LEARNING THROUGH ANXIETY
Anxiety can be both a situational criminal and a long-term guest. In this post and the ones that follow, let’s explore together how God’s grace can come through anxiety as a long-term guest. My aim is to encourage those who have traveled the road of anxiety for many days, weeks, months, and even years.
When we talk about anxiety as a long-term guest, we’re really focusing on the duration of anxiety. When I first tasted how bitter anxiety was and how paralyzing it could be, I hoped with all my heart that it would be a phase, an era in my life. I would look back one day and say, “Man, those were rough years.” But twelve years later, it’s alive and well, always finding new outlets.
That sounds like terrible news, but it’s not; it’s really not, especially given the way that God has used anxiety in my life. One thing that I’ve learned over the last decade is that when anxiety lingers, God continually uses it to shape and form us. When anxiety stubbornly stays, God sovereignly shapes.
ANXIETY IN TWO IMAGES: GUEST OR CRIMINAL?
I’m going to give you two images in this post. First, imagine anxiety as a long-term guest—someone who shows up to your house uninvited, leaving his bags and belongings scattered on your floor. He’s ragged and rude, and your impulse is to grab him by the arm and escort him back out the front door. How dare this creep interrupt your routines and plans for self-fulfillment. You have enough to deal with as it is without some hobo waltzing through your front door and demanding you put him up in a room!
Now, pause that. Switch frames and imagine anxiety as a criminal who’s broken a lock to your front door, crept around stealing electronics and jewelry, and then made a quiet exit. You wake up and look around your house, measuring the damage. You feel violated, frustrated, and angry. But you’re also relieved that he’s gone. You’ll install a better security system.
And you’ll call your insurance company and file claims. You’ll get your life back soon enough. You say to yourself, “What a jerk! I hope he never comes back.” And you’re fairly convinced that he won’t. This was an unwelcome interruption in your life, but it’s gone now.
Which image best captures how your anxiety has been? Which image best captures how you want your anxiety to be?
COMPARISON: CRIMINAL VS HOUSE GUEST
You see, anxiety the criminal is very different from anxiety the house guest.
For the criminal, our goal is to get him out as fast as possible. He’s a threat; he’s a thief; and he’s a nuisance to the life we want to live. He takes away what we treasure, but we can replace what he’s stolen easily enough.
However, it’s different with the house guest. For the house guest, our goal is to find a way to keep living in his presence, changing our routines and expectations to accommodate him. We’ll learn a few things from living with the house guest over time, but that won’t really be the case for the criminal.
We want the criminal out so that we can get back to life as normal. But with the house guest, we’re forced to create a new normal. We’re shaped by the house guest. Ultimately, we’re shaped by the one who has control over the house guest, including when he arrives and when he leaves—and that shaper is God himself.
The way I see it, anxiety’s not always a criminal who picks the lock of your soul and takes you hostage until you give something up, whatever that “something” is. Anxiety can be like that for some people. But for others, it’s different. Though it does feel as if anxiety breaks into our souls like a thief, he doesn’t seem to want to take something and go. He stays. He lingers; and he doesn’t want to leave.
HOPE FOR ANXIETY • A LONG-TERM GUEST
Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask him to leave (as Paul asked God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” 2 Corinthians 12:8–9) and that God won’t usher anxiety out of our lives in shackles, all in his own timing. That may very well happen.
In fact, my reader, I hope and pray that happens for you. But for many of us, anxiety is the long-term guest. He’s renting a room in our soul. And with God’s help, despite all the unpleasantries and disruptions that anxiety brings along, we can live with and learn from this house guest.
Now, I know, to some people that sounds horrible. If you’re struggling with a swell of anxiety at this moment, you want to hear about an end, about hope and healing, about being able to breathe without feeling as if the air around you is disappearing. I get it.
Remember, I’m a twelve-year veteran. And I can tell you with certainty that there is hope and healing—found in an ever-deepening relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the sort of hope and healing we want immediately is very different from the sort of hope and healing we need eternally.
