Between a Rock and a Hard Place: When Faith Crises and Mental Health Disorders Collide

Maybe you remember the story of Aron Ralston.

In 2003, Ralston was exploring Bluejohn Canyon in eastern Utah. While making his way down a narrow gap, a boulder dislodged and crushed his right arm against a rock wall. His arm was literally between a rock and a hard place.

One hundred and 27 hours later, he cut his arm off to escape.

The Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours, starring James Franco in an Oscar-nominated role, illuminates the difficulty of Ralston’s predicament. With little food and water, he stretched out his rations to survive as long as possible. The scene where he cuts off his arm is pretty gruesome, but it’s illuminating how far people will go to stay alive and find freedom.

Ralston’s book about his ordeal — which I have on my bookshelf but haven’t read — is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” playing off the well-known phrase about being stuck between two unlikable options. I know what that’s like, in a way.

Twice in my life, I’ve dealt with mental health disorders while having a crisis of faith, and while I’ve since learned some key truths to speak to me in those times, it’s an area the church at large doesn’t really touch but needs to confront. 

My Year of Doubt

At the beginning of the year 2014, I was in a strange spot.

I was months away from graduating from college, and a job was being lined up for me. I was going to work with a college Christian ministry, hanging out with college students part-time telling them about Jesus and spending the rest of the time managing the ministry’s social media accounts for the whole region. It seemed like a pretty sweet gig. 

But one day, something struck me. I remember the moment it happened. I was on the phone in the sunroom of the house I was living in with three other guys, talking to someone about a different ministry opportunity, when I stopped believing in God.

It wasn’t that simple of course, but it felt like that. Over the ensuing weeks, I felt like I had to work hard to pray. Reading the Bible was not as fruitful as it had been the previous months. Each time I led prayer at our Sunday night prayer meetings on campus felt like a stretch. I was faking it. The emotion of faith was gone, and it seemed like my belief in God was gone too.

In the ensuing months, however, things got more complicated. I lost that potential job with the college ministry, I applied to several other jobs with no luck and, contrary to my desire, I was set to return home after college, not move off to some strange place and begin my career. Plus, I started talking to a sweet girl. 

Throughout that time, God seemed distant.

Once or twice in your life, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of that classic prank — you’re about to sit down in a chair you know is there, but when your rear end is supposed to land, all it hits is air. I’ve done that to a couple people, and it’s been done to me a few times. 

That’s what my relationship with God felt like. I felt like God was there, and I was going to lean on Him, but he seemed invisible, removed from my life by a force I couldn’t control. I doubted He was really there. I doubted He cared. It was a crisis of faith. I felt like I had done something to earn it. I was constantly praying to God, or at least trying to, trying to assure that I was a Christian. 

It was a tough year. Along with getting rejected for that ministry job, the girl and I broke up twice because I was scared to commit, and I struggled mightily with certain sins that I was sure were separating me from God on a daily basis. But I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling.

That time led to a lot of depression. Being a Christian was dependent on faith, so if faith is gone, was I a Christian? I would pray all the time. I would pledge things to God, pledges I would break so quickly.

At the end of the year, I learned that I likely suffered from a form of OCD called “scrupulosity.” According to the International OCD Foundation, individuals with scrupulosity “are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.” Suffers will repeatedly seek reassurance from religious leaders and loved ones as to their adherence to faith, make excessive trips to confession, praying excessively, repeat passages from sacred texts in their head and make pacts with God. 

“Unlike normal religion practice, scrupulous behavior usually exceeds or disregards religious law and may focus excessively on one trivial area of religious practice while other, more important areas may be completely ignored,” writes C. Alec Pollard, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute. “The behavior of scrupulous individuals is typically inconsistent with that of the rest of the faith community.”

When I read about scrupulosity, it provided an answer to the question of why I had been acting the way I did. 

The issue with scrupulosity — in simple terms, a specified and sometimes severe form of anxiety around religion — is that I could look at the description and think that’s just the normal Christian life. Aren’t we supposed to be concerned at all times whether or not we’ve committed a sin? Aren’t we supposed to be praying without ceasing? Aren’t we supposed to always have faith, always feel like God is with us? Those are the ideas I grew up with, the concepts that made sense to me. Scrupulosity, on first look, seemed like the normal Christian life, and here I learn that it’s abnormal and ultimately unhealthy.

“OCD makes it harder to practice one’s faith,” Pollard wrote. “However, there is no evidence that the moral or religious character of scrupulosity sufferers is any different from that of other people. Many notable religious leaders have struggled with this condition, including St. Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, St. Aphonsus Liguori, John Bunyan and St. Veronica Giullani.”

Looking back now, that makes sense to me, because my inner faith crisis, the doubt that permeated everything — from my religion to my romantic relationships to my career path — made my relationship with God suffer.

Reconstruction of the Faith

The election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 was an eye-opening moment for a lot of Americans, and as I’ve learned, a lot of Christians as well. As Andy Mineo put in his song “…There”:

“Did 81 percent of the people I call my brethren put an elephant in the room and say it was heaven-sent? I don’t know what Bible you reading, what God you believe in but that don’t sound like reason, it sound like you sleeping.”

My journey to what some would deem “progressive Christianity” started slowly. It really began with watching clips of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As Stewart eviscerated conservative media like Fox News — which I had learned growing up was the “right place” for news — and exposed the flaws in most conservative political thinking, I was shocked. My Christianity had been tied so closely, at least in the political realm, to the conservative/Republican movement, but here was a guy showcasing the flaws. America was not a Christian nation. Barack Obama didn’t seem all that bad. 

