Throughout the Old Testament, God is shown to be a God who knows.
His omniscience is one of His most commonly spoken attributes. “God knows what you’re going through.” “God knows what’s going to happen.” “God only knows what I’d be without you.” OK, maybe that last one was a Beach Boys lyric, but it fits. It’s God’s omniscience that we see proven over and over again,
My favorite case of this is how Israel asks for a king. The story is found in 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel asked Samuel the prophet to give them a king. Samuel is a little peeved, but when he speaks to God, God allows it.
“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them,” God says in v. 7. In v. 9, He continues, “Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
This is a fulfillment of what God had said in Deuteronomy: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose” (17:14-15a).
Just like God knows your struggle with mental illness. He may seem far away. I certainly feel that way many times, wondering why in the world God would leave me here on earth like this, crippled by a mind that doesn’t quite work right. But He is there. I have to believe He is there, or else this is all pointless.
But it’s not a blind faith. Just look at how God takes care of His people.
Jesus the Miracle Worker
Jesus’ earthly ministry, in retrospect, seems to be a lot about healing people of worldly diseases. A list of his miracles would be incomplete without healing the son of the nobleman (John 4:46-47), casting out an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), curing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:30-31), healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45), healing the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), rising the widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-18) and raising the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26). And that’s just a small sampling of the many miracles that Jesus performed.
This is evidence of Jesus’ supernatural powers. In this age of reason and academics — both of which are to be praised at times — the miraculous supernatural part of Jesus may get the short end. But it’s evidence of His God-ness or, if you don’t buy into the whole Trinity thing, that God blessed him to perform mighty works in God’s name.
What these stories show, and Jesus’ overall compassion for the ill and needy, is the Father’s heart for those who are sick. Whatever form that sickness takes, the physical embodiment of God on earth stopped to take care of those who needed assistance. And there’s a good chance there were many more than we have recorded. John famously wrote that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).
It’s near-impossible today to 100 percent accurately attribute a healing to a miracle performed by God. The body created by God and its self-healing ability is so fascinating and intricate and powerful in and of itself, doctors just get better and better at what they do and new medicines can do amazing things. But if Jesus cared about people’s physical health on earth, it’s at the very least likely, to me, that He still cares about our health, extending beyond the physical to the mental and more.
The Spiritual Healer
After one of His miracles, Jesus was walking along the road when He spotted Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus called the man to follow Him, and Matthew did.
“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I come to call not the righteous but sinners’” (Matthew 9:10-13).
Aside from being one of my favorite gospel passages, this exchange shows why Jesus came to earth in the first place. He equated spiritual lostness — being a “sinner” — with being physically sick. The Greek word iastros is used, meaning “physician.” It’s the same label applied to Luke, the author of the gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, in Colossians 4:14.
In this way, we see Jesus explaining the problem of spiritual lostness in medical terms, something they could understand. Being without salvation, without righteousness, was a sickness that needed a cure. And doctors, those who can provide that healing, do no good by hanging out with those who were well. They need to be among those who are sick.
Those of us who struggle with mental illness are sick. It’s a reality we can’t escape. It’s just a thing. But Jesus was willing to be seen and dine with those who were spiritually sick, as well as physically sick.
Cake and Water
Another one of my favorite Bible stories is that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After defeating the prophets of Baal in the showdown of a lifetime and then killing all 450 of them by a river (read 1 Kings 18 for that Lord of the Rings-worthy tale), Queen Jezebel of Israel called for Elijah’s head. Fleeing a day’s journey into the wilderness, 1 Kings 19 records, Elijah asks that God takes away his life. Lying under a broom tree he falls asleep. Verses 5b-9 record:
“Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.”
In the depth of incredible mental and emotional distress, God provided respite and restoration for Elijah. He didn’t remove the situation, didn’t take away the feelings or thoughts. He simply provided some food and drink.
I feel like there’s something incredibly symbolic about this. Elijah wanted to die. He wanted to be taken away. He says in v. 4, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” The Hebrew word for “enough” was rāb. In other places, it’s translated as “so great,” “plenty” and “too much.” Elijah had reached a breaking point and was ready to give it all up. But God met Him in this moment.
The text does not say the “cake” is bread. For his sake, I hope it was one of my mom’s chocolate cinnamon fudge cakes, because those things are good. But God, though “the angel of the LORD,” provided him sustenance for the journey ahead.
This is not to say that every time you are in emotional or mental distress God will meet you with a cake and a jar of water out of nowhere. That’s just a part of Elijah’s story, and everything that happens to Him cannot be applied universally. But in these stories, in the Old and New Testaments, we see the character of God shine forth to those in need of healing, to those who are sick, to those who are hurting.
Who is to say that same character, that same compassion, does not shine forth to us today? We may not always see it, we may not always know it, but I bet you it is there.
He’s in the hand that reaches out to provide a meal, a warm hug, a kind word. Speaking of the Son of Man coming into his glory in later times, Jesus says of those who helped the needy, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
He’s in the person who ditches their whole schedule to pray for you or send you a note or play a game with you to distract you. Jesus says to His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
He’s in the one who doesn’t reject you in your weirdness or anguish or naïveté. “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way” (Matthew 19:13-15).
This is the God on whom you can rely, in your darkest hour of sadness, emotional turmoil and heartache. You may not see Him, you may not feel Him, but I promise you He is there. His character eliminates any other possibility.
Most public Christians would tell you up front that they’re not Jesus, they’re not saints (in the common slang-ish use of the word). They’re simply people who believe in a God and think He saved them.
It’s true: We’re sinners saved by grace.
That kind of faith — or at least philosophy, or way of thinking — has led Christians to do a lot of things over the years. It’s encouraged people to fight wars, colonize nations, keep slaves, free slaves, start businesses, save lives, commit crimes, teach, help, donate money, donate time, picket, protest, pander and argue on social media till their fingers are sore.
Why it’s led people to do those things — and why some of those bad things happened — is for another time, but built into Christianity and many, if not all, religions is this idea that what you think or believe spurs you to action. The faith/religion/commitment becomes a motivating force for some kind of activism.
Yes, activism. Though the term is usually allocated to special interest groups, nonprofits or political parties, we all participate in some form of activism — unless you’re a hermit. But even that in itself is activism.
You are an activist, in the purest sense of the word, for some cause. Maybe it’s your kids’ academic excellence. Maybe it’s to get your friends more involved in throwing axes for fun. Maybe it’s to get your company to start stocking Reese’s Fast Break bars in the vending machine. If you have something you care about and you advocate for it openly, on a large scale or in a small setting you are an activist.
Christians have been activists for various things over the years, and as we’ve said, sometimes for good things and sometimes for bad. Something that’s often fallen by the wayside in this category is mental health.
That’s not to say that all Christians today don’t care about mental health. Some pastors regularly speak on the topic, and books have been written that tackle the subject from a spiritual and psychological angle. Authors and speakers share their personal stories of depression and anxiety, faith and doubt, fear and failure, relief and rest.
All that is much needed.
If you’re reading this essay, odds are you already agree with that statement. But if you don’t, or you need a supplementary push for increasing awareness in your church or helping your Christian friends understand, this is for you.
