I find the slightest amount of humor in the fact that writing about fear is a bit of a daunting task for me in and of itself. Taking the time to sit down and write out my thoughts on the things I spend most of my days trying not to think about is a bit overwhelming, particularly in the age of the internet where the list of things that make me anxious constantly grows as we're bombarded with headlines from whatever the catastrophe of the day is. Between the forced isolation caused by a global health crisis and the civil unrest fueled by hate and unnecessary violence, this past year has led to many of us (myself included) experiencing all-time high levels of anxiety, so I thought I would share my thoughts on fear, anxiety, and how I have learned to cope.
A friend of mine once described the human mind as a train station that sends and receives different thoughts (trains of thought, if you will) to and from far-off destinations. And if you're anything like me, your thoughts are incessant, and at times the 24/7 train station bustling about in your noggin can become a real cluster as the intrusive, anxiety-inducing variety of thought worms its way into daily thought patterns and brings positive thought trains to a screeching halt somewhere along the way. Quite frankly, just about anything can make me anxious. If I'm not worried about the seemingly insurmountable debt I've acquired in pursuit of higher education, I'm worried about how I am going to do on my next exam, and if not that I'm wondering what kind of terrible disease I have contracted that is slowly killing me in some inconceivable fashion or maybe what horrible thing is going to be the catalyst for World War 3. As I write this blog post, I worry that no one will care to read it, or, even worse, if you do read it, you will think what I have to say is ridiculous and unrelatable. Even in the brief moments when I have determined that I have nothing to worry about, I start to worry that I am forgetting about something. Something that is definitely terrible, and I should absolutely be anxious about it even though I cannot put a finger on what exactly it is. But I digress.
Before I begin my discussion on what the Bible says about anxiety and why we as disciples shouldn't worry, I want to share an anecdote from my life. My anxiety reached what Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as "the tipping point" in November of 2020. It was nearing the end of the Fall semester. My exams were coming up, and in typical fashion, I was drastically unprepared, so this particular November evening I had been more anxious than usual. On top of my exams, I was also worried at the time that I had some kind of issue with my brain (which I inevitably got an MRI for and was totally fine), so things were really coming to a boil. Instead of studying and performing my due diligence as a student, I decided to cope with my lack of preparation by taking an edible (marijuana). This was a typical coping mechanism for me prior to becoming a disciple, as it was usually an easy way to distract myself from whatever I was worried about. Sobriety is a topic I intend to address in a separate blog post, as it is a different battle entirely. Just know that my sober mind just was not something I wanted to deal with prior to getting my anxiety under control and re-committing my life to Christ. I spent most days getting high, even going to some of my classes high, until this night in November. As the edible kicked in, my trains of thought were slowly but surely coming off the rails. I was locked on the couch for a while, barely able to hold a conversation with my roommate, when I became overwhelmed with what I can only describe as a sense of panic as I started having random chest pain. I couldn't make heads or tails of whether I was just too high or if I actually needed to go to the hospital, so I decided to run a bath and try and calm down. Pro-tip #1, when you're really anxious, do something that makes you relaxed. For me, that's taking a bath.
So, there I am, in the bath, still totally freaking out. I had convinced myself that I was, in fact, dying, and for a while, I wondered if I was going to keel over right there in the tub. Eventually, I determined that I might want to get up out of the tub and get dressed if I was going to die. God forbid my roommates would have to lug my overweight naked corpse out of the tub in the morning just to take a shower. So, seeing that my bath wasn't the anxiety cure-all I was hoping for, and at this point, I was having a full-on panic attack, I decided to have my roommate drive me to the hospital. While I was actually having heart palpitations, it's still not a great look to show up in the ER in the midst of a global health pandemic because you got so high that you convinced yourself that you were dying. My roommate couldn't come in because they weren't allowing visitors at the time, and as I lay in the hospital bed alone, I began to wonder what would become of me if I did die. At that point in my life, my relationship with God was abysmal. My Bible, wherever it was, was surely covered in cobwebs and dust bunnies, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had tried to spend time with God in prayer. Matthew 10:28 comes to mind when I reflect on this moment in my life. If you don't know the verse, it reads: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Trust me when I say that having doubts about where your soul will spend eternity is not a great way to stop a panic attack. The realization that my soul may be in jeopardy brought about an intense fear and a feeling of remorse I simply could not handle. I started borderline hyperventilating on the hospital bed, and my heart rate was volatile, fluctuating between 90 and 140 bpm. My thought trains had all been derailed and were crashing into each other left and right. It was kind of like that episode of Spongebob where his brain is on fire, pure chaos inside my mind. So naturally, having more or less lost control of my mind, I began to pray that I would live to see another day. It was humiliating for me to come to God after years of being spiritually barren, begging for my life, but I didn't know what else I could do. Eventually, the nurse came in to give me some kind of sedative, and I went home to sleep in my bed. But I knew that next morning, grateful that God had given me another day to live (even though I was never actually dying and was basically just freaking out), that I needed to find a better way to cope with my anxiety.
