“God and Anxiety”

Matthew 14:22-33
Matt Goodale
October 31, 2021

Feelings are not facts. And yet sometimes those feelings of anxiety are so real. Sometimes they are mild and sometimes they are crippling. Sometimes they sit dormant in your mind and other times they keep you glued to your bed in the morning. They can pull the safe and secure footing right out from under you so that you feel as if you’re drowning even though your safety and security is right in front of you. Feelings are not facts. And yet sometimes those anxious feelings are so real.

Usually, anxiety is a very normal response to events and circumstances in life. Anxiety can be a good thing when it triggers our fight or flight mechanisms, or when it motivates us to get a project done.

But for roughly 1 out of 5 people who suffer from clinical anxiety, this is something far more than fight or flight. This is a debilitating disease that threatens the everyday ability to exist.

We can all relate to feelings of anxiety and overwhelming stress; it ebbs and flows, comes and goes for most of us. But a whopping 20% of adults in the U.S. will experience anxiety at a different and more debilitating level, leading to a diagnosis of clinical anxiety, or an anxiety disorder. The numbers are even higher for adolescents. Nearly 1 in every 3 adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder, and these numbers have been steeply rising for the last couple decades.

Something seems to be going wrong, because as our society progresses, as technology and knowledge increases, we seem to be getting mentally sicker. Anxiety and depression rates are at all-time highs. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is changing, but we can guess at many causes.

In an age dominated by screens and social media feeds, it becomes easier and easier to get tunneled in our own world and it gets harder to relate well to others. We might think that we’re more connected than ever thanks to cell phones and social media, but research and polls actually show the opposite. In general, we feel more alone and isolated than ever before.

Another reality is that in our schools and work places we’re being tested and measured more. Schools test intelligence through stressful tests that will often determine our future options for college and jobs. Kids are being tested at younger ages to be measured against benchmarks, that help decide whether their intelligence level is “normal” or if they’re behind the curve.

And more and more often, employers are starting to measure worker productivity. Are you working fast enough and efficient enough, are you billing enough hours? All these measurements and tests help us come to the conclusion about how much our life is worth.

When you’re behind the curve or below efficiency it’s hard to believe your life has much value beyond what you can produce or how well you fit as a cog in the machine. As human beings who were ultimately created for relationships, our society seems to be telling us more and more that we are only worth as much as we can produce or achieve, that our value is in how much money we make or how glamorous of a life you can show on Instagram. These are of course not the only causes of anxiety, but they all contribute to a collective social setting that is increasingly characterized as busy and anxious.

Our society is sick. And so our bodies and minds naturally respond to this sickness. For the other 4 out of 5 people who don’t suffer from clinical anxiety, sympathy can be a challenge. They say, “We all experience anxiety, so why don’t you just snap out of it? Stop being afraid. Start looking at reality.” But it’s not that easy.

Today we’re going to look at a story that I think offers some powerful and helpful parallels to when we feel like a boat lost at sea, rocked by the wind and the waves of life. It is in fact a story about a boat lost at sea, rocked by very real wind and waves.

Jesus has just sent the disciples on ahead of him, across the sea of Galilee, while he gets some time in solitude. And around 3 o’clock or so in the morning, the disciples are already several miles out at sea, when a storm hits.

The disciples probably occupied little more than a small fishing vessel, which would not be built to handle strong wind and tall waves very easily.

We read this story from Jesus’ perspective. We don’t know what’s going on in the boat, but we imagine. We can imagine their fear as the waves get bigger and as water starts to slosh over the edge of the boat. We can imagine some of them bailing water out while the others try to paddle the boat out of the storm with no luck. We can imagine the boat rocking side the side, the disciples clutching with white knuckles whatever they can get their hands on to keep them in the boat.

As readers, we know that Jesus is on his way, we know that Jesus is un-anxiously approaching them. We know that the disciples will be fine; we know how the story ends. Perhaps we even chide the disciples for worrying so much. Silly disciples, we think to ourselves from our safe distance as a reader. Feelings aren’t facts, we think to ourselves. They’re freaking out over nothing. But sometimes those feelings are so real and aren’t for nothing.

In the ancient world the sea represented chaos. In the creation story, God creates order out of the chaos and disorder of the waters that cover everything. Most psalms are prayers for God to come rescue the author from drowning in water. Water is chaos. And the disciples are sitting smack dap in the middle of that untamed chaos. They have every good reason to be afraid.

Even if we’ve never occupied a boat in the middle of a storm, some of us know what it’s like to feel as if our life is floating untethered through life’s chaos. Dry land is nowhere to be seen. There’s no end to the storm in sight. We wait for our boat to capsize, and we wonder if we’ll survive life’s storm in one piece.

It’s not easy to believe that your feelings aren’t facts when the world feels as if it’s crashing down around you and your boat is taking on water. It’s not easy to believe that everything will be ok when your body starts sweating, shaking or throwing up; when your bowels are in such knots that you can’t function well; or when your mind is so overcome by fears that you know are irrational, yet you can’t stop feeling that everything is out of control. It’s not easy to tell your mind to just shut off when you can’t stop ruminating about family members dead in a car accident or plane crash, or when you can’t stop thinking that the worst is about to happen.