Because if God cared about it, we should too.
A Matter of Consistency
Many churches and parachurch organizations have made their name on the basis of their charitable works.
Samaritan’s Purse, which defines itself as a “nondenominational Christian organization,” has helped more than 39,000 families impacted by U.S. natural disasters since 1998 and has delivered more than 157 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 160 countries and territories around the world since 1993, according to the agency’s website.
World Vision, a self-described “global Christian humanitarian organization,” says it helps more than four million children in nearly 100 countries with education and healthcare and brought clean water to 3.2 million people in 2017.
On a much more local level, Cookson Hills Christian School in Kansas, Oklahoma — yes, a city called Kansas in the state of Oklahoma — provides “home, school and therapy for kids who are at-risk” for little to no cost. The organization states that contributions from families of the children in its care amount for less than 1 percent of their total costs. The school cares for up to 120 children at a time.
There’s a good chance your local church does work like this. The church I went to for middle and high school, Turner’s Chapel in Sanford, N.C., had several opportunities for people to serve and the church to make an impact. Four times a year, a group from the church served a meal to homeless and low-income individuals on Saturdays, and we provided items to the meal’s hosting agency for its food pantry year-round. Once a year, a group from the church goes to a deaf village in Jamaica to do light construction and maintenance work on buildings. Those were just the publicized things — there’s no telling how many little bits of assistance here and there were provided to needy members on a weekly basis.
That’s the modus operandi of most local churches. Along with giving the Gospel, churches seek to meet earthly needs of those, well, in need. The prayer lists are regularly stocked with sick members, relatives and friends, along with those who have lost jobs, had babies and are moving.
That’s what living out being followers of Jesus looks like. More on that in a minute.
It’s in the church’s DNA to extend themselves for those hurting and struggling. What should make mental health any different? How inconsistent would we be if we simply ignored someone’s severe depression, but put another person’s broken leg on the prayer list? Why shouldn’t we seek to offer meals to the one whose anxiety has kept them in bed for days? Why shouldn’t we aim to provide house-cleaning help to the person whose OCD has mentally paralyzed them?
If we’re aiming to be a consistent presence in this world, the church must care about mental health.
Following the Savior’s Lead
It’s amazing how often Jesus and the other Bible writers spoke about mental concerns.
Most of us will hear passages and apply them to ourselves and our everyday stressors — the kids, the mortgage, the in-laws. Those stresses are real and should be addressed. But individuals with mental health disorders face those situations constantly, often over things you’d never guess.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the audience to “not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He says that God knows those in the audience needs all those things.
Jesus, it seems, was aware of His audience’s needs and stresses. He didn’t ignore their mental state and their worries. He addressed them, spoke directly to them — “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). What that actually means practically is certainly worth discussing, but at the very least, we can see that Jesus cared for His follower’s concerns and what weighed them down.
Providing some exhortations to the church in Philippi, Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Paul, who spent time with the Savior and spoke with Him regularly, provides room for people who are worrying to express their fears and offered them some help.
He’s not saying “stop worrying.” He’s saying, “Hey, there is no literal foundation for your worrying. And God doesn’t promise to take away that worrying feeling, he’ll just replace it with something else.” I don’t think Paul is excluding the possibility of mental health disorders here. I think he’s just acknowledging that worry is there, and there’s help there. Worry and anxiety are not the double-edged sword of doubt that James speaks of.
In writing about individuals’ relationship with God, Peter exhorts the elders to be humble. He adds, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). I was once going to write a book on 1 Peter 5:6-7 — I’ve started probably 30 books over my lifetime and only finished one — because there’s so much packed in there theologically and about my own life. The driving force was that any anxiety you have, I was going to write, can be cast on God because of His care.
The root Greek for “cast” there is epiriptó. One of the stems, rhiptó, is used to describe Judas ditching the pieces of silver given him for betraying Jesus (Matthew 27:5). Just like Judas threw away the pieces of silver, like a burden to his guilty soul, we can cast our anxiety on Jesus, recklessly, lifting a weight and placing it somewhere else.
I just compared Judas Iscariot to casting anxieties on God. Isn’t the Bible amazing?
Jesus and His followers, those who wrote in the Bible, spent time addressing mental health and how we think about things. For us to not do so is to fail to follow in their footsteps.
Close Ties to the Spiritual
The Bible never instructs its readers, to my knowledge at least, to “feel” a certain way.
When I realized that, it was a great lift to my soul. But as I considered the Bible, and how Jesus instructed His disciples, and how the early church leaders spoke to the body of Christ, and even how God spoke to the Israelites through the prophets, it was clear to me that the instruction through the ages was about thinking.
One of Paul’s keystone instructions in Philippians 4 deals with this exactly: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (v. 8). Paul tells the Corinthian church that he and those in his ministry are marked by “tak(ing) every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). He writes to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3).
There is much instruction from Scripture that revolves around thinking properly. We often talk in the church about the “Christian worldview,” which is a way and pattern of thinking. Our thoughts are tied so closely to our spiritual lives, and our thoughts are where mental illnesses live.
Depression and anxiety affects my emotions, for sure, but they also affect my thoughts. They make me think things that are not true. They can even stop my thinking, clog up the thought process with fear and panic. They lead to obsession over thoughts that don’t make sense, take up precious minutes and hours of my day with their tight grip. Thus, it harms my spiritual life.
We are adamant, at least in our ideals, to eliminate things that distract us from Jesus, right? Any sin we commit is a barrier between us and God, and to truly have communion with Him, we must kill sin.
My mental health is a barrier between me and God. That doesn’t mean it’s sinful. That just means it’s a barrier. So ideally, we’d deal with it with the same level of fervor we deal with sin.
There’s a song by the band Paradise Fears called “Sanctuary.” There’s been lots of times in my life when the lyrics have spoken to me. It’s not a Christian song, but it might as well be the cry of someone begging for a place to call home.
“So go ahead and lie to yourself, and pretend that you’re a ray of light when you’re a broken candle. You keep in time with yourself — when did it all start moving way too fast for you to handle? You’re short on breath and heavy on time…It’s so dark in the room, and the ceilings are high. You know the feeling — you’ve been here before. It’s a broken old pew, and it’s an echoing cry.”
I’ve been there, many times before. The song rings true to me again now as I write these words. You end up in a broken place. You’ve been lying to yourself, saying everything’s OK, but deep down, you’re hurt. You’re struggling.
You need a place to go, a place to heal, a place to be yourself, open and free. Far too often for people with mental health disorders, the church has not been that place.
Shouldn’t it be the opposite? What did Jesus say about Him spending time with the sinners and tax collectors? “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). Jesus came to earth, and exists still today, to provide comfort to those who are needy.
What did He say to those who are exhausted? “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
While on Earth, Jesus set Himself up as a comfort and a rest for people, even those who are young and naive. What did He say about the children who wanted to be with Him? “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).
Jesus is a welcomer, not a rejecter; a lover, not a fighter; a Good Samaritan, not a Levite passing by on the other side of the road. Shouldn’t His house be the place where we can find healing and rest? We may not come to church to be cured of our mental illnesses, but we can and should come to find understanding, rest and love.