Looking back, I find it sort of funny that fear, an emotion intended to keep me safe from perceived danger, is what was landing me on what I thought to be my death bed. Perhaps your mind does not work like mine, and for your sake, I hope that is the case. I decided to share the story of my "near-death" experience because I thought it would be the most relatable, as death is surely something that most everyone fears, or at least have considered at one point in their lives. It dawned on me that my strange thought patterns and getting overwhelmed by thoughts that most people would never even have in the first place might not make for the most relatable discussion on fear, but death, on the other hand, well, you know as well as I the inevitable role it plays in life. Oddly enough, the disciples actually had a "near-death" experience quite similar to mine when they were traveling with Christ (similar in that they were not actually in danger, not that they were high and having a panic attack). If you have read through the gospels, you are likely familiar with the story of Christ calming the sea in the midst of a great storm. The passage in Matthew 8: 24-27 reads:
24 "Suddenly a furious storm came upon the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. 27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
I am always amazed at how much there is to unpack with such little content when analyzing scripture, and this passage is certainly no exception. The disciples were afraid for their lives, terrified that their boat would capsize and that the lot of them would drown. So naturally, they ran to Jesus to ask for help (well, at least I got the going to God part down pat). Each telling of this story in the gospels takes note that Christ was asleep during the storm. I just love the juxtaposition of the way Christ handled the situation as opposed to the way the disciples handled it. From this, I think we can gain a lot of insight into the two parties' respective relationships with God. When Christ wakes up, his first response is "you of little faith." Thus, Christ establishes a direct link between the disciples' fear and a lack of faith in God to keep them safe from the storm. Christ was asleep during the storm because he knew there was nothing to worry about; he was in tune with his purpose on earth. Knowing for certain it would not be fulfilled if the boat capsized and he and the rest of the disciples drown; he thought it was a great time to get some rest. The disciples, on the other hand (much like myself when I thought I was dying), were totally freaking out. They couldn't even let Jesus lay down for a nap without having a conniption, and this is something I find very relatable. This brings me to pro-tip #2 on how I have learned to cope with anxiety: allow yourself to experience fear with the understanding that God is watching over you and that things are going according to His plan, not yours.
In one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels, Dune, Frank Herbert writes a profound statement on dealing with fear through the guise of his main character Paul Atreties. The character Paul says this just as he is facing an immense test of his physical pain endurance in the book: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." First off, let me just tell you to take a step back and read that quote one more time, internalize it, because it will become our method of dealing with anxiety here at the Diligent Disciple. Instead of the "mind-killer," let us instead consider fear the faith killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration to our faith in God. To illustrate this point, let's review another passage in the gospel of Matthew where Christ walks on water with Peter. This is found in Matthew 14. Christ approaches the disciples whilst walking on water, and Peter says in verse 28: "Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water." Peter then took a few steps out onto the water towards Christ, and I'm sure you can guess what happens next. Verse 30 says, "But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”. Of course, Christ, being his awesome forever graceful gravity-defying self, reached down and caught Peter. And what does Jesus say to Peter? "You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?". Classic Jesus, am I right? But seriously, put yourself in this situation for just a moment. You are Peter. You are on the water, standing on the water, walking on the water, and looking Jesus Christ himself right in the face. You feel the cool seawater coming over your feet, and you can hardly believe you haven't already sunk, but Christ is there, and you take another step. Maybe you have a premonition of Elton John's "I'm still standing" as you continue inching towards Jesus in absolute amazement of the miracle that is occurring. Let me remind you since you're Peter, you had already seen some of the other miracles of Christ firsthand and believed him to be the true Son of God. You saw him heal lepers with one touch and allow blind men to see once more. You are looking across the water at your friend, your ally, your God. You feel a slight breeze tickle your neck, and suddenly, the thought trains of your mind come rushing in. How deep is this water? Where is the boat? Are there sharks down here? What have I done? Oh, Jesus, please save me! I'm going to drown! And his response when he pulls you out of the water: "You of little faith, why did you doubt"? All it took for Peter to start sinking was a gust of wind, a gust of wind that probably would have been a refreshing summer breeze had he just stayed on the boat. A simple gust of wind to shake the faith of a disciple who knew Christ personally, who witnessed his miracles firsthand, and who was actively looking him in the face when he began to fear. Talk about total obliteration of faith.