It was those kind of discoveries that made me start to rethink the religion I had spent pretty much my whole life dedicated to. Trump’s election more or less sealed me off from going back to where I was before.

I looked at the Bible and found some things that didn’t sit right with me, things that didn’t seem to measure up with the Jesus I knew, the Jesus who loved me so strongly as I was, without condition. I trusted Him, and He loved me. That love that I knew didn’t measure up with the church’s treatment (in general) of Democrats, the LGBTQ community and celebrities.

So quietly, I began to reconstruct. It started with conservative political ideology. I went through a few waves of different thinking, but I think I’ve landed on the idea that the government needs to spend its money wisely, but try to help those in need if they can. The government also needs to be proactive in killing discrimination and oppression, including that of Christians.

Other changes followed, particularly in how I consumed secular music, considered profanity and voted for Democrats. But it’s come to a head in how I think about the Bible. This is a text I’ve learned a lot about throughout my life, and as I’ve worked to take it more seriously, I’ve found that it seems to contradict some of the things that I’ve been taught about it.

I’m not going to get too much into the basis for that — that’s not what this is about — but I want to explore my mental state: Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts. 

First, it was the fear that I was wrong, the fear that I had screwed up and God was going to disown me for not believing the Bible was perfect. Second, it was the fear of rejection from people who didn’t understand, from friends who thought I believed just as they did only to find out my thoughts had changed. Third, it was the fear of being alone, the only one in my circle who had these radical changes to my theology.

Two of those fears were well-founded. As a result, I ended up abandoned and alone, with only my wife to comfort me. 

My days were spent wracked with shame and confusion. I’ve always felt the need to be certain about something. If I’m not certain, I don’t like to move forward. So when questions came about, I didn’t feel comfortable going back to where I was before or moving in a different direction until the question was answered, and I didn’t like being in between. The stress was a lot to handle.

It reached a peak when I felt, for the first time in my life, serious suicidal thoughts. I had felt them fleetingly before, but nothing serious enough to actually take any action. One time before I got married I had cut myself with a pair of kids scissors, but didn’t get too far because, in my heart of hearts, I knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything. I just wanted to see what it would feel like. 

But with this new situation, I would drive over bridges and seriously consider making a hard right. I would look at a knife and wonder what it would be like to run it across my skin. I would consider climbing on the roof of my house and take a head-first dive. A neck break would do it, right?

Getting at the Root

We have a ton of weeds around our house, and no matter how much we pull them up, they always come back. I always think, “OK, if I pull out the weed at the root, that will kill it.” And I’m always wrong, or at least it feels that way.

Mental health and religious faith are linked so closely because they’re both conditions of the mind. They’re related to how you think, and thus become related to how you feel. Both thinking and feeling are centered in the brain, as neurons control how you react to something. 

So when a crisis of faith meets a mental illness, it’s like a weed whose root is buried deep, deep down in the earth, and you’ll never be able to reach it. There’s something incredibly unique about the combination. If you struggle with depression, the feeling of loneliness associated with faith crises simply give you more room to feel depressed. If you have severe anxiety, the doubt and mental debates you have with yourself just exacerbate the uncertainty that anxiety exploits. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is for those with more several mental health illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Mental health and religion are rooted at a person’s core. Both play a role in how you view yourself, others and the world. A combination of pain at both points is hard to wrestle with, to put it mildly.

Something over the years that has led to anxiety and depression more than I can count is my sin. Whether it’s something simple like considering someone else negatively because of how they dress or something more severe like lusting after someone besides my wife, my sin has led me to more depths of despair than most other things.

I think it’s happened because I’ve been taught, rightly, that sin is harmful to me and offensive to God. Sometimes that leads me to deem every single sin I commit to be a haughty, selfish and horrendous act that requires penance, lots of prayer and a day or two before I can feel good about loving God again, and about Him loving me.

In fact, it’s my lack of love for God that will drive me to depression and anxiety more often than not. How can I, a simple human man, ever love God “the way I’m supposed to”? Somewhere in my spiritual upbringing, I learned, likely subconsciously, that I was always supposed to be a strong Christian everywhere I went, and that who we really are is visible when no one is looking, and so God sees all my sin, so I needed to be a strong Christian for God. 

Failure at that meant a need for prayer, reading the Bible and making sure you were still saved. I’ve prayed the prayer of salvation maybe 5-6 times seriously in my life, just to make sure. I prayed it several times during my year of doubt, but that was born more out of desperation and panic than a sincere feeling of separation.

I know my story is not unique. But those of us who reach that point of a spiritual crisis and deal with a mental health disorder simultaneously find ourselves up against it. And as far as trying to resolve this conundrum, there’s only one thing I’ve learned that can tackle both.

The Better Example

In 2015, the year between my stretch of doubt and the beginning of reconstructing my faith, I learned to love 1 John 4. 

I had come across it the previous fall, sitting on the porch of my parents’ mountain condo in Boone, North Carolina, reading the Bible, trying to find something to encourage me. The first section is about “testing the spirits,” then transitions into a meditation on the famous phrase “God is love.”

The NRSV translates 1 John 4:9, a pretty famous verse, as this: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” God showed His love for us by sending Jesus. It was something that I had heard many times, and pretty much accepted. But I had never heard verse 10.

“In this is love,” it says, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The love of God as shown by Christ on the cross is the perfect definition of love. John tells his audience that God is love (twice, vv. 8 and 16), and the perfect example of love is Jesus on the cross. 

