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Musings on Running the Hamster Wheel of Anxiety

This is now the 5th blog in the series "Sabbatical Musings". To read yesterday's blog, click HERE

To keep up with the series Sabbatical Musings, click HERE

Today's musings come from a topic that I could easily have a PhD in: Running on the Hamster Wheel of Anxiety. If I had to pick one area where the Lord was doing the greatest amount in my heart, it would be on this issue. If I had to pick one area of my Christian walk where I feel like I still have the furthest to go, it would be this issue of dealing with anxiety. If I had to pick one area that keeps me from feeling and experiencing the freedom that positionally mine in Christ, it would be this area.

It's an area that I have spoken on and written about many times over the years. It is probably the area that when I have spoken on it most often leads me to the deepest conversations with those who identify with the struggle.  The struggle is real. 

For me, it is a daily battle. It is an area where I am forced to put on my full armor because if I don't then anxiety can eat me alive. 

It's also an area where I remained silent for far too many years because of trite responses and judgmental attitudes people can have toward anxiety. 

"Just cast your anxieties on Jesus"- Well, I'd love to! Do you know how many times where I have tried to hand over my anxieties to Jesus only to feel them squarely on my shoulders a minute later? 

I feel like most conversations I have had with folks who do not struggle with anxiety regularly come down to "Why don't you just stop it? What does being anxious actually do for you?" 

Do you have any clue how much I'd love to "just stop it"? I've pleaded with Jesus to take away my proclivity toward anxiety. I've begged Him to just give my mind a moment of respite when I am in a particularly anxious place in life. I've looked under every rock, examining my heart, my motives and anything else I could examine to try to release something that I might not even know I was holding onto in order to relieve anxiety. I've sought to "in all things give thanks" and try to just "gratitude-away" my anxiety. 

Some of these things have worked to varying degrees. But none of them has proven to be the magic bullet. 

This summer, the Lord brought decades of wrestling with anxiety to the surface. We started off our sabbatical on a cross country road trip. There were a lot of hours in the car driving across this great nation and seeing beautiful scenery.  There were also a lot of hours where we were driving and I was in my head more than I have ever been in my life. 

I would be driving along and be captivated by a beautiful landscape and be in awe of my surroundings and be driven to worship and awe of the God who created them. Then, almost immediately later, I would go back to thinking, "What was that thing that I was just anxious about again?". 

Yeah, I know I'm not well.  But I determined as I come back from sabbatical that I am going to be me. Part of why I am writing this series is because I feel like the Lord is encouraging me to put down in writing the areas where He is leading me to be me. I feel like I am the most authentic leader that I can be and can help encourage the body toward vulnerability with one another and authentic community if I am careful to not put on false appearances but to be the truest version of me and to be someone who encourages others to do the same. 

That does not mean accepting defeat. It means that I have come to terms with the fact that victory does not come through suffering in silence if I want to see the Lord show Himself mighty in the areas of my wrestlings. 

It also does not mean that I just accept that "it is what it is". Scripture speaks a lot about anxiety. 

I have been studying the Sermon on the Mount on a daily basis to get ready for our fall preaching series and the Lord has been showing me some things that are blowing my mind and I am eager to share them with you. 

The Sermon on the Mount has the longest passage in the Bible regarding dealing with the issue of anxiety, found in Matthew chapter 6. Over the years I have memorized that passage, read books on it, listened to sermons on it, taught on it and have come back to it on a very regular basis. The passage has really been a life raft at multiple times in my life when I needed a life raft. 

But the Lord showed me some really great things on getting to the heart underneath anxiety and I am eager to pass those things along. 

Matthew 6:25 starts off with “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life". 

I have taught on this passage many, many times and each time I have said "We need to go to the verses that come BEFORE the 'anxiety passage' because 6:25 starts off with a THEREFORE, so Jesus' great teaching on anxiety is connected to the verses that directly preceed it". The verses directly before Matthew 6:25 are teaching on the folly of seeking to serve God and wealth. It's easy to see how the verses on anxiety could be connected to that and how a disproportionate concern for wealth could easily cause anxiety. 

