lessons from the desert – Dealing with anxiety

It seems fitting for the end of Mental Health Awareness week, to be exploring ‘dealing with anxiety’. It’s something that I was going to take a while to run up to, as this blog will include an awful lot of personal vulnerability as my own anxiety is not really something I publicly talk about, but, it also seems fitting that the message should be shared now.

In this present time, there are a lot of anxiety inducing circumstances around us. It seems no surprise that some headlines are predicting a swelling in need for mental health support as we start to look at emerging from lockdown. As the globally confirmed cases of coronavirus exceed 5 million, I can’t imagine that there’s been a single person who hasn’t been impacted in some way. Whether that looks like losing a loved one before their time; needing to leave the house to put one’s own safety at risk to care for others; whether that’s dealing with job uncertainty or job losses, the list of potential impact is extensive, and impacts everyone in some way.

All of these circumstances can produce significant anxiety and uncertainly about what the future will hold.

Anxiety and the church

Before we jump in to today’s passage, it’s worth addressing a few things. There is a school of thought that would argue that if you are a Christian, then you shouldn’t be anxious. Yes, it’s true that the apostle Paul says ‘do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus‘ (Phil 4 vs 6-7). This is all well and good, and I do believe that God provides amazing senses of calm and perspective when we pray, but, life can be complicated, and life at points can cause anxiety. Even the apostle Paul admits that he spent time wrestling with God in prayer, and we can also see from his other stories that his own ability to not be anxious was occasionally challenged as he went through the trials that life gave him.

I personally don’t think that struggles with anxiety should be hidden away. The most damage to someone’s mental health is often caused if a problem exists but it’s not acknowledged. As I have learnt to travel with anxiety for many years, I have found that the best thing is to acknowledge it’s there, but then to re-frame my focus to try to put that anxiety into perspective. Different seasons can bring different circumstances that make this sometimes easy and sometimes hard. In this particular season, a lot of people are experiencing circumstances that make this harder, and it’s okay to acknowledge this.

Dealing with Anxiety

For my own life, anxiety has been something of a constant companion. Something that I’ve worked for years to overcome, and developed tools to deal with it (both spiritual and practical), but something that can raise its head at any time as life twists and turns. I’m hoping that the exploration of this lesson from the desert will share some of the thoughts that I’ve found useful over the years, and I’ve also included a few practical points at the end too. There’s a lot more that could be said in this blog, and it will be a subject I return to later.

Meeting the Israelites in a place of anxiety

We meet the Israelites this week at the beginning of Exodus 17. They have just experienced one of the greatest and most sustained miracles of the bible (the daily provision of manna and quail to feed them as they make the challenging journey across the desert), but they have reached a place where the miracles of food provision have been overshadowed by the anxieties of the present day. The Israelites have again travelled away from water, and the people are tired and thirsty. Once again the people demand of Moses ‘Give us something to drink‘ and Moses answers them “Why are you testing me? And why are you testing God?’ The story tells us the people were ‘tormented by thirst‘ – they demand answers of Moses, and accuse him of trying to kill them, their children and their livestock! I guess the papers of this present day would have had a field day with this predicament, particularly in this unnerving season.

The people are ready to kill Moses in their frustration, and he knows that he needs to look to God for the provision of another miracle. Moses asked God, ‘What should I do?’. God then tells Moses exactly what he needs to to – to walk out in front of the Israelites and strike a rock with his staff, and then water will appear. Sound simple, right?! And yet in front of this crowd literally baying for blood, it would have taken a great deal of faith to walk out and do this. Moses at this point holds tight to the faith that his God will stay true to his promises, and acts on what he is told. Miraculously, water is again provided for the Israelites to drink.

In this story, we can see many threads of anxiety, both the situations that can cause anxiety, and the results of anxiety weaving through the verses.

Anxiety from their own choices

The Israelites in their complaining are questioning their own decisions. A few chapters ago, they had followed Moses of their own free will away from the oppression of Egypt, and now they’re questioning it. They believed Moses when he said that they were to be going to their own land, but there’s still no land in sight. They must have been scared, and uncertain, and they were regretting their decision to leave Egypt. The emotional impact of needing to believe in miracles for each day’s provision is also taking its toll. There’s nothing that’s guaranteed and they don’t have the same things for safety (stored up food etc) that they once had. This makes a perfect breeding ground for anxiety caused by their own choices, and an anxiety that would have been fed by their own thoughts.

I can imagine as the journey got tougher, thoughts such as ‘why did we listen to him?’ would have started to creep in, and maybe even ‘it’s my fault, we should have just stayed there‘, that wonderful internal monologue that can so often torment us when left unchecked, particularly in difficult circumstances (and yet is no good to anyone, and highly damaging if left unchecked).

This situation is also a great example of how anxiety can so easily be communicated through anger and resentment, rather than vulnerability. Particularly when they may well have been feeling guilty for their own decisions. The desert was hot, there was no water, and the passage says the people were ‘tormented by thirst‘. I do wonder whether there was a good dose also of being tormented by their own thoughts?

