For the Anxious at Christmas

We wrestled our way home through post-Thanksgiving traffic where all the cheery thankfulness of our nation had by then dissipated and was replaced by a mostly a grumpy, rushed, chaotic nation (of which I was chief after one too many reckless driver cut us off). To add insult to injury, while driving we listened to a sermon from an unknown preacher on anxiety, which was mostly just seven reasons you shouldn't be anxious and a lot of shouting. Thirteen hours into what was supposed to be an eleven hour drive, my anxiety was high.

And then today, it's all photos of homes decked for Christmas already and Cyber Monday deals and an empty refrigerator and three article deadlines + a book review for a book I haven't gotten through yet. Another five opportunities for anxiety. 

I've always been a more mellow sort, more prone to depression than anxiety, but I think two things happen as we age. The first is suffering adds to suffering adds to suffering. And the second is we are faced with a choice: to face the suffering or to medicate ourselves into unfeelingness. December is a month ripe for the latter. It is the one month of the year we indulge every good and beautiful thing and many distorted and disordered things. Perhaps it is all childhood and magical and sparkly and warm in your sphere, and if so, enjoy it. But that is not the reality for most Americans, or the rest of the world. There is a reason reports of anxiety rise leading up to the holidays. Folks are either completely alone or they are engulfed in the mess of materialism. Folks are in poverty or they are in excess. Folks are mourning or they are overwhelmed. 

Almost every person I know is suffering right now. Perhaps they're masking it with trite conversation or seasoned optimism, but the cares of this world are pressing against them in pain and in loss, in grief and in dashed hope, in loneliness and in fear. In our most vulnerable moments we admit it, but in December it is easy to bake another cookie, hang another garland, play another classic, and wrap another gift, to forget, for just a moment. 

Last night Nate and I watched a movie a friend recommended, and in it, one father who lost his child says to another father who has just lost his child, "You have to feel it, press into it, remember the memories. If you try to run away, to not feel it, you'll begin to forget." I wept when I heard that because there are a lot of memories in my life I've tried to run away from. A lot of feelings I've neglected to feel. And a lot of emotions I've stuffed to the bottom. I'm in a season where those are being dug up and stared at, by me and others, and I have to remember the dark before the dawn. December is always difficult for me, but this year I sense it heavier than ever. 

The only remedy for my anxiety is to remember and rejoice, remember and rejoice, remember and rejoice. Remember my God in flesh who was born in poverty and lavished with the gifts of a king, who was a baby boy born when all the other baby boys were killed, who was refused the inn and found haven with the animals, who knew loss and grief and loneliness and death. And then, when I can and only when I can, rejoice.

There is no remedy for anxiety except this: for the anxious, Christmas

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 2.23.08 PM.png

* I know for some folks the mental illness of anxiety is debilitating, and there is no reductionistic answer to that kind of anxiety. Medication is a common grace, and one we should all feel free to use if it works for us. Also counseling (which is a common grace I'm partaking in these days). Also good, healthy foods and routines. 

Contradictory Belief

I'm always looking for the easy way out. I'm inherently lazy, short-sighted, impatient, passive, or fill in the blank with some other vice. I do not like walking in the tension of anything and if there is a more comfortable option, I will take it with a cherry on top, thank you very much. I fear the unknown—especially when the unknown exists within me, not just around me. 

I was created from dust and bone fragments, so I don't know why I would believe perfection is possible before the return of Christ. I seek it though, friends. I seek it. 

One of my favorite passages of Scripture, one I return to again and again and again is from Mark chapter 9. Jesus had just undergone the transfiguration and had come back down the mountain, running into the father of a demon possessed boy. The father cries to Jesus, "If you can do anything, have compassion and help us!" Sweet Jesus response with incredulity: "If? If I can heal him? All things are possible to him who believes." And this, my favorite line in all of scripture, the father's response: "I believe. Help my unbelief."

