Don’t Let Worry Send You to the Sidelines

In a recent post on Leadership Journal’s PARSE blog, Joel Looper quoted some incisive words from German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “It always seems to me that we leave room for God only out of anxiety.” This quotation–and the entire article–captured my attention because I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about worry and anxiety and how our choice to worry compromises our ability to live by faith.

It also caught my attention because of Bonhoeffer’s context. His complaint is particularly striking when we recognize that he wrote these words in a German military prison in April 1944, two months before the D-Day invasion made Germany’s defeat begin to look inevitable. A year later Bonhoeffer would be executed in a concentration camp, just two weeks before American soldiers liberated the camp.

Writing when and where he did, Bonhoeffer had many reasons to worry and on the surface, few assurances. I imagine his times as laced with anxiety, the shadow of death looming over the planet and driving many to seek God as an antidote to their fear. He recognized this kind of religious anxiety wasn’t enough. It simply reinforced the traditions of religion rather than advanced the true message of Christ.

But Looper’s point is a more modern one, and so is mine.

Looper claims too many Christians are exercising religion and showing up at church in a spirit of fear: “We’re there because we fear being without God in a world that’s leaving us behind. We’re there because we fear the economy, the housing bubble, and the stock market. We fear the changing social mores and government intrusions. We fear persecution in a society that has protected freedom of Christian practice throughout history. We fear the weather. We fear being alone. We fear losing the life to which we’ve grown accustomed.”

Ouch.

This spirit of fear, Looper claims, is driving young adults away from engagement with the church. And no wonder: Who wants to join a movement that promises spiritual rest and peace when its faithful followers appear to be consumed with worry? when self-soothing and huddled comfort seem to be the main motivations for participation?

But within the church, this culture of fear produces more than a PR problem. It produces a bunch of believers who have placed themselves at the margins of society because they are too consumed with their own worries to pay attention to their God-given calling.

Worry is a powerful paralytic agent. It slows us down, blocks the flow of intention in our lives, and sends us to sit on the sidelines in soul sleep. When we’re worried, we . . .

– focus on negative possibilities and our own limitations. We lose sight of the miraculous, our own God-given potential, and even the everyday signs of God’s presence in our world. (For more on this, see “Is God Missing from Your Future?”)

– don’t live a life informed by faith. We live by what we can see here and now, rather than “assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1).

– lose our openness to God’s bigger picture because we’re focused on our own concerns. We lose sight of God’s higher ways (Isaiah 55:8-9) and his tremendous capacity for plans that go far beyond what we could dream up. Sometimes we even forget that God is good.

– get distracted by worry. This is a kind of distraction that places our own preoccupations close to our faces, where they block our view of God’s work. Blinded to what he is doing around us, deaf to the voice of the Holy Spirit, we miss out on comfort, direction, and the opportunity to participate in the audacious advances of an everlasting kingdom.

Worried people aren’t much good to other people. A worried church isn’t much good to the world. When Jesus’ followers allow worry to paralyze us and place us on the sidelines, we diminish the impact the church is supposed to have in this world as people of peace, hope, and abundant life.

So what is a worried Christian to do?

Well, I wrote a book on the subject, and I happen to think it has several helpful ideas–I won’t rehash them here. But here’s a starting point: We must embrace the full implications of “God with us.”

During Advent and the Christmas season, we celebrate our Immanuel, savoring our amazement in the baby Jesus, whose birth meant that God literally came to dwell among us as a human. But God’s presence with humans didn’t start there–nor did it stop there. Just as God dwelt among his people in the ancient Tabernacle, then the Temples which followed, he dwells in and among us. Our bodies are Tabernacles (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) and Temples (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) in which God has placed his presence. As followers of Christ, wherever we go, his Spirit and presence go as well. And “if God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

More of us–or maybe all of us–need to grasp and build our lives around this astounding reality. Courage is found in the presence of a powerful protector. Peace is found in trust and surrender. Hope is found in faith. God is with us! We have all we need to stand in our place of strength and hope in this world, like a well-lit city high on a hill (Matthew 5:14-16). For, in the words of Bonhoeffer, “The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.”

© 2015 Amy Simpson.