What does that mean for humanity, practically? John tells us in v. 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

Having severe anxiety or depression, like I do, often correlates with fear of something: the unknown, rejection, failure, mistakes, sin, hurting others, letting others down, harming self. All of those things have some kind of consequence, and so fear leads to punishment of some kind. All of those things have a punishment. Rejection’s punishment is loneliness; failure’s punishment is disappointment; sin’s punishment is death; hurting other’s punishment is guilt. 

The perfect love shown by God through Christ, John argues, “casts out fear.” The Greek root for casts is balló, which is the same word used to describe the way Peter and Andrew cast their nets into the sea when fishing. In the same way that fisherman fling out their nets, away from the boat, away from themselves, when perfect love enters a situation of fear, that fear is flung away, far away, left to fend for itself. It only comes back if we bring it.

So when helping those with mental health disorders, faith crises and both, it’s imperative that we let the love of God show through, the love of God that was shown on the cross of Christ. And start fear-flinging.

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Fire Consuming Water: Mental Health Struggles Among God’s Faithful in the Bible

I’m in a strange season of life because I’m trying to figure out what I think about the Bible. And as I was beginning to ponder how I was going to write this essay, a palpable truth struck me.

The Bible is both inherently ancient and applicably modern. It’s unavoidably diverse and yet surprising whole. It’s at once both distant and strange while approachable and present.

I don’t know if it was written that way, but it ended up being that way. Or maybe it’s not the Bible itself, but the stories it tells, the people it features, the ones that God put in a place to be an example, whether good or bad, for us here in the future, 2,000-plus years after its central event.

It’s with this new appreciation that I explore something very special and personal to me: mental health and its place in the Bible. It’s there. The words “depression” and “anxiety” are either completely absent or incredibly rare, and there’s nothing explicitly diagnosed as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, though those disorders certainly exist in biblical times.

But despite the absence of certain terminology, I strongly believe that the Bible shows us we are not alone in our struggles of the mind, and that because of that, we are not alone.

Running for Your Life

Elijah had just won a major victory for God.

There was a severe famine in Samaria, which is now central Palestine. Jesus cited Samaria in his final words to the disciples, telling them to share the good news in Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria (Matthew 28:19). Elijah was sent to show the power of God to Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab had a death warrant out for Elijah — in 1 Kings 18, where this story starts, the king refers to the prophet as the “troubler of Israel” (v. 17). 

Elijah says, in my paraphrase, “Hey Ahab, you’ve caused all the trouble because you stopped following God. I’m gonna show you. Get everybody in the land, including the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to go to Mount Carmel.”

At Mount Carmel, Elijah speaks to the people, telling them they need to choose between God and Baal. To prove God is supreme, Elijah and the prophets of Baal each take a bull and set it ready for sacrifice. Elijah instructed the prophets to call down fire to consume the animal.

From morning to noon, the text says, and past that, the prophets called for Baal to come down. Verse 26 says they “limped around the altar that they had made.” I guess they either wore themselves out or it was some kind of special dance. Baal was not impressed or had something else going on, as Elijah mocked them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is music, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Sarcasm from a man of God! I love it.

No fire came.

Elijah rebuilt the altar that had been town down, did some special stuff and called on God. Fire came down from heaven, consumed the offering and the wood, stones and dust around it and water poured in a surrounding trench. Fire consumed water. That’s not normal.

All the people of Israel, the text says, seeing this, fell on their faces and worshiped God. Elijah called for the people to stop the prophets of Baal, numbered at 450. The latter half of v. 40 says, “And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”

All this happened, at least in the text of 1 Kings, after Elijah raised a kid from the dead in chapter 17, by the way.

After this intense display by God, the boldness to kill all these prophets himself, Elijah is confronted with some bad news. Ticked off by the death of her prophets, Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2).

No big, right? He had just raised someone from the dead and killed a ton of people after seeing God rain down fire from the sky that consumed water. But a death threat isn’t something most people take lightly.

“Then (Elijah) was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:3-4).

I don’t know how much time there was between these two events, between the killing of the prophets and the asking God to kill him. But Elijah became suicidal. He didn’t want to live anymore. Whether it was depression or stress or anxiety or fear, Elijah wanted to die.

And it doesn’t really make sense on the surface, right? From the far-removed standpoint we hold as readers of the text, Elijah has plenty of reason to not be afraid in light of Jezebel’s threat. He’s seen God do amazing things, many of them through his own hands. Why would Elijah be afraid and suicidal?

I’m not 100 percent sure. But he was.

Tears for Food

David, king of Israel, forerunner of the Christ, “man after God’s own heart,” spilled a lot of his guts throughout the psalms. 

He writes about his response to his adultery with Bathsheba, the blessings of being one of God’s people, the greatness of God’s words and so much more. But his mental state is also a common thread. 

Psalm 38 is a good example — “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (v. 6-8). 

I don’t know how else you describe “tumult of the heart” but some kind of serious depression or grief. David indicates early in the psalm, v. 3, that his life seems to have disappeared from him “because of my sin.”

But I want to focus on a psalm that’s not by David, but instead is written by one of the sons of Korah, who wrote many of the psalms. 

“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (v. 3). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v. 5). 

The two verbs in v. 5 are wattehemî and tištōwhahî. Respectively, they mean “to murmur, growl, roar, be boisterous” and “to bow, be bowed down, crouch” in their root forms. The soul here for the author is both discontent and sorrowful. Both verbs are inherently active, visible expressions used to describe the soul. If this isn’t depression, I don’t know what is. 

