“While I’d love to fix people, I can’t. If I think I can, I’m setting myself up for anxiety.”
Don’t miss part 1 of the interview with Max Lucado, in which he discusses why he decided to preach and write about anxiety and its effects on pastors.
You mentioned the American culture of anxiety. Do we have a kind of cultural love affair with anxiety?
“Cultural love affair”—that’s a great phrase. Yes.
I think the problem behind it is that we’ve accepted anxiety as normal. Everybody around looks hectic. Everything moves fast. Our political climate is anxiety-inducing. Regardless of a person’s political leanings, I don’t see how you can dismiss the fact that we don’t have a comforting or pastoral voice speaking to us in these times in our societal leadership. That creates more anxiety.
Just as one example of this principle: I even think that racism, increasingly visible today, is related to anxiety.
Interesting. Can you make that link for us?
Anxiety creates control freaks. Anxiety prods us to have neatly compartmentalized worlds. We want to control when we are afraid. We think that if we can control every detail in our world, then we’ll be at peace, or at least be “safe.” So we try to control every detail—and fail.
A racist—a person who believes (or lives like they believe) that certain ethnic groups are better than others—is a hypercontrol freak. They want the world to be defined according to their image of it. In the extreme, this mindset leads even to the point of exterminating people groups. It is bizarre, satanic. But what they want is the world to look just like them. Racism is rooted in fear and anxiety.
The attitude of fear says, I’m going to fix the world by making it like me. But faith is the enemy of fear and anxiety. It puts that control back into God’s hands. It seeks beauty in every human being, even the ones who are very different from us. Faith seeks the image of God in everyone, regardless of difference. That is the attitude of faith.
With that in mind, what are you learning about how to encode healthy values of faith and hope into your ministry?
The core doctrines of the Christian faith are amazing building blocks upon which to build a life of peace. The concept of sovereignty, for example, changes our attitude when we truly believe it. Imagine being able to do what Joseph did when he looked at his brothers in Egypt and said, “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good.” He was able to stand on the building block of God’s sovereign nature to trust God’s control, even in the midst of the painful past. That’s the voice of someone who has learned to cope with fear and anxiety by responding in true faith.
Paul models this too. Think of his strong teaching on grace and forgiveness—that a miracle happens when we become a child of God and our sins are washed away, and the Holy Spirit moves in to take up residence within us and help us become the very presence of Christ in the world. That to me is the answer for one of the great sources of anxiety—guilt. There is a solution that lets us live beyond our guilt, regrets and failures in life. Guilt creates a fretful person. People are always trying to work it away, drink it away, whatever. But grace creates a peaceful person.
The Christian faith, to the degree we learn to stand up the building blocks of our theology, offers truths that we can build a strong, peaceful life upon. Our job as pastors or church leaders is to keep coming back to these teachings over and over again. The best sermons all say the same things, just from new angles.
After I’d been at our church for about 18 years, someone came up to me who had been there the whole time. “You know, Max,” she said, “I think I have you figured out. You keep saying the same thing over and over again every week, just using different stories and different Scriptures.” “What am I saying?” I asked her. “God loves you and it’s going to be OK,” she replied. I remember thinking, “If that’s my epitaph, I’m OK with that.”
Are there any habits we can encourage people toward that are benchmarks for remembering and living into that sovereignty of God?
Great question. My answers aren’t anything new. The importance of reading and memorizing Scripture—allowing it to really get into our hearts—is one. The importance of belonging to some type of group where people know your name and you’re willing to share your struggles. A place of authentic community. For many people that’s in a home, workplace or school. Then thirdly, it’s vital to develop a habit of worship. I have found comfort in a variety of streams of worship, from meditative contemplation to more charismatic celebration. It just depends on where I am. Worship gets my mind off myself and reminds me that there is a big God who can help me with whatever I’m facing.
Those three things are go-to tools and rhythms for Christians to find refuge from anxiety and relief from our worries and fears in worship and connection with God and his people.
In your eyes, what does an anxiety-free Christian life look like then?
If someone has dealt with anxiety, they can expect to see a lot of joy and a lot of contentment.
It’s characterized by joy. There’s a lot of laughter. Joy manifests in laughter and happiness where anxiety is absent. There’s contentment too. Another cause of anxiety is a constant desire for more. That’s why the apostle Paul (also in Philippians) said, “I’ve learned to be content …” in the larger context of his teaching about being anxious for nothing. If we’re content with what we have, odds are we won’t be striving to accumulate more.
In the book, you mention gratitude as an anti-anxiety practice. How does thankfulness fight anxiety?
