The Burden of Anxiety, Pt. 2

By Ryan O’Farrell, Psy.D.

Anxiety fundamentally has to do with security and control. When anxious, we take on the responsibility for caring for ourselves, whether through seeking to secure the future or providing ourselves with a distraction from anxiety. But when Jesus announces the gospel, he also announces that the final responsibility for caring for ourselves is not ours. We no longer need to be the masters of our own destiny. Instead, we are free to seek the kingdom of God, leaving both our final destiny and our daily provisions to our Father (Luke 12:31-32). In short, Jesus invites us to live in the reality that we need not be anxious because our lives are ultimately in his good hands.

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Now before continuing, one clarification is incredibly important. To not feel anxious is not the same as not experiencing pain, suffering, and overwhelming circumstances. In other words, Jesus’ invitation to not feel anxious is not the equivalent of saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” No, the call to not be anxious is the call to give up our attempts to take final responsibility for our welfare because our lives are in the hands of God. What Jesus invites us to is a reorientation of how we seek to deal with overwhelming situations; he is not to saying that there will not be overwhelming situations. With that said, that also means there is an important element I will not be addressing in this article: I am not addressing how to deal with suffering. Some reading this may not know whether they will be able to buy food tomorrow. Some may be about to lose their house. Others may be about to lose a marriage. I cannot possibly speak to such immense suffering in such a short article. Instead I hope only to provide some pointers that may help begin to illume the way out of anxiety.

With all of that being said, how can we begin to step out of anxiety? It starts with the gospel and call of Jesus. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30, CSB). One of the core aspects of anxiety is that it drives us to try and secure an outcome or avoid any awareness of the future and its possible outcomes. When anxious, we become completely focused on the potential outcomes of a situation. But Jesus does not call us to secure outcomes, he calls us to a process of following him. Notice the difference between an outcome and a process. An outcome is a set event. You either secured the grant you applied for or you did not. Your spouse either forgave you or not. You either made high enough marks to pass your job evaluation or you did not. A process is continually unfolding; it is not a set moment, a final outcome. So for example, if you seek to love your child well, is there ever a point in time when you can stop and say to yourself, “I have once and for all loved my child well. I don’t need to do anything else for my child now”? The answer is no, you never reach that point. For to love your child well is an unfolding process. You love your child well in greater and lesser degrees with each interaction, with each passing moment. But there is never a point where you “complete” loving your child. The same applies to Jesus’ call in Matthew 11:28-30. He calls us to take up his yoke and learn from him. He calls us to follow him. And so our lives are lives lived in a continual process of following him. We get anxious, in part, because we begin to focus on securing outcomes which we, as dependent creatures, we ultimately do not have the power to do.

Let me try to give an example of what it looks like to pursue a process rather than an outcome. Jim is dreading a difficult conversation with his wife. Things have come to a head in their marriage: Jim feels they argue all of the time, barely spend time with each other, and live in separate worlds while occupying the same house. This is not the marriage that he had envisioned when they first got married and now Jim wants to talk to his wife about seeking help. But he is very anxious about the conversation. As he thinks about talking to his wife, he finds his mind constantly running over every possible way the conversation could go. “How will I bring the topic up?” A flurry of thoughts go through his head. For each potential opening to the conversation, Jim imagines how he might respond based on his wife’s response. Jim finds he is completely preoccupied with trying to ensure the conversation goes well and that his wife agrees to work on their marriage together.

But notice that within this very natural desire to improve his marriage, there is a conundrum, for Jim cannot “make” his wife respond well. No matter what opening he uses and how eloquently he responds, his wife may say she is not interested in getting help, or may blame him for everything, or may outright reject him. Therefore, while Jim remains focused on securing the outcome he hopes for, he remains lost in anxiety.

But what if Jim reorients in the midst of all of this. What if Jim sets aside the outcome of the conversation and instead prayerfully focuses on how to follow Jesus in this conversation. He then remembers Jesus’ call in Colossians 3:12-13, “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another” (CSB). So he thinks to himself, “How can I let my words and approach to this conversation be characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience?” He even says, “I am going to focus on pursuing those qualities in the midst of the conversation, trusting God with the outcome.” Notice what has happened here. First, notice that such a shift does not suddenly make the conversation easy. Jim is still in the midst of a painful marriage and facing an uncertain outcome and trying to navigate a difficult conversation. This is not easy nor is it not painful. But notice that as Jim shifts from focusing on the outcome of the conversation to the qualities he is to pursue as an ongoing process in Christ, he begins to focus on what sort of opening and responses would reflect those qualities, which he has the power in Christ to pursue, rather than focus on how his wife will respond, which he has no ultimate control over. Now certainly speaking kindly will increase the odds that his wife will be receptive while speaking harshly will decrease the odds, but it is important to realize that Jim cannot ultimately control her response. But by pursuing a process, Jim gives up his hold on something he was never meant to take responsibility for and gives the final outcome to the one who establishes every work, God (cf. Ps. 127:1-2). And while I have used a relationship example of how pursuing a process rather than an outcome could hypothetically work, this same principle holds for things like work projects. For example, rather than focusing on how to ensure my boss loves my presentation, I could focus on loving my boss well in my presentation, which may lead me to consider what information would most benefit him.

Pursuing Jesus as a process rather than pursuing outcomes is just an initial pointer towards the way out of anxiety. Much more could be said on the topic, as the process of pursuing our God is rich and deep. But it is safe to say that the burden of anxiety is the burden of taking a yoke upon ourselves that we were never meant to bear: the yoke of bearing final responsibility for our well-being. God in Christ has secured our well-being and now graciously invites us to follow Jesus. The chains of anxiety begin to be broken as we take up the yoke of Jesus and engage in the ever-unfolding process of seeking God and his kingdom moment by moment, day by day, while laying the outcomes of our faithful actions and the responsibilities of tomorrow in the hands of our good Father who loves to give good things to his children (Matt. 7:7-11; Luke 12:31-34).

 

Article was previously published in the September 2017 edition of The Carolina Compass.