The author continues by saying that God has forgotten him and he goes on mourning “because of the oppression of the enemy” (v. 9). He stays cast down.

In Psalm 55, with enemies at his door, David cries out, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (v. 4-5). 

The examples go on and on.

Sweat Like Blood

To me, perhaps the most notable example of mental health, or lack thereof, in the Bible is our Savior’s.

Three of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke — describe the Messiah’s mental state prior to his arrest, prior to his death. Jesus, asking God to take away this burden, is, in the varying accounts, “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), “in agony” (Luke 22:44) and “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). In the latter account, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 34). 

I’m going to key in on the Luke account, because it includes a detail that I love. The Greek agonia is described by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “of severe mental struggles and emotions”.

All of the adjectives and adverbs that the gospel writers used are pretty indicative of mental struggles. But it’s Luke, the physician, and his description of Jesus’ physical state that caught my eye when I read this passage.

“And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (v. 44).

There’s a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, so rare that “only a few handfuls of hematidrosis cases were confirmed in medical studies in the 20th century.” WebMD’s article continues:

“Doctors don’t know exactly what triggers hematidrosis, in part because it’s so rare. They think it could be related to your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.

Tiny blood vessels in the skin break open. The blood inside them may get squeezed out through sweat glands, or there might be unusual little pockets within the structure of your skin. These could collect the blood and let it leak into follicles (where the hair grows) or on to the skin’s surface.”

How is it caused? Most reports indicate it has to do with severe stress. Pair Jesus’ mental state, according to the gospel writers, with the blood sweat — of course it’s referenced by Luke the doctor — and you have a pretty severe case of mental illness, at least shown here.

Jesus showcasing severe mental discomfort and stress should be comforting to us. After all, as the writer of Hebrews argues, that’s one of the reasons we can trust Him.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Theologians have debated over whether or not Jesus was actually anxious. After all, He was the one who said there was no need to be anxious, but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Was He disobeying His own instruction?

That’s a theological debate for another day, but here’s my answer: I doubt it. At the very least, He was experiencing what mankind experienced so He could sympathize with our weaknesses. He was being human.

We’re Not Alone

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, accounting for around 46.6 million people, experience mental illness of some shape every year, and 1 in 25 adults experience a sever mental illness “that substantially interferes with or limits one of more major life activities” every year.

And that’s just what’s discovered, and that’s just America, and that’s just adults.

One of the many beauties of the Bible is that it tells a very human story. It’s not a book that lifts itself beyond our humanity and our circumstances, our realities and our weaknesses. It quashes the myth that, to be Christians, we must be mentally well every minute of every day. It kills the idea that good Christians are free from mental illness.

After all, look at the people spotlighted. They were men who knew well the greatness of God, the love of God, the amazing things He had done, what He as capable of, men God worked through to do miracles. Yet they still struggled. Elijah was suicidal. David was depressed. Jesus was anxious. The Bible tells us that we’re not alone, that three of the most faithful men in history struggled with mental health issues. 

It was like fire consuming water. 

Let’s return to 1 Kings 18 for a minute. Elijah was building his altar for the sacrifice. Verse 32 records that he made a trench around the altar, “about as great as would contain two seahs of seed.” A “seah” is seven quarts or 7.3 liters. So imagine the volume of seven-and-a-half two-liter bottles of soda, plus a little more. That’s how much water the trench could hold.

If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, try drinking a two liter of water quickly.

Elijah instructs the crowd to fill four jars of water and pour it on the offering and the wood on the altar. They did it, and then repeated the exercise twice. After the third time, v. 35 says, “the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.” 

You would think that faith in God would quench every worry and fear that would lead to suicidal thoughts, depression and sweat drops made of blood.

But no. In some moments, the fire is too strong to be quenched, and the water is lapped up. 

We should not be ashamed if we ever feel that way. It’s not the end.

How Christianity Increased My Anxiety, and Why You Don’t Have to Have the Same Experience

I know the title of this post will make some people instantly protective. God’s not a God of confusion, they’ll say. How could you take something as clear as the Bible and get confused by that?

A few reasons: God may not be a God of confusion, but how we talk about Him often leaves me confused. And the Bible isn’t really all that clear, if we’re being honest.

It’s things like clarity and certainty that help people with anxiety, that give us a sense of peace and purpose in a crazy world. But the Christianity most of us follow do little to assuage those of us who think a lot and think deeply. 

The reality is that the Christianity that’s real, the Christianity that’s true, allows us freedom to follow God mostly on our terms, in our environments and personalities and likes and dislikes. Of course, that does not give us license to sin willy nilly. But I’ve found out more about following Jesus when I learn it myself in my circumstances and my reality instead of following someone else’s prescribed rules. 

The first key to finding this freedom is understanding what makes us a Christian. What does the Bible say? In Romans 10:9-10, Paul explains: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believe and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Being saved? Believe in Jesus and confess it. That’s it. There’s no list of stipulations we have to meet to be a Christian except for those things.

We get into trouble — and my anxiety ramps up — when we begin to place stipulations and clauses in our “contract for being a Christian.” We ask questions like, “How is your time in the Word?” And “how much are you praying?” 

Well, if I am spending time “in the word,” whatever that means, how much is enough? How do I know if I’ve met the requirement to satisfy whatever your desire is? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes? 

If I am praying, how much is enough? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes? 

Inevitably, I’m going to fall short. And in so much of modern Christianity, we define “how Christian we are” by how our actions seem to reflect our faith. While there is biblical basis for that understanding — James 2:17 states that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” — there is no standard given. There’s no specific guidelines. So giving out specific guidelines, while it may be helpful, and implying that faithfulness is measured by a certain level of “obedience” is not biblical, and leads to more anxiety and confusion.

