RUNNING AWAY FROM BEARS
Anxiety is a survival mechanism. I have a goal which I desire to fulfil. When this becomes under threat, in comes anxiety. It helps me run away from the bears by producing adrenaline to course through my body with focussed energy.
Once I’d escaped the bears it turned out there was one waiting at home, and it challenged me to a wrestle. Last time you wrestled someone, your anxiety ushered in adrenaline which helped you to win (unless the bear was particularly well-trained.)
However, traumatic bursts of anxiety or repeated cases of anxiety can drill the experience into our psyche like shrapnel lodged in the walls of our minds, affecting a little bit of our brain which polices your thoughts and decides what to do with them.
My bear fight is over; I’m trying to get on with living my life but I still feel like I’m in a wrestling ring with a bear. And so I experience situations in everyday life as a battleground where my need for survival is won or lost. The battle rages in my emotions and actions. I may be acutely self-aware of it, seeking to cope by escaping my riddled self through drink, drugs or obsessive gaming or fantasy. Or I may more know the symptoms as they spill out, seeking to compensate by taking control of something such as my food intake, my appearance or even my life through cutting myself.
You could even manage both: Friends, porn is a killer - it gives both a sense of escape and control. Which is why it’s the most dangerous drug out there. If you need help, get it. We’ll be talking lovingly, graciously and shamelessly about that and other issues of control in a few weeks’ time.
It might be that 18 months ago you lost your job and it was so traumatic for you that you’ve never been able to look for another job for fear that you’re going go through the same. Or losing your best friend to cancer. Or losing a relationship with someone that you love.
The anxiety of the trauma sticks with us and we end up feeling like we’re constantly in a battle that we’re never going to win.
Anxiety is like a choking vine that grows through our minds, seeping from our memories into our todays; twisting and crippling with its vines growing and gripping into every part of our daily existence. Our lives and the lives of those around us are at stake.
The anxiety switch is rarely felt in itself. In this way, it is helpful. But what about when it stays on or produces too much power - what about when we do feel it? What about worries that won’t go away?
ANXIETY - WHEN WORRY WON’T GO AWAY
The road to a better life is to actually to step out of the ring.
How do we step out of the ring? How do we help those we live with step out of the ring?
To move forward and step out of the ring we have to put anxiety in context. We know what it is. But why do we experience it as it is?
ANXIETY + GOD
If you experience this kind of anxiety or you know those who do, one of our first things is to know our context with God.
I want you to turn to Isaiah 35 vs 1-4.
God has this bunch of people that he’s picked out of nowhere. They’re not impressive, they’re not significant, and they’re nomads, wanderers. He’s made a promise to them that through them they will bring his love to the rest of the world.
They’re incredibly anxious and they’ve found themselves in a place where they’ve wandered off after so many other things. Where they feel like they’ve let God down because they have, and they’re afraid of him rather than trusting in him, and everything’s gone wrong. It’s resulted quite practically in themselves being broken down being attacked and overcome by their enemies by the sword, and in desert and famine where they are. And yet in the midst of this comes this remarkable word of hope from a bloke called Isaiah who prayed a lot and God spoke to him. God said this:
‘The desert and the parched lands will be glad. The wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus, it will burst into bloom. It will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon, these fertile lands. They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands. Steady the knees that give way. Say to those with fearful hearts “be strong, do not fear”’.
When I’m worried somebody saying to me ‘don’t worry’ never does any good. In fact I get more worried and anxious about the fact that I can’t stop being worried and anxious. And then there’s a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety and that’s that. Let me finish reading.
‘Say to those with fearful anxious hearts “Be strong and do not fear. Your God will come. He will come with vengeance, with divine retribution He will come to save you”.
THE VENGEANCE AND RETRIBUTION OF GOD
God is not at war with you.
He is at war with the mess of the world, with the evil powers behind it. He is at war with what produces anxiety and isolation between us and from him. God is a God of warfare and yet not against us. In fact he comes to fight for us. And this promise that God comes with vengeance, with divine retribution to wrestle us back from the hands of the devil and all of our collusion with him.
Isaiah paints this picture that a day will come when God will come and do something decisive about their anxiety, decisive about their waywardness, decisive about all the effects of that upon them. And this promise is realised when God comes in person to earth. With acts of divine warfare in healing the sick and restoring relationships. But God here on earth ends up being killed by those who say they follow him because they couldn’t stand to look in the mirror and see how far they’d fallen. And yet all he wanted to do was to lift them up, and so when God in Jesus dies on a cross and is executed, and as he conquers death, death could not hold him.
