We live in highly anxious times. We might hear more about young people being anxious and the role social media plays in creating and exacerbating their anxiety, but increased anxiety is a reality for all groups. Here are a few of the causes I see:
- The Pandemic: Even though the pandemic is, apparently, winding down, its effects are still with us. We’ve heard of increased cases in various parts of the country but are happy to hear that increased cases haven’t led to severe increases in hospitalizations and deaths. I know people that are still very anxious about going out in public. Being around crowds terrifies them. Some of our people who haven’t yet returned to church are people who are uncomfortable being out and about in enclosed spaces.
- Politics: It is to the advantage of both our major parties to speak apocalyptically about the possibility of the Other Team taking control and bringing irreversible disaster upon the country. Adherents of both major parties are told repeatedly that the Other Team is winning. When the future of the country and the well-being of our families is felt to be on the line, anxiety is to be expected.
- The Economy: Some places are booming. Small towns like ours, frequently not so much. Our tax base has been changing over the years. Jobs have been going away. Now we have inflation at the highest level in decades and the Fed is raising interest rates. Some tell us that rising interest rates will crush the stock market, slow the economy, and send the country into recession. Can you imagine why some people would be anxious?
- The Church: If you pay attention to demography (the study of populations), you’re aware that the church is going through a rough time these past few years. We have scandals on top of increasing secularization. We have kids raised in church growing up and not coming back. We have conflict within churches. In our own denomination it looks like the 1968 synthesis of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (that resulted in the United Methodist Church) is falling apart. We can look at our own congregation and the conflicts over the past couple of years. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve felt the anxiety.
When there’s increasing anxiety, other things start happening. It doesn’t matter whether it’s anxiety within society, an organization, or a family – there are consequences that hurt us. Here are a few I see:
- Anxiety decreases our intelligence. When we’re anxious we feel like we need to respond to things immediately. We must respond, we cannot wait and take time to think things through. We grab ahold of the stories anxiety tells us – stories of guilt, shame, failure, and blame. Anxiety blinds us to other stories, other possible explanations. When we become aware of this feature of anxiety, we can do the work (it is work) of intentionally slowing down and becoming aware of our reasoning processes. It can help us to begin each day with a prayer asking God to heighten our awareness to what happens around us during the day. Instead of rushing to judgment, we can ask God to slow us down so we can make every thought captive to Christ.
- Anxiety leads to conflict. Yes, I did say above that conflict leads to anxiety. It’s a feedback loop. More conflict leads to more anxiety which leads to more conflict – and so on. This is especially true when we don’t recognize our anxiety for what it is. It’s at those times that we tend to lash out or even explode at the people around us. Next time you’re around someone who is exploding at you, pause for a moment and consider: “Could this explosion be caused by anxiety?” Whatever the cause, we’re responsible for how we act toward others, but when we recognize that the explosion is caused by anxiety (whether theirs, ours, or both), we can maybe turn down the volume a bit. Perhaps we could say something like, “Considering what you’re saying/doing, I’m feeling anxious. Maybe some of what you’re saying is being fueled by your anxiety. Whatever the role anxiety might be playing, how about we sop for a moment and offer ourselves, our situation, and our anxieties to God in prayer. We can invite God to share his insights and be quiet before him as we wait on him.”
- Anxiety leads to withdrawal. When we’re anxious, whether we recognize what we’re feeling as anxiety or not, we tend to withdraw. Being around people amps up our feelings of anxiety, especially if we feel like they are somehow part of the problem. It doesn’t matter if we’re thinking about family, business, church, or other groups. We want to decrease anxiety and we think withdrawing from a possible source of anxiety is the way to go. Sometimes withdrawal, at least for a time, is necessary. We need time to breathe, time to calm down, time to seek and hear from God. As one who values healthy families and healthy churches, however, I wouldn’t want withdrawal to be a permanent strategy. Because we’re human and live in a fallen world, anxiety and conflict are unavoidable. Sometimes just when we think we’ve escaped it, it taps us on the shoulder from behind. We don’t have and shouldn’t expect perfect, unendingly happy churches and families. God gives us each other to encourage and support us in our times of need. As we learn to love each other through trying times, we gain the strength to do better next time. It’s like physical exercise. We grow our muscles of forgiveness, love, and restoration through use.
Here’s a prayer I pray for myself today. Maybe some of you could find value in praying it for yourself today:
Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know my thoughts from afar. You know my heart, all my feelings, ideas, fears, anxieties, and discomforts, even when I am blind to them myself. Open my eyes so I can see the things in me that are dragging me down – or dragging down the people around me. As I become aware of my anxieties give me the strength to name them as such and to lay them at your feet. Deliver me from the lie of the enemy that those anxieties define me and get the last word in my life. Deliver me to the truth of your word, that my identity is in Christ, and that because he has bought me with his blood, there is no condemnation. Help me live out of the reality that being “in Christ” is not something I do as an individual, but something we do together through the presence and work of your Spirit. Bind us together in love. I know, Lord, that the world doesn’t think this way. The world insists on my performance. The world insists I withdraw when I’m anxious. The world insists that there is no hope for recovery. Help me – help us – find our hope and security in you, knowing that whatever changes come, your grace is sufficient. You have promised to never leave us or forsake us – to be with us always. I lean on that promise now.