No one likes to feel fear or the crushing pressure of life, but these experiences can help move us closer to God like nothing else will.
If you like conspiracy theories, be ye warned that Amazon keeps track of everything down to the lines you highlight in your Kindle books.
The heroine Katniss Everdeen is a top favorite, with almost 18,000 readers highlighting the same line in Catching Fire. “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.”
Compare this to the number one ranked Bible verse: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV).
These two lines represent the conflict many believers experience between what we’re promised and how life so often feels.
The Half-Hearted Solutions
Stress is a natural part of life, whether it’s meeting deadlines at work, waiting for medical test results, navigating relationship conflict or managing impossible demands from someone who’s unaware of the overall picture of your schedule.
Any one of these scenarios is bad enough, but if two or more simultaneously occur in addition to the daily demands of our lives, it can quickly feel overwhelming.
Secular counseling often advises people to “be present to their surroundings” and practice “mindfulness,” becoming aware of their stress triggers and then avoiding these situations. Is a friend or coworker pushing your buttons? Spend less time around them! Do you have an overly anxious boss? Suggest fewer meetings and dodge his or her fretting over business practices or situations. Did you just remember that you missed a critical deadline? Shrug your shoulders! It’s not the end of the world.
If you started to raise your eyebrow at that advice, you’re not alone.
The problem with secular stress management is that some triggers can’t be avoided in a way that’s mature or spiritually healthy.
Simply avoiding everyone who makes us feel anxious on occasion doesn’t help them improve or require us to grow relationally. Sidestepping reminders about deadlines or important life-choices often causes more harm in the long run than dealing with those issues in the moment.
Obviously, some practical advice on how to handle stress can be useful. Don’t blow matters out of proportion. Avoid taking performance critiques personally. Try not to fall into a rigid all-or-nothing mindset.
However, these little adages and “mindful breaths” can’t address the heart of chronic, consuming anxiety.
God in the Midst of the Furnace
When I had a panic attack for the first time, I was driving down the freeway. My heart suddenly began to race, and my throat closed up. My chest felt like a horse had just rolled over on top of me. The thought that I might pass out going 70 miles an hour didn’t help anything.
That year I was in a graduate program, taking overload credits on the agreement that I would only teach one class…so I decided to take on an internship and three part-time jobs under the table.
Naturally, this was about the same time that I caught a coxsackievirus and spent two weeks with my hands, feet and mouth covered in blisters, my 18-year-old car started to have serious engine problems and a close family member ended up in the hospital on the verge of death for two months.
You know, the usual.
In that moment—and many, many more over the following months—I needed something far more powerful than “cultivating mindfulness” to get me through.
Prayer and some soul-searching with close Christian friends revealed that my concerns about finances had mutated into an unhealthy obsession. I quit two of my side-jobs, observed more regular Bible times, took up jogging and started on a temporary medication that would help my body re-learn how to manage its stress hormones.
God used that period to teach me some intensive lessons about trusting him.
He provided exactly what I needed each semester. The university offered me a scholarship after having turned down my application for it the year before; my internship abruptly offered to start paying me; my best friend was able to come visit me.
Recovery did involve some practical choices, but mostly it was learning that even when my life caught on fire, God had me like Daniel’s friends in the furnace.
Our Best Tool for Maturity
In his podcast, Gary Wilkerson talked about how believers should approach fear, stress and anxiety. “When you're examining yourself and you're full of anxiety, that's a signal that something is off. We think, ‘Oh Lord, I'm so sorry. I'm anxious.’ There can be sin in anxiety because it's a lack of trust, but it also can be a signal.
“A lot of our emotions that we label as sinful are actually gifts.”
Anxiety or crippling stress balloon up as symptoms of deeper problems. In my case, the panic attacks weren’t as much a symptom of overwork as they were a lack of trust in God’s provision.
Unbearable work stress may also be rooted in seeking justification through performance. Overpowering anxiety about children’s future is probably rooted in a need for security. Fretful worry over relationships may come from a need for control over people and interactions.
Fear almost always sprouts out of a mistrust of either God’s goodness or his sovereignty.
That said, it’s extremely unlikely that we’re ever going to get beyond feeling fear in this life. Our sin nature is constantly seeking something to snatch out of God’s hands and try to clutch in our own.
Fear is our best tool to figure out what that something is.
“I pray that we, as Christians, get beyond always happy, peppy, bursting with songs. That is where we were meant to live, but you don't get there through denial,” Gary points out.
“You get there through facing the crisis, hardship, suffering, and pain of life. Once you do, you come out of that with a maturity that you would not have otherwise.”