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The Anxious Christian – A Sermon

The following sermon was preached on July 23rd, 2017 at the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. The sermon title is borrowed from the book The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (see endnote below). As with any sermon I preach I use some of the material and others I leave out. I tried to stay as close to the manuscript as I could. Grace and peace as you read this.

The Anxious Christian

It was the Fall of 2013 and we had just completed a crazy summer in youth ministry. Most summers are hectic but this one served as one of the craziest I have ever experienced. I honestly felt like responsibilities came at me in supersonic waves and before I knew it I was put through the ringer. Couple all those responsibilities with some major changes at church and I was ill-prepared for what was about to happen. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.”[1] I remember sitting in my office one day while I was studying Scripture and a wave of dread came over me in an indescribable way. It was like a cloud of darkness suddenly engulfed my thinking and all I could think about was the pit of my peril. The anxiety manifested itself into a belief that I was dying and I became obsessed with small pains in my body that, through the lens of anxiety, seemed like signs of cancer or a life-threating illness. I Googled symptoms and things got worse. I was in my house one day and felt a sharp pain in my leg and immediately started to panic and rushed to the Emergency Room. I thought it was blood clot. After extensive tests their conclusion was that nothing was wrong with me.

I kept getting headaches and I learned that anxiety will sometimes lead into other symptoms and cause serious physical problems. Consider Job’s experience:

The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.  I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. (Job 30:27-30)[2]

I called a Psychiatrist because I knew something very wrong was going on with me. I didn’t grow up with anxiety problems or depression issues and so I had no language to describe what my mind was thinking. In fact, my mind kept playing tricks on me. In one month I visited the ER a total of three times, the doctor four times and various specialists two times thinking something was drastically wrong with me. I finally got my diagnosis a month and a half later: I had what was called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried different medicines and eventually settled with one that helped reset the chemicals in my brain. I started to work out more, read more and with the help of God I slowly have learned to cope with anxiety.

So why am I sharing this with you right now? When I first started struggling with anxiety I felt like churches were not really a safe-haven for those inflicted with anxiety. I would talk about my struggles and people would say, “Robbie just quit worry about stuff and trust Jesus” or they would say, “Perhaps you need to pray more” as if my mental plight is directly related to how many times I pray (or don’t). Church, unfortunately, was not safe space for me. So I started blogging about it and droves and droves of people started messaging me describing their anxiety and how they wish the church could be more of a safe space for folks. A place of healing. A place of learning about our struggles. So this message comes to you in the audience who are currently in the thicket of anxiety and you feel like nobody is listening. This message is for you. It is also for those of us who are called to “bear one another’s burdens” which means walking with people in this difficult time. A caveat is I am not a mental health professional and so most of my message is learned from folks who poured into me to help with healing. So I have two groups of people to talk to today. The first…

To the church in general…

I think we need to do better at helping people who struggle by admitting our own.

Whether explicitly or implicitly we have made the church to look like a collection of nice folks who have it all together who meet a few times a week for a “pick me up” by singing a couple of happy songs and sharing in on a positive message. The closest we get to talking about our problems is quoting Romans 3:23 saying “all are sinners” but rarely does our struggle sharing delve deeper than that. The result is people simply go elsewhere with their problems or worse; they don’t even address them at all. I remember sitting in an AA meeting one time and the topic of church came up and one particularly disgruntled man said about his alcoholism, “We can’t talk about this stuff (he used another word) at church. There’s no place for us there.”

Church if we are not helping the brokenhearted and struggling people then we are simply setting up shop and wasting our Lord’s time. I read the pages of my New Testament and there were some pretty messed-up folks that our Lord loved. When it comes to anxiety I didn’t know where to turn and people from church didn’t seem to resonate with my struggle.

I think we as a church also need to work on good ways to help but also understanding bad ways to help folks with anxiety.

People simply are just not educated about how to help so sometimes they say the best thing that they know about at the time.

  • Quit worrying…I wish I could. It is not like a microwave that has a power button.
  • It’s all in your head…of course it is. I need to deal with it though.
  • Doctors are just trying to shove meds down your throat, don’t take them…But what if I need them? Shouldn’t a professional make that decision for me?