“Sometimes you can just be in a funk creatively or, you know, as a person, and it’s like there’s a fog around you and you can’t see out of it, but that’s part of the journey.” – Andy Mineo, “Clarity”
“Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.” – Pete Holmes, Comedy Sex God
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of something being “clear” or “transparent.”
In journalism, clarity and transparency are very important. Without those two things, we can’t really do our job right. If the truth isn’t clear, it’s our responsibility to dig and ask questions and figure out what is true. Transparency is vital, and it’s one of our main goals as reporters to be both transparent ourselves and to hold others to the same standard.
For most of my life, the faith journey as a Christian has been about gaining understanding and clarity, about trying to see God as transparently as possible and know what He says and what He wants. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I learn, it seems, that things aren’t as clear as I thought they were — with the Bible, with the world, what it means to be a Christian — and life seems to be more about the journey, about working through the fog instead of getting out of it.
These are my mediations on that thought.
Growing up, the message I got on the Bible was pretty clear: it’s God’s Word, it’s all true and it’s all applicable to us today.
In fact, the Bible was God speaking to us, a love letter, a manual, “basic instructions before leaving earth,” as it were. It was direct communication from God to me, with directions for how to live as a Christian. And I spent most of my life living that and believing that.
But in the last year or so, as I’ve dealt with more of real life and grown as a person and a reader, I’ve seen that the Bible, to my understanding, was never meant to be that. I’m choosing not to get into here what exactly led me to that, but I’m left with this uncertainty.
So when someone says something is “biblical” now, I’m left asking questions because, and I’ll throw you this bone here, the Bible is a very complex, complicated, ancient and diverse book. Its sections were written over thousands of years to several different groups of people by several different authors with varying motives, some of them clear and some of them unclear.
For example, near the end of his Gospel, John writes that “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But not every book of the Bible is that transparent in its meaning and purpose, so we’re left making well-educated, and often well-intentioned, guesses.
What are the psalms for? In some cases, it seems to be David’s personal journal, pouring out his heart before God — and for a choir director to put to music. In other cases, it’s a recounting of who God is and what He’s done. In other cases, it’s asking God to put enemies to death and provide victory on the battlefield.
For us to look at the Psalms as a whole and say it’s all trying to say one thing would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it? A bit intellectually dishonest? Ignorant of proper literary criticism?
Why should we not apply that method to the whole Bible? Yes, there are central themes — God, His relationship with Israel, the coming Messiah — but the whole Bible put together is not ultimately about one thing. 3 John covers hospitality and calling out one dude in the church that Gaius, the letter’s recipient, is running. Obadiah covers a prophecy from God about the land of Edom and Israel’s final triumph. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon don’t even say the word “God” in them. For us to claim the whole Bible is an instruction manual/“for us”/a love letter is at best a stretch and at most an improper appreciation for what it is.
It’s diverse. It tells different stories of different peoples at different times from us — or at least, my general perception of “us,” mostly-white America in the 21st century. The original recipients of the Bible’s sections looked nothing like us, spoke nothing like us and had a very different culture than we have. And since we didn’t live like them or experience that culture, how can we say for certain what specific things mean?
That’s not to say there’s nothing for us. There are timeless truths and indelible wisdom throughout the Bible that we can apply to our circumstances, our lives and our situations today. The book of Proverbs is chock full of wisdom both practical and spiritual. The life of Jesus and His characteristics as shown in the Gospels are perfect and worth trying to emulate in our own context, and we can learn object lessons from the stories in Exodus, 1 Samuel and the Kings, among others. And, most importantly, we can learn how to be in relationship with a perfect and loving God and be forgiven of our sins.
But I think it’s crucial for me, at least, and for all of us to take into consideration that the Bible isn’t quite clear on everything. There are contradictions, and there are instances of historical context that undergird everything we read. We need to take that into account when we read the Bible and give ourselves and it space and time to understand and be understood.
Stephen Covey’s seven habits for highly-successful people are well-known, and one particular one sticks out to me as I meditate on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before we go and try to put our spin on the Bible, it’s vital that we take the time to really understand what’s happening in the historical background of its pages before we go making pronouncements of our opinions on it. Where that might lead us — to the disappointment of many, including me — is uncertainty and murkiness.
And that’s so opposite what we’re taught as Christians. We are the bastions of absolute truth, of what’s real, of what’s clear. But in reality, if we take the term “biblical” at its most literal, which we should, there aren’t a lot of things that are really “biblical.” There are things that are “godly” — like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — and things we can and should “think on” — like truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence and worthiness (Philippians 4:8) — but to apply statements to the Bible as a whole, I think, is missing the point. It’s not always “clear” or “transparent.”
In sixth grade, I started going to school dances, at which I’d hear the popular music of the day while standing against the wall and, every once in a while, getting a cute girl to dance with me. She wouldn’t look at me much while we were dancing, something I always thought was weird, but now I see that as “I’m just trying to be nice to you, but I’d rather be slow-dancing with somebody else.”
Sorry, this isn’t supposed to be about me re-living past trauma.
I entered sixth grade in 2004, so some of the songs I heard included great songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank (No. 6 on the Billboard Year-End chart), “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (No. 35) and “Sorry 2004” by Reuben Studdard (No. 53). Some of the other songs were a little less innocent: “Yeah!” by Usher with Lil Jon and Ludacris (No. 1), “Lean Back” by Terror Squad (No. 10) and “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz with the Ying Yang Twins (No. 70).
That last one is particularly, well, explicit in its exploration of the artists’, well, appreciation for the female form while dancing. The popular line in the chorus — “to the window, to the wall” — would ring through my ears throughout the ride back home in my parents’ car.
I remember one time after a dance saying that I liked the music, the instrumental background, but some of the lyrics were nasty. I still think some of them are. For real, just ugly and disturbing.
There’s two reflections I have on this. First, I think it says more about Americans as music consumers than the artists as composers that songs like “Get Low” was that popular. It was No. 11 on the year-end Billboard chart in 2003, behind the classics “Ignition (Remix)” by the now appropriately-shamed R. Kelly (No. 2) and “Right Thurr” by Chingy (No. 7).
I could slide in references to these songs all day, but the second reflection I have on this time was a subtle lesson I learned: the world can’t be trusted. The world has it all wrong. They’re focused on the wrong things.
My perspective started to shift when I saw a tweet from then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. He wrote about how bad pornography is for a relationship and how it harms you.
My mind was blown. This guy, who was an arrogant guy from all appearances, was saying something good and positive. Johnson has certainly had his off-the-field (and on-the-field, for that matter) issues before and after that tweet, but the message still stands.
Perhaps it was my misunderstanding what the church was trying to teach me about the world in the first place, but my mind was changed. The world wasn’t all bad.
In modern Christian culture, we often use “the world” as shorthand for non-Christians, usually in a context like, “The world does this, but you shouldn’t do that. You should do this. You should be different.” That was the general reasoning given for avoiding things from R-rated movies to alcohol to cigarettes to cursing. There were other reasons, but that was the underlying motivation. Having that mindset led to me having a judgmental attitude toward friends in high school or college that would watch and love R-rated movies (particularly ones with sex in them), cuss, do physical stuff with their girlfriends and more.
