I’ll begin with a confession. This year, I have felt drawn towards anxiety like never before.
It’s not a big, loud anxiety. It’s more like a low-grade fever, or a little strained back muscle that’s subtle most of the time, but turn the wrong way and it can seize your whole body.
I’ll be hummin’ along just fine… and then see a single headline or news clip, and suddenly I’m feeling it again – wound up, anxious, chewing on concerns like a bulldog on a bone.
Many dear friends have shared similar feelings with me. It’s as if anxiety were in the air: like little mosquitoes – buzzing, whispering, distracting, and nibbling.
Why? Lots of things: COVID, quarantines, loss and fear of loss, missing human touch in handshakes or hugs, angry politics, race relations, riots, cancel culture, concern for our country, and much more.
Anxiety’s Double Tragedy
Anxiety, even in subtle forms, carries a double tragedy.
- Anxiety steals our peace and joy.
- Anxiety shrinks our field of vision.
Psychologists tell us that when we become anxious, our focus narrows. We see little but perceived threats. We become consumed with self-protection – myself, my family, my interests, and my little circle… ever smaller.
That is precisely opposite of the kingdom of God. Kingdom life is expansive. It’s generous and others-focused; open hands, open hearts, open homes. Think of the father of the Prodigal Son. When he sees his son, still far off, he runs from his house. His arms are wide. He brings out his best robe, kills the fatted calf, and throws open the doors to welcome all the neighbors to celebrate.
I think of my friend Peter Mutabazi. He lived four year as a street child in Uganda. Today he has opened his home to at least ten children in foster care, and adopted one.
I think of my assistant, Sarah, who is a single foster mom. All throughout COVID – the lockdowns, isolation and uncertainties – Sarah has faithfully loved a little girl placed in her care a year ago. She does this, day after day, even though she never knows if that little girl she loves will leave her tomorrow.
Anxious thoughts make us look very different: like a miser bent over his gold, crouched, defensive and tight-fisted.
Amidst all that pulls toward worry today, how can we keep calm hearts?
If we desire to live well for ourselves and others, we have hard questions to answer.
- Amidst all that pulls toward worry today, how can we keep calm hearts?
- When we feel the powerful impulse to cower and clench, how do we keep open hearts and open hands?
- In a word, how can we be people of peace in an age of anxiety?
Small Choices, Big Difference
Ultimately, these are deeply spiritual questions. But, let’s not rush past the physical. God made us as whole beings: physical and spiritual. Our intellect, emotions, body and spirit – and even our relationships – are intertwined in ways science is only beginning to understand. God cares about all of this.
Think of Elijah the prophet. He’d just won a stunning victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Then, as a deluge breaks on the mountain, he runs in front of the king’s chariot all the way down, leading home. But that high wears off. He’s exhausted. Then he hears Jezebel is out for his blood. So he flees into the desert. He crashes there, under a broom tree. What he says to God is thick with anxiety and depression. “I’ve had enough. I’m a failure. Just let me die.”
Remarkably, God doesn’t respond with spiritual instruction. Not at first. He lets Elijah sleep. Then he feeds him a good meal. Then he lets him sleep again. Only after this does God speak to spiritual matters.
In addressing anxiety, we’re wise to start with physical things. Small choices can make a big difference. Here are a few:
- Sleep. If we’re staying up late every night working or watching Netflix, simply setting regular, adequate sleep hours can totally change the way we feel. It certainly does for me.
- Physical activity. I used to imagine that for exercise to count, it had to be long and painful. But dozens of recent studies show that even small increments of physical activity significantly impact anxiety levels. In one fascinating study, scientists forced healthy 20-somethings to not be active, living normally but more sedentary. Just one week into the study, scientists measured significant increases in anxiety and depressive thoughts. Conversely, studies show small amounts of light exercise, even just 20-30 minutes of walking a day, have the opposite effect: cutting anxiety significantly.
- Time outdoors. Simply being out in nature has a powerful calming effect as well. One study this January found that when students spent even 10-minutes outside in nature it reduced their stress and anxiety, and even their heart rate and blood pressure.
- Media and technology. For me, just glancing over headlines on a news site can leave me feeling I’ve stuck my finger in a light socket. It rattles us and disturbs our peace, but we keep coming back for that little jolt of adrenaline. If we do this throughout the day, is it any wonder our hair is standing on end? It’s worth asking: can we stay informed, but cut the frequency of our news and social media checks to one or two per day?
All these small choices can make a profound difference in reducing the buzz of the mosquitoes in our ears – maybe even their bite.
The Deeper Issue
As humans, true health – thriving minds and bodies and relationships – springs from deep down places. That’s why Jesus spoke so often of good fruit rising from trees with strong roots. If our hearts are restless and anxious, our lives will be as well.
If our hearts are restless and anxious, our lives will be as well.
More precisely, God’s truth must become the truest truth in our thoughts.
Even for Christians who will be in heaven someday, if the biggest, loudest truth in our thoughts is that this life matters most; that our identity and value hang on our achievements in business or home or ministry; that security comes from a bank account or 401K, then what matters most is precarious indeed. As we’ve learned vividly this year, it can all be lost in a moment. We have good reason for anxiety.
But what if these thoughts are most true?
- That God is the Creator of all things, and he has all of history in his hands, including us.
- That our deepest identity is not in what we achieve or own, but simply that we are his beloved daughter or son.
- That in all of life, in the beautiful and even painful things, God is working for our good, forming us into the character of Jesus himself more each day.
- And that we can trust that he will set all things right someday, and that even now we can join him in his work of healing and restoration.
If those are the biggest, truest truths in our heart, then we can confidently say, “What can men do? What can disease do? What can disaster do? What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing.”
Going Deeper Still: Contagious Calm
Yet, truth alone rarely alters us. Rather, ideas take deepest root when they come as part of our connection to others.
This can happen for good or ill. Anxiety itself can spread, from one heart to another – perhaps even across an entire society. One 2016 study in British Columbia found that in classrooms where the teacher was anxious and overwhelmed, students’ stress hormones measured dramatically higher. Anxiety is contagious.
But if anxiety is contagious, so is calm.
But if anxiety is contagious, so is calm. Maybe you’ve experienced that. You’re in an intense situation, things seem out of control, but one person stays calm and confident. Somehow that calm spills into every other heart in the room.
We see this poignantly in how a child's heartbeat synchronizes with its mother's as they gaze face-to-face. Our hearts do the same as we turn our attention to our Creator. When we step from the noise of daily life – in regular practices of attentiveness, worship and prayer – our hearts slow to beat in sync with God's, a heart always calm.
The God of Small Things
God uses little choices in life to do much of his most important work in and through us. After all, he is the God of the mustard seed. He sees even the little cup of water given to a child. He honors the two coins dropped into the offering. And he multiplies even a little lunchbox of loaves and fish – enough to feed multitudes.
Knowing this frees us from worry, and strain over things too large for us! We don’t need to sweat the big stuff. We simply give ourselves fully to the small, daily invitations of love and faithfulness. As we do that, our hearts come to beat in sync with the calm heart of our good Father.
Even in tumult, we can keep open hearts, hands, and homes, offering contagious calm and living as people of peace in an age of anxiety.
Jedd Medefind is President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. Earlier, Jedd served in the White House as a Special Assistant to President George W. Bush, leading the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He is author of several books, including Becoming Home (Zondervan, 2014). Learn more at www.cafo.org.