The more a man dies to himself, the more he begins to live unto God
— Thomas a Kempis
I think one of the reasons we struggle to grow deeper with God is because we are unaware of anxiety’s grip. Anxiety competes for the space in which God resides – it blocks our awareness of God and shrinks our capacity to be fully present with each other. Anxiety comes in all manner of forms, not just worry or fear. It can look like anger, binging Netflix on the couch, interrupting someone when they’re speaking, quoting a scripture to someone in pain or even mansplaining!
An anxiety response is how we show up when we’re not getting what we think we need in any given moment. It is how we react to the internal or external pressure to do something or when we feel triggered or exposed.
When I first served as a trauma and hospice chaplain in my 20s, I would get anxious going into a room because I believed I needed to know what to say or what to do in rooms of high emotion and pain. For the first few months I thought I needed to know what to do, I believed I must say just the right thing to ease grief. I spent most of my childhood thinking I was stupid, so when I didn’t know what to say or do, I would often speak or act to manage my own feeling of inadequacy, rather than attending carefully to the people in pain in front of me. As an anxious chaplain, dealing with my own internal bubbling cauldron just below the surface, I was not even aware of God who was present in that room with those people.
Anxiety tries to shrink the power of the gospel because it wants us to believe another gospel – a gospel of false self rather than God. This other gospel is always bad news – always leading to more anxiety. But if we notice when it is at play and learn to die to it, we can flip the power dynamic. We go from being in its silent grip to holding it and then we can offer it to God and encounter actual, visceral freedom and peace of Christ, even in the midst of any storm. This, you might imagine, is no small journey and takes some practice. But it begins with a clear understanding of what is at play.
The consistent witness of the New Testament is that we experience freedom and life when we deny/crucify/mistrust something inside us that shrinks the gospel. What is inside us that gets in the way?
In the original greek language, Jesus talks about denying the autos or the ‘self.’
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves (auton) and take up their cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24.
When Paul writes about this same topic, he doesn’t talk much about the autos, his preferred descriptors are anthropos and sarx which are translated ‘man’ and ‘flesh.’
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh (sarx) with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, (anthropos) which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:24.
Even though Paul is using different words than Jesus, I believe he is warning us against the same thing. I count at least twenty-six occasions in the New Testament where Jesus, Paul and others promise freedom and life when we deny/crucify/watch out for the autos, sarx or anthropos.
Of course, we traditionally see Jesus and Paul warning us against sin in these passages, not anxiety. But what if sin and anxiety are correlated? In Romans, Paul describes sin more as a condition we are in (the noun hamartia), not just something we do (the verb hamartanō.) In Romans Paul uses the noun forty-six times and the verb twice. Sin has more to do with being infected and then healed, being trapped and needing rescue than just a list of right and wrong behaviors. As I study the nature of anxiety, how it shows up, how it gets us in its grip, I see high correlation between the forces of anxiety and sin. Not that anxiety is sin necessarily, but it lures us down a dark path like sin does and it never leads to life. It gets us in its grip before we’re even aware of it. I think what Jesus and Paul warn us against is what Thomas Merton calls the ‘false self’ and I think one fundamental reason we get stuck spiritually is we don’t realize just how often we depend on our false self when we think we’re depending on God.
Most of us carry a level of anxiety that we’re not even aware of – all manner of triggers, lies we believe, shame, perfectionism and impression management that keep us toxically stuck in self. The portal from that condition to freedom in Christ is dying to self and one simple, tangible way to die to self is to notice and then name anxiety. If you can name what triggers anxiety for you, it can become a gift not a curse, an early detection device to help you experience deeper freedom in Christ through dying to self. One quick note: if you don’t think you carry anxiety, ask someone who loves you how they know when you’re anxious.You might be surprised.
I make this sound much simpler than it is. I’ve been working on this for two solid decades and it is still an ongoing struggle. Maybe that is why Jesus invited us to die daily. Sometimes I need to die to it hourly or even minute-ly. But this practice has been a game changer for me. I am now more often fully present to people, less reactive, less in need of doing something and most profoundly, more able to access the freedom and peace that Christ promises. Easier written than done to be sure but well worth the journey.