A list of stipulations shows us we will always fall short, and when we define our Christianity by our actions, we will always fall short of feeling that we’re a Christian. The Bible never defines our Christianity by our actions. James says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by his works” (2:22). Our actions are the out-working of our faith and being a Christian, not the essence of it.

The second key to finding this freedom is understanding what the Bible is. Other than the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law, there is no list of rules in the Bible that tells people how to live their lives. Even if there was, the Bible wasn’t written directly for us. It was written for a different people in a different time. 

That doesn’t make it useless. In fact, the Bible is stock full of wisdom and guidance that we would do well to heed. But we need to understand that the Bible was not designed as a checklist of rule-keeping. It’s a bunch of letters, histories, prophecies, poetry, songs and advice. But there’s tons and tons of wisdom in there, in both the Old and New Testaments. 

And most of all, we have the Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). That Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17). 

The modern church has a long history of making the Bible a list of rules, but it’s conveniently left some things out. For instance, women are allowed to speak in church despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and it seems that a woman not covering her head while praying is disgraceful and dishonoring according to 1 Corinthians 11:4-6. 

Since the Bible is not a list of rules, or even “God’s letter to us” — because it’s made up of letters to people from people — we’re freed to read it as it is and gain the wisdom and guidance we need to live as God’s people. 

The third key to finding this freedom is understanding who Jesus is. As already stated, the Bible says that Jesus is the “Word of God” (John 1:1), and is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). But most importantly, a relationship with him looks like rest. He says it Himself in Matthew 1:28-30.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s the words of God, in the person of Jesus. There seems to be some clarification here that when we come to Jesus, we don’t get a list of rules or a standard to uphold. We get rest. Taking his yoke upon us, it seems, leads to rest. It leads to learning. 

If we’re not getting that from following Jesus, we’re not following Jesus. We’re following some picture of Jesus that has been created by ourselves or the “Christian culture” around us. 

Breaking the Lock: An In-Depth Look at Insecurity and How to Face It with Jesus

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?”

‘A Place to Rest’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 5

NOTE: This is the fifth preview excerpt of my book In The Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.

A Place to Rest

Late in high school and then in college, when I was struggling with my relationship anxiety, my mother shared Matthew 11:28 with me many times. It’s a crucial truth to remember for any Christian, but it speaks almost specifically to those with anxiety.

Jesus is speaking about how God has given wisdom to little children and how we can know the Father through the Son. Then, verses 28-30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus tells his audience that He is the place where rest can be found, where those who work hard can be relived of their weariness. So He tells them, “Come to me. I am the place where you will find rest.” What He asks of them, He says, is not heavy. It’s not something heavy to carry. Just listen and learn, and you’ll find rest for your souls.

That part is important. It’s rest for your soul. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that you get to be lazy and do nothing. It means a spiritual rest, a rest for your soul, a rest from fearing whether or not you were on God’s side.

The Jews he was speaking to at the time had lived for years in a spiritual state where laws had to be followed, rules had to be observed, or else you were disobeying God’s law and you were looked down upon by others. The Hebrew law was all about working your way to salvation. I don’t know about you, but if I had to work my way to salvation, I would never be at rest spiritually.

What Jesus offered them and offers to us is a spiritual rest. It’s a rest that means we don’t have to work our way to salvation or to God’s favor. We don’t have to do a certain number of things or be a certain number of things before God loves us and cares for us. We don’t have to believe all the right things all the time. There is no standard of “doing enough for Jesus” that makes Him love us any more if we reach it or any less if we don’t.

When we come to Christ, He offers us a rest that goes far beyond anything that humanity can construct on their own. He literally says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

For some of us, our souls spend so much time striving to be the “right soul,” to think and believe and do and say the right thing every single minute of every single day. But all that Jesus asks is that we come and believe and trust Him. That’s it. We’ll get all that other stuff worked out in time as we follow Jesus, as we get closer to Him.

One thing to remember is that it’s not the perfect people who come and get rest. The people who were found the most around Jesus while He was on Earth were the outcasts, lepers, rejects, drunkards, losers, gluttons, tax collectors, sinners. The lowest. The pariahs. There’s nothing preventing you from coming to Jesus and finding rest for your soul, finding relief from the anxiety and the nervous thoughts that prey on you, because, at the very least, He’s used to people like you and actually likes hanging out with people like you.

If you’re a Christian, you no longer have to work for God’s approval. You don’t have to fear. You can trust and believe. And then you can rest.

“The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 4

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.”

Rough.

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.

‘Modern Anxious Romance’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 3

NOTE: This is the third excerpt from my book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book releases on Jan. 12, 2018.

Modern Anxious Romance

In his book Modern Romance, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari (who plays the hilarious Tom Haverford on Parks & Recreation) explores the quirks and difficulties of dating in the modern world. It’s a funny read. There’s profanity and some crude content, so if you’re not up for that, I’d avoid it. But I’ll share a pretty clean story from the introduction to his book.

Aziz was trying to decide if he should text this girl he had met that he calls Tanya. They had hung out one night and he wanted to get in touch with her again. Should he call her? Should he text her?

He waited a few days, then texted her. He began to picture what their relationship would be like. A few minutes after he sent the text, the status of the message went to “read.” Moment of truth. Nothing. Fifteen minutes, an hour, two, three hours go by, nothing. He begins to second-guess what he said.

