Wisdom for facing our anxious age.
Alan Noble begins his book, Disruptive Witness, with this striking personal reflection:
“The person I’m most uncomfortable being alone with is myself. And that’s okay, because I’ve become very good at avoiding myself. For example, if I get stuck alone on an elevator by myself, and I start to feel that anxiety, the dread of having to examine my life—even for a minute—I just take out my phone and, poof! it’s gone…Self-avoidance is probably my most advanced skill set. I’ve developed it over the years in response to the burden of being alone, which can bring up so many unsettling truths about myself. Of course, I have plenty of help from the rest of society. I’m always being encouraged to read something, or to buy something new. It’s an unspoken but mutually agreed upon truth for modern people that being alone with our thoughts is disturbing.”
Noble’s honest self-reflection is undoubtedly relatable for most of us. Modern people are anxious people, and our dominant impulse is to keep ourselves busy and distracted in order to avoid the feelings of isolation and loneliness which come naturally from the way life is lived in western culture. For many of us, being left alone with our own thoughts is often one of our greatest fears; yet we also tend to avoid intimate connection with others (and certainly not ourselves).
This reality of modern life deserves considerable reflection, especially for Christians, because the Bible tells us that the Christian life is one characterized by having peace. The Gospel tells us that "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1). The first (and second) words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after the resurrection, according to John 21:19-21, were “Peace be with you!” To be a Christian means that you have been given the gift of peace.
But why then are so many of us anxious, depressed, and afraid of being left alone with our own thoughts?
First, there are the very real problems that come from living in a distracted age. Modern technology, especially the internet, does encourage us to keep ourselves reading, scrolling, buying, watching, and consuming. These impulses are so strong that most of us can scarcely go minutes without engaging them, which keeps us from connecting with ourselves or with others. This technology is addictive, and we’ve been encouraged to form our habits around it rather than to develop habits that cultivate peace, true connection, or overall health. This is a very real social problem.
Second, there is the problem of guilt. As Noble’s example illustrates, most of us don’t want to be left alone with ourselves because when we take a look in the mirror we’re confronted with our imperfections. This includes all the ways that we’ve disappointed ourselves and others. Modern people are taught to set the bar incredibly high, whether for career success, financial gain, or other personal achievements. Thus, when we’re left alone with our thoughts, our mind often drifts to all the ways we haven’t measured up, and our internal message becomes “you are not good enough.”
Third (and most importantly), we Christians often fail to grasp the reality of our true spiritual status before God. This is due, at least in part, to the revivalistic impulses that run throughout American Christianity: rather than seeing ourselves as being loved, cherished, and secure in our relationship to God, often we have been taught a form of moralism which encourages us to look piercingly inward at all our flaws and sins and to question the validity of our faith. Modern psychology often encourages this, too, telling us that we are endlessly complex, and therefore in need of endless self-evaluation. Far from cultivating peace, this often produces anxiety and self-loathing.
How might we find peace in light of these problems? One answer that the scriptures give us is to follow the example of the psalmist in Psalm 42. There the psalmist not only takes the time to sit with his thoughts and to recognize his inner turmoil, but he also then speaks directly to his own heart: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?…Hope thou in God!” Here we see an example of a man who knows how to speak truth to his own heart whenever he is prone to believe falsehood.
This is a practice which every Christian must learn in order to experience the reality of the peace which Christ offers us. If we are to become people who are able to be alone with ourselves, able to be still, able to deal with our anxiety and depression, then we must learn how to speak truth to our hearts. We must learn how to say “no” to the distractions of our age, combat our sense of guilt with the grace of the Gospel, and call to mind our true status before God: that of a beloved child.
Let us, then, take the time to speak Gospel truth to our hearts today, and may the peace of Christ be with you now and always.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.