Deeper than calm – faith’s goal in anxiety

Anxiety is not pleasant. Think of the most recent time you felt stressed or anxious about something: how did it feel? The churning or knots in the stomach, the dry mouth and difficulty swallowing, the sweaty palms. Then throw in some muscular tension which adds anything from scalp and shoulder pain to shaky hands, not to mention the thoughts of dread and worry – what an unpleasant experience anxiety is. When adrenaline begins to flow round the system in increased measures it does not feel nice. And it’s not meant to. The kind of stress response that is at play is a created mechanism to help us perform, respond to challenges and deal with dangers.

Understandably we want calm but typically it isn’t easy to settle again. Have you ever felt like this and then have someone encourage you to ‘just calm down’, or ‘try to relax’? If only! I remember an early experience of public speaking at church where my nerves were clearly on display. Part of the feedback was to ‘try and be a bit more relaxed’. Relaxed? I was terrified. I would love to have been relaxed. Those feelings just aren’t easily switched off.

If I’m not calm, am I sinning?

But what’s worse is that we can feel like we are sinning or haven’t enough faith. Surely if I were really trusting the Lord, then I would know the peace that passes all understanding? Surely if I had prayed more with supplication and made my requests known with thanksgiving then the peace of God would be guarding my heart (Philippians 4)? Surely, if I had faith, I wouldn’t sound so nervous, or wouldn’t avoid that situation, or (fill in your blank). Anxiety can be associated with a lot of guilt and feelings of failure.

Yet, there are understandable reasons why an anxious body is hard to calm. Certainly, our hearts can be busy with worry. And noisy hearts (What will people think? Will they like my talk? Will I get my words out? How am I coming across?) will certainly land with anxious emotions in our weak and limited bodies. But those bodies of dust are another reason why anxiety doesn’t just evaporate with one prayer. And beyond our bodies, we continue to live in a world that is hard and can be unfriendly. A world of threats and demands will draw out that natural response of fear and stress.

Anxiety (and peace) go deeper than calm

So, a calm body can be hard to achieve, but is it actually what the Bible invites us to as the goal in the midst of anxiety?

When Jesus spoke of worry in his sermons on mount and plain (Matthew 6 and Luke 12), he addressed it in terms of what we are ‘seeking’ (eg Matt 6:25-34). Anxiety was defined less in terms of how we feel but more in terms of what we seek (v33). What am I going after, what am I wanting, what is my goal? Even the very word that our English Bible translates as ‘anxious’ in those passages has the idea of being divided or distracted. Biblically, then, it seems like anxiety is framed much more in terms of what our hearts are seeking, and the risk that we are divided away from God, than in terms of what we are feeling in our bodies.

Following Jesus’ words, then, the kind of peace we are encouraged towards is a peace of having God’s kingdom as first priority in our lives. In the midst of pressures within and without, our peace is the peace of God’s rule in our hearts. It’s the peace of ‘your will be done’. The peace of ‘thank you, Lord’. The peace of ‘this feels really hard, but the king is with me.’ We seek, in effect, the ‘calm’ of a heart aligned with God’s kingly ordering of all that we face, even if our bodies are needing time to catch up.

Courage more than calm

So do I abandon all attempts to feel at rest and consign myself to a life of nervous energy (with a bit of prayer)?! We envision more than that in God’s kingdom.

A few thoughts on that to close:

  1. It is possible that this peace of heart will lead to a calmer body. Our bodies, broken and dusty as they are, don’t always follow on but what is happening in our hearts will certainly influence our bodies. If I’m worrying, then it will land in my nervous system. Conversely, a heart increasingly settled under God’s rule is more likely to lead to a settled body.
  2. It is good to calm your body. Part of our call to rest in God’s kingdom is to rest as embodied souls. As we grow in seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness, it can be good to seek a calmer body. Rest, exercise, breathing and relaxation techniques can all be used by faith in the one who is king over unruly nervous systems.
  3. Scripture envisions something more than calm as we face fear and anxiety. The most common exhortation to us as our minds whirr and our stomachs churn is to be of good courage (e.g. Joshua 1:5-9). So as our hearts seek first God’s kingdom, we move forward into whatever we face with dependence on the king and loving intention to do his will. We face fears with eyes toward Jesus who endured the ultimate threat of the cross, that in him we might be strengthened to endure our own trials.