety is good for us. It’s what makes roller coasters fun and public speaking a thrill when we do it well. Anxiety makes life more exciting… or it can cripple us if we aren’t careful.
One Bible passage I used to hate was Matthew 6 where Jesus talks about not worrying. For instance, He says don’t worry about the future or what you’ll eat or wear. As a guy who was a worry champion growing up, this verse made me feel like a failure: “But I do worry!” Because I worried, I’d feel guilt, and because I felt guilt, I worried more because I must not have enough faith. The main problem for me, however, was I’d seen World Vision commercials showing people starving, so logically there should be worry for things like food.
Now that I’m a bit wiser (even though my teenage self thought I knew everything when I didn’t – strange), I can appreciate this verse more. It’s not a command telling me not to worry. It’s meant to be an encouragement. It’s meant to remind us that we’re not alone. There is a God who created the world who is watching out for us… to a point. This doesn’t mean I should be stupid and not save for retirement. We don’t jump out of a plane without a parachute and pray, “Okay God, how are you going to save me?” We need to do our part and trust God to do His. This includes ideas like don’t get pregnant if you can’t afford it, don’t get into crazy debt expecting God to pay it off with a miracle, and if people are at risk of attacking you, learn how to properly defend yourself. When it comes to worry, be wise. Like the one verse, “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Mat 6:34) This verse isn’t saying, “Don’t worry.” It’s saying let’s focus on one problem at a time; don’t get so caught up in the future that you get overwhelmed, which is like saying, “Let go of the ‘what if’s’ that can consume you.” The “what if’s” can ruin us as we only think of worst case scenarios. There’s a reason why the “what if’s” are part of the list of cognitive distortions taught in CBT – they’re damaging. The truths is we need to make good choices today, so tomorrow will be a little easier, or as I like to say, “Live so your future self will thank you.”
The one set of verses we don’t often associate to anxiety is in the 10 Commandments; rules so important they’re repeated twice in the first five books of the Bible (Exodus and Deuteronomy). The first two commandments are about putting God first and not having idols. In a way, they’re kind of redundant, which is meant to emphasize how important it is to put God first. Back in the days of Moses when these were written, idols were a huge problem. In fact, when Moses was getting the 10 Commandments from God, which was right after God performed the 10 plagues against Egypt and then drowned a bunch of Egyptians in the Red Sea when they chased after the Israelites who crossed it on dry land, the Israelites made a golden calf to worship – crazy, right? They just witnessed the power of God, their leader was on a mountain talking to God, and they made a cow statue to bow to in worship (at least pick a lion). That’s how desperate people were back then to have gods to worship and look to for help. Anxiety used to push people to need a higher power, which is the complete opposite of today where we encourage people to “Believe in yourself.” Um, I kind of suck at a lot of stuff; I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I’d like something better, thank you. The more common reality for our culture is people don’t worry about worshiping a higher power because it’s too much of a bother: (many people) “I’m sure there’s a God, but I’m not worried enough to bother looking into it. I’m sure I’m good enough the way I am to make whatever is up there happy,” (aka the greatest gamble in life).
If the top two Commandments in a list of 10 are about putting God first and not having idols in a universal list of rules God gave maybe there’s something to them (i.e. this list includes things like don’t murder while excluding things like circumcision and eating kosher because some rules are good for everyone while others were originally meant for the Israelites). Since we don’t really make statue idols the way they used to, our idols look different. Here’s what I’d include:
- Ourselves: We are obsessed with ourselves. Sure, selfishness has been a problem since the beginning of time, but we take it to a whole new level. This includes people who are obsessed with feeling special or “changing the world” or anyone who wants to be given special treatment for their socio-economic level, cultural background, mental illness, or sexual identity; anything that makes them think they’re above others when we’re all just humans. I’d even include people in this list who claim they are “spiritual,” which means they do certain activities they think makes them enlightened, but unless you’re connecting to God, any our “spiritual” is just a relaxing activity.
- Others: A lot of people are obsessed with others whether it’s wanting their approval and not being judged, needing followers, people pleasing, and wanting admiration. This can also include social warriors who hurt people in their goal of helping someone else (hurting people even to help others is so dumb to me, especially because hurt people will likely hurt you back.)
- Money & Power: This idol can be something that is connected to both our obsession with ourselves and others. These idols have ruined many families and lives, yet they’re still highly sought after. This can be seen in overworking or going into debt to feel like we have money.
- Perfection: This idol can also be something that is connected to both our obsession with ourselves and others. It is ultimately, a pointless goal because there’s no such thing.
- Happiness: It’s amazing what we’ll spend and what we’ll do to be “happy” despite the only way to find happiness is through a spirit of thankfulness, which reduces worry as truly thankful people can see the good in all situations.
- Comfort/Laziness: This idol can look like happiness to some, but being lazy never leads to a good life.
- Achievements: A sense of accomplishment is helpful for emotional health, but some people become addicted to achievements in order to feel better about themselves and/or impress others.
- Worry: Some people are really good at this. It can prevent them from sleeping or trying something that will be good for them,
- Sexuality: I don’t remember a time when sexuality and gender were more obsessed over than the last five years. Finding a sense of self makes sense, but some people take this beyond a simple fact (e.g. I’m attracted to women) and make it the sole focus of their lives, which, in the long run, is a very empty pursuit.
- Addiction: Drinking, pot, gambling, video games, TV, hoarding, spending money… all the surface addictions are an idol.
- The Past: Some people are stuck on the traumas they’ve faced and their lives revolve around the past, which is incredibly unhealthy. We need to accept the past, learn from it, and live better in the future. Focusing on what you’ve been through is giving events you can’t change power over your current life, which doesn’t make any sense if you want to be happy.
- Their Kids: I love my daughters, but they are not the purpose for my existence. I want to raise them well, but I’m not going to obsess over them and make them my entire life like some parents.
Based on this list, how can we not have anxiety problems in our culture? We are so stuck focusing on this world when it’s all so temporary and continually slipping through our fingers.
I should point out that having God in our lives doesn’t mean we won’t get anxious and I’m not foolish enough to claim, “All you need is Jesus” (those kinds of Christians annoy me), but if we learn how to be emotionally healthy and use tools to help that end (the kind of thing I teach), we are doing our part as best we can. Our next challenge is to work on trusting God to do His part. He wants to bless us, but He can only do so much if we’re not being healthy. For instance, if we eat McDonalds every day, we can’t be angry at God that we’re fat, feel gross, and have a heart attack at a young age. If we spend time with terrible people, how can we be surprised they treat us terribly? At the same time, we can only be so healthy without having God in our lives. If we don’t put Him first, if we have an idol, we will limit how emotionally healthy we become and how much of a difference God can make. We need to do our part, and God will do His.
This week may you consider what idol is causing you unnecessary anxiety.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)