On Fear and Identity

a testimony of how God transformed how I deal with fear

 

I’ve been a Christian since 1984, growing up in a loving home with two amazing parents. For as long as I could remember God was as real to me as the sun and moon. That changed six years ago, when I went through a crisis of faith followed by a series of severe anxiety attacks. Those anxiety attacks taught me some valuable lessons and I wanted to take some time to talk about what happened, to explain some of what I learned about fear, about Identity and purpose and how God intends for us to live in relationship with Him

Fear is a symptom. Like pain, its purpose is to warn and prepare your body and mind to deal with dangers in your environment. When your mind detects that some thing you value has been threatened, it alerts the amygdala which starts producing hormones to give you energy and focus so you can deal with the present danger quickly and without distraction.

Fear then has a valuable purpose, but like pain, it can grow out of control if underlying issues are present, becoming persistent and debilitating, preventing you from enjoying the full measure of joy that God intended.

Also, I do understand that sometimes there are medical conditions that can cause psychological problems involving fear and anxiety, and this discussion isn’t intended to address those situations

This brings us to the question, what causes fear and how do I deal with it?

There are many things to be afraid of in the world and fear comes in many forms and levels of intensity. Fear can be intense or vague, can last months or go away in minutes. It can be a subtle motivation, leading you to avoid trying new things, causing small worries, keeping your mind busy when it should be still, or it can be an intense and overwhelming force that demands all of your attention, making you intensely uncomfortable. I have dealt with subtle kinds of fears most of my life. Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of people (shyness), fear of death, and fear of unhappiness. Those fears held me back, drained me of energy, robbed me of joy and eventually contributed to intense episodes of fear in the form of panic and anxiety that lasted for months.

Christianity is meant to be work but not hard work. We are told by Christ in Matthew 11 to take His yoke upon us and by doing so find rest for our souls, but I was not finding rest. By the time I had made it into my late twenties I was starting to become tired. I had not found enjoyment or satisfaction in my work and I was quickly becoming burned out at church.

And I was frustrated with the body of Christ in general, as many of my friends turned from the Faith because of abuse from people caught up in legalism or bad doctrine. Life, it seemed, was to much work, and I was growing more sophisticated in my capacity for understanding and beginning to question my assumptions because my life wasn’t working and I felt that meant I must be doing something wrong.

So I began to sift through what I believed and why, struggling with doubts and feeling frustrated, looking for answers. One day while crossing the bridge over the Mississippi on my way to work I asked myself, “What was it again that you use to justify your belief that God is real?” and I paused for a moment and found that I had no answer. At that moment I had this feeling like I was in space and someone had cut loose my tether. I was no longer grounded and my confidence in God evaporated.

To understand how disturbing this was to me, its important to understand that more than anything else in my life, my faith was central to who I was, central to my identity. I relied on it to give me purpose and meaning, to explain and give context to my actions and decisions, and in a brief moment it was gone. I had become something alien. I had become an agnostic.

I did not want to lose my faith, but my emotional and intellectual connection to God had been severed and had you asked me that day if God was real I would have looked at you and told you I didn’t know. I was hurt and angry and frustrated with a Being I wasn’t sure was real. I was confused and more than a little desperate to find some way to restore my faith but also to find a way to deal with the knot that had formed in the pit of my stomach.

I spent the next year lost. I read apologetic books and reasoned and thought and fought to regain my faith but it felt hopeless. I wanted to quit and give up.

Going into the beginning of that next year I was wound pretty tightly. What I did not realize at the time was that much of who I was had been stripped away from me. People generally build their identities around a variety of things, investing their heart in their families, their jobs, their hobbies and passions. But over the last few years I had lost interest or become disillusioned with most of what my heart had been invested in. I found my job difficult and unrewarding and my faith was not accessible to me. I no longer wanted to be involved at church, where I led worship, because of my doubts and because of how much work it had become and all I had left at that time was a relationship with a girl and a dream of being a photographer. I thought, perhaps those two things would be enough to make me happy.

So I carried on, trying to restore my faith and failing, making plans until towards the end of march I had a moment of panic. I had a thought that posed a situation where one of the few remaining things I still valued was threatened, and because I had very few things left to rest my identity on, the threat was perceived to be severe and my body went into full blown panic.

On a scale of one to ten I was experiencing panic at an eight or nine. The panic lasted for eight full days before transitioning into a severe form of generalized anxiety that lasted another nine days before subsiding just enough to let me breath. I lost 12 pounds the first eight days. I couldn’t eat. I slept badly, falling asleep to the feeling of my heart pounding against the walls of my chest and waking to experience a brief couple of seconds of relief before the panic and anxiety came flooding back.

By the 17th day I was so exhausted physically and emotionally I was starting to break down. It was Sunday morning and I remember calling my pastor and telling him I needed someone to lead music for me and that I needed to talk after the service. I drove to church listening to Plumb sing In My Arms, breaking down whenever the music rose. I was an emotional wreck during sunday school and the service and after church I finally explained to my pastor what had been going on the last year.

