The freedom of trust: Combatting anxiety & exhaustion through childlike faith

At that time Jesus said in reply, "I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike..."
-- Matthew 11:25

Recently I was chatting with a friend about the pros and cons of renting vs. buying a place to live. Both of us currently rent apartments, and we agreed that although noisy neighbors and lack of space can be major drawbacks, we are huge fans of on-site maintenance. As I explained to my friend, some people love spending their weekends on home renovation projects and relish the ability to customize their living space, but I am perfectly happy hanging some artwork on my unchangeable beige walls and calling it a day. While some people love digging in the dirt and cultivating a gorgeous garden or lush lawn, I’ve stuck to fake plants ever since the Great Basil Fiasco of 2017 revealed that my thumb is anything but green. And although some people have no problem fixing a broken pipe or troubleshooting an appliance malfunction, I’m the actual reason that lightbulb jokes exist. So at least for now, the renter’s life is the life for me.

The conversation then shifted to our childhoods and how we always knew that our parents would be able to take care of anything that went wrong around the house. Even if they couldn’t perform the work themselves, they always seemed to know where to go, who to call, what questions to ask, and what tools to have on hand. Whether it was a random leak or an unwelcome critter, I never feared a single mishap, because I knew Mom and Dad had everything under control. And to be honest, this attitude extended beyond maintenance and repairs; as a child, I never doubted my parents’ ability to handle anything.

Of course, now that I’m an adult, I can look back and smile at my naïveté. I realize that nobody knows what to do in every situation. Most of us are faking it until we make it, and by the time we make it, there are new challenges to fake our way through. But through my younger eyes, my parents were invincible. And although I was certainly an anxious child in many ways, I never doubted their ability to take care of me and to make everything okay. And until more recently, I didn’t realize how incredibly freeing this was. No matter what events transpired throughout the day, no matter how stressed I was about my teachers or schoolwork or not fitting in with my peers, I could sleep peacefully at night knowing that my life was ultimately in good hands.

Last week, as I was praying with the above passage from Matthew 11, I was reminded that Christ invites us to this same freedom, regardless of age or maturity level, in our relationship with God the Father. It’s good to study theology and strive to comprehend the complexities of our faith, but in our quest to become “wise and learned,” it’s easy to forget the beautiful simplicity to which we are called: that of a parent-child relationship. And while it’s important not to mistake childlike for childish, too often “growing up” involves adopting the belief that we’re our own bottom line and striving for total self-sufficiency as a result. And take it from your friendly neighborhood anxiety sufferer here — this is a terrible way to live. This is a recipe for sleepless nights and miserable days spent trying not to crumble under the weight of the world.

I was first introduced to this idea of childlike trust in God about a year ago, when I started diving deeper into the life and works of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. At first, Thérèse’s central message — that the path to holiness can be as simple as embracing our smallness and abandoning ourselves completely to the love of God the Father — seems almost too good to be true. That is, until I actually tried living it out and realized that it might be simple, but it sure ain’t easy. Her “little way” often feels like one giant trust fall, where you wonder, up until the very last second, if there’s really someone back there who will catch you. But Thérèse was greatly encouraged by the words of Isaiah 66:12-13, and we can be, too: “You shall nurse, carried in her arms, cradled upon her knees; as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” The Lord isn’t just going to catch us; He’s going to hold us, rock us, and comfort us like a parent doting over a newborn.

I’ve come a long way in cultivating a relationship with God that looks more like this rocking chair scenario and less like the parent-in-line-at-Target-with-a-cranky-and-overstimulated-toddler-who-insists-on-doing-everything-herself situation. But as with everything in the spiritual life, it’s an ongoing process. So just when I felt like I was doing pretty well with trusting God to take care of my career, my health, my vocation, my loved ones, etc. — BOOM. Cue global pandemic, with a dash of unemployment for good measure.

