Don’t Shut Down the Fire Alarm, Find the Fire!

By Keith Miller | March 30, 2010

Dear Keith, I’ve been troubled a lot with anxiety lately and seem to be having more problems with my relationships recently.  I have made a commitment to Christ and asked God for the filling of the Holy Spirit and I have done everything my friends have told me to do to get rid of this anxiety and these problems.  I have gone back to reading the Scriptures and praying regularly and I’ve gone to several people for counseling, but I still seem to have these problems.  Do you have any idea what this might mean?

You sound as if you think anxiety and problems are bad things and that you should do things to improve your spiritual life so these problems will go away.

I believe that problems and anxiety are not necessarily bad things.  I think any time we are anxious, it is like a fire alarm going off warning us that there is something not being faced either in our relationship with God, another person, ourselves, or with our work.  Some people, for instance, are overworking terribly and suddenly become anxious “for no reason at all.”

What I do when I become anxious or have a problem in a relationship is to stop and ask God, “What messages are you trying to get through to me?”  In other words, instead of praying that the anxiety will go away, I am learning to ask God, “What is the anxiety signaling that might help me get closer to You and to live more sanely as your person?”  Most often, the problem or the anxiety I am experiencing is merely a signal that something is wrong.  Rather than trying to get the signal to stop, I find it’s better to locate the fire or the difficulty that is causing the anxiety or the problem in the relationship. When I discover the real problem, and address it (which usually requires me to change some unacceptable behavior) then often the anxiety disappears.

For example, one day I woke up anxious, afraid, and feeling very insecure—all adding up to a frightening loneliness and doubt about the reality of my Christian commitment.   I hated to admit it, but my Christian friends began to get on my nerves. They seemed to be so untroubled, and I knew intuitively that some of them must have similar problems—but they just didn’t talk about it. So I started faking it, without even being conscious of it. Someone would call and say, “Hey, buddy, how are you feeling?” And I would reply, “Fine, things couldn’t be going better,” when in reality I was dealing with something serious or was worried sick.

Don’t misunderstand, I am not for telling everyone about your every ache and pain in order to be scrupulously honest, but sometimes I think we hide our less than joyful feelings because we believe that it is a denial of Christ to be miserable. Consequently I, and some of my friends, being human, were left alone and guilty in our times of misery.

Then I began to see that this position of hiding our humanity is that of the “whitewashed sepulchers” Jesus spoke of, smiling on the outside and rotten with guilt, anxiety, and incompleteness within. (See Mt. 23:23–28)

As I struggled with this problem, I had to take a new look at my humanity—the humanity of a man who wanted with all his heart to be God’s person and yet found himself anxious and restless inside. Why would I have vague feelings of unhealthy dependency and incompleteness, just when I seemed to be living a disciplined, outgoing life?

At last this search sent me to my knees, beginning again like a child.  God had used my anxious sense of incompleteness to drive me back to the place where I would again put my life in his hands.  The “fire,” in this particular case, was expecting myself to live up to some kind of image of what a “perfect Christian” would look like and hiding from myself the fact of my own humanity.

For me then, anxiety and restlessness as a Christian were not necessarily bad, but, like physical pain, they could be a warning signal—warning me that something was out of balance in my life, that I was somehow ignoring God—even while I was doing religious disciplines to “earn” some peace and quietness. And because of the signal that anxiety provided, I could stop and do something before I destroyed myself and the work I was trying to do.

At about that time, I remember being asked to speak to a men’s group on the subject “The Christian Life.” I went to the meeting and spent five or ten minutes telling the men very honestly that I was feeling weak and miserable. I was tired of speaking to groups and of being a Christian, and had even considered not coming that night. Then I told them that I had realized that whatever else had meaning to me besides God was so far back in second place that I had decided to come and tell them that I was a Christian almost by default—that is, there seemed to be no other way to find any purpose or meaning in my life at all. I had come to the meeting on the chance that some of them might live with misery and incompleteness too—that some of them might be looking for a Way that could give purpose and meaning even to a life that included anxiety and restlessness and the accompanying lack of confidence in themselves.

I thought that my honest and specific confession of my miserable restlessness and self-centeredness would compel these men to reject me and any message I might have to give them. Instead, I found a room full of brothers, of warm, struggling fellow human beings, who also needed a second touch from their Lord, even though many had been committed Christian ministers for years.

I have found that committing my life as wholly as I can to God and receiving the reassuring sense of his presence does give me a deep and ultimate security my humanity has longed for.  And, when I discover that I am again anxious, I remember that Jesus counted on his disciples having troubled hearts and told them he was sending the Holy Spirit to comfort or “strengthen” them when they did (see John 14). And not only that, but I now believe that restlessness and ultimate dependency, like pain and evil, are woven into the fabric of life perhaps to become the motivating power to drive us toward fulfillment in God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Understanding this, however, has not changed the fact that I find it very unpleasant to be anxious, restless, discouraged or afraid. It is all very well to understand that God will teach me something from the inexplicable and anxious periods and bring me closer to himself, but during these times I feel very lonely, and I still resist surrendering control of the people or situations to God in order to find God’s way. Only now, I can remember faster that when I’ve held out and refused to surrender, I have experienced long and unproductive sessions of introspection and discouragement.

My prayers come with this for you.  It has not been easy for me to accept the fact that I can even hide things from myself that I don’t want to face.  This may not be true of you, but based on my experience it’s what I have to offer you at this point.

Dear God, thank you that you have given us an “alarm system” for discovering things we cannot see about ourselves.  Help us to pay attention when the alarm signal goes off, and to begin to change any behaviors, thoughts or situations that have triggered the alarm.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:22-24 NIV

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.

James 5:16, The Message

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on Don’t Shut Down the Fire Alarm, Find the Fire!
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