Others may look at you and say “You have nothing to worry about. You’re irrationally anxious.” But until they get in the boat with you, they’ll never know how out of control your life feels.

Several years ago when I moved out to Princeton, New Jersey for seminary, a strange thing started happening to me. Every Monday morning like clockwork, I would wake up sweating and nauseous. And I wouldn’t feel better until I had thrown up a couple times. You can imagine how inconvenient that is for a student whose job it is to be in class on Monday mornings.

This went on for a couple months and then all of the sudden stopped. And then several months later it started again, only this time it was happening almost every day. For a couple weeks straight I remember sitting in class unsure whether my nausea would get so bad that I’d have to make a sprint for the bathroom. I would feel especially nauseous whenever I had a presentation or sermon to give. It was horrible.

Eventually I got help—I went to counseling—and was told that I was having anxiety attacks. My body and my thoughts felt out of control. I’d be so anxious about having an anxiety attack that I would cause myself to have an anxiety attack. I still don’t know whether it was anxiety of grad school or of a new place, or the elitist environment of Princeton that gave me anxiety attacks. I know my anxieties weren’t grounded in reality, but I still had no control over them. Feelings aren’t facts—I knew that. And yet sometimes those feelings are so real.

While the disciples are fighting the waves and chaos unleashed by the sea and everything is out of control, unbeknownst to them, Jesus approaches their boat. But they don’t recognize him at first. They think he’s a ghost. Of course they do! He’s walking on water towards them in the middle of a storm – that’s the stuff of horror movies! They don’t recognize Jesus, because it’s hard to recognize God in the midst of life’s storms.

Jesus can sense their fear, and so he calls out to the boat. He says, “Take courage. It’s me, Jesus. Do not be afraid.” Of course, there’s a ridiculousness to this, that you can’t just tell someone who is afraid, “Don’t be afraid” and expect it work like a magic button. But we also know that there’s comfort in someone who like a good friend or a parent can hold us and tell us, “Don’t be afraid. Everything is going to be ok.” Even if we’re still afraid or anxious, there is some comfort found in someone else who can stand with us and assure us that we’ll be ok.

And so Peter – always Peter – responds to Jesus and asks a question, “Lord, if it’s you, ask me to step out onto the water.” What? Can you imagine the other disciples sitting there, clearing their ears out, mumbling to themselves, “What the heck did he just ask? Did he ask what I think he asked…did he just ask to step OUT of the boat??!!”

It’s striking to me that Peter asks this question. Because this is the same Peter who always acts and speaks before he thinks. This is the same Peter who asks for forgiveness rather than permission. Yet, before doing something brash, he asks for permission. He’s afraid. But rather than stay in the boat, he chooses to step out of it in faith and face his fears, knowing that it is Jesus who calls him out into the waves.

I think we can learn from Peter’s act of faith. Because Peter recognizes that he has a choice, that he has some agency. He doesn’t just stay in the boat, afraid. But he can step out into the storm, trusting that even if he doesn’t have control over the situation, that Jesus does.

The same is true for anyone who is battling chronic and debilitating anxiety. The biggest lie that anxiety tells you, is that you have no control – that your life is just an untethered boat lost at sea. And it’s true that we don’t have control over all circumstances and aspects of our life; that’s part of what it means to be human, it’s to acknowledge that we are not ultimately in control of our life and everything that happens in it. But that doesn’t mean that we are powerless and that we have no agency.

We may not have control over the storm that ravages and threatens our boat, but we do have a choice about what we do when the storm hits. We can stay in the boat, or we can step out of it and face the storm, knowing that we do not face it alone.

Stepping out of the boat will look different for all of us. For some of us, it means asking for help, much like Peter cries out for Jesus’ help once he starts drowning. It might mean finding a good counselor and even considering medication. For some, it may mean that you start to gently reality test some of those anxieties and fears that keep you paralyzed, asking yourself, what am I worried about, and is this worry based in reality.

And maybe you aren’t ready to step out of the boat yet. Maybe you first need to ask someone to come sit with you in it, as you share what you’re going through with a trusted friend, family member or counselor.

Psychologist and theologian, Marcia Webb writes, “Suffering of any sort places upon each person a choice—a terrible, shocking, powerful choice—either to respond in hope, however frail or inadequate others might judge that response, or to retreat and succumb to the seemingly indomitable forces of one’s sorrows [or anxieties]. We may take comfort in knowing, however, that God sees even the most tentative of our efforts—including our efforts not quite to hope, but simply to consider hope.”

As is true with any mental illness, not just anxiety, you will probably not find healing on the first few steps you take out of the boat. Like Peter, there will be some real steps taken, and there will be setbacks, there will be times that feel like you’re drowning again. But no matter whether it is depression, anxiety or any other illness, even as the storm rages on around you, remember that you have a God who loves you and is calling you out of the boat; you have a God and a community of friends who promise to catch you when you begin to drown.

We worship a God who does not rebuke us when we begin to drown, but who stretches out a hand and reminds us, “Don’t forget, I’ve got you.” Amen.