We have this divine retribution - this promise that God could not be kept away from you. He has pursued you. He has chased you down and he is chasing you down here tonight. And he proves it by saying even though you may think that I’m far off in the heavens I’m here with you now by my spirit, my divine company is with you. And this divine presence, his Holy Spirit in us, does two main things, two main acts of divine vengeance and retribution.
First is this: it’s a promise of a better age to come. When Jesus is going to come back and there’s going to be no more death, mourning, tears, pain. I quote that verse pretty much every sermon because it’s so important. We must not forget what’s going to happen. We must not forget the future that is coming. And it’s not just a weird ethereal state at the end of day. CS Lewis says that was we’re living in now is just the contents page of the life that is coming. This is the future that we have for us- everything made right again. But what about here and now?
Second: The same divine presence that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in us, raising us from living death to life. He keeps us growing and going on towards that day.
Because anxiety does the opposite. Anxiety cripples us, stops us moving forward and growing with God and with ourselves and other people. Anxiety cripples us and brings us to our knees. And so Jesus is an all-defining stamp of hope upon your life.
The world seems to be falling apart getting messier and messier, that things seem to be decaying all around, though our minds often seem to be wreaking havoc with us, that here is a hope, that there is a way forward.
This is the context relating to God that we find ourselves in relating to our anxiety. Yes we experience it, but the vengeance and divine retribution of God winning us as his prize means that the final word of anxiety is not anxiety. The final word of anxiety is life. Our lives are not defined by our anxiety, they are defined by Jesus. He is the first-foundation of our existence and he is the aim of our existence - also the power from first to last! No matter how badly I experience anxiety, I am a Christian and not an Anxietian. We will get there in the end.
ANXIETY + YOU
The next context of anxiety that is helpful for us to understand is in relation to us. How we relate to it, what goes on with it. The baptism celebration in the Church of England uses these words: stand firm against the world, the flesh and the devil. This gives us a remarkably helpful way of accessing the reality of anxiety in all of it’s entwined complexity.
Sometimes things happen to us that embed in us a sense of anxiety.
My parents are amazing. Somehow circumstances conspired that I grew up with an innate sense of anxiety that I was trapped, powerless and not acknowledged in my pain. Then as I moved through life I began reading this into everything and I grew up afraid to make myself known, choosing instead to live life through a lens of escapism and controlling behaviour to liberate myself from my innate anxiety. As I got older I found myself in an extremely abusive relationship through my teenage years. And long after she’d gone I was left with a deep fear of commitment lest I suffer at the hands of my own decision to commit. That’s the world. Many of us have experienced traumatic things outside of our control by and large that have embedded in us deep senses of anxiety around particular issues and emotions, for example: acceptance, acknowledgement, affirmation and provision.
Sometimes our brains are just a bit screwed up. And just as someone can be born with frail bones so too our brains can break as well. The bits of the brain that produce thoughts and police them, which send out the chemicals to deal with them can all malfunction. Sometimes anxiety comes from that route.
The devil is an enemy of God. And when we make ourselves partners with God the devil sets himself up. Not to serve God as he was originally intended, but to fight against him and all who fight with him. So when we say ‘yes God I will follow you’ the devil does his damn best to distract us. To get us caring about things more than we should. The biblical word for this is idolatry. When we put things that aren’t God in God’s place. Rather than care most about what God thinks of us we care most about what other people think of us.
We’ll stake our sense of peace and security not in being loved and being with him and his promises to us to keep us but in our own ability to get the right kind of job or the right kind of relationship. Or the right kind of savings in the bank. Or the right kind of help. Important things, but they’re not God.
When we set these up as our goal, when we stake so much peace on these ultimately wavering things we can experience this kind of acute chronic anxiety. Because it’s all in our hands. If our deepest goal in life is to secure ourselves then we will feel anxious because it’s all in our hands to do. But if our deepest goal in life is to pursue God’s way then often our anxiety subsides; we don’t have a reason to be anxious with that goal because it’s his shout.