You want to know how a person can help folks with anxiety? Presence. Not an answer. Not a formula for getting rid of it. Simple presence. Someone who advocates to the father on your behalf and is willing to pick up the phone when you are having a tough time. I once thought about starting a support group for those with anxiety and calling it something unique like AA 🙂 or something but I have yet to do it.

We need more support.

We need each other.

Now a word or two to those in the audience who are struggling with anxiety.

First of all, anxiety is a gift.

I read a book in 2013 during my struggles that changed my thinking. It was called The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith and in that book he shared a couple quotes that I will not soon forget. He said:

  • Anxiety can often indicate to us that there is something constructive happening within us, beckoning us to follow it in order that our lives may be transformed.[3]
  • Anxiety reminds us that we are alive, a feeling that is important in keeping us from going numb and withdrawing from the life God desires for us.[4]

In the moment of angst when the world is spinning around it is hard for us to fathom that what we are struggling with is a gift. Curse is more like it. But gift? Yet through my anxiety I have been able to know God deeper than ever before. Paul said, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

That leads me to my next point…

God is not absent in our anxiety but right in the thick of it.

Psalm 94:19 in the Common English Bible reads: “When my anxieties multiply, your comforting calms me down.” Rhett Smith is again informative in his book:

One of the reasons we experience anxiety is that God is persistently trying to move us through the wilderness, because it is in that wilderness that we are most dependent upon Him. It is in that wilderness experience that God shapes us into the people He desires us to become.[5]

I remember coming home from work early one day wondering why I could not shake this anxiety deep within me. At one point I remember running into the boys’ room, locking the door and I started balling like a baby. Uncontrollable sobbing. With my hands clinched I punched the bed and yelled, “Why God? I have everything I could possibly imagine and I still am miserable.” I couldn’t hear God then but slowly I started getting an answer from him. He said to me, “You’re right Robbie. You do have everything. A loving wife, a nice home, a wonderful job, beautiful kids. But you don’t have me.”

In my worries and angst I had neglected reading of Scripture, praying and God was there even in the midst of all of that. When I look at many of the characters in Scripture I see a lot of humanity in turmoil. Death, financial hardship, frustrations, anguishes is all part and parcel for the course of life in this world. The dream God has for us is not the same as the American dream. Folks, if all we get is God then we have gained the entire world.

Dear friend, in your anxiety God is with you.

Thirdly,

You are not alone.

When I endured this I remember thinking that I was the only one feeling this way. What made it worse was that somehow in this struggle I felt like less of a man. I remember apologizing to Heather a lot because I was not the man she deserved. In one particularly weak moment I remember calling my dad trying to explain to him what I was feeling and not having the right words to say so I just inaudibly cried while trying to talk to him.

After walking through my struggles with a counselor I remember feeling a sense of peace when she assured me that I was not alone and that many men feel this way. Then soon my friend began to struggle this way too and he and I began to journey together.

Friend, I am not sure where you are at in anxiety. Perhaps you worry about the future and it paralyzes you from making decisions. Maybe you have anxiety because of some physical ailments that leave you weak or disabled. Maybe your anxiety stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. Maybe you are afraid of something happening to your family and anxiety keeps you from letting them mature like they should. Maybe anxiety has led you to cope with life’s difficulties through alcohol, pills, drugs or some other coping mechanism.

I don’t know where you are at but I do know one thing.

You are not alone.

Here’s the thing, God wants you to open your eyes to him and in the midst of your struggle to hang on with him. I am not promising your anxiety will be gone as mine comes and goes. It may become more difficult before it gets better. I am not promising an easy solution that God is going to miraculously take your anxiety away (although I pray for that).

What I do promise is God’s unwavering presence in your plight and you will have my arm around your shoulder in the midst of this. Then my prayer will be that others will look at your struggle and will come to one conclusion and one conclusion: How great is our God.

 

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[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] All Scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Kindle Locations 383-385). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 387-388).

[5] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 541-543).