Do you see my point? There is no place for fear in the walk of a Diligent Disciple other than a healthy fear of God himself. If you review Mark's telling of the previous passage I mentioned where Jesus calmed the storm, you will see an interesting addition to the end of the story. After Christ calmed the waves, the disciples "were terrified" and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” At that moment, they recognized that their fear had been misplaced. This man was able to control the elements of nature with the wave of a hand. You see, after Christ calmed the storm, the disciples went from being "afraid" to being "terrified". It's not that they were no longer fearful; rather, they had appropriately determined that they ought to be afraid of God and not the storm that had been brewing around them. Consider one last passage in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6:25-30:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Again we see, "you of little faith." As I read these words for the third time in the gospel of Matthew, I wonder how many times Christ had to repeat himself just to make his point about lacking faith. What we have to understand about our walk with God is that the God we are dealing with is the God who handcrafted the universe, the God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, and the God who is with us through every gust of wind and every derailed thought train. It's not like Christ told Peter to go out on the water and then disappeared. He stayed with Peter and even brought him back to the boat when he began to drown. Walking with God requires us to trust. In the Hebrew language (the language of the original Old Testament scripture), the word for faith is "Emunah," which means to trust (not believe). There is an important distinction to be made between the Western understanding of faith and how the word was used in Hebrew. In Hebrew culture, faith is action-oriented, and having faith involves active support. It places the action upon the object, as in supporting God or, rather, trusting God. There is a disconnect between the modern concept of faith in Western culture, which usually refers to simply believing that God exists. The wonderful truth about being a disciple is that we know God walks with us, and as such, we can trust God to see us through our troubling times.
So, to wrap this up, I will just ask you a few questions to challenge you in your walk with God. Do you trust God? Do you find truth in God's Word, where He tells us we have nothing to fear and that He will always provide for us? What gust of wind is acting as the little death that obliterates your faith (trust) in God? For me, it's 1000000 little things that I can't stop overthinking. But perhaps it's time we evaluate the things in our life that make us fearful and surrender them to God. Acknowledge God's role in our lives and trust that he will keep us afloat as we strive to be more like Him.
Now for some other anxiety coping tips!
Pro-tip #3 for coping with anxiety: Get a dog, this little bundle of joy reminds me on my bad days that there is true, pure love in this world, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
Also, fun fact about the origin of the word cope in the English language. It derived from the Old English word coupen, which means "come to blows, deliver blows, or engage in combat." I thought this was interesting as it implies that we are engaged in battle with whatever it is we are trying to coexist with through coping. This post has been about dealing with fear and anxiety, and for me, it truly has been a battle. To this day, I actually take prescription medication to help cope with my anxiety which brings me to my fourth and final pro-tip.
Pro-tip #4: If you feel like you are struggling to deal with your anxiety, please talk to someone and get the help you need. Life is stressful, and we were never intended to run this race alone. If you need someone to talk to, feel free to reach out. If not me, reach out to a family member or loved one, or do what I did and seek professional care. Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of, and there are plenty of resources available. Prescription medication made a world of difference for my personal anxiety management, and I would encourage anyone to speak to a doctor if it is something they are interested in.
Until Next Time,