But as I got older, I learned more about why people did what they did, and I found it wasn’t so clear and obvious like I was taught. Sometimes people drink for more reasons than sin — it can be fun, and just like playing a board game or a round of golf, bonding can happen over a beer. R-rated movies can be good entertainment and even teach us lessons about life that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Basically, I learned that not being a Christian didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good person, that you couldn’t make a difference, that you weren’t worth listening to and understanding and appreciating. Non-Christians shifted from a salvation project to people and friends. Not being a Christian slipped from my list of judgment-worthy qualities. To be fair, it’s a list I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place.
It’s not clear that the world is all bad, or that it’s just something we should “be in, but not of.” I think Paul argued this point: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22). His example is stunning, as is Jesus’ as he spent time with sinners and tax collectors (many times, but particularly in Matthew 9:10). In a society where the “righteous” Jews didn’t associate with outsiders and pariahs, not only did Jesus speak to them — see the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 — He ate with them and went to their houses — like Zacchaeus in Luke 19.
The examples are endless. Jesus and Paul not only observed the world and knew about, they engaged it because they knew it wasn’t as clear as “bad.” It was usually a little more complex and complicated.
BEING A CHRISTIAN
Similar to the Bible, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of what it meant “to be a Christian” when I was growing up, and one of the major stipulations was no cursing.
One time after church, I wrote a Facebook status about how Christians who cussed were bad Christians or missed the point or something like that. A school classmate of mine commented and said something about how that’s not necessarily true, and she was offended that I had said that. I wrote something back about Proverbs 4:24 — “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (NIV).
Looking back now, I feel like I was misguided about a couple things. First of all, I don’t know if the writer of Proverbs was talking about those four-letter words that start with certain letters. Second, where in the Bible does it say that Christians aren’t supposed to use those words? Third, I wasn’t going to win that classmate to my side with a snide Facebook comment lobbing Scripture — however wise it is — at them from the other side of a phone screen.
That story is an example of where I let the culture around me tell me what it meant to be a Christian when the reality is much different.
Because the Bible isn’t a clear, monolithic book, to me at least, there is no one version of “Christian” today. There’s the Southern Baptist Christian, the Methodist Christian, the Episcopal Christian, the Democratic Christian, the Republican Christian, the male Christian, the female Christian. Our faith and the wisdom of the Bible affects all of us differently and leads each of us in different ways that are not necessarily bad. They might contradict at times, but that shows even more that while the Bible may be “clear” about something to one person, it’s “clear” in a different way for somebody else.
To my knowledge, the Bible only gives one or two “clear” instructions for what it means to be a Christian: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (Romans 10:9-11). Man, Romans is so good.
So what it objectively means to “be a Christian” is in one sense clear and obvious and in another a little muddier. There seems to be clear instruction for how to become a Christian, but after that, some of the practicals are up in the air.
Baptists believe in baptism after salvation. Methodists believe in infant baptism. The PCA and PCUSA, while both “Presbyterians” by denominational title, have several differences of opinion. But who am I to say that one is a Christian and the other isn’t? If they choose to follow Jesus, who am I to disqualify them for differing beliefs?
THE FREEDOM OF CHRIST
For a long time, I didn’t quite understand the idea of freedom in Christ. After all, if we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to be restrained from doing certain things because what it means to be a Christian is quite specific?
Speaking about the “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:1,6).
Circumcision is a a topic in several of Paul’s letters. The Jewish Christian crowd was using it as a sign of faithfulness. Paul rebukes that idea in Romans 3:29-30 — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Here in Galatians, Paul argues, in Christ neither being circumcised nor uncircumcision means anything. The only thing that counts, he says, is faith working through love.
Being a Christian, he argues to the Galatians, is not about doing certain things or acting a certain way. It’s about faith. The Greek for working is energeó, and properly means, according to HELPS Word-studies, “working in a solution which brings it from one stage (point) to the next.” Love, Paul argues, is energizing faith. Love brings faith from one point to the next.
Whether that’s love of God or love of others, Paul does not specify in Galatians. But as Jesus says, the two greatest commands are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). The Greek root for “love” in those verses and Galatians 5:6 is the same — agapaó, “to love.”
I think this gives us a snapshot of a framework by which we can look at the Bible and look at life. Faith, being increased and improved by love, is the guiding light. From there, we can determine what it means for us to be a Christian. Of course, we should take into account loving God and loving others; this is not a free-for-all where we define it for ourselves. The Bible shows us helpful wisdom and guidance.
But trying to define what a Christian should act like on our own terms, without taking into account love and true wisdom, is a dangerous mission. I think it’s a lot more gray than we’d like it to be.
That means this, even as I write this to you, is an exercise for me. I have to give you space to live the Christian life you choose just as I ask you to give me space for me. They may be different – heck, in some ways, they may be completely contradictory. But as long as it’s not sinful — the Bible and the Holy Spirit can help us understand that — it’s usually A-OK.
DOES CLARITY EXIST?
So here’s the real question: does true and clear and black-and-white clarity exist? No. And yes.
There are some things that seem to be pretty clear. Gravity. Man as sinful — theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (the same guy that composed the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Salvation by grace through faith.
But there are a lot of things that aren’t clear. It’s dangerous, therefore, for us to paint with a broad brush, especially when we jump into conversations with other Christians. Cussing isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Voting for a Democrat who supports abortion rights isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Supporting the maintenance of Confederate monuments isn’t universally accepted as sinful.
So it’s good for us, in light of this, to carefully enter conversations and define terms. Because clarity doesn’t exist as much as we might think.
NOTE: All Bible verses quoted come from the New Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted.
Author’s Note: Five years ago, I went through a prolonged season of doubt in God and His existence and me being saved. It was one of the most stressful years of my life. Yeah, it was all of 2014. At the same time, I was finishing up college, sort of dating the girl who would later become my wife (after a few complications) and trying to figure out what was next in my career.
One of my favorite things I’ve ever found on social media is an image of a guy giving a talk with a phrase projected on a screen behind him: “Be Who You Needed When You Were Younger.” This is me trying to be that guy.
Let’s slow down for a minute. I know you’ve got a lot in your head. It’s racing.
Later this year, you’ll figure out exactly what that is. It’s pretty serious anxiety and depression. You don’t quite know what those terms mean, and frankly, you probably think Christians don’t deal with that stuff. If I’m a Christian, you’re thinking, why do I feel this terrible?
I want to stress something to you: you’re wrong, but in the best possible way.
You’re trying to make sense of what’s going on in your head. And I’m going to go ahead and warn you: you’re going to be experiencing this for at least the next five years. Today, as I’m writing this letter to you, I’m feeling what you’re feeling now. Confusion, frustration, wondering why in the world God is letting you deal with all the crap inside your head.
Depression and anxiety is not abnormal to Christians. It’s part of life for a lot of people, even the clinically-diagnosed depression and anxiety that you’ll find out more about later this year.