 

How do you handle someone who dislikes you? For all you people pleasers…

Part of my genetic makeup is that I care too much about what people think of me. When I learn that someone dislikes me it tears me up inside because I go out of my way to serve people, especially those who do not like me. I have had this quality ever since birth so the likelihood of me trying to erase it is near impossible. My best bet is to try to enact some principles that help my sanity but also my spirituality. I remember when I was a freshman in high school trying to navigate a new school, city and friend group all in one year. There was this one punk kid who made my life a living hell everyday. I don’t know what I did to him other than I simply showed up in his class and he did not like that. He mercilessly made fun of me calling me names and acting like he was going to fight me. He did this every…freaking…day. It tore me up because I had no clue what I did to him and the fact that he hated me tore me up inside.

 

So what do you do when someone does not like you? How do you handle situations like mine and a million other situations where people, for one reason or another, hate your guts? I don’t have the best advice but the following principles help me move on and focus on more important things.

First of all, I ask the question, “Have I wronged them in some way?”

Without sharing too many details there was this situation where someone was passive-aggressively slamming me on social media to their friends. Well, I was this person’s friend as well and so I see everything they posted and without a doubt it was about me. I was hurt. I was angry. I typed my essay in the comment section but then soon deleted it because I asked myself this question, “Have I wronged them in some way?” The answer was a clear “NO” and I soon realized that this person just didn’t like a decision I made. It was not an amoral decision just one they did not like and so at that point there is nothing I can do about it. Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Sometimes people do not like us and we have wronged them and we need to reconcile that before we can move on.

Secondly, realize that hurt people, hurt people.

Why do they not like you? One reason may be that they are broken and come from a long line of brokenness. If scripture is right in saying we are all sinners then somewhere down the line that is going to infringe on your relationships. People are going to have skewed worldviews and this side of eternity we will never truly have perfect or complete relationships. There will always be prejudices, animosity, hatred and disdain. I hate that but it is true. I was working a particular job one time and I had concern about a hose that was leaking on the property. A guy was in the process of building houses (yes plural) and they were large and roomy. This guy clearly was blessed with financial means. I expressed my concern of the leaking hose to another worker on the property and his response was, “Who gives a $#@* about it? This guy is loaded anyways and as far as I am concerned he can just pay for it.” The worker clearly resented the man and was jealous of his financial means. You find me a section of humanity and no matter how genuine or utopic the community is there will be brokenness and hatred.

Thirdly, I always try to realize I live not to please man but to glorify Christ.

This is a tough one for me. First, I often find that my level of glorifying Christ is often in need of repair. Progressive sanctification means we are theoretically getting better at following God but many times, like the apostle Paul, I find that “when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:21 CEB). Secondly, if people killed Jesus who healed and saved them then why would I be spared from the same fate? So instead of returning evil for evil our efforts should be to love and serve people whether they are friend or foe. I have one Lord to impress and really what I do is not that impressive. He looks at me and says, “Robbie you pitiful thing you. You are a spiritual nincompoop and the fact that you are a minister is laughable. You know what? I love you. Nothing can change that.” So I live in that knowledge of his unfailing love and leave the peripheral “liking and unliking” to God.

Fourth, when and where possible I try to confront the problem head on and talk with the person.

This dovetails on the first point but I am amazed at how passive aggressive people are at handling their problems. Not many people I know enjoy confrontation (there are a few masochists out there) but many times it must be done to solve the issue. Sometimes we perceive a person dislikes us (“they won’t talk to me” or, “they seem quick when we talk”) when something else may be going on unknown to us. This could be tricky especially when the perceived person is your boss. In that regard I usually approach the situation like this (after much prayer and then setting up a face to face meeting):

Robbie: I am grateful you decided to meet with me as I know you are a busy person. I wanted to come to you with a struggle I am having lately because I need some clarification. For some reason I perceive you disliking me in some way and I am unsure if it has to do with my job performance or if I have wronged you in some way. I do not want this to affect our working relationship and so if I need to do better at my job then please give me a list of things I need to improve on. If I have wronged you in some way then let me know so I can make it right.