After a few days, he realizes something:

“The madness I was descending into wouldn’t have even existed twenty or even ten years ago. There I was, manically checking my phone every few minutes, going through this tornado of panic and hurt and anger all because this person hadn’t written me a short, stupid message on a dumb little phone.

I was really upset, but had Tanya really done anything that rude or malicious? No, she just didn’t send a message in order to avoid an awkward situation. I’d surely done the same thing to someone else and not realized the similar grief I had possibly caused them.”

In the first chapter, Aziz shares about the difference between “soul mate marriage” (where love is the primary factor in marriage) and “companionate marriage” (where finding a life companion for safety and security is the motivator) and how marriage has changed from the latter to the former over the years for the majority of people, particularly in my generation. While reading, I noted the following thought:

“But searching for a soul mate takes a long time and requires enormous emotional investment. The problem is that this search for the perfect person can generate a lot of stress. Younger generations face immense pressure to find the ‘perfect person’ that simply didn’t exist in the past when ‘good enough’ was good enough.”

In modern times, romance has become one of the most stress-inducing, anxiety-filled, drive-you-crazy-because-she-hasn’t-texted-you-back-in-two-hours things that has ever existed. In fact, it’s the only thing that has ever fit that description. Romance, particularly in the smartphone and social media age, has so many more nuances and produces more insecurities than in previous generations.

When my parents were dating back in the 1980s, there was no Snapchat or Facebook. There was picking up the telephone and calling to try to set up a time to get dinner and see a movie. There was no analyzing the latest tweet your potential boo tweeted, or wondering why he had read your text but hadn’t replied when you thought things were going well. I’m sure there was still a ton of fear and insecurity and doubt, but it was different.

I personally believe that Christian culture has made things much more difficult for believers to process romance because there are so many “rules” and “guidelines” for how to do things. Whether it’s right or wrong, we as Christians have placed a great burden on trying to decide what our romantic lives are supposed to look like before we even dive into them. Yes, there is wisdom in thinking well and making good decisions, but often we make it so complicated.

We see a potential love interest’s faults as “red flags” when maybe they’re just human flaws. We want to wait for the “right time” when there really is no such thing as a “right time.” It induces so much anxiety, it’s ridiculous!

I’ve seen a lot of articles recently about how men in the Church aren’t pursuing women in the Church the way they are expected to. There probably is a lot of fear and some anxiety, but I would wager a guess that it’s partially due to the unreal expectations that are placed on what a Christian dating relationship is “supposed” to look like.

And then, there’s the “unwritten” dating rules and questions to answer that humans have come up with that aren’t un-biblical. There’s so much!

My modern romance is no different, but I also fought the beast of anxiety throughout.

‘Our Anxiety Is for Our Good’ — In The Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 2

NOTE: This is the second preview excerpt of my book In The Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.

Our Anxiety Is for Our Good

You might not believe me. And I wouldn’t blame you for doing so. If you suffer with the amount of anxiety that I do, I totally get it.

It sucks! It’s one of the worst things that you encounter on a regular basis. Sometimes it keeps you in bed. Sometimes it keeps you from interacting with those you love. Sometimes it keeps you from prayer, study of God’s Word, resting in His promises. But if we are to believe that Word and those promises, we have to accept and believe that our anxiety is for our good. Romans 8:28 says:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Those who love God and are called according to His purpose, that’s Christians. We who are Christians love God, and He’s called us to do all things for His glory, His purpose for our lives. So that’s us. And the Bible says that all things work together for good. Our good. Our best.

One of the ways in which He works all things together for our good is how He brings us salvation. He took our sinfulness, something we can’t get rid of on our own, and forgave us for it by sending Jesus to die on the cross and come back to life on the third day.

But it’s not just in how He deals with our sin nature. He works all things together for our good. ALL THINGS. I can’t emphasize this enough. ALL THINGS. Every single thing in our life works together for our good.

This is kind of hard to comprehend. Especially when it comes to dealing with our anxiety. That doesn’t seem like something that can be used for our good. But here are three reasons why:

1) It shows us our weaknesses.

We as a human race don’t like to look at or acknowledge our weaknesses. We don’t like to think about how much we suck at things. We don’t want people to point out our flaws, our scars, our inabilities. We don’t desire for others to know our deficiencies, our blemishes.

Sometimes that leads us to spending so much time trying to remind ourselves of our strengths that we forget that we are weak. And it is absolutely vital that we realize just how much we are weak, just how much we screw things up. Anxiety is a weakness, unfortunately. Sometimes we have no control over when it comes, but it’s a weakness nonetheless. And when we’re reminded of it, we’re reminded of the soft spots on our skin, the chinks in our armor.

2) Our weakness shows us that we need God.

We won’t make it on our own in this life. We need God. Our weakness shows us that we need God. God is the only one that can help us through those weaknesses, that can bring us through the hard times with the direction and purpose that we so desperately need.

He shows us that it’s OK to be weak, that it’s OK that we suck, because He’s there to pick us up, to carry us when we can’t carry ourselves, to provide the strength when we don’t have it. He does it by working through His Holy Spirit, by encouragement and challenge from His Word, by the people He surrounds us with.

3) God grows us through our anxiety.

When we deal with anxiety on a regular basis, we can learn how to deal with fear, how to fight against lies we tell ourselves, how to share our issues with others in moments of lack.

Through the rest of this book, we’ll discuss how we grow through our anxiety in different situations of life. We’ll talk about anxiety in school, relationships and other circumstances we find ourselves in that bring about panic. We’ll also dive into what it means to beat fear, one of the most central ingredients of anxiety. And then we’ll talk about the hope that exists even in the midst of anxiety.