These past few weeks have been especially trying — perhaps more so than the initial shutdowns, if I’m being honest. We’re beginning to see the disastrous effects of re-opening the country too early, a one-two punch of cases spiking and public vigilance plummeting. It’s hard not to become consumed by fear of the unknown (or anger at those who aren’t taking precautions and are putting the rest of us at risk). It all feels like a nightmare, a dystopia, and on a personal note, definitely not a great time to be job searching and preparing to move to one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the country (#bestlaidplans). It’s an exhausting predicament with no clear end date in sight.

But once again, Matthew 11 reminds me that whenever I’m exhausted, it’s most likely because I’m carrying burdens that aren’t mine to bear. (Or that I stayed up too late binge-watching Netflix, but as far as I know, Jesus doesn’t address this issue directly.) The Lord doesn’t want me to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders — that’s His job. He doesn’t need me to know how things are going to turn out ten weeks, ten days, or even ten minutes from now — He already knows. He’s not asking me to be everyone’s personal savior — He already took care of that, too. Instead, He invites me into the freedom and respite of radical trust: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

What if, even in the midst of a global pandemic, I actually lived from this truth? What if I really just did my best, wore my mask, and left the future up to Him? What if I returned to that childlike sense of wonder and security, knowing that in my Father’s house, He’ll fix all the leaks, change all the lightbulbs, and kill all the spiders (or novel coronaviruses) for me?

Part of me hesitated to even publish this post, for fear of sounding like one I’m advocating for a laissez-faire attitude toward real problems. I can assure you, this is most definitely not my aim. Sure, Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light,” (Matthew 11:30), but this still implies that we’re wearing a yoke, and a yoke is an implement of labor. We still need to do the work. But we don’t need to do it alone or in a panicked frenzy, and we don’t need to bear the yoke of the entire world. We can simply do our best with what we have, and know that even when we do lapse into cranky-toddler-at-Target mode, we still have a Father who can’t wait to rock us to sleep.


They shared her joy: Rooting out envy & truly celebrating with others

Meanwhile the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbors and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness, they shared her joy.
-- Luke 1:57-58

There are days when it feels like I have to strain to hear God’s voice, and there are days when it feels like He might as well be speaking through a bullhorn.

There are days when I read a scripture passage over and over, unsure of what I’m supposed to take away from it at that particular moment, and there are days when the Lord might as well have commissioned a blimp to fly over my apartment complex with a particular word or phrase from the day’s reading emblazoned on the side in ALL CAPS.

Last week, I had an experience of the latter. It was a bullhorn and blimp kind of day.

I was praying about some of the exciting new developments in the lives of my family members and friends, and I was admittedly feeling conflicted. On one hand, I was thrilled that good things were happening for my loved ones, especially in the midst of all the pain and suffering in our world right now. But on the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel a little green with envy, which in turn led me to feel ashamed. I should be grateful! I told myself. I’m in good health during a pandemic! There’s a roof over my head and food on my table! It’s time I got my act together and quit throwing myself a socially distanced pity party! Despite this lovely lecture from the ever-so-kind voice inside my head, the conflict remained. So I asked God for the grace to rid my heart of any jealousy so I could be genuinely happy for others.

I then proceeded to open my Bible to the day’s gospel reading, and the above words from Luke Chapter 1 practically jumped off the page. The overall passage was longer and technically focused on John the Baptist, since it was his feast day and all, but I couldn’t get past the first few sentences regarding Elizabeth’s delivery and, more importantly, the reactions of her loved ones. What did they do when they heard the good news that she had given birth? They didn’t grumble or analyze whether or not Elizabeth “deserved” it or ask, But what about me? Instead, “they shared her joy.”

Okay, okay, I thought. Clearly this is something I need to work on. But how? How could I combat envy without resorting back to my usual “just be grateful” mentality, which managed to be both ineffective and shame-inducing at the same time?

My first thought was to keep in mind that there’s always more to the story. I’ve written before about the social media comparison trap, and there’s definitely merit in remembering that what we often see on the interwebs — or even in real life — is only the tip of the iceberg. When we learn that someone has accepted a promotion, for example, we aren’t always privy to the hard work — and perhaps previous rejections — it took to get there. We may also be unaware of the health issues, family drama, spiritual battles, or financial woes this person is facing simultaneously. Too often, we focus only on the “happily ever after” without reading the rest of the tale.