I have done that a few times and just about everytime we come to an amicable agreement and a lot of times it was just my perception that was wrong that needed clarification. Notice I used this to clarify instead of condemning. I didn’t rush to judgment on their behavior and made sure I used plenty of “I” statements.

So those are my thoughts. What are some things you would add?

 

 

Tim Tebow, Virginity and Grace

I am sure by now you have heard of the news of Tim Tebow and Olivia Culpo breaking up because, reportedly, he will not have sex with her.[1] The New York Daily News reported:

“She had to break up with him because she just couldn’t handle it,” said our insider, “He still hits her up, but she just can’t deal with the sex thing. He’s pretty adamant about it, I guess.”

From that the onslaught of memes, gifs and backhanded comments have come at Tebow’s expense. I guess this should not surprise us, as when you have such a polarized view of sex it will only lend itself to an onslaught of criticism. This kind of report is only an indicator that our culture is such a sexually charged culture. Sex is in music, TV, video games, commercials, billboards, social media and every sort of outlet you can imagine.

Tim Tebow is weird and I like it and wish more people were like him but I want to emphasize something very clear:

Virginity or the loss of virginity does not make you any more or less a Christian…Jesus does. Click To Tweet

Massive campaigns (Purity Ring) and other mission efforts make virginity seem like the crème-de-la-crème of Christian virtues. If you have slipped or messed-up in this area then you are damaged goods. Jen Pollock Michel wrote a post a couple of years back called, “Virginity Isn’t Our Holy Grail” that speaks to what I am saying (long quote):

Implicit in what I’m reading about purity from Bessey, and a host of other women, such as Elizabeth Esther, Rachel Held Evans, and Carolyn Custis James, is a broad concern over how the church handles and presents God’s teachings on sexual sin. This topic matters a great deal, considering that nearly 80 percent of self-proclaimed Christians are having sex before they are married.

The church has been pushing purity standards for ages. Esther refers to the shame she carried with her as a virgin into her marriage because she’d kissed a couple of boys before her husband and because she had masturbated. Esther would argue that the church’s restrictions are becoming more rigorous, and by outlining its own capricious rules, the Church has inevitably constructed a “new and improved virginity.” But is there such a thing as hyper-purity, a sexual standard more rigorous than God’s? Referring back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he insists that lust is equivalent to adultery (Matt. 5:27-30), I’m not so sure.

God’s purity standard is effectively impossible to meet. We can, though, fall guilty of making God’s grace small by making sexual sin big, whenever the church insists that non-virgins are cast beyond the reach of grace. Sexual promiscuity is not the unforgiveable sin. Let’s not forget those featured in Jesus’ genealogy (Judah, the man who slept with his daughter-in-law, mistaking her for a prostitute; David, the king who murdered the husband of his mistress), nor those winning mention in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith (Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered the Israelite spies, and Samson, the man with a weakness for beautiful women).

The Bible, in weaving its long history of redemption, is not a storybook of heroes. Failure, even sexual mistakes, has not once tied God’s hands. He accomplishes what he wills through the worst of us. But unfortunately, virginity has arguably become a modern-day idol of the church. According to Tim Keller, idolatry is fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Virginity, which is rightly good, has unfortunately become ultimate, idolized in some churches as, in Bessey’s words, become “a barometer of our righteousness and worth.” Virginity is not a moral merit badge. Whether or not we have had sex before marriage, we are all lawbreakers (James 2:10). None can feel superior ¾ not even the virgins among us.[2]

To be fair, Tebow is not advocating that he is some superhero because of his virginity but the onslaught of media coverage seems to think that virginity is the mark of a true Christian. The mark of a true Christian is the outward reflection of an inner realization that Jesus, through his grace, has ransomed that person from a life of darkness. He is like the publican who simply uttered: “Have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

I will try my best to teach my children healthy sexuality but with that comes a teaching of hearty grace.

Once again my friends…all is grace.

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[1] http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/confidential/tim-tebow-find-zone-article-1.2447008

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/february/virginity-isnt-our-holy-grail.html?paging=off