You can see it far off, looming on the horizon, a thick fog menacing off the coast and swirling in the distance. You know the signs. You’ve been here many times before, but you’ve learned to carry on. At first you kind of ignore it, you are aware it’s there, but you don’t want to work yourself up so you busy yourself with things in the hopes the winds will change and it is driven out to sea. But the winds rarely change.
In time it approaches, subtle and quiet, caressing its way—almost seducing—its way back into your life. Your ostrich-defense has not worked and you aren’t able to continue the charade of hiding. At first it’s manageable. “This isn’t so bad” you think, “I can handle this.” But before you know it the fog is all around you, the thick blur is everywhere and the familiar comforts are whited-out. In the fog sounds are distant echoes, faces are veiled shapes and the familiar becomes strange—but strange because this particular strange you know all too well. Feeling alienated, overwhelmed—unable to trust yourself, in the fog of anxiety you give up. You lose yourself in a kind of existential madness. You have a panic attack.
For the anxious and disquieted fog is a good metaphor for anxiety. For in a fog we lose our bearings, we lose our vision to see any real future, and we feel isolated and alone in what was formerly a safe and familiar world. Anxiety is an existential crisis because it alienates us from what we take for granted. That is why a panic attack has a deep sense of death and dread about it. In panic, we feel that we are being exposed to new truths and new realities.
Have you ever had the experience of waking up from a nightmare only to still be troubled by it later in the day? Something about the nightmare looms, hangs about. It is as if the nightmare was exposing something about the real world that you can’t quite shake. Usually, in a short time, this sensation falls away, lost amidst the distractions of the waking world. The nightmare, for all its teeth, is not actually real. That’s kinda what anxiety is like, a brooding, lingering sense of unease that eventuates in real terror. But unlike the nightmare, it doesn’t go away.
Panic appears to be a revelation—a disclosure about how things really are. Just as fog can make the familiar, strange—and therefore disorient us, unhinging us from the moorings that give us stability and comfort, anxiety exposes the things we take for granted by giving us a new kind of vision, a new narrative or story we tell ourselves about who we are, what we can handle and what is real. A visionary narrative that is always negative, always fatal, always self-harming, weak and victimizing.
But what if this narrative is true? What if the fog is the way things really are, and the sunlight is just a mirage? What if the nightmare is real and the waking-world is false? It can be tempting to go there but let’s not play The Matrix game because nothing good can come from it. Instead, let’s be honest about anxiety and see what that does. More “What if’s?” are the last things we need.
Anxiety is dreadful, it does affect quality of life, and it is truly debilitating. But that does not mean it is true. This is the key point I want to focus on today. The question we must return to in our anxious, fog-laden crisis is always: Is this true?
It is not.
Anxiety is not prophesy. But anxious people live as if it is so. Anxiety makes predictions: “I’m going to fail”, “I can’t handle it”, “This will never work.” And anxiety makes judgments: “I’m a failure,” “I’m a burden,” “I’m a bad Christian.” So let me ask you this—who gets to speak into your life and tell you what you are? Who gets to name and narrate you? Who gets to identify the central essence of what it is to be you? I can tell you this: anxiety wants to. And so we need to ask, “Is this true?”
Does your anxiety have the right to name you, narrate you, identify you, claim knowledge of who you are? No. It does not. Anxiety is not God. Anxiety is predominately demonic, for, “Perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18) and Christ says, “Don’t be afraid” (Mk 5:36). Fear is dangerous to our faith not because it exposes that our faith is weak (it often actually isn’t weak at all) but because it tempts us to worship false gods. The danger of fear is that it blinds us from the truth, the truth that God loves us. That love—the love of God as seen in Jesus, in God’s giving of His Son for your sake should speak into our fear and out-narrate it. God may not always shield you from the terrors of anxiety, but his Word is always more powerful and can out-narrate any untruth.
And that is what anxiety almost always is: false beliefs. “I can’t handle this.” False. “ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). “I’m going to fail” Not ultimately! “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). “I’m a burden.” False, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). “I’m a bad Christian.” Wrong! “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
By asking, “Is this feeling/thought true?” we have two options, we can trust our hearts and experiences or the God who IS the truth.
This is essentially what it means to live as a Christian: To live as if God’s words were true. God’s words are so powerful and creative that unlike human words, God’s words do what they say. God’s words gift faith when they are heard. They gift strength when we are weak. God’s words of truth out-narrate the negative and lying untruths of anxiety.
So in the fog of anxiety though we feel alone, alienated, and isolated, weak and near death, this is not true. We have a God who is with us always. Who never abandons us as orphans, who walks through death-valleys with us, and whose strength is sufficient in weaknesses. Those are all promises. They are all true. The anxious person may have doubts and that’s OK. But to press through the fear and not let it harm us, we need to hold-fast to Christ’s word and promises. I should know. I’ve been writing this entire article now in the midst of a deep, dark panic attack. And now, at the end, having been reminded of God’s promises, I’m feeling better. Why? Because I have asked myself, “Is this anxious narrative true?” It is not. It is false. And that throws me outside myself to words that give life, hope, and a future. Words that are true. He who calmed the storm with a word, can calm my jangled nerves with that same word. The storm of my life is just as vulnerable to the King’s command of peace as that ancient storm was to Christ’s.
Friends, peace be with you. Not has the world gives, but as Christ gives it. This is not a passing peace, this is most certainly true.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.