Our society has taught us that anxiety and peacefulness are at opposite ends of a spectrum. In its black-and-white, non-dual nature, we are taught that they cannot co-exist, that to be anxious is to be unpeaceful and to be peaceful is to have an absence of anxiety.
With this lens, it’s easy to read Philippians 4:6-7 as transactional. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace that surpasses all comprehension shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ.”
If we’re anxious, all we need to do is pray more and be thankful, and then God will give us peace. If we’re anxious, we’re not doing this enough or not properly or we’re not trusting God for the peace only God can provide. We read it as our own fault if we are not at peace. We read it as anxieties and peace are in opposition, only one can be present at a time, that God’s peace (if we’re doing it right) expands to take up the space where anxiety has been, pushing it out so there is no room for it any longer.
A few weeks ago, I watched a video which used worries and anxieties as evidence of a lack of Christ’s peace in our lives. Although it wasn’t intended as such, this sharp contrast is dangerous and harmful. As someone who has lived with an anxiety disorder for all of my adult life, as someone who has chosen to self-harm in order to avoid panic attacks, I want to stand up and say that this way of talking about anxiety and peace is harmful to some of our most vulnerable.
It is harmful because it constructs one’s lack of peace, one’s anxieties, as one’s own fault. If you are not at peace, then you are just not praying right or are lacking in faith, then you are not doing this relationship-with-God-thing right or properly because if you were, these anxieties wouldn’t be happening, you would be able to cope with, or ‘bear’, the stresses in your life.
But my own experience has taught me how wrong it is; my life is proof that they are not mutually exclusive, these states can coexist.
Go read those verses again. Do they say anything about the peace edging out anxieties? Do they say anything about the anxieties being gone? Rather, they speak of peace being present with the anxieties, guarding us against the damage anxieties might cause.
I have learned (and had to learn) to maintain a sense of peace, even while anxieties are on-going. I have learned that I can stand in the peace of Christ and let my anxieties spin themselves out. I don’t have to fight against myself to be at peace.
Putting peace and anxiety in opposition means you have to conquer anxiety first, before you can possess Christ’s peace. But this forgets that God has acted first. This ignores the fact that when we stand in Christ, we are no longer bound to our anxieties and our fears, we have liberation from them, we already possess Christ’s peace.
We are called to live by faith, not by might, not by striving, not by wrestling ourselves into submission. When peace and anxiety are understood in opposition, we must fight against ourselves, we are invited to constantly and repeatedly see ourselves as not good enough, as flawed and broken and we fuel our anxieties further and, at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to rest in peace.
But in Christ we are invited to view ourselves with compassion, and we can open our arms to ourselves in love.
We have a hormone in our body called oxytocin. Commonly known as the love hormone or the hug hormone, it is released in our bodies when we receive gentle loving touch, when we are met with words of loving-kindness. It’s commonly talked about in reference to new mothers because it is released when breastfeeding. It’s also released for both mum and baby with that first skin-on-skin contact after birth that they midwives love so much. And the wonder of this hormone is that it relaxes us, bonds us together, and aids healing. It brings calmness to our minds and bodies by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
You will, no doubt, have heard of the flight-or-fight response, it activates when we are stressed or anxious. It literally activates our entire body and mind to get us out of trouble: time seems to slow, awareness increases, muscles are primed and ready. But it doesn’t let us rest and it doesn’t let us heal. Its job is to get us to safety, and then it can switch off and let the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest system) do the work of recovery.
So, when we approach anxiety as something to be fought off, to struggle against, we are actually physiologically stopping ourselves from being at peace. But when we respond to anxieties and stresses with gentleness and compassion – with love, we can rest and unwind, and be at peace. Ironically, we need to respond to anxiety with the opposite response to what it provokes.
“After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Galatians 3:3. Rather that our own striving to create peace, we need to rest in what God has already given us in Christ.
Think of how we might respond to an anxious child (of course, this is much easier when we, ourselves, are at peace and standing in confidence) – with calm reassurance, gentle touch – all the things which cause the release of oxytocin and which relax and calm, all things which speak of love.
When we approach anxiety with love, when Love is our way of being, we can meet it with peace. Not conquer it, not beat it down, but embrace it with the arms of God. Our anxiety, just like the rest of us, is welcomed in.
Peace isn’t something to achieve by fighting off anxiety, or by swamping it with so much gratitude that it has no room to move. Peace and love greet anxiety with open arms, and it is only there that anxiety can at last find rest. It is a working with, not a struggling against. It is non-violence in action. To slam the door in Anxiety’s face, to fight to shut it out only makes it more anxious, only increases its volume in your life, increases the clamour of its voice through the keyhole. This life of peace and love is one of abundance and fullness, not austere perfection through eradication.
So, rather than fighting anxiety with peace, we can learn to cultivate peace in the midst of anxiety, we can learn to hold ourselves in an attitude of love and peace while anxieties rage inside and stressors press from the outside (though it can be good to practice this outside of stressful situations first). Part of us can know, and rest in, the love and peace of God all the while, and we can tap into it to help centre ourselves again in the One who holds us through all things. We can know that our anxieties don’t define us and they most certainly cannot prevent us from coming to God. “Neither height nor depth, nor anxieties, nor stressors, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39, my paraphrase). We can stand firm in the knowledge that anxieties and worries cannot keep us from Christ’s peace.
And when we repeatedly meet them with compassion and love, they become invitations into God’s presence, invitations to rest again in Christ’s peace, and let our anxieties spin themselves out and be put back into perspective alongside God’s love for us.
We are no longer under obligation to follow the rabbit-hole of our worries, Christ has set us free from this bondage, so that we might ground our lives in Love. In Christ, anxiety no longer has control. We can deny it the power to bear fruit in our lives because we are free to choose love and peace.
We do not bring ourselves peace by chasing out anxiety. But when we bring the two together, when we hold our anxieties with hands of peace, is it then that the wind is taken out of anxiety’s sails, it is there within peace that anxiety can finally rest.
Easy tweetables for you to share:
When peace and anxiety are in opposition, we must fight against ourselves to achieve what Christ gifts us. (click to tweet)
In Christ we are invited to view ourselves with compassion, & we can open our arms to ourselves in love. (click to tweet)
We do not bring ourselves peace by chasing out anxiety. It is within peace that anxiety can finally rest. (click to tweet)