By Douglas Cramer
There’s a phrase I like that sums up our life in the modern world: “We all wear many hats.” It’s true – we do. Time management gurus like Steven Covey encourage us to structure our schedules according to the different roles we play, the different hats we wear – spouse, parent, child, worker, householder, friend, athlete, volunteer. But here’s what’s great about the phrase “many hats” – if we think about it, it reminds us that even though we wear many hats, there’s one person, the same person, underneath each of them.
You know what’s wrong about focusing on our hats instead of the person underneath? It can lead us to fall in to a dangerous sin – the sin of anxiety. You may not think of anxiety as a sin. But Jesus Christ teaches us that anxiety leads us away from Him, and from our salvation. And whatever separates us from God is sinful. We must overcome anxiety and worry. And thank God, the Scriptures and the teachings of our Church teach us how.
Let me tell you though one thing that makes me anxious – the statistics on anxiety in America! According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 8 Americans between 18 and 54 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That’s 20 million people! Anxiety is the number one mental health problem for women, and second only to drug and alcohol abuse for men. Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in America, more common than even depression.
Now Ben Franklin once said: “Do not anticipate trouble or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.” Keep in the sunlight. And as Christians, don’t we know the source of the True Light? And don’t we know that we can learn to live in that Light?
This points us towards the solution to anxiety. We get ourselves tangled up when we are too concerned about what will happen in the future. We worry and obsess about problems that may never come. The solution to this is so simple, it can seem foolish. It lies in one of Jesus’s teachings from the Gospel of Matthew:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. ... Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.
Fr. Anthony Coniaris once wrote that God always gives us light for our path - but only enough for us to take the next step. When we look towards the future, do we see the light shining on our next step? Or do we only see that all the steps beyond the next are still dark? Do we see the light, or do we worry about what will happen to us in the dark?
This is why anxiety is a sin – because it is rooted in fear, fear of what might happen to us. And worrying about ourselves always drives us away from God. There’s a short book by the Christian writer CS Lewis that anyone can read, called “The Screwtape Letters.” It’s written as the letters of one devil to his underling Wormtongue, to teach him how to be better at tempting humans. The senior devil, Screwtape, tells Wormtongue that “There’s nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy [which is what the devils call God]. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”
When we are anxious about our future, about what will happen a month from now, or a year, or a decade, we are living as if we don’t believe in God. We are not trusting that He will be there for us. We are saying, “Even if there’s light shining on the next step I must take, I don’t trust You. I don’t trust that after I take that next step, You will shine your light on the step I must take after that.”
Our worry, our anxiety about the future, leaves us staring in to the unlit distance believing that all is dark. We can’t see; we’re blind. But if we follow our Lord’s teaching – “Do not worry about tomorrow” – we won’t be blind, we will be dazzled by the brightness shining on the next thing we need to do. And trusting in the light of God’s presence, we will focus on who we are now, instead of what we might need to do in the future. Of course it’s a lot easier to say “don’t worry, trust God” than it is to actually put it in to practice. But these are a couple of my own ideas about how to get started:
First, talk to God. If I start thinking that I’ve got to solve a problem all by myself, I start to worry. If it’s true that sharing a problem with someone else will help, how much more true is it that sharing a problem with God will help? So get in the habit of talking to God. Don’t get caught up in using words that sound prayerful. Just talk to God like you’d talk to someone you trust. “God, I’m worried about my meeting tomorrow. I’m worried I’ll get in trouble. I don’t know what to do.”
Next, listen! You know the old saying: We’ve got one mouth and two ears because we should listen twice as much as we talk. So listen for God’s answer, for a quiet voice – a voice in the heart, not the ears. Perhaps you’ll hear something like, “You’re worried about your meeting because you haven’t finished the project you promised you’d finish. Tomorrow you need to apologize for that; tonight you need to at least get started on it.”
Then, test God! This might seem disrespectful. But it’s not. In the book of Malachi, the Lord says:
Prove Me now in this ... if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.
If you want to learn to trust God, you need to test God. You need to do what God tells you to do, to take the next step that he has lit up for you, and see what happens. In my experience I always find that God leads me from anxiety and worry to peace and joy.
This isn't to belittle the seriousness of mental disorders. It is a sad truth that diseases of the brain are as real as any other physical illness, and that we should all be grateful to God for treatments that modern medicine has found for us. But we must understand that this fact co-exists with the fact that anxiety is also spiritual sickness, brokeness, and sin. And our Lord teaches us how to confront and heal this sickness.
Like any healing, overcoming anxiety takes time. If you are anxious, be gentle with yourself. Settle in to yourself, find the person under all the hats, and try to see the light that God is shining on the next step you should take. This light is His presence. He is here for us. Trust that He is showing you what you need to do next, this very moment. Remember the words of Jesus Christ: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” We must trust that God will be always be here for us. Trust, and we will find peace. Even more, we will find the Prince of Peace.
This reflection is adapted from a speech originally written for Fr. Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and SCOBA's Orthodox Christian Network. Learn more about the powerful ministries of OCN on their website, www.myocn.net .