I’m not going to tell you how to change your circumstances because 1) that’s cheating in this time-travel scenario. And 2) if you don’t go through what you’re about to go through, you wouldn’t be writing this letter to yourself. Don’t think about that part too much, you’ll hurt your brain. Just wait for Avengers: Endgame.
So take a deep breath, a few of them, and read on. I want to share three things with you.
Being a Christian doesn’t make you exempt from depression and anxiety, and that’s not sinful.
You may have heard a few times, and you’ll read it a few times in the coming years, that anxiety and depression is simply the result of “not trusting God enough” or “not praying enough,” that one day it will just end.
Maybe one day it will just end, but I want you to know that depression and anxiety are real, psychological afflictions that millions of people around the world have. It doesn’t disqualify you from being a Christian, and it doesn’t disqualify you from serving in the Church. I know you’re going to tell yourself that.
But in a couple years, you’ll be growing and learning about your mental health, and reaching out to others who are dealing with the same thing. You’ll be sharing the love of Jesus with them, writing about it and making a difference in your small area. Don’t quit.
You’re going to go through some changes in your thinking, and it’s going to affect your mental health.
If I could do anything for you, it would be to warn you about what’s going to happen to your thinking, particularly about God and the Bible. It’s going to change. You’re not going to stop believing, although right now it feels like that’s a real possibility.
You know God is real. How would all this get here without Him? His intricate design is too creative to be random chance. Remember in that psychology class your freshman year? Seeing those two bugs fight it out? You hate bugs, but you found the way the bigger bug devoured that littler bug so fascinating. Don’t lose that fascination.
Anyway, these alterations and challenges are going to shape you for the better. It’s going to affect your politics, your faith, the words you speak, the thoughts you think. And it’s going to make you anxious and depressed at times.
In those times, trust that God is there, that He is doing a work in you that will make you more like that bigger bug: able to handle whatever comes your way, as long as you keep His promises in your mind.
Don’t run. You’re not crazy.
You’re going to quit a few things in between now and then. You’re going to get scared: of relationships, of jobs, of faith.
Don’t run away from them. It’s all in your head. It’s the result of your anxiety. You’ve got this thing called pure O, the obsessive part of OCD. You get a thought in your head and then you obsess over it.
You’re going to start taking medicine for it real soon, and that will be very helpful. But it won’t take it all away, it’s not supposed to. In the times where you start freaking out about what you’re committing yourself to, remember that whatever happens, God loves you and everything will be OK. It might not be good, but it will be OK.
Really, that’s what I want to leave you with. Don’t quit. Quitting is so easy for you to do. You’ve done it since you were a little kid.
In a few months, your mom will tell you that when you were little, you would start building towers with blocks. After the first time they fell — probably because your brother took all the LEGO-building skill that came from your grandpa’s engineering background — you quit. You didn’t try anymore. You’ve done that with countless board games, card games, books, screenplays, videos and more.
Sometimes you will need to have quit those things. But not this time. Not this life. Don’t quit. Jesus really does love you, even if you don’t believe it right now.
Now, I want you to throw this letter away. Again, I’m not here to mess with your life path. It’s going to stay pretty much the same. I just want you to hear what I wish you had heard during that whole year of 2014 when you didn’t believe.
I went to a Christian college ministry conference during the New Year’s weekend of my junior year at Elon University and met Shai Linne.
Shai is a Christian rapper whose rhymes are often characterized as “lyrical theology.” He attempts to explain spiritual truths and theological points in hip-hop form. He performs one of my favorite songs of all-time, “Mercy and Grace” with label mate Timothy Brindle.
In fact, it was Brindle I brought up when I met Shai. After the normal, “Hey man, I like your music,” thing that you always say when you meet a musician you like, I mentioned that I liked a lot of the guys on Lamp Mode Recordings, his label. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it went something like this:
ZACH: “Yeah, I love what all you guys on Lamp Mode do — S.O., Timothy Brindle, God’s Servant — it’s good. Particularly Tim’s new stuff.” SHAI: “Have you listened to Tim’s album ‘Killing Sin’?” ZACH: “No, I haven’t, not yet.” SHAI: “Bro, it’s so good.”
Within a couple days, I had bought the album.
Again, I don’t think those are the exact words that were used, but that’s generally how the conversation went.
I was reflecting on that conversation recently as I was listening to an S.O. song. While I may not remember the exact words in the conversation, I remember my motives. I wanted to impress Shai Linne. I wanted to be that guy that, as he left the conference hall that night, he remembered.
I still carry that attitude in a lot of ways. I’ve had similar conversations with comic book store owners, movie reviewers, journalists, pastors, etc., people whom I’ve tried to impress with my knowledge whether or not that knowledge was actually impressive.
I think there’s a part of all of us that wants to impress people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s where I get tripped up.
It’s one of my pet peeves when other people try to do that to me. I just think they’re trying to make it all about them and what they know and how cool they are. But I do the same thing!
As I pondered this in my car the other day, I shook my head and said to myself, “Zach, what are you doing?”
Impressing people, I think, is part of being human. We want others to think well of us, to remember us, to think we’re pretty awesome, so we try to impress them. There’s the classic scene in the romantic comedy where the guy tries to do something to get the girl’s attention but ends up making a fool out of himself. There’s the politician who tries to spit off the best statistics to support his/her argument. There’s the friend you debate on Facebook who puffs his chest after owning you in an argument.
And while the root of trying to impress people isn’t necessarily bad, the danger we encounter could be an even bigger mistake: not being ourselves.
Speaking of the coming Messiah, Isaiah says, “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2b-3).
Jesus, when He came, was nothing special, and nothing He did was ever to impress anyone. He lived and spoke and work in a way that brought glory to the Father, not to Himself. He never pretended to know something He didn’t, never brought something up in conversation to try to make someone think He was awesome.
In fact — in something that has always confused me — He often told people to not talk about what He did for them.
If I were Jesus, I’d be trying to find ways to bring up what I could do and what I knew. I like to think of myself as a pretty humble, non-assuming dude, but when it comes to conversations like the one I had with Shai, I prove that totally wrong. I’m just an attention seeker like everybody else.
God did not call us to draw attention to ourselves. His call for us, I believe, is like what Paul says to the Romans is their’s: “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of (Jesus’) name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). I believe that’s our’s too. We aren’t called to bring about people thinking we’re awesome and that we know a lot. We’re called to bring about people believing in Jesus.
That’s not to say we can’t have conversations about things we know about, that we can’t share the knowledge we have with someone else for the purpose of establishing a connection. Why do we do it? Why are we trying to impress people?
I think we can impress people, but for the sake of Jesus. We can impress them with the beauty of His grace, the depth of His love and the gravity of His compassion. We can impress them with the prophetic way God and His people spoke and wrote of the world and of humanity. We can impress them with the way we take His words and His example so seriously that we can’t help but live like Jesus.
I’ve always been fascinated by the art of spoken word. You put together a poem and throw some music behind it, and it’s powerful and has a message.