I spent so long feeling a real call to pray for people on the streets for healing. And so often I’d walk past people and I’d feel this nudge that I needed to pray for them. And yet I was crippled by anxiety. What if it went wrong? What if nothing happened? What if they told me to f* off? Or what if they did get healed, then what would I say after that? Endless, endless, endless. Then I felt the Lord say, my boy, it’s not about you. For as long as it’s about you you’ll worry- and you need to worry because there’s no way you can heal that on your own. But make it about me and I’ll do it.
And often these things interweave - the world, the flesh and the devil. For example: when it comes to preaching and getting up here on a Sunday or whenever and speaking, these worries go through my head: What will you guys think of me? What if it all goes wrong? What if you don’t deem me worthy of listening to? What if you don’t like what I’m wearing? What if you think my hair’s really dumb or what if you think I need to go to the men’s clothes swap shop? Worries like that. And I’ve worried about these things for so long that they become idols. My way of dealing my experiences as a young’n was to get people to think really well of me. Then I’ll be alright, then I’ll be peaceful. So you see how the world becomes a hook for the devil to get in. And then our brains get so used to experiencing this, that even when I’ve been reassured and pointed by Sarah to keep trusting in God and to pray and give up that idolatry that I was going back to in my heart, I still felt sick. Still didn’t want to eat. Even though I’d dealt with the flesh, the world and the devil, still I needed help.
FINALLY - PRACTICAL STEPS.
Anxiety from staking our peace on anything other than the Prince of Peace. The simple thing is to simply ask God ‘What am I caring about too much?’, like David prays in Psalm 139. It’s a dangerous prayer to pray because He then tells you. You have to be willing. And then to say ‘God I’m sorry that I’ve cared too much about what other people think of me, I want to repent, I want to turn around and walk away. Take those things out of my hands and place my hands in yours instead. Spend time talking this through with God.
For others of us a practical way forward would be to face up to what’s happened in our lives. There might well be stuff that we’ve gone through, that we’ve been suppressing, that we think it can’t be linked to that, but it probably is. Because if we don’t process these things they eat us form the inside. Anxiety is a protection mechanism. It can become a block of ice around that which is most hurting.
For example you put your trust in a chair when you sit down. It might be that once you sat on a chair and it broke. It might have been so painful for you that you trusted in something which gave way, that you trusted in something that didn’t live up to what it promised, that anxiety has been the way you protect yourself from it, like a block of ice around it. So it’s become more comfortable (if a little cold) for you to manage the anxiety than to deal with what’s really underneath it. And if that’s you I haven’t come with a word to stop your anxiety - I’ve come with a word to say there is hope and healing for your hurt. I want you to focus on dealing with your anxiety. On dealing with your heart and what you’re most hurting about. God is a father who is holding you and saying ‘My child it’s ok. I know what is hidden in that block of ice, let me weep my tears into that. Because I’m crying about the things that you are crying about’. He empathises. He feels it. God became human, he healed humanity because he knows what it is to suffer.
So we can desire God’s insight for what’s going on. We can seek healing and we can seek counselling.
If it is just simply that our brain is messing us around, medication can be helpful at times as well. And sometimes the trauma that we have been through has offset our mind in such a way that we need help from medication to help us get to a point where we can deal with some of the hurt that we’ve been through. Science is great as long as we’re not using it as a get-out clause to not really deal with what we need to deal with. So there’s no shame in going to the doctor or anything like that.
Quite a helpful scenario to walk through, or questions to ask myself, because even if you’re not a chronic worrier often we experience the dangerous anxiety in every day worry, are to ask yourself ‘What’s my peace in here? Why am I worried about this?’ Actually am I worried what my boss thinks of me? Am I worried about losing my job? Losing my home? Things that might actually be a bit out of proportion. And these questions ‘What am I most worried about here?’ and ‘Why am I worried about that?’ can reveal perhaps some of the idolatry and some of the hurt and suffering at the heart of that, and that’s quite a good way of looking at ourselves and moving forward.
If the heart of anxiety is to separate us from God and isolate us from each other, and the heart of God is to bring us closer to him and closer to one another, then the way that we move forward from this is to commit to each other and commit to Him. To say ‘There is no shame any more in the mistakes that I’ve made that have caused me anxiety. There is no shame anymore in the things that have happened to me that have caused me anxiety. And I’m going to put my head above the parapet of shame and say I need to know that you are committed to me and that we can keep going with this’.
Knowing in this the commitment of God, what will it look like for you and your church family to grow in commitment to each other and God?