I have had a longstanding love of people-watching. I’ve always been fascinated by how people carry themselves in a public place, what they talk about, where they go, how long they linger, and everything related. Pre-kids, my wife and I would organize entire date nights around the various places we planned on people-watching because it is a lot of fun to see how groups shift and move. God created people so uniquely, and it has always been a great interest of mine to see how we express ourselves. The pandemic season which we find ourselves slowly emerging from has yielded numerous opportunities for me to continue this enjoyable hobby, albeit for very different reasons.
I am grateful that the Governor of Indiana labeled ministry leaders as “essential” service workers throughout this time. While most of my counseling ministry takes place on a variety of digital platforms, I had, and have been blessed with, the opportunity to be out in public doing home visits, essential(s) runs, and other miscellaneous things to meet the needs of the struggling in this season. This afforded me the additional opportunity to be in public places such as grocery stores, post offices, hardware and home improvement stores, restaurants, and a host of other environments people have routinely frequented since this began. And while there are a host of things that I was able to witness as I watched people in all of these places, there is one consistent thing that was almost always evident regardless of the public environment…
I have seen this anxiety manifest itself in a number of ways. I’d like to share with you a few of those that I’ve seen with my own eyes:
At the very outset of this in March, I went to a store for some fresh fruit the Saturday before state shelter-in-place orders were issued that next week. I was there with more people than I had ever seen in this particular grocery store before, and stood in line for over a half hour after wandering the store for that same period of time. I watched as people with allergies anxiously sneezed—and people around those individuals anxiously got out of line in favor of another.
A day or so later, I listened to colleagues sharing their anxiety about going to the same small store they have frequented for many years, fearing it would result in them contracting the virus. In the weeks that followed, I witnessed people who were entirely ambivalent to the virus but were anxious about how others in public were perceiving them because they chose not to wear a mask. I also witnessed people in masks anxiously giving others who were not wearing masks a far greater berth than six feet. Occasionally, I saw a pack mentality wash over two different groups of people, with the individuals in stores who chose to wear masks congregating together more closely, and those who chose not to, doing the same.
Last Friday (5/22/20), I was in a large chain store. Despite easing restrictions and my son and I both wearing masks, I witnessed anxiety from a woman in the same aisle, unwilling to get within 12 feet of us, despite the fact that the item I observed her desiring was still a socially-distanced six feet away from where we were standing. I also listened to anxious individuals, some who were visually concerned about the virus by their attire, and others not, making passive aggressive comments about the other people simply while walking around the store.
Anxiety of all shapes and sizes.
It is likely that if you have been paying attention, you have witnessed similar things, as well as others. We are certain to experience this in varying degrees in the weeks ahead, as many anxiously wait for a resurgence (that may not even come – no anxiety there, HA).
The question for the Christian then is how should we consider this anxiety and what should we do about it?
This is no small thing. First, we need to understand what we are striving to address. While there is certainly an experiential understanding of what anxiety is, I believe it would behoove us to actually define what it is that many are experiencing. As I briefly alluded to in the Human Impact: Part 2, anxiety is a powerful emotion associated with concern and preservation. Further, and this is important, anxiety is not sinful.1 It can’t be, as God would not have created us with an emotion that could not be redeemed or profitable in some way. Knowing this, general anxiety is designed to do the following: alert us to, or prepare us for, a looming threat. However, when it is being expressed sinfully, it is: vigilance in a self-protecting and self-sufficient way; vigilance minus faith in God;2 paralyzing fear, preoccupation, and repeatedly mulling over a problem,3 and an inner pocket of unbelief.4
It is an unfortunate reality that not all, but much of the anxiety that I personally witnessed above falls into the latter, more sinful category. This troubles me a great deal. As such, the following practical application is designed with Christians in mind. I desire to equip you with a number of tips and tools to not just weather anxiety well yourself, but model for others how to do so as well.
