I would argue that anxiety is possibly the worst feeling a person can experience. Because anxiety is so disdainful, the second it enters the picture, my inner alarms start sounding and I immediately want to back away from whatever seems to be causing it. Unfortunately for me, I’ve found that what often seems to be the culprit is the necessary and everyday task of decision making. Sure, I can definitely put it off, but it never goes away and inevitably has to be dealt with, anxiety or no anxiety.
Decisions are scary because they demand that we commit to the unknown. I cannot know the reality of a job until I start it. I don’t know what life will be like married to this particular person until I say “I do.” While we may have a fair amount of self-knowledge, wisdom, and foresight, we simply cannot know what we have yet to experience, and as such every decision comes with some degree of risk. This is the whole point of discernment: that in face of risks and the unknowns, we seek to wed our reason and desires to live a fulfilling life in God’s truth. That in hearing God’s “gentle whisper” (1Kings 19:12) in the present moment, we can follow him in a way that is unique to us specifically.
Fear vs. Anxiety
I’d like to make a quick distinction between anxiety and fear. While the terms seem to walk hand-in-hand, there is a significant difference. While unpleasant, fear does serve a purpose in that it’s a response to an actual threat, and we’re all called to have a healthy dose of it in our lives (if not we’d be hearing a lot more stories about people falling off cliffs). Anxiety on the other hand is a response to an anticipated threat, or rather, something that is not real, or at least, not real in this moment. Anxiety is future-oriented whereas fear is in the here and now. Because of this distinction, I’ll venture to say that it’s easier to overcome fear than it is anxiety. Fear is tangible, it’s related to a direct object and it’s in present time. We can deal with those things. What about the intangible? The future? The perceived yet unknown threat? I can deal with an actual fire, but controlling everything that could potentially lead to a fire? Not so much.
Again, when it comes to discernment, we’re making decisions in the present, with full knowledge that those decisions will also impact our future selves. Unfortunately, those future selves have a tendency to throw prudence to the wayside in an attempt to have their say. ‘What if this? What if that?’ Those thoughts pull us out of the present moment and evoke anxiety, whereas the real purpose of discernment is to say “yes” to God in the here and now, because that is where God is – not in the past, not in the future, but in the now.
No Room for Anxiety
The brutal truth is that when you find yourself dwelling on anxious thoughts you are not thinking as Christ. There’s simply no room for anxiety in the Christian life. Anxiety is not of the Lord and it does not serve a purpose in authentic discernment, but rather leads one to follow a guide other than the Holy Spirit. As such, if and when you find anxiety to be present in your discernment process, by no means is it God pointing you towards or away from something.
So often anxiety enters the picture, and we immediately assume “This is not God’s will! Anxiety is not of God!” While it’s true that anxiety is not of God, what this assumption does is allow the anxiety to convey a message from God that in fact has nothing to do with God. We’re anxious, so we assume the answer is “no” or “don’t go that direction.” However, we fail to remember that there are plenty of ways you can discern not to do something other than through anxiety: a growing peace that God is not leading you there, a tangible opportunity being taken away, a stirring in your heart to go a different direction. Anxiety tells us nothing! It serves no purpose other than to insert itself where it’s not wanted, overwhelm us with “what-if’s,” confuse us, and lead us to conclude an inauthentic discernment.
Stop Until the Anxiety is Gone
If you are experiencing anxiety in discernment, stop discerning and focus on the anxiety (how you do that is another article for another day). Only when the anxiety is gone or significantly lessened are you free to truly discern. When people are in the wake of a traumatic event, they are often told “not to make any big decisions” because they simply can’t think objectively. I’d argue that the same is true of intense anxiety. Anxiety leads us to a place where we are no longer discerning things in their reality, but rather are stuck in a delusional and distorted version of reality, and hence are rendered incapable of making a real and true discernment. If you want to make a good discernment, your first priority is working through and healing your anxiety. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing anxious thoughts and feelings to dictate discernment, but free yourself of them – “cast all of your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).