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Month: April 2015

Asleep in the boat, part 2: The “reverse ABCs” of anxiety

[This post is continued from “Asleep in the boat, part 1: When God is the cause of anxiety.”]

As I studied the story of Jesus sleeping peacefully in a storm-tossed boat (Mark 4:35-41), I realized how much I want to experience that same peace.
Landscape%20-%20Painting%20-%20Seascape%20-%20Storm%20over%20Black%20SeaI don’t know exactly how to develop it, but I do know I’m sick of being worried and anxious. I want to kick the worry habit, but wanting and doing are two different things. And even scriptures urging us not to worry (Matthew 6:25-27, Philippians 4:6-7), which should soothe me, can increase anxiety because they create a new problem: a load of guilt for being unable to obey them.

Maybe you too have experienced this cycle. I mean, there are plenty of things to worry about, many of them far beyond our control. And for true anxiety addicts like me, even when life is good we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So my prayer is that I can honestly surrender my anxieties to Jesus and, in my imperfect way, claim the true peace of Christ.

Toward that end, I’ve been trying to practice three steps I call the “reverse ABCs of anxiety”: Cry out; Be thankful; Ask for help.

Here’s what I mean…

  1. Cry out to God. First, I’ve discovered that willpower can’t stop anxiety, because willing myself to stop my worrying only increases my focus on it. (For example, try not thinking of the color red. Go!) Instead, the key is to pour out all my anxieties to God: my career (or lack thereof); political issues; global injustices; fragmentation in the body of Christ; my book sales and readers’ responses; ideas for future books and blogs; and all the rest. Confession is the beginning of repentance and healing, so I bare all my worries to God and nail them to the cross.
  2. Be thankful. Following a sermon suggestion, my wife and I started listing five things each day for which we are thankful. My wife can hardly stop at five, but I can hardly even start because doing it “on purpose” every day feels like a superficial routine to me. Yet through this practice, I’m learning that thankfulness is not based on emotion; it is based on reality – the reality that God is good and trustworthy. No matter how I feel, God is still God. So I am learning to intentionally enter a state of thanksgiving and praise regardless of my feelings. Being anxious focuses on the future – but being thankful acknowledges God’s goodness in the present.
  3. Ask for help to do small things. The disciples could not calm the furious winds and waves – but there was one small thing they could do: they could wake up Jesus in the boat. Like them, I can’t calm my overwhelming anxiety – but I can at least wake up Jesus. I can ask him to help me think of a new blog idea, write for an hour without distraction, or post a quote on social media. After completing that task, I can ask him to help me complete another. Trusting God becomes easier when I focus on the next small thing before me. Focusing on big issues beyond my control only makes me more anxious.

Blog-Anxiety2These steps are something I need to do every day, because giving our cares and concerns to God is not a simple one-time prayer but an ongoing process that continues throughout our lives. So every day, we cry out to God and lay our anxieties before him. Every day, we acknowledge his goodness by giving thanks even when we don’t feel like it. Every day, we ask for his help to complete the next small thing in front of us. And every day, we repeat the process again.

I won’t pretend these steps are easy or that I have mastered them. I still stumble and feel overwhelmed by anxiety, just as the disciples felt overwhelmed by the waves. And that kind of overwhelming anxiety tends to create more.

But I have grace on my side—the grace of Jesus, fast asleep on a cushion (Mark 4:38a). When he asked his disciples why they had so little faith, I don’t think he was chiding them. Instead, I think he was challenging them. He wanted all of his followers to trust God so deeply that we, like him, can sleep through a storm.

The storms will come—but God’s peace will guide us through.

And as I learn to practice the steps above, I’ll let you know how it goes.

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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Asleep in the boat, part 1: When God is the cause of anxiety

What if God, who comforts my anxiety, is also the cause of it? I don’t want to feel broadsided by him again…

As I sat down to write about anxiety, almost immediately I began to experience it. I couldn’t think how to approach the subject, so I started worrying. My struggle led to mental paralysis, which led to more anxiety. The harder I struggled, the darker things looked. I froze (“Come on, brain!”). I spiraled (“This blog is going down the crapper”). I globalized (“The universe sucks!”).

Finally I saw the irony – I was anxious about writing on anxiety! – and I had to laugh.

Good thing I hadn’t planned to write on serial killing.

stormy-oceanThe problem of anxiety reminds me of a story in Mark 4. Jesus, sleeping soundly in a boat almost overwhelmed by high waves (Mark 4:37-38a) is accused of indifference by his terrified disciples: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (v. 38b). But Jesus simply quiets the storm and asks: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (v. 39-40)

Traditionally, the point usually taken from this story is that the disciples shouldn’t have worried because Jesus was right there in the boat with them, and was (presumably) on their side. As Paul writes later in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, then who can be against us?”

However, I’m an anxious cynic. If I’d been there, I’d be thinking: Yeah, Jesus, but you walk on water – even if the boat sinks, you can just saunter safely to shore!

So apparently I can trust him for salvation, but not for daily care and protection.

How nuts is that?

Well, maybe it’s not as nuts as it sounds – because despite Paul’s reassurance, I know from experience that even though God is for us, sometimes he still allows us to go through very hard things.

For example, the stunted twelve-year-old boy inside me wants to know, Why did God let my parents divorce? Later, the wounded teenager inside demands, Why did God let me suffer from so much rage on the inside, and rejection on the outside? The young adult in me asks, Why did God let me stumble from one low-paying job to another, unable to establish a career? Finally, the academic washout in me asks, Why did God lead me into a doctoral program and then let it blow up in my face?