I have a good friend who’s 77. He and I used to play golf about once a month a while back, and he could regularly shoot his age. If I ever do that, I’ll have to live to be about a hundred, though. [Laughs] His wife, Ginger, has Parkinson’s disease. I know they had great plans for their retirement—a lot of travel, enjoying seeing the world. Now it’s very rare for them to leave their home, much less the city or state. But he’s the happiest person. I asked him one day, “How can you be so happy when life hasn’t turned out the way you’d hoped?” He said, “Every morning, Ginger and I sing the song ‘Count Your Blessings.’”
What I’ve discovered is that gratitude and anxiety will not share the same heart. If you begin to make a list of things for which you’re grateful, then anxiety has to leave. It’s as if there’s no oxygen for it to breathe in you.
So begin to list all of the ways God has been good to you; list all of his mercies. Look back over your life. Think of all the ways he has protected and provided for you. When you do that, then you find anxiety begins slipping out the door.
Even as I say this, I am speaking to myself. As I go into events in my week—meetings I’m not looking forward to having—I need to stop, to look back over my 30 years at this church and about 40 years of total ministry and think how many hundreds of meetings over that time that I felt anxious about. You know what? Looking back—I can only think of one or two that turned out to be a disaster! [Laughs]
I think I’ll do that this week—make a list of past blessings for my own gratitude to find comfort in the midst of that fretfulness.
Obviously Christians need this process to begin with us. But how can we then turn and share joyful, peaceful living with the profoundly anxious culture we live in?
One principle immediately comes to mind: Don’t force it. Don’t tell yourself: I have to quit worrying. Or, I have to be a source of peace and hope—now! That’s not how it works.
Peace is simply the natural outflow of the indwelling presence of Christ. It’s a fruit—a fruit of the Spirit. My job is not to force fruit. My job is not to be the happiest person on the block. My job is not to be the most peaceful person. My job is simply to abide in Christ. To the degree that I abide in Christ, that I cling to him, that I love him, that I turn to him, that fruit of peace is just going to be. It’s going to happen.
It doesn’t do the church much good for me to just stand up and say, “Quit worrying!” It’s even humorous to think about doing that. But it does do the church good, I think, for me to stand up and say, “Let’s trust God for this,” or, “Just let God love you today. Believe him.” If I let go a bit and don’t force it, then I can trust that the fruit is going to come.
We Christians like to try to force fruit. We preachers are especially guilty of that. Can I relate one last story that illustrates that?
For years I was an avid cyclist. I loved it. I was one of those guys with the tight shorts and helmet. I eventually got to the point where I competed in events and such. But when I got into it, I just did it because I liked biking. I was about 40 years old, and a guy in my church who’d been on the cycling team at Texas A&M heard me make a comment and offered to teach me all about it.
So I bought a bike and some clip-in shoes, and spandex, and went out and loved it. But then he started saying that I needed to get some gadgets. You know the things I’m talking about—everything from a speedometer, to a monitor for my pulse rate, to a device to read the incline of a hill. I had gauges on gauges. Then there was the music. “You’ll bike better if you listen to some hard rock,” he said. So I did—and all of a sudden
I was a serious biker!
One day, lo and behold, I wrecked that bike. And I had to borrow a friend’s bike—one with no gadgets on it at all. And for whatever reason, I didn’t take any music with me for my ride. And I was surprised how much I enjoyed that ride. It was delightful, just delightful. I was riding for the pure joy of riding.
I’ve found in church work, that I can do that too. I can become so budget conscious, so numbers conscious, so growth conscious—quite honestly asking things like, “Did my church make the Outreach magazine fastest-growing church list this year?” All those things. So here I am—62 years old. I don’t know how much longer the Lord will let me preach. I might be rounding third base now. I don’t know. But I think I’m enjoying ministry more because I’m focusing on the “gauges” less. I’m more at peace.
This is still a big church—more people come here than were in my hometown when I was growing up. But if I stay focused on doing most what I do the best, if I stay abiding in Christ and focused on him, then the anxiety level goes down. I’ve never had it go away, but it does go down.
I feel that if I can just enjoy the ride, that’s the key.
As we close, would you pray for the people reading this article and the churches they lead, Max? I want us all to invite God to give us the peace, joy and abiding in Jesus you’re talking about.
I sure will!
Gracious and holy Father in heaven, true Shepherd of the sheep, before you we bow, asking for your kind mercies to be upon every person who reads these words. Remind them, Father, of the great promise: “Fear not, for I am with you.” Speak to any person today who feels anxiety. Let them know of your abiding presence. Interrupt their anxiety before it becomes dangerous. Calm their spirit and assure them of your unending love. With Jesus we pray, amen.
Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach magazine. His most recent book is The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Volume Two). He lives in Oregon.