Have a Faith Filter
When I counsel with people, I often use my glasses as an analogy. I share with them that my glasses make my vision sharper and enable me to see things more clearly. As Christians, that is the role of the gospel in our lives. It should make our thinking more acute about all matters in life and give us the perspective by which we should approach all things. We must practically remember that God is sovereign and in control. Nothing that occurs in life, whether that be a global pandemic, or a promotion, escapes God’s awareness. As we have unpacked at great length in our study of the book of Romans over the last few years, God is sovereign. And it should be through the lens of God’s sovereignty that we see the issue that is causing us anxiety.
This faith filter gives our circumstances context. It reminds us that despite our feelings, God is still in control. We can then rest in the fact that, as Christians, while our flesh may be capable of getting sick, our soul is eternally and positionally secure in Jesus (Matthew 10:28). Thus, our faith filter creates a gospel opportunity. Instead of being wrapped up in self-protecting and controlling vigilance, we can mentally strive for confidence in God’s work, and actively share that same confidence with others!
Name the Anxiety
Most often in cases of anxiety, its name is directly related to fear of the unknown or the uncontrollable. I referenced earlier the sneezing customer at the grocery store before shelter-in-place orders were issued back in March and how people instantly shunned that person and moved away from them. This was in the earliest of days when very little was known about the virus. And yet, what was almost certainly an allergy sneeze sent people in various directions to other lines because they didn’t know the difference between the symptoms of COVID-19 and allergies. What was causing the anxiety was information they did not know.
Among the best ways then to stop anxiety from ruling us is to understand exactly what it is that is causing us the concerning emotion in the first place. Name it. Once something is named and defined, it is far more easily addressed. Neuroscientifically, we know this to be true as well. God created the part of our brain called the amygdala which is designed to help us express and process emotions. Mental anxiety and overthinking cause this part of our brain to work in overdrive and release the hormones associated with it that cause us to physically feel overwhelmed. This is quickly followed up by hormones associated with depression and sadness when we do not slow down to assess what it is that we are actually addressing. This is why Jesus rightly asks in Luke 12:25-26:
“Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?” (ESV)
Instead, we need to respond in a way that leans into how God created us. Practically, what we can (and must) do is calm our amygdala. As opposed to sinful anxiety, the best way to name anxiety is finding a good Christian friend, mentor, pastor, or counselor, and verbally process through not just the anxiety, but what led to it. Name the anxiety-causing dilemma by walking through the distress in the form of a narrative.
From there, we can engage in the most tangible step…
Create an Action Plan
Having used our faith filter to mentally and physically calm down, and narrative to name the anxiety-causing distress, we can then plan to prevent anxiety by exacting a measure of controlled change that is reactive or proactive in a non-sinful way commensurate to the situation. That is the key. Each event is situation-specific, and the plan of action should not exceed the circumstance. Each plan should be designed to ensure that we do not become emotionally overwhelmed or paralyzed. Instead, we should be able to functionally go about life in the way that obeys God, honors our God-given thoughts and emotions, and live the Christian life in the most God-honoring and others-honoring way(s).
Consider some examples of what this can look like:
If you think it would be good to talk with someone, do not hesitate to reach out to the church or a counselor for help!
A final note to the unworried…
You have a responsibility to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). What that is practically going to mean is that you are going to pay deference to them as you wish they would be able to pay deference to you. Occasionally that’s going to mean sacrifice; it’s going to mean you put your personal interests on hold, and honor someone who may be in need of your encouragement and respect. You get the privilege of being an ambassador of grace. I encourage, if not implore you, to strive to model Jesus in this way. This is the love in action Jesus repeatedly calls for throughout his ministry.
My prayer for all who read this is that whether you are struggling with anxiety, or encouraging an anxious person, we are equally equipped and exhorted to weather the anxieties of life with increased skill, as well as proactively support others in need.
|↑1||Joe Carter, “Ask TGC: Is Anxiety a Sin?” www.thegospelcoaliton.com, March 26, 2019.|
|↑2||Bob W. Kellemen, Anxiety: Anatomy & Cure (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012), 8.|
|↑3||David Powlison, Overcoming Anxiety: Relief for Worried People (Greensboro, NC, New Growth Press, 2008), 3.|
|↑4||Robert D. Jones, Why Worry: getting to the Heart of Your Anxiety (Greensboro, NC, New Growth Press, 2018), 5.|