I come from a charismatic background, not name it and claim it, health, wealth, and prosperity, but certainly a side that believes words have life or death in them. That if we speak death, we run the risk of experiencing it, and if we speak life, then the odds are higher we'll experience it. I look back now and see the ways I misunderstood and ingested theology without parsing it for myself, eating the words given me instead of the Scripture informing them. But what resulted for me is that I became a bundle of fear, afraid to ever speak what was actually true about myself, my sin, my fears, my anxieties, and only willing to speak what was not true, that I had assurance, joy, peace, faith. I didn't know how to walk in the tension of speaking what was not fully true but which I wanted to be true and speaking what was true but I wanted to be untrue. I could not have said, "Help my unbelief," because to confess unbelief seemed like the pathway to destruction, but I felt like a liar every time I said, "I believe."

All that changed in early 2010, when I could not live the lie of belief anymore. I pounded my fists into the tan carpet of my rental house and cried harder than ever before and said to God, for the first time ever, "I do not believe in you!" I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I will never forget the strong impression of the Father picking up his robes and running toward me saying, "Finally. We can begin with this." 

I think there are two temptations for the Christian who doubts. The first is to only say what is yet untrue (I believe) and the second is to only say what is true (I have unbelief). If you come from a background, like mine, where to utter words of unbelief means you are silenced by well-meaning friends who say you're just going through a hard time and it will wear off, you probably will be bound up in living the lie of belief, and, as Jeremiah 17 says, "You will not see good when it comes." If you come from a background where it's okay to have struggles and wrestle with truth and faith, you might be afraid to say the words, "I believe," because you don't want to lie about having something you don't fully have. 

What is the doubting Christian to do? 

This is why this passage from Mark 9 is so helpful for me. This father shows it is possible to say two conflicting things, neither of which are fully true and both of which are absolutely true at the same time. I believe. Help my unbelief. Both true. Both not all the way true. Both seeming to be in conflict with one another. 

I have met a few Christians who have simple faith. They believe the Bible is true, absolutely. They believe Jesus rose from the grave. They believe they are saved. They never wrestle with Scripture in a way that leads to confusion or tension or questions. They simply believe. I know very few of these. The great majority of Christians I know have complicated faiths. They all have a different history behind them that informs their reading and study of Scripture. They all have varying levels of schooling. They have different personalities, different propensities, different desires. And all of these things are informing their belief in some way—and their unbelief in some ways. 

The Christian who can say, "I believe. Help my unbelief," is the Christian who knows with absolute certainty that full, unfaltering faith is possible, and also that they do not have it, not fully. They know they are in progress, going, as Paul said, "from one degree of glory to another" and "the righteousness of God is being revealed faith to faith." We're not there yet, is what Paul was saying, farther up, further in, more to go until we arrive on eternity's shores. 

If you're someone who struggles to believe all the way through all the things you think Christians believe all the way through, I just wanted to say, hey, I'm with you. I struggle with that. My struggles with faith didn't cease the moment the gospel was unveiled to me. The difference was a difference by degrees: I saw more dimly before, and now less dimly, and will see even less dimly tomorrow. There are so many things about faith and the Bible that seem confusing to me, sometimes even more the more I study and read. I see what seem to be inconsistencies in Scripture, in other Christians, in the world in which we live. I don't understand fully how justification or sanctification or mortification or vivification work. I don't always know what I'm supposed to do and what only God can do. Here's what I know how to do: 

I know how to pray, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." 

I'm praying for you today, that you can pray that prayer, believing he hears and heals and finishes what you cannot with mere words and weak faith. 

There is no magic bullet for your faith to be bolstered. I'll share a few things have grown and strengthened mine, but it might be something entirely different for you and that's okay. This photo is of the books on our shelves that have helped me realize I am not alone in this wrestle. I'll also link to a few below.

Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd Jones

Help My Unbelief from Barnabas Piper

Sensing Jesus (now called The Imperfect Pastor) from Zack Eswine

Spurgeon's Sorrows by Zack Eswine

This sermon from Matt Chandler from before he was my pastor (I listened to it sixteen times in the spring of 2010).