So this weekend when I was in Virginia for a wedding and had some free time on my hands, I went to Appamattox and shot some video in and around the historical park there. Then I laid down a spoken word I wrote in an Italian restaurant where I had lunch. I recorded it in my car on my laptop using my Apple earbud mic, so that’s why the quality is not so great.
I sampled the track “Clarity” by Andy Mineo and used the instrumental for “Video Games” by Alex Faith. I don’t own and didn’t create those songs, but the video and spoken audio is all mine.
Let me know what you think. This is my first go-round, so cut me some slack. It’s called “Know.”
Whenever I get sick — cough, allergies, fever, etc. — I think it’s never going to go away.
I sink into it. I’m of the mindset that I will be sick for the rest of my life and nothing will ever change. I’m always going to have this cough, this nausea, etc. I don’t know how I got this way. Maybe it’s the cynic in me coming out. But that’s how it works.
I feel that way all the time with my sin. Whatever it is — lust, pride, laziness, jealousy — I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.
Well, and this is the bad part, it never will, this side of heaven.
My greatest desire in life is to be perfect, to not mess up, to not do anything that would be an offense to God, to my wife, to my friends, to my family, to anyone. I long for the day in heaven when I will be free of the sin nature that cloaks me every day. “What a day of rejoicing that will be,” as the hymn goes. My imperfections are the things that keep me up at night, that cause the most depression.
Sin is a nasty beast, lurking around every corner. You can feel as confident and comfortable in your pursuit of righteousness, I believe, that you can forget that sin is even possible. I know I feel that way sometimes. But it’s in those moments in particular that I am most susceptible.
It makes me wonder, “Will I ever stop sinning?” Or even, “Can I quit this one sin?”
The answer to the first question is a flat out no, at least here on earth. The answer to the second question is a little different.
Throughout the Bible, we see stories of men who have their obedience and righteousness worked out, only to lose it later. David is a strong and mighty warrior of God, faithful to trust Him enough to not kill his enemy when he’s a knife slash away. But he pursues the body of a woman not his own, and it leads to murder. One of my favorite Bible stories is in 2 Chronicles 14-16, where a king named Asa trusts God so intensely, but gives it up in the face of one army mounting up against him. Paul wrote half the New Testament, but still admitted he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
So maybe the besetting sins in our life, the ones that seem to haunt us, will never go away on earth. Maybe it’s a battle we’ll continue to fight.
It’s comforting, to me at least, to know that grace is there whenever we fall. Always. It’s a cliché to write that, sure, but it’s true. The Gospel comforts us in our repeated weaknesses.
But ask yourself this, as I am right now: Do you really truly desire God more than that besetting sin? It may be that way 90 percent of the time, but beg the Lord to make it 100 percent. If we’re pursuing righteousness, if we’re pursuing obedience, that in itself is glorifying to God, and honoring the Father.
When I was growing up, even into high school and college, I would read psalms and other passages of Scripture and not be able to relate to when there were references to “enemies.”
I never had enemies. There was a guy that I didn’t really get along with for most of high school — God sent him to the same college as me to work that out — but other than that I didn’t have anyone that I hated and he/she hated me, or that there was tension between.
So I’d read things like this — “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28) — I wouldn’t get it. It wouldn’t make sense.
That’s changed in the last year.
About one year ago, I did a series of stories on a hot topic in Lee County — I work for a North Carolina newspaper, for those of you that don’t know me. Everything was factual, accurate, well-researched and documented. I was proud of the work I did.
Almost instantly, for the first time in my life, I received an outpouring of backlash that’s continued to this day. People started giving me affectionate nicknames, like #FakeNewsZach or #NoFactZach, saying my reporting was #FakeNewsbyZacharyHorner. I had people who used to love me and praise me begin to fuss at me, call me a liar. I would say hello to people and they’d ignore me. They attacked my family. They spread lies about me and my family.
That’s about as much detail as I’ll go into here.
It really refreshed my view of verses like Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”
When we’re attacked, when our enemies go after us, when we get maligned and lied about, it’s a chance for us to grow in righteousness. David, the writer of Psalm 5, pleads for God to lead him in righteousness because of his enemies. When we’re attacked, we have the opportunity to show others what a life filled with Christ looks like — integrity, honesty, steadfastness.
It’s not an opportunity for us to bite back, to criticize, to hold hateful attitudes. I admit freely that my heart has not always been in the right place, that I’ve said and thought rude and mean-spirited things about my “enemies.” It’s a tough thing.
But it’s my desire daily to try to kill those thoughts, those feelings. I’m trying. And that’s where Psalm 5:8 challenges me. I hope it challenges you too.
Author’s Note: This was originally written as a chapter for a book I was working on. I have decided to scrap that book idea and pursue a different direction with it, but still wanted to share this chapter. It’s a bit long, but I hope it’s helpful. The text is altered to reflect its status as a blog post and not a chapter in a book.
As I labored — and I mean labored — over how to structure and write this post, my insecurities came out.
Let me list them:
No one will really care what you think.
You’re not even qualified to do this in the first place, are you?
You’re not even Christian enough for this.
You’re just a 25-year-old guy from Sanford, North Carolina. You won’t go anywhere, and your writing certainly won’t go anywhere.
Writing, while being one of my favorite things ever, exposes many of my doubts and many of my insecurities. So it’s only fitting that, while trying to write a blog post about insecurity, they all come out.
I write now about insecurity because I know for a fact that it’s one of the major stumbling blocks in being vulnerable and being transparent with others. I write that because I’ve experienced it myself.
I’ve always struggled with completely being myself with others. Yes, that’s in the present tense. It’s very likely that, as you read this, I’m somewhere struggling to completely be myself. It’s kind of funny as I think about that, but it’s the truth.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Private School Blues
From my 5th to 12th grade years, I went to this place called The O’Neal School in Southern Pines, N.C. It was a great education. I had great teachers and I learned a ton and felt pretty prepared for college. For a place that describes itself as a “college preparatory school,” I guess they succeeded, at least with me, at least a little bit.
At O’Neal, I learned a few things about myself. Mostly: I’m kind of a nerd and I’m not super comfortable socially. These two things led me to not be the most popular kid in school. If I had to rank myself amongst my fifth-grade colleagues, I’d probably be the bottom 5 or 6 when it came to “popularity.”
And that always bugged me. It shouldn’t have, at least I don’t think so. But I was 10, 11 years old. What else was I supposed to think? I saw the kids that everyone liked (at least I thought everyone) and I was jealous. I quickly became known as one of the smart kids — if you had a problem with your homework, ask Zach! It became my thing, I guess.
As I moved into the latter years of middle school, I began to realize how much people didn’t really care for me, at least at school. A couple of girls that I liked basically rejected me. True story: one of them told me that I “kind of freaked” them out. Hard to come back from that.
As I look back now, I realize that I liked them because I thought they were pretty and that was about it. No real connection.
But that’s what you do in middle school: you “like” other people. And you get built up or torn down by that. At the time, my best friend was one of the “popular” kids who girls liked all the time. I saw him and all the girls line up to be his friend and whatever it was in middle school guys and girls did, and I was jealous.