I had not shared with anyone at my church my loss of faith and what had been going on that year. It was too raw and I did not want to answer questions. It was disconcerting to be there because I was the worship leader, a deacon and the church clerk. I felt like a fraud. I was frustrated and hurt and a little angry. I would stand on stage and lead music, singing about a God I wasn’t sure I believed in, heart sick and afraid to tell them for fear of condemnation.

But I was broken and knew it and further more, the Holy Spirit was telling me (though I did not recognize the voice as His at the time) that I needed them. And I want to take a moment to brag about my church. Because their example of faith that year was a large part of the reason why I found it difficult to give up on my faith completely. The strength of their character and the generosity of their spirit was too real for me to ignore, and when the anxiety hit, a part of me knew that I could turn to them, because I had seen them stand beside members of our body when they suffered, not just for a moment, but years of standing with people who had dealt with loss and emotional brokenness and pain.

My pastor listened to me that afternoon and with no judgment loved me the way Christ loves us, offering no judgement, just acceptance and understanding. I am profoundly grateful for how wise he was that day. That night, with my permission he informed the church some of what was going on and the men in the church stood during the service and prayed for me.

The anxiety I had been feeling retreated for a couple of weeks, dropping to a lower level, but did not go away, and the doubts about my faith, though weakening, still persisted . For the next two weeks I was coping but I was far from whole, and after those two week, my anxiety spiked again to a five or six.

At this point I was feeling very confused. I couldn’t shake the fear. I had never felt this way before and it did not make sense to me why it would not go away. The fear began to feed on itself. Day after day I would wake up and be hit with fear in the morning. I was exhausted. Six weeks of near constant anxiety had worn me down. Four days after the anxiety spiked I stood in my bathroom and wondered if suicide might be easier, because it was I wasn’t sure if I could take much more of this and I had no confidence that it would get any easier. My mind would not stop and I was very tired.

During this time I had been reading Timothy Keller’s book, the Reason for God because a friend had made me promise I would start and finish it. Keller spends the first half of the book dealing with common objections to the Christian faith, most of which I had heard before, but in the middle of the book he explains how rational people deal with the world, and that section was transformative for me.

My struggle with doubt stemmed from the fact that I thought I needed empirical proof that God was real if I was going to believe in Him. I struggled because for most of my life I had felt that God was real. My emotions told me with complete certainty that He existed, but my rational mind would no longer allow me to say He was real because I obviously had no empirical proof.

But in the book, Keller explains that nothing can be proved empirically, not even the daily rising and setting of the sun. Everything we observe with our senses is to some degree in doubt, because we have no idea if there is some mechanism in this universe operating outside the boundaries of our ability to observe that might change the nature of what we know and have seen. Past performance is not proof of future performance. Science or Empiricism only shows us things to be true to a high degree of probability and rational beings are ok with this because it is the nature of our world. Everyday we live our lives, making decisions using facts that have only been shown to be true to degrees of probability. For something to be actionable, we do not need to be certain only sure enough.

That explanation allowed me to let go of my need for proof. I remember standing in my apartment on the 21st floor of the highrise where I was living in downtown Saint Louis overlooking the arch, and I remember looking out of my window and thinking to myself that nothing explains the world better than Christianity. So I choose to accept Christianity as true. I made a conscious decision to accept God as real. I imagined myself stepping out on faith into the wide empty expanse outside my window, trusting that God would catch me.

And He did.

The anxiety did not retreat though. It persisted for several more days, til on a Sunday I found myself sitting in the pew down front where I normally sit, rocking back and forth, sitting on my hands, trying not to have a nervous breakdown. I don’t remember what my pastor was speaking about. All I could think about was that I wasn’t sure I could do this for the rest of my life and feeling very afraid and very alone. I can’t remember if someone had given me the verse or if I had found it on my own but I remember repeating the first part of Job 23:10 over and over to myself, which says ”I know the way that you take” and the verse from Heb 5 where He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. I needed to know I was not alone, that there was some reason and some way to survive what I was going through.

But it wasn’t working well enough. I remember thinking I needed the truth of those words to be real to me. I needed not just to know that these were Jesus’ words, I needed to see Jesus there with me. I needed to know He was there in a tangible way, so I imagined Him sitting next to me on the pew. I could see Him, this somewhat short and muscular Jew with cropped brown hair, sitting beside me, and when the darkness crowded in around me He would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “I know the way that you take. You are not alone”.

Part of what I was dealing with was how irrational the anxiety was. I wasn’t sure if I was having a complete mental breakdown, because that can happen, and I did not know what the future held for me or if I was going to be able to deal with it. Was the anxiety going to be chronic? Was I never going to feel peace again? But He knew and that gave me hope. He knew the way I would take and I was not alone.

I sat in that pew as my pastor was preaching, hearing God tell me I was not alone and He knew the way I would take. But I was afraid to go home. Everywhere I went reminded me of the fear and darkness I was feeling. I had moved just after the anxiety started and I was living in a place that I had only been when I was anxious. My route to church, my route to work, everywhere I went was new and colored by fear.