I’ll share a lot of how I’ve grown through dealing with my anxiety in each of these areas. This is a very personal area of life for me. Because I’ve dealt with it so much, I’ve been itching to share my experiences with others in a book. It would be a waste for me to go through this and not try in some way to help at least one person with the anxiety they’re experiencing.

So as we move forward, just know that I’ve got you on my mind. I’m praying for you. And I hope that what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced, can help you as well.

‘Introduction’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 1

NOTE: This is an excerpt from my book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief, which is releasing on the iBooks Store on Jan. 12. You can read more about the book here.

Probably my favorite book of all time is Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning.

It’s somewhat unlikely you’ve heard of him. He’s not a big name author in Christian circles these days. But he should be, and here’s why: Manning was as honest about his struggles in Abba’s Child as I’ve ever seen in any book. He writes about how he viewed God as a punisher without grace for many years, and how that view negatively affected his spiritual life. A former Franciscan priest, Manning dove into his personal life, including his alcoholism. In a profile for Christianity Today in 2013, Agnieszka Tennant writes of Manning:

“Manning’s admission of his failings — combined with his ability to make others feel God’s love in spite of their transgressions — is one reason for his popularity among those who have paid more attention to their shame than to God. His message is a liberation of the perpetually guilty, those who grew up in churches that preached a lot of sin but little grace.”

Manning has influenced Christian music artists like Rich Mullins and Michael W. Smith and theologians like Larry Crabb, Max Lucado and Eugene Peterson. They’re names that aren’t as familiar to my generation, but are household in Christian circles in generations past.

Manning’s kind of narrative rarely fits in today’s circle because of its rawness, its honesty. It’s one that doesn’t pretend holiness or perfection, but readily admits and even details flaws and weaknesses, sins and shortcomings. Abba’s Child focuses on the realness and nearness of God’s love, of a Father’s deep love for His child, a child that can come to Him without hesitation and without fear, because it’s a love that never goes away despite any sinful shortcoming.

It’s a narrative that has spoken volumes to me since my first read. And it’s a series of truths that have helped inspired me to write this book about Christianity and anxiety. Not only have I taken inspiration from the style of Manning’s writing — intensely personal, thoroughly spiritual and superbly relatable — but I’ve been inspired by his message, one that is completely Christ’s.

I’ve lived with severe anxiety and depression starting around 2008. I’ve been a Christian the whole time. I accepted Christ in the summer of 2006, and two years into following Jesus, I got super anxious. And I’m not talking about being nervous for a little bit, but serious anxiety, leading to panic attacks and depression and even suicidal thoughts.

I’ve learned a lot along the way and God has given me desire to write about it. I want other people to grow from what I’ve learned through Bible study and life experience, and that’s what this book is all about. I want to help you deal with the anxiety in your life. I want to help you to think right.

So much in our lives can change if we learn to think right. Paul emphasizes the importance of thinking right in Romans 8:5-7.

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”

And again in Philippians 4:8.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Setting our mind on the things of the Spirit, on spiritual things, on godly things, on God Himself, is evidence that we’re living by the Spirit, that we’re Christians, that we’re God’s children. And Paul gives us a list of adjectives that describe godly things. That’s how important thinking is.

And that’s what I spent this entire book trying to do. I thought about how I could help you think rightly about your anxiety and hopefully give you some wisdom on how to fight it, how to daily overcome it.

I want to tell you that this book was written specifically for those of you that struggle with anxiety disorders. I had you in my mind when I outlined the book, when I started it, when I was writing the chapters and as I’m writing this introduction.

But I don’t want to exclude those who don’t have diagnosed anxiety disorders. If you have stress or anxiety of any kind, these concepts are true and have continued to help me as my disorder becomes less of an issue. The book will focus primarily on those dealing with high levels of anxiety, but it’s really also for anyone who is a Christian and has stress over certain situations in your life with Christ.

Important note: This is not a medicine or health book where I’m going to tell you how your brain chemistry works and how to fix it. I’m also not going to suggest which medicine to take or even whether to take medicine. That’s a decision for you and a mental health professional. Full transparency: I’ve been taking medicine for my depression for about 18 months as of writing this introduction, and I think it’s been helpful. I think it can be helpful for you if needed. But I do not claim medical or psychiatric expertise. If you have questions about those those things, please speak with a professional.

Here’s another thing: therapy, or going to see a counselor to talk about this, is also incredibly helpful. A lot of the things I’ve learned have come through talking about things with a counselor. So if that’s something you feel like you need, go for it! I highly recommend it.

This book is not a fix-all for all of your anxiety problems. This book is meant to address some spiritual issues at play and try to help you with your spiritual life in conjunction with, if necessary, professional help from counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, whomever. If there are mental or emotional issues that you need professional help with, do not look solely to this book.

It frustrates me when Christians think anxiety is a spiritual issue and can only be fixed by reading your Bible and praying, and I don’t intend for that to be the case. In so many cases, if not all of them, it’s more than that. Finding solutions is often much more than simply doing “spiritual things.”

Most Christian books start off with hitting the overarching concepts first. Then they dive into specifics. Many of the books you’ve read probably work this way. They give you basics, then get down to the nitty-gritty. I’m structuring mine a little differently. I wanted to begin with my story of anxiety, so I’m starting by looking into particular areas where I’ve dealt with anxiety and sharing what I’ve learned about those areas. You’ll learn more about me in those chapters, probably more than you ever wanted to know about the author of a book you’re reading.