The hope and healing we need eternally comes in a special way, a way that God has ordained in eternity and governs daily. As creatures of God in a fallen world, we find hope and healing through process and relationship. This is very clear throughout Scripture but very repulsive to twenty-first century problem-solving, and to common medical treatments of anxiety today.
COMMON APPROACH TO ANXIETY
The common approach to anxiety is to treat it as something to be gotten rid of, something to remove. In other words, it’s most common to treat anxiety as a criminal, rather than a house guest. The goal of modern medicine is not first and foremost to learn about what God is teaching us through anxiety. Its goal is to eliminate it, or at least to dull our awareness of it. We can’t fault modern medicine too much for that approach, since we’re responsible for asking for it.
I don’t remember waltzing into my doctor’s office and saying, “How can I learn from my hyper-vigilance?” Or, “Do you have any resources for personal growth in light of my panic attacks?” No—I marched my rigid body into the closest examination room and begged for something, anything, that would stop the symptoms.
MY EARLY EXPERIENCES
In the early months, I couldn’t eat; In fact, I lost 30 pounds in two weeks. I couldn’t sleep; I had only skeletal relationships with everyone in my life. And I didn’t want to learn; I wanted to live the way I used to live. I wanted my life back. Yes, I wanted the uninvited house guest out! He had interrupted my normalcy, my routines, my ambitions.
Do you hear the possessiveness in those last two sentences? Possessiveness is a clear mark of someone who has no awareness of or concern for God’s purposes. In other words, it’s a mark of someone who doesn’t want to be crushed by God or called by him. And I really didn’t want to be crushed or called.
NO AWARENESS OF GOD’S PURPOSES
I didn’t have an awareness of God’s purposes for me twelve years ago, even though I’d grown up in the church, even though my father had been a pastor, even though I professed my faith and talked about God on a regular basis.
I had no deep awareness of the basic truth that the all-powerful, ever-present God of the universe had specific purposes for me. Neither did I know that those purposes would require that I be shaped to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29), and that this shaping might hurt—might even require that I be crushed. To be honest, I really didn’t know much of anything back then.
The Great Story of Scripture that I’ve referenced throughout the book was all around me, but its words hadn’t penetrated my heart. They fell like drops of rain on an old metal barn roof, a roof that kept me dry but also held me in the dark.
Until I walked out of the barn and let the rain hit my skin, until I saw uninterrupted light, I could hear the words of God, but I didn’t listen to them. I didn’t start listening until I was crushed, until I had to learn how to live with a long-term guest.
Once I realized that anxiety might be with me for a long time, I began studying my own reactions to it. Do you know what I learned almost instantly? How we approach the physical problems and hardships we encounter reflects much of what we think or know spiritually.
REMEMBER: WE ALWAYS NEED A CONTEXT TO INTERPRET OUR BEHAVIOR
If we don’t have the context of the Great Story of Scripture, then we have some other context, perhaps the context of modern medicine and psychology. With those sorts of contexts, we might approach anxiety as something to be eliminated, something to be held at bay so that we can get back to our normalcy (a state in which we might be unaware of God’s presence and purposes).
But in the context of the Great Story of Scripture, we can approach anxiety as a teaching tool in the hands of the great physician. Treating anxiety as a long-term guest can help us do that. How, exactly? One of the ways it does this is by reforming our understanding of weakness and suffering. We want to treat weakness and suffering as criminals. We want them out of our lives as fast as possible.
But, like anxiety, weakness and suffering can be long-term guests from whom we learn, not because they’re intrinsically good, but because they will always be used by an intrinsically good God. In fact, this is almost always how Scripture treats weakness and suffering. In the next post, we’ll explore this in more detail.
For now, think about how viewing anxiety as a house guest might be different from viewing it as a criminal.
Adapted from Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety, by Pierce Taylor Hibbs. *Published with permission.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs
MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary
Pierce is a Christian wordsmith who strives to draw others closer to Christ through words. He’s also a long-time anxiety sufferer. The passage above was originally published in Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety, used with permission. Readers may also be interested in Still, Silent, and Strong: Meditations for the Anxious Heart, and Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering. For more information about the author, along with free downloads, visit piercetaylorhibbs.com.
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