That last sucker-punch was the worst of all. As soon as the shock wore off, anxiety was the first emotion I felt. I started worrying like crazy about how I could ever have a future again. And that question has yet to be fully answered.

That’s when it really hit me: What if God, my comforter in anxiety, is also the cause of it? What if I’m anxious because part of me still feels he hasn’t always “come through” (whatever that means) in the past, and fears he won’t always in the future?

Blog-Anxiety1The truth is, I don’t want to be broadsided again. I don’t want to be let down anymore. And sometimes, putting our trust in God does feel risky like that.

So what about those times when we actually don’t trust God? Does our distrust contradict the truth of the freedom and grace we have in Christ?

Well, maybe not. Because on a deeper level, the only way to reflect his freedom and grace is through our weaknesses. In fact, the longer I think about it, the more I do believe the traditional point of the story in Mark 4: If Jesus is right here with me, sleeping peacefully through the storm, then maybe even I, weak and anxious as I am, can learn from him how to have peace too.

[Continued in Asleep in the Boat, Part 2: The Reverse ABCs of Anxiety

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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Embracing surrender

surrenderDo you know that old song, “I Surrender All”?

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my precious Savior,
I surrender all.

As Lent comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “surrender,” and what it means to truly surrender my life to Jesus.

More accurately, I have been trying hard not to think about it.

But the harder I try to ignore it, the louder it repeats in my head: surrender.

What does it mean to surrender? The dictionary says “surrender” means “give up.” But give up what?

I think surrender means giving up three things: pride, freedom, and control—even control over one’s own life.

In military terms, surrender can be an act of cowardice. For dedicated soldiers on mission, surrender is not an option—because it means the loss of those three things, and also possible death to the physical body.

jesus holding up a manIn spiritual terms, however, surrender can be an act of trust. For dedicated Christians on mission, surrender is the only option—precisely because it does mean the loss of those three things, and also certain death—in this case, to the sin nature.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I am great at the act of surrender. I surrender to worry. I surrender to anxiety. I surrender to my flesh, my ego, and my emotions.

In fact, I can surrender to almost anything except God.

But look at Jesus. According to Scripture, on the last night before his death he does nothing but surrender.

First, on his last night with the disciples, he kneels to wash their stinky feet (John 13). It’s mind-blowing—the Creator of the universe, disrobing and performing the lowliest, filthiest act of service.

110631988Next, he surrenders his freedom. Facing arrest, torture, and execution, he prays in agony for another solution, even sweating drops of blood through his skin (Luke 22:44). Yet he ends with: “…not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39, 42). As I’ve tried to make that my daily prayer, I’ve found that almost immediately I start adding qualifiers: “Your will be done, Lord – but I would really appreciate it if you would…” Giving up one’s freedom to the will of God can be much, much harder than it looks.

Finally, Jesus surrenders control. Without resisting, he allows himself to be taken captive and subjected to a series of impromptu trials, a brutal flogging, and death on a cross.

That ugly, blood-stained, wooden behemoth of a cross.

In Philippians 2:6-8, Paul quotes a first-century hymn describing this voluntary transition from glory to servanthood:

[Jesus], being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Jesus’ surrender to crucifixion forces me to rethink my own issues with surrender. He gave up everything to win the battle against sin and death. Sometimes I can barely win the battle against a Snickers bar. Oddly, I’m willing to surrender to Jesus for salvation, but not for the daily details of my life. For that, I surrender only part.

Jesus alone surrendered all.

So what can we do to move toward surrender? Here is what I think, and try to do – better on some days than others.


  • Understand the reasons behind the resistance. Instead of just confessing areas of known resistance, go deeper and examine what drives them. For instance, since publishing my first book I worry about whether people will like it or buy it, and whether I have any more good ideas in me. These are areas over which I have little control—yet I still worry. So I have to ask, what exactly do I fear? I admit I fear failure—but exactly what kind? Or maybe I’m afraid God will leave me stranded—but in what specific ways? Am I afraid I might end up alone and in poverty, or what? I think we should examine and question each worry and fear to find its driving motivation, because I believe those underlying motivations are where Jesus wants to set us free.
  • Focus on the cross. Our struggle to surrender to Jesus is one of the very reasons he was nailed to that cross. It always happens: five minutes after I say, “Yes, Lord, I surrender,” something comes along that causes worry. And then I surrender to that, instead of to God. I give in to my anxiety. But the cross is for everything—our yielded parts, and our unyielded parts too. If we don’t get that, we will beat ourselves up every single time we fail to surrender. Without the cross, we might as well quit before we blow it again.
  • Remember that the initial surrender to Christ is a good enough start. If you are a Christian, you have said “yes” to Jesus Christ. That is a huge start, and it is a big deal—even if you, like me, tend to keep worrying and trying to control the uncontrollable. Once we’ve said “yes” to the cross, Jesus graciously keeps working with us in each problem area of surrender, no matter how much we resist.

Victory - Surrendering to the cross of JesusThe thought of deeper surrender to Jesus has really been a battle within me during this season of Lent. But I think the fact that I can’t get it out of my mind is proof that it’s an area Jesus wants to enter.

In fact, the above passage from Philippians ends with this promise that he himself will help me to obey:

“Therefore, my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

So once again, I look to the cross this Holy Week and nail my struggle onto its blood-stained wood. Today, I am surrendering everything I can. Tomorrow, he’ll invite me to go deeper and then, as scripture promises, help me to follow.

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