After those specifics, I’ll get into broader concepts that are big take-home points as you face anxiety on a daily or near-daily basis.

This book was written with believers in Jesus in mind. If you’re reading this book and you’re not a Christian, please keep reading. I explain in the book why I’m a Christian, why I follow Christ, something you might be wondering about doing. I believe that the ultimate solution to dealing with anxiety is following Jesus and believing in Him. So please, keep reading.

I want you to fall in love with Jesus even more as you read this book. He is the answer for the spiritual problems that drag you away from Him. And I hope that, through my transparency and His glory and goodness, you can find Him and fall deeper and deeper into His loving embrace throughout your struggle with anxiety. That’s my goal. I pray sincerely that you find and you fall.

Don’t Give Up: Even When You’re Depressed and Anxious Like Me

Note: This is the continuation of a series on the idea of not giving up in different scenarios. Previous posts include entries on work and relationships. The previous posts have not had a particular audience, it can be applied generally. But my heart is for the Church, for the body of Christ. So the next two posts will be aimed at a Christian audience.

This post dives into the subject of depression and anxiety, something I’ve written about countless times. Please read my other posts on this subject for more of my thoughts and experiences. Just search “depression” in the search bar and you’ll find them all. This piece gives a brief overview of my story.

I originally wrote this for submission to an online magazine but it was not picked up, so I share it here.

The biggest problem with mental illness in the Church is not that it exists, but that we don’t talk about it.

If we do talk about it, it’s a passing mention, with an emphasis on “read your Bible” and “pray.” Oh, I wish that were true.

I’ve had depression for at least six years, probably more. And it nearly killed my faith.

When we think about depression, we often don’t associate it with the word “Christian.” When we think of “Christian,” the list of words that come to mind don’t usually include “depressed.” In a way, “depressed” often can seem anti-Christian to people who don’t understand it.

Depression implies that someone is down or sad, that it’s a state of mind that is hard to get out of. And that seems to go against what it means to be a Christian. We’re saved, let’s be joyful! We’re forgiven, let’s celebrate! God loves us, let’s be excited! Those are things to get excited about. Those are things to celebrate and be joyful about. However, when you’re depressed, it’s hard to join in that crowd.

The majority of my time as someone who has depression was spent in college at Elon University. I was studying print journalism and participating in a campus ministry. The campus ministry was a good experience and had an emphasis on evangelism and spiritual disciplines, things that were good. However, evangelism and discipline are two of my biggest “weaknesses,” if you can call not being good at those a “weakness.”

Within the context of that ministry, it felt like a weakness. It felt like I was not “good enough” to be a part of the group because I wasn’t as passionate about sharing the Gospel with the lost. I wanted them to know Jesus, but I would rather spend time at the house I shared with a couple guys playing FIFA or doing my homework (I was a bit of an academic when I wanted to be) than building superficial relationships with guys just to try to convert them.

For wanting that, I felt like I was less. And because I felt like I was less, I got depressed. Struggles with sin also depressed me.

I talked about this general feeling of depression every now and then, but it was not a comfortable thing. The guys I talked with, as awesome as they were as brothers in Christ, just didn’t get it. And they seemed to be quite happy with their lives. “What was wrong with me?,” I wondered. “Why didn’t I have the same joy, the same drive?” I chalked it up to that I wasn’t good enough as a Christian, and I had to get better. Then I wouldn’t be depressed anymore and people would think I was an awesome Christian.

That was my driving force in life for a long time, and to today still is to a degree: being the best Christian there is. I wanted people to look at me and see my spiritual life and see perfection. That’s what I thought had to happen. See, everyone around me didn’t act like there was anything wrong with them. Prayer requests usually revolved around sick relatives, hard business presentations and that freshman they had been “pouring into,” hoping to get them saved. I felt like there was no place for me to share the mental anguish I went through on a nearly daily basis. No one talked about their personal struggles in their head, and I wasn’t bold enough yet to share it and start the conversation on my own.

Now I feel a little more comfortable talking about my personal experience with depression, at least online. But bringing it up in person with people is still a struggle. I have a few times in my small group, and it’s been fruitful each time.

The problem comes when we think that being a Christian means you don’t struggle with anything like mental illnesses. Being depressed and being a Christian is not a contradiction. It’s just like being a Christian and being born in the South or being a Christian and being a journalist (I’m both of those things) – it’s just part of who you are. The key difference between those things and depression is that you can be a Southerner and a journalist and that often doesn’t seriously affect how you live as a believer. Depression does.

But I’m writing this to all of you out there who are Christians and have depression: it’s not a losing battle. It’s not a battle that you have to fight alone. You don’t have to be joyful all the time to be a Christian. Being a Christian simply means Jesus saved you. There’s no other prerequisite for being called a son or daughter of God. Don’t let the conversation, or lack thereof, about depression in your church or your local group of Christians make you think you’re all alone.

I’m there with you. I don’t struggle as much anymore, mostly because I take medicine for it and I’m engaged to a beautiful young lady who knows everything about me and loves me anyways. Just like Jesus.

What I’ve found is that the answer to depression is the Gospel. It’s the truth that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), fear of being rejected by God for our feelings, fear of being not good enough for the Father. It’s that God loves us throughout our struggles. The Gospel doesn’t necessarily heal us from depression, but it will help and guide us through it.

So be open about it. Share your story. Don’t be afraid to take medicine. Don’t let people discourage you. Find someone who echoes the love of Christ to you and build a friendship with them. You’re not abnormal. You’re just like me.

Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. It’s not worth it.

Don’t ever give up.