Life can be like standing on a Jenga skyscraper in a pair of roller skates and a lopsided sombrero. You stare toward the distant concrete, trying to keep everything in balance, hoping that the wind doesn’t pick up, or some invisible hand pull another block from the tower.
What sort of thing twists that knife of anxiety in your gut? Politics? Finances? Dangerous weather? Some lurking disease or inevitable accident? Prophecies of global disaster?
There are ways to minimize these concerns—a healthy lifestyle, responsible decision-making, a steady job, locks on every door, plenty of money in the bank. But what happens when Mother Nature is on PMS? Or your kids starting hanging out with the wrong friends? Or the wrong person takes charge of your family or your company or your country? There are too many things outside of our control to guarantee any lasting peace of mind.
We might feel guilty about our anxiety, but worry is natural and universal, a basic human instinct. Hey, worry can save your life. It can also fill your stomach with ulcers.
In the ancient world, people would try to minimize their worries and maximize their security by offering sacrifices to the gods, surrendering whatever was most precious to them, sometimes even their own children. Some would bury their ancestors under their houses to get some help from the spirit world. Some would look for revealing patterns in nature or the stars to give them a sense of the future. Some would tear open animals to read their entrails, like modern-day palm readers.
Here is what the mystics of ancient Babylon would use to gather insight from a sheep liver:
We don’t do things like that. Not in the Church. We would never try to twist God’s arm with some kind of sacrifice, like fasting or paying tithes or going on mission trips. That’s not why we do those things. We would never open the Bible and stick our finger on a random page, hoping for an answer. We definitely wouldn’t look for meaning behind every unusual circumstance, assuming that God is trying to speak to us or teach us something.
But wait . . . sometimes God does speak to us through our circumstances. He often uses the Bible to get his point across. He definitely responds to people who seek hard after him. He promised that he would. Is it reasonable to even suggest that Christians approach Jesus in the same panic-reducing way as the ancients? Or are we just as superstitious, calling it faith?
I can only speak for myself.
Growing up in a Christian home, I always had a solid belief in the existence of God. I believed that he loved me, had a plan for my life, and could take care of all the details. At the same time, I was a major worrier.
When I was six, a black Cadillac pulled up to the curb where my three-year-old sister and I were playing. The car door opened up, and a woman tried to talk my little sister into the back seat, promising her some candy. My sister and I went back in the house, but ever since then I saw kidnappers around every corner.
That wasn’t the only thing that worried me. If my mom or dad was late coming home, I would sit by the window, dreaming up all sorts of disasters. I had trouble sleeping at friends’ houses because I would always imagine my house burning down while I was away. I never liked walking through big cities at night, afraid of strangers and dark alleys.
Why didn’t my young faith make a dent in my anxiety? I knew God could take care of me, so why couldn’t I talk myself into feeling calm and secure?
As I grew, I became less afraid of kidnappers and dark alleys, and more concerned about things like health and finances. I wish I could take you on a tour through the process that God used (and is using) to pry my white-knuckled fingers off the ledge so I could feel the bedrock beneath my feet. It would take a lot of words, and get a little redundant, though I can tell you that it started with one very clear, very specific experience.
During my junior year of college, I interviewed for a choir accompanist position at a church. I was offered the job, but only if I was willing to stay home during the summer rather than tour with a music group. I told the lady that I would think and pray about it, and tell her what God wanted me to do.
While I was driving home, God called me on my Christianese. How could I know what God wanted me to do? Was I ready to speak for him? Was I really arrogant enough to assume that I could?
That night I fried myself a ritual cheeseburger and told God that I wouldn’t eat again until he spoke to me about the job. I left my Bible alone, afraid that I might try to wrestle an answer out of it. I asked for something stronger than a feeling, but that’s exactly what I got. After two days of prayer and fasting, I got a very strong feeling that I should take the job.
Funny thing: the lady who gave the interview had the same feeling at the exact same time. Another funny thing: that was the summer that I married Laurie, and we hadn’t even started dating.
That one experience ignited a concept that has persistently and progressively settled my mind and emotions. If you want the cure to worry, here it comes:
Before this experience, I absolutely believed that God could make anything happen. He could heal anyone. He could finance anything. There was nothing beyond his reach. More importantly, he loved me and wanted to see me succeed. I still believe that.
Unfortunately, at the time, my life seemed just as normal and random as every other life. Like a good Christian, I labeled the good times as “blessings,” and the bad times as “trials.” I would force God into my seemingly-regular existence, applauding him for things that others might call good luck, and praying about things that seemed confusing for a child of God to experience, like bad health, accidents or a lost job. In other words, God didn’t have to exist for my faith to continue.
I have no idea what took me so long to take my faith to the firing range. Was I afraid that my belief system couldn’t stand up to the bullets? Not really. Was I afraid that God might be bothered by me trying to twist his arm? No. I was actually twisting my own arm. I was doing one of those fall-back faith tests. But in this test, I was trusting an invisible person to catch me. And for the first time, I really felt those invisible arms.
That first test was pretty low risk, but the tests that came later were much harder, involving more people. Building faith is just like building muscle. You have to lift the weights if you want to improve, and each time you add weight, you add muscle. Eventually, your beliefs and your emotions start to line up.
There was a time in seminary that Laurie and I needed $5,000 in less than a week to continue going to school. I had nothing in the bank, and was making about $600 a month. We reminded ourselves of the miracles that had brought us to Mississippi. We reminded ourselves of the many times God had intervened with our finances. We reminded ourselves of God’s heart and how easy it was for him to provide. Rather than telling anyone what we needed, we just prayed and waited. A surprise check for $5,000 came in the mail later that week.
After so many experiences with God’s intervention, it would not only be foolish to try to move forward without him, it would be disrespectful. I cannot tell you how freeing it is to be faced with an uncertain future and feel nothing but a sense of curious anticipation.
Faith is the solution to worry. But it has to be real. It is not some vague spiritual force that God doles out to his favorites, allowing them to move mountains, get people out of wheelchairs, and shoot electricity out of their fingertips.
Faith is relational. Interpersonal. It is something that can only develop with time and experience. Without faith, we might waste our entire lives wondering and hoping and looking for signs rather than settling back into those invisible arms and enjoying the roller coaster of this turbulent, frightening and exhilarating life.