So often anxious thoughts can make a difficult situation so much worse, because our thoughts run way ahead to try and second guess possible outcomes. In this case, Moses was still praying for an answer for the water when the Israelites had already run ahead of the problem in their minds, and had decided that they would have been better off dead.

Moses does admirably here to realise that the anger that’s being communicated is not a personal attack, but rather communicating frustration and fear at the situation. He makes it clear to them ‘your complaints are not against me’, which enables him to seek God for the bigger answer, and not to try to provide the answers himself.

Anxiety caused by factors outside of their control

It’s often when anxiety is caused by factors outside of our control, that can be the most difficult to navigate. Particularly in this COVID-19 season, there are a huge amount of scenarios that have arisen that are well beyond people’s control. This can cause anxiety that wasn’t expected, and be difficult to extrapolate from the physical issues in front of us.

In the case of the Israelites, they had walked far away from security and safety, and water was again no where to be found. Even though Moses had miraculously led them to water just a few weeks before, they had focused their minds on the things missing in the here and now. They are tired, they are thirsty, they are anxious, and they are speaking to Moses through that lens.

The anxiety that’s caused by external situations can so quickly turn to anger and resentment. Anger against the injustice (‘it’s not fair!’, ‘why did this happen to me?’), and anger that stems from an inability to control the situation.

The people were also not only concerned for their own lives, but the lives of their children and their livestock too. This brought a heightened emotional response as they demanded answers of Moses, and it took calm leadership to be able to take a step back, and put their anger into perspective.

It can be tricky in times like this to look upward, but this is exactly what Moses is able to do. He reminds himself of the many times that God has provided in the past, and uses this to give himself faith for the current season. It can be often tricky to see through situations when life has knocked us a little sideways, but it can be really helpful to start by looking back at the things that God has provided in the past, and use that to develop faith to get through the current season.

Dealing with other people’s anxiety

As discussed in Leading through Change, at this point in the desert, Moses is not so much dealing with his own anxieties, but he is needing to listen to, acknowledge, and have answers to the people’s anxieties around him. This episode however must have been challenging for Moses. I suspect it may have been hard for him too to not worry about the lack of water, but by this point, he had learnt through years of tricky situations that his God would have the answers. He also could live in the knowledge that comes from experience, that the people’s issues was not actually with him personally, but with their wider situation and the anxiety that they felt.

Through the many challenges that he’s already been, he knows for sure that God will provide, and lead them out. He’s also much wiser, and knows that the people’s complaints are not to do with him, but they’re brought on by the fact that they’re scared and anxious. Moses trusts God further because of the journey he’s been through, and knows to see the people’s anxiety with a wider lens, and doesn’t see it as a personal attack. He knows that the people’s actions comes from a place of anxiety and fear, and as their leader, he knows it’s his role to seek help in providing solutions and a way forward. He also knows that he needs to be an example in faith to the people who’ve chosen to follow him.

Moses’ own anxiety

It’s worth noting here, that earlier on in his own journey, Moses didn’t quite have the same resilience for dealing with anxiety that he’d developed later on. He didn’t have the same faith in either God, nor his own gifts. In Exodus 4, when God appoints Moses with the incredible task of leading lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses shows a great reluctance to be the appointed speaker. He argues ‘but why would people listen to me?’. He believes at this stage that the people will mock him, because at this point in his journey, he can only see the skills he sees in himself, and not the potential of the skills God promises to give him at the needed times. In fact, he argues with God so much about the fact he doesn’t want to speak, that his brother Aaron has to be brought in to speak instead.

By the time that we meet them in the desert it’s a very different, and more resilient Moses. This resilience has been developed through a lot of fires and experience, it certainly hasn’t come easy for him. It’s worth us remembering this as we travel through a difficult season – that difficulties can very often lead us to the place of greatest freedom and growth, but, it doesn’t mean that the season of travel is easy.

A few practical tips

Our minds are a powerful place, and our thoughts can be used for great good, as well as used at times in tormenting ourselves. As promised earlier, if you are currently struggling with anxiety, there are a few resources that I’ve found helpful in recent years, and thought it would be good to share them:

Steven Furtick, Elevation Church has two great sermons on YouTube that were huge help in adjusting my thinking – ‘When Anxiety Attacks‘ and, ‘Fix Your Focus‘.

Caroline Leaf offers a wide range of books and also a 21 day brain detox programme, digitally delivered so that you can choose to follow it at any time, highly recommended. There is a small fee, but this will cover a year’s access to the course, and is well worth it.

The NHS hosts a really helpful range of resources about anxiety , and offers self referral if you feel you need more professional support. To find services in your area (for people in the UK) visit their website.

There will be more lessons from the desert over the coming weeks. If you’ve found this one helpful, then please do check out the other lessons from the desert – ‘Leading through change‘, ‘Dealing with change‘, and ‘What does daily bread look like?

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