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Does following Jesus make you feel anxious?

In November of 2007, my family and I were making the nearly 2000-mile trip from Boise, Idaho to Indiana. Normally, I love road trips but this one was different. We had taken a giant leap of faith to leave the Northwest to work with Cru's music ministry which is based in Westfield. In addition to leaving all of our family and friends, Karen and I both felt like this decision was not without risk. What if the music ministry didn’t work out? What if we don’t make friends? What if our ministry supporters don’t understand? What if the kids hate Indiana? We were moving in the direction we believed God was leading, but as the family van cruised down I80 to the soundtrack of various Veggie Tales episodes, my heart was heavy with anxiety.

Counselors and psychiatrists will tell you that anxiety is primarily about control. This was true in my case. What I really wanted was reassurance from God that nothing bad would happen; a sort of guarantee that we would live happily ever after, comfortably insulated from insecurity. It will not surprise the older, wiser readers among you that God was not forthcoming on any such commitment. Thus, I was left with my anxious thoughts.

This is actually a common, human experience. Finding security in an unpredictable world is such a deeply relatable theme that it drives everything from ad copy to religion. It is what drives many of us to the church in the first place. Who among us hasn’t tried to make a deal with God in the face of a difficult situation? In the ancient world, most religions were about pacifying capricious, unpredictable gods and manipulating them to do what you wanted them to do (i.e. provided rain, provide children, etc.) However, God is highly concerned with differentiating himself from other “gods” in the minds of his people; it is a theme that central in scripture.

The Biblical history of the Israelites involves God rescuing his chosen people out of slavery in a foreign country. It is a story that has inspired and encouraged countless generations, but the process felt anything but secure to those who lived through it. Just convincing Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave was a major hurdle, involving a series of plagues and afflictions culminating with the death of every first-born child not protected by the Passover. This was followed by the miraculous Red Sea intervention and eventually, forty years of wandering in the desert. During that time in the desert, the Israelites were daily dependent on God’s direct provision of food and direction on where to go. It represents a formative part of their (and our) history and it challenged their conception of who God is.

There are two things you must internalize if you are to ever experience the kind of peace and happiness that rises above uncertain (and even painful) circumstances. They are, first, that God is taking you somewhere and second, where he is taking you is good. Listen to how Moses addressed both things with the Israelites:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks and water, fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full…” (Deut. 8:7-10)

Everything about this passage would have communicated security and abundance to the Israelites. A good preacher could preach a dozen sermons just on the symbolism of the individual features of this place, but for our purposes, it is enough to understand that God is taking them to a land that will provide for and enrich them. They are going to a place where they will build homes, raise families, conduct trade, and grow crops and live long, happy lives. Everything about this picture would have aroused desire and hope in the hearts of God’s displaced covenant community.

Here is the point: The security and abundance of the promised land is connected to the dependence of the wilderness. In other words, what God is doing within us when we are in the desert affects our ability to enjoy and flourish in the promised land when we get there. God made it very clear to the Israelites that they would not live in the land very long if they did not continue in what they had learned in the desert. Abundance minus an understanding of God’s character equals a disaster. In short, if you want what God has for you, you must enter into it via the wilderness.

Driving down that freeway, I had to get to a point where I believed that God was taking us somewhere and that where he was taking us was good. I had to believe that more than I believed in my own mistakes, more than I trusted in the wisdom of well-meaning friends, and more than what my circumstances were telling me. Somewhere east of the Rocky Mountains I chose to believe that. Twelve years later, I am reflecting on all the ways God has brought us to a good place in central Indiana. I marvel at the fact that God provided us with a home, a loving church community, and meaningful work to do; he has provided a place for us.

(Just so you know, some of the things I feared actually did happen. You know what? God led us through that also. That will be the topic of future posts!) 

Here are two things to think about: First, where do you think God is taking you? Spend some time in the coming weeks asking the Lord to give you a picture of your destination and journal your thoughts. As a helpful hint, pay attention to your desires (I mean what you really want, not the religiously correct ones…). Writing about desire, Ruth Haley Barton relates there is a desire that goes beyond merely finding safety. That desire is "to abandon ourselves to God and the life to which he is calling us. It is the desire to leave Egypt [i.e. Slavery] and journey with others to the Promised Land."[1] That is the desire you are looking for. 

Second, how do the trials and challenges of your reality right now relate to this vision of the “promised land”? It could be that those challenges and trials represent the wilderness God is leading you through to get to the promised land. In that case, you can think about how you can embrace them as an act of faith in God as you move forward. In other words, you are submitting to the work God wants to do inside you.

It could be that your vision of the blessed life is out of sync with God’s vision and he is (lovingly) providing roadblocks. If you think this might be the case, ask for his help to reorient you to what a blessed life looks like for you. God is extremely responsive to that kind of prayer and provides answers in many ways. One of those ways is through the counsel of wise people in the church community. Another way is through insights gained from reading his word. Finally, time spent alone in silence and solitude helps us to hear the words God is whispering to us.

I’ll leave you with this. In Tolkien’s adventure story The Hobbit, the wizard Gandalf must convince Bilbo, the retiring hobbit to join a grand adventure that will likely involve hardship and mortal danger but is for a supremely good cause. Stuck between his desire for safety and comfort and perhaps some other deeper, nobler longing, Bilbo asks "Can you promise that I will come back?" In response, the wise old wizard whispers “No, and if you do, you will not be the same.”

God is taking you somewhere, and where he is taking you is good. Far from being a sanitized Disney-style adventure, it does not come with any guarantee regarding an outcome, save the eternal truth of God’s character, the promise of his presence along the way, and the reality that it will change you in ways that nothing else can.  

[1] Barton, Ruth Haley. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InnerVarsity Press.