More than ever, I believe that to be true, but through the discipline of reading and studying through the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) each morning in one sitting before starting any other aspect of my day, I was able to realize that the 'anxiety passage' is connected to far more than just the verses about wealth directly predeeding it. It was connected to the ENTIRE Sermon on the Mount, and I am going to show how failure to see this through the lenses of the progression laid out by Jesus can leave us with a number of areas that can bring anxiety. 

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus telling people the availability of the Kingdom of God 'here and now'. It is Jesus' most direct teaching on what it means for humans to flourish as they were intended through their relationship with God through Christ. 

1. One of the biggest areas that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount is the centrality and importance of forgiveness to the Christian life. 

Do you have someone in your life where even just hearing their name creates an anxious stirring in your heart? 

As I started to dig deep into my heart on that question, I asked myself, "Why does this person still have such power over me?" 

The answer, as I continued to pray through the Sermon on the Mount, was troubling at first. The reason that the mere mention of some people's names or certian situations creates an anxious feeling in the pit of my gut is because I have never fully forgiven that person and the unforgiveness that I held onto would churn up anxiety because the Lord was showing me that there is unfinished business to deal with there

Forgiveness is a powerful and liberating gift from God. Not only the joy of being forgiven by Him through the blood of Jesus, but also the ability as a forgiven person to forgive others. It's liberating. 

I'd encourage you- if there are people who the mention of their name churns up an anxious feeling, release that. Be freed from that. Ask the Lord where you might still be hanging on to unforgiveness. Ask Him to show you where you are bringing your sacrifice before the alter while having unfinished business with a brother or sister to take care of. 

2. The idea of "Rewards" and when we receive them- this is another very central theme to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks about those who pray to be noticed by others and that the "notice" they get is their reward. He has similar things to say about fasting and giving. People are looking for a reward that meets their desire for instant gratification. 

So much of the anxiety that we can feel is because we want our reward NOW. When it doesn't come NOW we can become anxious: 

  • Lord, I've worked hard, why am I still struggling? Where's the reward? 
  • Lord, I've labored in this ministry and it has not grown in the way I anticipated. Where's the reward? 
  • Lord, I've prayed and prayed and prayed. Where's the payoff? 

But in Matthew 6- we see Jesus "rewarding" the birds of the air. He rewards the flowers of the field with their beauty. He rewards both good and evil with rain in due season. 

The point- Jesus gives good gifts to His children because He is a good and gracious God. He gives what He gives for reasons for our growth and His glory. He gives us what He gives us when He does because He knows when it is best.  

Waiting often produces anxiety. But then go back throughout chapter 5 and 6 and see how often Jesus mentions the folly of seeing immediate gratification above sustained and lasting gratification (the kind where moth and rust cannot destroy and theives cannot break in and steal). 

Can it be possible that if you are anxious about something it is because you feel like you positioned yourself to receive some sort of more immediate blessing and it is not coming and this thought troubles you? If so, I'd encourage you to dig into that even if its uncomfortable. 

3. Is your anxiety giving you an inability to rest, or does your inability to rest give you anxiety? I am going to write an entire blog on this topic but this one hit me in the heart quite personally. You know what was really apparent on Sabbatical? I have no clue how to truly rest. I read that after creation, "God rested because He was finished with His work". 

Do you ever feel "finished"? Before taking time to meditate on God's rest from His work I would have though the obvious answer was- of course I never feel finished with my work! There is always more to do. 

That mentality drives anxiety. We feel like there is constantly something waiting for us to get back to rather than enjoying the Lord in the moment. That is gist of most of Matthew 6. Just a quick thought: 

If God is able to finished with His work, then why can't we? Could it be that an improper perspective of work and rest drive anxiety because we never feel "finished"? 