As high school began, I started to make a few more friends, a couple of whom I still stay in touch with 10-12 years later. But I still felt like I was on the outside.
The thing about private school is that cliques, which you’ll find at any school, are exaggerated, and the differences between people are exaggerated because the numbers are smaller. I had 48 kids in my graduating class. My brother, who graduated two years later, had something around 35 students in his class. We were on the high and low ends, respectively.
If you’re on the “low end,” in this magical formula, you feel it. And I did. I felt like I was from a different planet. My junior year was especially hard. I was able to start driving to school, so I had my car on campus. During lunch and my free periods, I would go sit in my car and watch The Office on my laptop or read or do homework. By myself. I remember walking out of many rooms because I didn’t think I belonged. I legitimately thought people didn’t want me there.
There were some good things in high school! I was part of the track and field team in my sophomore and senior years, which was one of the best experiences in my early years. I was a thrower — I was “eh,” skill-wise — but it was a great time with friends and I was in good shape at the end of track season. I got half-decent at making short films for a high school kid, and I had some great teachers who taught me great lessons.
Side note: One of them told me that the best stories you can tell and the best writing you’ll ever do will come from experience. Has stuck with me ever since, in case you can’t tell. It came after I wrote a short story about secret agents on some Mission: Impossible-style mission. It was not good.
After high school, I went to Elon University. I experienced some of the same things when it came to being around people and not feeling like I fit in. I wasn’t the most comfortable socially, I was kind of nerdy and my faith and morality kept me from some of the activities that the friends I had made, especially in my first two years, participated in. I don’t regret that last part, but it definitely hindered my security among them.
When I was part of a different group, a Christian ministry during my junior and senior years, I felt the insecurity, but in a different way.Funny enough, I didn’t feel as accepted as I had my first two years.
The friends I had made as a freshman and sophomore liked me and hung out with me despite some of my differences. I eventually learned to be myself among them. My nerdiness was common among my friends, so it didn’t set me apart. Some of the insecurities remained, but I was much more comfortable.
When I basically switched friend groups, the discomfort and insecurity remained. I eventually developed new friendships within I could be myself and not give a care in the world, but among the main group, I was struggling. My insecurity was at an all-time high again, like I was in middle school.
The Ins and Outs of Insecurity
Insecurity robs you of your safety and your peace. It’s right in the word.
“Insecurity” is the combination of the prefix “in-” and the word “security.” “In-” attached to the beginning of a word means the opposite of, or “not” that word, the lack of. So “insecurity” means the lack of security. Security comes from having peace and safety. It’s why people buy security systems for their homes or their businesses. They can feel at peace in their home at night, or feel that their possessions are safe when they’re away from their business.
When you’re insecure, ironically, you’re actually locked up tight. You’re hiding things from the world because you don’t feel safe and at peace with yourself. It’s a restricting feeling. I can think of so many times in my life I didn’t make a joke or say something because I was afraid how people would react to me. I kept it inside. I might have chuckled to myself, but I kept it all inside.
There have been other times where I haven’t put myself out there or haven’t shared something I’d created for the same reason. I didn’t feel safe in doing that. I was afraid of what people would say or concerned about how they’d react, and it would prevent me from letting it go.
For instance, my first book (shameless plug) was called In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. It’s five days away from releasing on the iBooks Store as I write this. I held onto it for more than 18 months because I didn’t know what to do. Besides, if I shared it, who would read it? A couple weeks ago, I decided to just share it. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
But even still, I’m insecure about what’s going to happen. Is anyone going to read it? If they do, what will they think? Will they think I suck as a Christian? Will they think I’m a bad writer? It’s the risks that come with being a writer, but everyone experiences them in some way. When you come up with an original thought and decided to share it, you take the same risks, whether you put it out in a conversation with your best friend, share it at a party or post it on social media.
Why on earth do we doctor our Instagram photos? We want to find our best side, put on the best filter. It’s literally called a filter! Filters are used in everything from Instagram photos to air conditioning systems to cars to make sure things are produced as flawless as possible.
We try to filter out our insecurities. We hide them. We do it when we go to church just as much as when we go to work.
I’ve known just one person in my life that seemed completely free of insecurities. His name was Jimmy. He just did whatever he wanted, no matter who was watching. He’s a great guy, loves the Lord, loves other people. What some people do only when they’re drunk — sing karaoke, run in the snow in a singlet and short shorts (he was a cross country runner in high school and college), post crazy videos on Snapchat — he did completely and truly sober.
I think we talked about it once or twice, but he obviously had insights as to why and how to break the locks of insecurity on our hearts, mouths and minds. I’m not talking about doing crazy stuff all the time. That’s not for everybody. I’m talking about being honest, being open and being yourself despite any weaknesses you may have.
If it involves running in the snow in a singlet and short shorts, that’s up to you.
The Wrong Source of Security
The first thing that we have to realize is that far too often we look to the wrong place to find security, safety and peace.
In middle and high school, I looked to my classmates for security. I would hope to get a laugh out of a joke, or a smile back from a cute girl, or some type of in-class accomplishment. Maybe I had the winning answer in the day-before-the-test game that would earn my group the bonus point on the test. Maybe I hit a sweet shot on the basketball court at lunchtime that earned props from the guys I was playing with. Maybe I held a door open for a cute girl and she thanked me with a smile.
Any of those things would bring me a bit of confidence, a bit of swagger and a bit of peace in who I was. I felt like, just for a moment, that I was enough on my own! A few seconds later, though, I’d be back to where I was, searching again for that self-confidence that was gone.
What I eventually realized is that finding security in the world is fruitless. It’s not fulfilling. Scripture gives us a couple hints to that.
Is Not Life More Than Food?
In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving the “Sermon on the Mount.” Starting in verse 25, he tells the crowd to “not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.”
In middle school, shoes were the thing. Nike Shox were the biggest deal. They were basketball shoes that had four circular columns in the middle to the heel of the shoe. They were supposed to help you jump and run better, and I did play basketball in eighth grade, but I got them because they looked good. They were expensive — so my parents really got them for me — and they were hot stuff at the time. So I usually got some attention the first couple days I wore a new pair. I think Nike still makes them, but more for running now.
As I read Matthew 6 earlier this morning, those shoes came to mind, particularly for the latter part of verse 25 — “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Life is more than the things we own. Life isn’t limited to what we wear. Existence goes far beyond the Nike Shox I had in seventh grade or the new laptop I got in ninth grade or the new hoodie I wore in eleventh grade. It goes beyond the spaghetti I’d bring for lunch or the new bumper sticker on my car.
Jesus says finding security from the things we have or the attention we get from people because of the things we have is a fool’s errand because life is much more than those things.
For the Former Things Have Passed Away
Revelation 21 is pretty awesome. John is recounting what Jesus showed him about the end of time, and he’s seeing what it will be like when there’s a new heaven and new earth and God reigns over every dang thing in existence forever. In verses 3-4, a “loud voice from the throne” starts talking.
In verse 4, the voice says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the further things have passed away.” Verse 5 continues, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
At the end of time, these verses tell us, everything that causes us pain will be wiped away. The Scripture says they will “have passed away.” They’ll be gone.