Luke 1:57-58 is actually a great example of this, since it’s just a snapshot of Elizabeth’s story. If we read these verses with no background or context, we might be tempted to think, Well, good for Elizabeth. She sure sounds #blessed. We wouldn’t take into account the many years she waited before becoming pregnant or the fact that she was thought to be infertile. We wouldn’t consider all of the pain and suffering she must have endured leading up to this moment. Snapshots, whether in Bible stories or on Instagram stories, can never convey the fullness of someone’s experience.

But this still didn’t seem like enough. There had to be more to sharing in the joy of others than simply remembering that hey, their lives probably suck sometimes, too. So I re-focused on another piece of the passage and it hit me.

The fact that Elizabeth’s loved ones “shared her joy” after they “heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness” reminded me that God was truly giving Elizabeth a gift here — not because of what she had done but because of who He is. None of us could ever do anything to deserve the lavish love or boundless mercy of God, but He’s just so dang crazy about each of us that He wants to bless us anyway. I’m not a parent yet, but all the parents I know seem to agree that there aren’t even words to describe the love they have for their children. How much more, then, does God love us as our Heavenly Father? As Cady Heron famously stated during the Mathletes State Championship at the conclusion of Mean Girls, “The limit does not exist.”

In many ways, I think this cuts to the heart of why I was experiencing jealousy in the first place. Whenever I see someone and think, “I wish I had what she has,” my next thought is usually, “Well, what did she do to earn it? And if I had done something differently, would I have earned it, too?” This line of thinking turns everything into a competition and perpetuates the lie that every aspect of my life is up to me, that if I just try harder or do better, I’ll end up with everything I want.

Of course, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of personal responsibility in determining the trajectory of our lives. But when it comes to so many things — like landing a dream job or finding a loving relationship — we simply don’t hold all the cards. So when I see someone with something that I’d like to have, I need to stop acting like she did everything right, and I did everything wrong, and God simply “rewarded” us based on our input. Life isn’t that black and white, and God isn’t a vending machine. In reality, both she and I probably did some right things and some wrong things along the way.

Which brings me to my final, and perhaps most important, point. Yes, we often don’t know other people’s entire stories, which makes their lives seem oh-so-enviable. Yes, God gives gifts because of His goodness, not because of ours. But most of all, it doesn’t even make sense to compare ourselves to others in the first place because we’re all on our own journeys. And God, as our perfect travel companion, knows exactly what we need and when. (We only think we know what we need, and we usually think we need it now.)

Sometimes the Lord will take us on a detour to help us avoid a hazard on the main route or because we simply need the extra time to think. Sometimes He’ll allow a flat tire so that we can experience the kindness of a stranger who can patch it and point us to the nearest tire shop. Sometimes He’ll take us somewhere we’ve never been and we’ll find, to our great surprise, that we like it more than our original destination. And so on and so forth.

I struggled a lot with this when I turned 28 last year. I realized that my life was essentially one-third over and I had hit exactly zero of the milestones I had hoped to hit by this age, and I panicked. To make matters worse, my high school classmates were making plans for — gasp — our 10-year reunion, and at least according to Facebook, many of them had been collecting these milestones like we all did with Beanie Babies in the 90’s. My peers were now doctors and lawyers and published authors, for Pete’s sake. They were spouses and parents and had mortgages, for the love of HGTV.

After a much-needed pep talk from my parents, I decided that my motto for the year would be “28 and not too late.” And as corn dog as this sounds, it’s been a helpful mantra that has kept me from falling into a whole lot of comparison traps. I can’t possibly be behind on the journey of my own life — only on the journey of someone else’s. Embracing this frees me to be present to what I do have, to enjoy this wild ride, and to genuinely be happy for others. It helps me to clearly see that someone else’s joy or good fortune robs me of absolutely nothing, because I’m living my own unique story complete with everything I need. If anything, their happiness can become my own cause for rejoicing, because at the end of the day, what we’re really celebrating is the fact that we all have such a good Father in heaven.