My Anxious Limp
I am an anxious person. I’ve lived with this low-grade, steady-state level of anxiety for more years than I’d like to admit. It’s always there, like the hum of the refrigerator. It is so persistent that I often fail to recognize its presence until it’s gone.
I am writing this in a season of rest, on sabbatical. And as I have stepped away from the daily operations of ministry, devoting my time to my family, reading, writing and wrangling my yard, the hum of anxiety has quieted significantly. My heart has grown still. I have been able to rest. It’s been amazing.
But this season is just that: a season. In a few weeks, I am headed back into fray. I will take up again the burden of full-time pastoral ministry, with all its expectations, responsibilities and concerns. And I know for certain that my old nemesis will be following close behind.
There’s a sense in which I’m just wired with a propensity toward fear and anxiety. My body just doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. I shouldn’t have a physical response to non-issues. My email shouldn’t trigger a fight-or-flight response. I shouldn’t just feel afraid.. But here I am.
I’ve come to realize that this anxiety I (and many others) experience is, in a sense, different than the worry Jesus talks about in Matthew 6. It’s not always concrete, and doesn’t always correspond to a specific concern. My body just misfires signals, tricking me into thinking that something is wrong when it’s not.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I get a pass. Matthew 6 is meant for me too. I just have to recognize that I’m starting with a deficit.
We live in a broken world with real physical deterioration. All of us have some physical limitation — many have serious limitations. Most of us will grow old. We all die. I know that my propensity toward anxiety is a result of living in our fallen world.
Over the years, I’ve come to see my anxiety as a kind of “Jacob’s limp.” Long ago, Jacob was attacked in the dark by the angel of God. After wrestling him all night long, he was redemptively released with a new name — and a limp (Gen. 32).
I resonate with this story, because several years ago, God wrestled me to the ground in a violent, dark night of the soul. It was awful. But as I lay pinned to the ground in a dark, paralyzing spiritual anxiety, I saw Jesus with clearer eyes than I had ever before. It was there His gospel became palpable. But as He released me, I discovered I was limping. Not physically, but mentally. Jesus left me with an anxious limp as a constant reminder of His mercy.
Don’t Try to Do God’s Job
To be honest, I don’t like the inconvenience of the limp. I envy those with skin like rhino hide, who appear to plow through life with confidence and never a worry in the world. Yet, I know that my limp is a gift. It is the way Jesus trains me to follow Him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Discipleship, writes this on Matthew 6:25-34:
“It is not worrying which makes the disciples worry-free; it is faith in Jesus Christ. Now they know: we cannot worry (v. 27). The next day, the next hour is completely out of our hands’ reach. It is meaningless to behave as if we could worry. We can change nothing about the conditions of the world. Only God can change the conditions, for example, a body’s height, for God rules the world. Because we cannot worry, because we are so powerless, we should not worry. Worrying means taking God’s rule onto ourselves.”1
Now I know this at one level, but I don’t always live it. It’s easy to blame my anxiety as just “the way I am,” and to ignore Jesus’ instruction. But to do so is to conflate anxiety-as-weakness with worry-as-sin.
Anxiety is one way I am weak. It is a mental condition that makes me more susceptible to worry. Worry, however, is the act of listening to my body’s fear signals rather than Jesus, picking up that concern as something to be controlled, and nurturing it with fear in the self-deceived illusion that this is the best way to bring control to the situation.
It is a lie. Worry is nothing more than an illusion of control. Why? I am powerless. Worry is a kind of bondage that keeps me from living freely, because it keeps me from walking in faith with my good, good Father.
God has been calling me into this reality lately. To believe that He is big enough — not just conceptually, but subjectively and really — to receive the nuggets of concern sunk at the bottom of my overactive mind. I have been learning that every anxious sensation presents me with a choice: faith or idolatry.
As the inevitable concern flits into my head, my heart rate accelerates, my mind begins to whine at a high RPM, I can choose to take hold of that whirring worry and bottle feed it with fear and the foolish belief that I am powerful — or I can hand-deliver it to my strong and faithful Father in heaven.
I’m slowly learning to do the latter. And here’s the beauty of this little lesson: unlike the false sense of control gained by worry, when we deliver these concerns to our Father, we actually get something done. Because after all, He’s the only One who can change the conditions of the world I am so helpless against.
The Gospel-Shape of Giving Up Control
It’s humbling really, because this is as fundamental as it gets. God’s power and authority is precisely what sets Him apart as God. My relative powerlessness and dependence on Him is what marks me as a creature. This should be a no-brainer for us.
And yet, we discover that the Christian life is a continual process of coming to terms with this reality. To become a follower of Jesus, I had to admit that I have no righteousness of my own. In my sanctification, I’ve had to realize that I can do no good apart from the power of the Spirit. As I share the gospel, I realize that I cannot make those I love follow Jesus.
But this bleak awareness of my powerlessness does not lead me to despair. It is rather the regular act of opening my eyes to the all-sufficient power of the One who loves me to the uttermost. It is the awakening of my soul to God’s powerful intervention.
And so I lock on to the cross, where I died in helpless abandonment of all my pathetic attempts at self-salvation. I see the bloodied tree where my God stood in my place. And I draw my eyes forward. If He loved me that much there; if He supplied my greatest need in my greatest weakness then; if He loved me in my utter helplessness and gave me riches of grace beyond anything I could ever deserve — will He not also shoulder the thousand other tiny things I cannot control?
I am learning to answer my own question more consistently: “Yes. Yes He will.”
“…the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:32-33)
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 2015, p. 137 ↩