Why seek security from things that will pass away? The approval of man will be gone one day. The things you (try to) find contentment in will be gone one day. The things of earth are not stable or strong enough to provide that security.
The Right Source of Security
Remember the definition of security from earlier. I’ll repeat it here: “Security comes from having peace and safety. It’s why people buy security systems for their homes or their businesses. They can feel at peace in their home at night, or feel that their possessions are safe when they’re away from their business.”
Where else would we find the most peace and safety in who we are except in the God who created us and knows us better than anyone else?
He (Literally) Is Our Peace
The latter part of Ephesians 2 dives into the relationship that Christians now have with God after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also explores what relationships between the members of the body of Christ should have.
It’s a relationship that centers around peace. Verses 14-16:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the last of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
Jesus’ goal is peace. Verse 17 says that Jesus “preached peace” to those “who were far off…(and) who were near.” Isaiah 53:5 prophecies that the Messiah’s punishment by death on a cross for our sins will be “the chastisement that brought us peace.”
The verses in Ephesians 2 specifically focus on peace between the Gentiles and the Israelites, two different groups of people that viewed things completely differently. But God intervening, through Jesus Christ, was designed to create a unity around peace.
We can have peace with others and in our relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why? It removes our sinfulness before God. It doesn’t remove the fact that we sin, but it breaks down the barrier there. And it tells us that God loves us no matter what. Anything that might hold us back from being real with others doesn’t hold God back from loving us. So we can feel comfortable in who we are because God loves us as we are.
This doesn’t mean we just let sin slide, of course. We gotta fight it with all we’ve got. But we’re at peace with God, so we can relax.
God Is Our Refuge
Safety. It’s why kids wear those little arm floaties in the pool when they’re little. They can’t swim, so they need them to stay afloat.
The safety we find in God is not necessarily a physical safety from harm or danger, but an emotional safety we can turn to when we’re stressed or insecure. Psalm 46:1-3 captures the idea pretty good:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though the its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”
People run to a refuge when they’re seeking safety, protection, a comfort zone. “Refugees” are people seeking safety. God is our refuge in that He is a place we can find safety. We can completely be ourselves with Him. We can shed any insecurities and unload our fears, concerns, doubts, worries and more onto Him. That comes through prayer and confession of sins.
In turn, that can help us become more vulnerable with others. It helps break the lock of insecurity by realizing we are safe and secure with Him. So even if others question us or don’t give us the reaction we want, we can feel secure with God.
As flawed human beings whose brains don’t always work, we will struggle with this idea.
Insecurity is the natural course of man in a lot of ways. In the constantly-changing atmosphere in which we live, it’s hard to stay stable. So we’re going to have weakness and we’re going to have flaws. It’s hard to think that we’ll ever get to a point where we won’t be insecure about something.
That’s where it’s best to rest in the grace and mercy of God. That same peace that we have through Christ to help with insecurity helps when we feel the weight of our sin. We’re freed from an eternity without God to an eternity with God, as one of God’s own. So freeing and refreshing, isn’t it?
I had a lot of insecurity about my sin. I’ve mentioned before in this book how my Christianity became the most important thing to me because I though that’s how others judged me. Whenever my sin becomes evident, I feel that insecurity all over again. I feel the weakness, and it feels exploited. I don’t feel strong enough to fight through it.
But then I have to lean on the grace of God. I am so much more than my sin, He says of me. He says that I’m good, that I’m set.
Let the storms come to hunt us and hurt us. They can’t take our Lord from us, bro, He got us a verdict. Not guilty, He’s with us and He stays present. Never leaves me, He even gives me stage presence. – Trip Lee, “I’m Good”
Sometimes I’m so thankful for Your loyalty. Your love, regardless of the mistakes I make, will spoil me. My confidence is, in a sense, a gift You’ve given me. And I’m satisfied to realize You’re all I’ll ever need. – Relient K, “I Am Understood?”
NOTE: This is the fourth excerpt from my upcoming book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.
“The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.”
In November 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, won the United States presidential election by a ridiculous margin: 472 electoral votes to just 59 for Herbert Hoover, and by more 7 million votes in the popular vote.
It wasn’t that surprising, with his predecessor Hoover overseeing an America with an estimated 20-plus percent unemployment rate and a huge stock market crash. During the campaign, “voters threw objects at (Hoover) when he was campaigning in public.”
With the country in dire straits, FDR’s inauguration speech was heavily anticipated. He had promised a lot during the campaign, and this was his first chance as the American president to assuage his constituents. He began with clutch words: “I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels.” He’s about to give it to them straight. He continued:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
The words that have lasted from that address, as part of the italicized section above, are these: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The only thing to fear, in the midst of a nationwide economic depression, sky-high unemployment rates, was fear itself, the new president said.
The fact that FDR, or whoever his speechwriter was, addressed fear was evidence of the reality of fear in the American people. After the “Roaring 20s,” the Depression was crushing American wallets and American spirit. So he pointed out the dagger that fear is.
Google defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat” (as a noun) and “to be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening” (as a verb). It seems to me that fear shares a lot of similarities with anxiety, doesn’t it? Synonyms of fear include panic, distress, worry and unease. So it makes sense that fear and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. They are not the same, but one often begets the other.
An example: If you are afraid of a situation, you are likely to feel anxious about it. I feared getting into relationships and as a result had anxiety about them. If you are anxious about something, you’re likely to feel fear. I was anxious about how to handle my Italian class and as a result was scared to go to class and try to learn.
As FDR defined fear in his speech, for me and likely for you, it was “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Fear is like the thief Jesus describes in John 10:10 — it “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” As Jason Gray sings in his song “No Thief Like Fear”:
“Fear will take the best of us
Then come back for the rest of us,
Its raging hunger never satisfied.
It’s closer than a brother,
And more jealous than a lover
Who holds you while it swallows you alive.”
Think about the times when fear has held you back from doing something. I’m not even talking about things you have anxiety about. Maybe you don’t ride the roller coaster because you’re afraid of going upside down. I’m guilty of that one. Maybe you get out of your parents’ pool when frogs started jumping in late at night because you’re afraid of them touching you. Again, that’s me. It’s the arachnophobia (spiders) and the ophidiophobia (snakes) and the acrophobia (heights) and the claustrophobia (tight and enclosed spaces), the popular fears.
Those fears held you back from experiencing certain things that may or may not have been harmful. Sometimes fear can hold you back from dangerous things, and that’s helpful and good. I’m afraid of swimming in a pool full of poisonous snakes because that’s a terrible and most-likely fatal decision. But I know that I don’t have to be afraid of going on upside-down roller coasters because plenty of people do it just fine.
But I’m still not going on upside-down roller coasters. I don’t think I’m missing a whole lot.
It’s that fear that steals from us. It’s fear related to anxiety that steals us from so many things. And if we are to beat anxiety at any level, we have to realize that it is not a battle just to overcome the anxiety and the anxious thoughts, but also to overcome the fear that holds us back.
The only thing we have to fear in this situation is fear itself. Fear is what is holding us back. And thankfully, we have a reason to not fear.