I have been very busy with school since Christmas. Besides this fact, it has also been the Dark Months – working nights, I wake up after the sun has disappeared, and go to bed just as it is rising. January and February represent for me a particular kind of Hell for this reason. Thankfully, It is now March and I am getting a little sunlight every day. Easter and summer are coming, finally.
That’s not what I want to write about right now. Well, not precisely at least. It’s maybe connected, but in a loose sort of way.
Longtime readers of this blog (all three of you) may know that I struggle with anxiety at times. often it is minor, a kind of tic in the back of my brain telling me that something is not quite right. Every four or five years, though, the feeling of ‘wrongness’ explodes, filling my entire body with a palpable sensation of unease. It hits my gut, full-on – my digestion gets screwed up, I stop eating properly, I can’t sleep well. My mind fixates on far-off and uncontrollable events – back in 2009 it was the outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic, this time it was the Ukraine crisis – and I find it hard to concentrate on anything. I begin to doubt.
First the doubt is vocational - I’m thirty years old, is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?
Next comes educational - I’m not smart enough, I can’t write well enough, I’m not up to this.
Finally the doubt manifests as theological. God? Who is this God? What kind of God would put us here, in this broken screwed up world? Afterlife? What afterlife? Once the electrical signals stop flickering in your obsessive brain, you’re done man. Just done. That’s it. Stop bothering with God. He can’t hear you.
Then I get scared.
This all takes place over the course of a few days, with the theological part usually hitting suddenly and lasting a few hours, a day at most. Life seems almost pointless – not in a suicidal kind of way, just in a ‘everything is meaningless’ sort of way. That’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it? Meaning? That’s what we’re all looking for. The idea that we’re alone in the universe is terrifying.
Every time this happens (and it’s happened maybe three or four times in my life), I’m always afraid that it won’t end. I pray, and I’m terrified that I won’t hear anything back. I think, and I’m terrified that my brain will lead me down rabbit holes that there is no escape from.
Don’t get me wrong, some doubt is helpful and healthy. If we never doubted, we would never discover anything. If we never doubted, we would still think the sky to be a solid dome, and think that hell was somewhere below us and if we just dug far enough we would find it. Doubt, the refusal to accept things to be the way they seem, and a desire to find out how things actually are, is good. When my anxiety gets going, though, the doubt becomes soul-sucking and destructive. It starts to feel like there is no hope, no answers, just a big rotten hunk of rock hurtling through space. Meaningless. A nihilist would call these ‘moments of clarity’. I think the nihilist would be wrong.
Fortunately these anxiety attacks do not last long for me. I’m sure others struggle with the same thing though, and so here I’m writing down the process through which I find hope in chaos.
First, I pray. I don’t pray often enough, and usually the anxiety hits when my praying has ceased almost entirely. Prayer is helpful. Maybe Psychosomatic – I don’t care. It feels good. In the early stages of an anxiety attack, I’m just trying to feel good.
Second, I remember. I remember the times when God has shown up for me. I remember my friend Ricky, and the light in his eyes before Jesus took him home. I remember the feeling of standing on the beach, the wind in my hair, sure, absolutely sure, that this creation is no mere accident. I remember that our God is a God who suffers. He is not aloof, not distant, and not impotent… But also not domineering and not compelling. Our God is not coercive. Having a coercive god would be much easier actually. But no, our God, rather than coercing us, suffers with us. His heart breaks for the abused and battered woman, for the child left alone thanks to the horrors of war, for the poor, the marginalized, the addicted and the cast-out. He suffered, and suffers – we worship a God who understands suffering intimately – or so the story goes.
But in the midst of my doubt and anxiety, I question the story. What if it is just a projection, as Freud and others have suggested? What if religion is the opiate of the masses? What if that whole Jesus thing never took place? It is absurd, after all. The dead don’t rise. A car battery can’t jumpstart itself. Once the lights are out, no one is home.
And then I remember the witnesses. Men and women, throughout the centuries, willing to die for the sake of the Gospel, but unwilling to kill for it. I think of Stephen, the first martyr. of Perpetua and Felicity, singing hymns as the lions of the colosseum approached. Of Dirk Willems, who rescued his pursuer knowing it meant certain death for his own life.
These witnesses, especially the early ones, point me to Christ. They point me to an individual so radical, so different from the rest of society, that people were willing to die for him. This remembering has been the role of martyrs (which means ‘witness’) for centuries now. And it was the realization of the conviction of the martyrs which caused my anxiety to ebb again. If they can go to death trusting in Christ, surely I can place my faith at his feet as well.
This doesn’t mean I don’t doubt. I absolutely do. And I’m sure the anxiety will flare again in the future, and all the insecurities will come rushing back once more. But for now, for now I am content. For now I trust. For now my heart is at peace, and I know that God is for me rather than against me. This may not seem satisfying to some, but for me it’s the difference between heaven and hell, light and dark, day and night. Christ is lord, and the resurrection of the dead is true. Hallelujah.