Any author knows the importance of writing for a specific audience. Social media, unfortunately, throws a wrench in that traditional wisdom as one’s words quickly spread to readers with circumstances and dispositions you either weren’t anticipating or weren’t addressing. There’s a reason you can’t even tweet a picture of the blue sky without somebody accusing you of hating clouds.
I say all of this to explain that I’m not really taking issue with James White over a recent tweet of his; it’s just that I and many other Christians who saw it on Twitter are absolutely the wrong audience for it.
Sermon to self:
Your anxiety about tomorrow is directly proportional to your faithlessness in the reality of the true joys of heaven and the reality of eternal life.
Look inside the tomb.
Leave your fears next to the linen wrappings.
— James White (@HwsEleutheroi) December 15, 2021
This can be a great message for those beset by the kinds of worries Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount. The gentle admonishment over faithlessness is really just there to nudge us towards the glorious reality of Christ’s victory that puts our daily struggles in perspective.
Unfortunately, we live in an age of anxieties that are anything but ordinary. Many people don’t experience anxiety as a discrete feelings triggered by specific uncertainties about tomorrow; they experience it as an ever-present emotional fog attaching itself to anything & everything that’s handy. Whether that takes the form of something clinical like Generalized Anxiety Disorder or some other peculiar circumstance of modern life, it profoundly changes the way this kind of message is received.
The problem is the presumption that the message should be comforting–that it will soothe the anxieties of those who trust in Christ. But when one’s anxiety isn’t really proceeding from specific worries about the world, contemplating Christ’s ultimate victory over the world doesn’t really do anything to relieve it. When that relief fails to materialize, the gentle admonishment over faithlessness is no longer gentle and no longer helpful. Instead, it places saving faith as mutually exclusive with feelings that you cannot get rid of. And because you can’t, it effectively condemns you as a non-believer for your anxiety.
There’s a very intuitive line of thinking at work here: We’re saved by faith–trust in Christ–and feelings of anxiety are at odds with trust, so if you’re too anxious, then you must not have sufficient faith. But intuitive or not, it’s false because it’s treating faith as a feeling–specifically, the kind of feeling that can be crowded out by opposite feelings.
So for Christians in those kinds of circumstances, the message that should offer hope just gives them something new (and false) to be anxious about. Those Christians need a different message: Don’t judge your salvation by your feelings; judge it by what Christ has done for you.
Christian faith may not be hermetically sealed from our feelings, but it does transcend them. Trust in God persists even during bouts of anxiety. I, for example, suffered from some low-level background anxiety for most of my adult life. It wasn’t anything serious enough to seek a diagnosis or medication. It didn’t really interfere with my life, it was just unpleasant. But last year, I decided to try taking a thiamine supplement for an unrelated health issue. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the anxiety very suddenly and very completely disappeared a mere 2 hours after taking the first dose. It was as though it had just been cut off with a knife. Needless to say, I’m still taking the supplement–and thankfully, the anxiety never returned.
What then shall we say? Did thiamine cause me to truly trust in Christ? Did a vitamin instantly increase faith in my heart? No! It just made me feel better because I had some kind of nutritional imbalance or deficiency going on. But that also means that my anxiety was never related to faithlessness in the first place. It was just one aspect of my emotional life that existed alongside my faith the whole time.
Now, I suspect there are a lot of different reasons for the kinds of inappropriate anxiety so many people suffer from today. And let’s face it, modern psychology does not yet have a particularly good handle on these sorts of things. It can be due to nutrition like it was in my case. It could also be the result of childhood trauma. Or maybe it’s because of a neurological disorder. Or perhaps its due to one of the messed-up lifestyles that has become commonplace. Maybe it’s something that can be fixed. Maybe it’s something that can only be managed. Maybe there isn’t any help currently available.
There are a myriad of possibilities, but throughout all of them, one thing remains the same: Jesus Christ died for your sins.
Jesus was clear that Christians would have to suffer in this life. That’s not just a matter of bad things happening to us from outside, but also suffering in our own minds as well. And it’s not like we lack Biblical examples of this. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” After his miraculous victory over the prophets of Baal, Elijah despaired, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And that’s not to mention entire books like Job & Lamentations. Even Christ felt abandoned on the cross as he prayed Psalm 22.
The Bible is full of people who endured the full gamut of feelings that seem opposed to faith–anxiety, doubt, despair, and so forth. Nevertheless, God brought them all through it. Not by preventing their suffering but by redeeming it. Faith can indeed move mountains, but it doesn’t solve all earthly problems in earthly ways–including disordered anxiety.
And in the final analysis, however we may feel about it at any given time, Christ still died for the sins of the whole world. If I’m feeling like a million bucks, I stand forgiven. If I’m buried in anxiety, I stand forgiven. That payment rendered for my sins never changes no matter what vitamins I take. And I can know and trust that gracious gift of Christ no matter how I may feel about it.
So if you ever wonder whether you’re saved, never look at yourself, your own feelings, or your own faith for the answer. As a sinner, you’ll always find plenty of deficiencies in all those things. Thankfully, God never told you to have faith in your own faith.
Salvation is in Christ Jesus, and that’s where we need to look–especially when we suffer from disordered emotions. After all, looking to Christ is precisely what faith is.