I remember thinking several weeks before that I needed Him to redeem this experience for me. It was not going to be enough to just get through it. I did not want to look back and remember this experience and have to deal with all the fears that it represented. I remember praying then, telling a God I wasn’t sure was real that if He existed, He was going to have to take this experience and transform it into something I could look back on with joy.

So as I sat on the pew I imagined myself driving home with Jesus beside me and at each intersection Jesus would turn to me and say “I know the way that you take” and He would redeem that place for me, taking it back from the darkness. When we got to downtown Jesus got out of the car and stood in the middle of Broadway and raised His hands and light from His hands washed over the city like a flood. And when He was done the darkness was gone.

He walked with me from my car to my apartment building, rode in the elevator with me and walked with me into my livingroom. He sat down crosslegged on the floor next to my mattress, which was in my livingroom because sleeping in my bedroom was too much for me for some reason, and told me to go sleep, that He would be there when I woke up. So I went to sleep and when I woke up the anxiety had broken.

I had two more anxiety attacks after that lasting five days and four days as I continued to deal with and confront issues, but I was never again unarmed. My faith was a shield. It took time, nearly a year, to anchor my faith solidly again. I moved to Ashburn a few months after the night Jesus redeemed my city and that experience for me. I had no idea what was in store for me but I left Saint Louis knowing He walked beside me, and over the next couple of years God taught me several things that clarified what I had been through.

The biggest is that it is vitally important what you build your identity around, or to put it another way, it is vitally important what you invest your heart in. As I dealt with my doubts, I remember God telling me, “I have to be enough for you. If all else is taken from you, I have to be enough. Nothing else is safe in this world. Only I am constant, only I am safe. Build your identity around me”. Jesus tells us in the Gospels to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and His righteousness. He tells us to lay up our treasures in Heaven. He asks us to put all that is important in His hands because He knows that is the only way to be safe.

Fear happens when the things that are important to us are threatened. But you can’t lose God. Nothing can take Him from you. When Jesus tells us in John to abide in Him, He is telling us to look to Him for Life. He is telling us to make Him the purpose of our existence. He is telling us to place all that is important to us, that makes up who we are, in His hands.

God used those 4 months of emotional pain and trauma to strip me down, to take from me all the bonds and ties I had formed to this world. He tells us to “Love not the world neither the things in the world.” When He was finished, I was too tired to fight Him anymore. Nothing but Him mattered. And what I discovered was, if you live that way, there is nothing to fear. What can the world take away from you that matters if all that matters is Him?

He also impressed upon me that, “I am not responsible for outcomes.” This is extremely important. I used to spend so much time anxious or afraid of outcomes. I would be stressed and worried and frustrated because I wanted a certain outcome and felt like I had to make sure it happened, or I didn’t want a certain outcome and had to make sure it was avoided. But God said very clearly that outcomes are not my responsibility.

Jesus tells us to, “take His burden upon us, for it is light and easy”, He tells us to “cast our cares upon Him.” Jesus’ burden was to do the will of His father. So I strive to build my identity around doing only His will. This is what He means in John 15 when He says, “If you will keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”. I get all my satisfaction and joy from doing His will. And the outcomes? Those are His. I don’t question the outcomes, I simply accept them as the result He wanted from my obedience. If He tells me to do a thing and the result of the thing looks like failure to the world, I can be excited and satisfied because I did what God asked of me. I accept the result as good on faith. Sure, I may not understand it, but if it resulted from me doing what He asked, then it must be good.

I think this is what Jesus meant when He said “I am the vine and ye are the branches, abide in me for apart from me you can do nothing”. It’s true that we cannot do anything without him, and we often get frustrated when we fail. But I am coming to see that we often fail because we’re tired and we’re tired because we’ve been spending time and effort trying to accomplish things that are not our responsibility, taking on the task of ensuring outcomes we cannot possibly control.

To deal with my fears as a Christian I give all that I care about to Him (2 Tim 1:12) and I build my identity around obedience to Him. If you do that, there is little left to risk. Nothing important to who you are can be threatened, and if you only do what He asks, there is little risk of failure, because He never asks for more than you are able. When I do that, as Jesus promised in John 15, my joy is full, and that brethren is Life.

On Faith

It isn’t enough to ask God to do a thing, like restore your soul or reframe your heart or desire, or to help you do a thing He has asked you to do. Part of making this stuff work is proceeding to act as though He has done it once you have asked. We operate as Christians using faith to confirm the receipt of what we ask for. Ask, then act as though your prayer is answered. for if He has asked it of you, He will follow through.

Evening Story

beneath a stretching violet sky
the setting sun brings evening nigh
the clouds burnt orange in crimson fashion
set fire the heavens and the passion
inside me as i awestruck behold
the flaming majesty pictured bold
and humbled i fall on my knees
so still and silent neath the trees
for words cannot express the glory
that i see in this evenings story
— 4/1/2003