Before I wrap up, I want to give a few more thoughts from my devotions in the Sermon on the Mount regarding where anxiety can come from and the fruit that is connected to it: 

  • We are told in chapter 7 of the Sermon on the Mount that we should not judge and in the way that we judge, we will also be judged. If you are anxious about feeling judged, it is possible that you are struggling with a judgmental spirit yourself? People who judge often feel judged. Feeling judged can make you feel anxious. 
  • Back to the idea of forgiveness. In the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6 there is a petition to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. If you have a list of debtors then you probably also struggle with feeling indebted.  The two are completely connected. If you are anxious over someone who has transgressed against you, have you taken the time to forgive those trespasses? 
  • In the Lord's prayer we are encouraged to pray for our daily bread. Today's bread. Provisions for today. Then, a few verses later when we get to the passage on anxiety in the same chapter, much of it has to do with anxiety over provisions for the future. Could it be that focusing on TOMORROW'S provision is creating in you anxiety for today? Could it also be that you are missing the blessing of the Lord's PRESENT provision because you are fixated on FUTURE provision? Can you see how this could create a cycle of anxiety? 
  • Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that if we try to serve two masters, we will hate one and love the other, and then gives an example by saying that we cannot serve both God and money.  Can it be that our anxieties are a result of trying to serve too many masters? The direct context speaks of the master of money, but plug in anything else: the master of approval seeking, the master of seeking to find our identity in the acquisition of "stuff", the master of looking for external things to prove our worth. These are all terrible masters and can drive anxiety. 
  • If you struggle with people pleasing and the approval of man could that be driving your anxiety? If you care too much about what people think doesn’t that naturally lead to anxiety if someone expresses potential disappointment with you? Or even if you think that they even MIGHT think something negative? If you are wrestling with this kind of anxiety because of an inability to say “no” to something because it could create an uneasiness about what the person might think if you say “no” you’re in the middle of a vicious cycle. This one is extra sneaky because you have anxiety leading you to not say no but also taking on too much through chronically saying yes and then being anxious about keeping all those plates in the air causing you to be anxious about plates you need not even be spinning? The sermon on the mount is pretty clear on the value of a simple yes or no. 
  • Not knowing how to receive grace or feeling like grace is something we must reciprocate is exhausting and leads to anxiety. Let me ask you a couple of questions. If someone offers to do something kind for you do you immediately begin to think of how you will pay it back? Are you able to feel and receive grace without feeling indebted? That’s exhausting. Grace does not indebt us. It frees us from debtor theology. Again consider the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:9-11 where Jesus decribes how wicked father’s delight in giving good things to their children so how much more does our Heavenly Father delight in giving you grace? He loves you. He also likes you. He wants to give you good things. Be freed from the anxiety of trying to reciprocate grace and receive and be free

One last thought before wrapping up. Jesus ends the teaching on axiety in chapter 6 by telling His disciples to "seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, then (all of these things we are anxious over) will be added to us. 

That verse is meant to grant freedom and a solid litmus test. If you are anxious about something right now, ask yourself- does this thing pertain to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of this world? Is my pursuit of this matter that makes me anxious a kingdom pursuit or is there something else driving it?  Do we truly believe that all of what we need has been determined by God and that he will provide it regardless of our anxious fixation? 

My encouragement today is- when that thing pops into your mind that causes you anxiety, instead of trying to plan out every angle, or figuring out everything that you will say or do if someone else says or does something else or trying to get underneath other people's motives while not giving attention to the fact that your motive in judging their motive might be prolonging the cycle of anxiety- what if we stepped back and asked ourselves: 

Could I possibly be seeking this to the point of anxiety because I am either holding onto something too tightly or refusing to release something or to truly forgive, and what would it look like to view this thing in the light of Christ's beautiful upside down Kingdom?

I pray that this serves as a blessing today and that you walk in the joy of the Lord, casting your anxieties upon Him, but also being courageous enough to allow His Spirit to root out the things that draw us back into the pit of anxiety. 

I look forward to walking this road together, family. 

In love and gratitude, 

Pastor Eric 

 

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