Fighting Anxiety with Faith

In my last post, I addressed our common mismanagement of guilt. Today I’d like to offer the solution as outlined in the scriptures.

We’re trying to find the balance between two extremes: complacency and overstress. On the one hand, there are those who settle in their complacency, believing that Christ has abolished the necessity to actually follow him; on the other hand, there are those who live in a constant state of stress, worried that there’s always something more they should be doing (as a side note, it’s my observation that men typically err on the former, whereas women, the latter). These are factors that play a role in managing guilt properly. The Savior prescribes a simple yet beautiful pass down the middle.

There is, in all reality, only ever one thing you have to worry about at a time. When you train a young baseball player to hit baseballs, you do not start by correcting his hands, shoulders, wrists, elbows, foot position, stride, upper body loading, torque at the mid-body, counter-rotation, release, contact, and follow through in one lesson. If you do, you are neither a good teacher nor will the batter develop any skill. There is too much going on for anything to actually improve. You teach complicated or intricate skills one step at a time. There should be in the mind of the student only one thing to do. There is always only one thing to do. There is never more than the single thing to be addressed. It is the thing most wrong at the moment. Once that is addressed and corrected, then you can move on to the next thing, where again there is only one thing to do—and it is the next thing in the sequence. When the next skill is acquired, then there is still only one thing to do.

The same principle applies to living the gospel. There is only one thing for you to do. The Spirit will tell you what you need to do within the context of your own life, and it will always be the thing that most hinders you which requires your immediate attention.

Learn to hear his voice from hour to hour. Go where he prompts you to go, say what he gives you to say, and do what he asks you to do. He, whose ways are higher than our own, will guide you through your life with perfect precision. He will tell you when, where, and how to act.

But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4).

Consider what it means to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. What would that look like in your own life?

3 …Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do (2 Nephi 32).

Most of our anxieties in life come as a result of our plans not being aligned with God’s. When we have a million options laid out before us, we need only be concerned with the one God wants us to take at that moment.

Sometimes we sense our own weakness when considering all that we need to do. God has a solution for this dilemma as well:

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them (1 Nephi 3).

Again, there’s only ever one variable we have to worry about: is God commanding you to do it? If he is, then your own capability doesn’t matter. Nephi and his brothers had no idea how they’d get the plates from Laban when they left for Jerusalem; they just trusted the Lord would prepare a way. If it’s not God’s will, then it either doesn’t matter enough in the grand scheme of things, or there’s something else he’d rather you do.

We know that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). When we consider that those who love God are those who keep his commandments (John 14:15), and keeping his commandments involves living by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, we understand how by controlling this one variable, he will cause every external variable to work for our eventual benefit.

There is only ever one thing at a time God asks of you. Learning to take life one step at a time, obeying every prompting he gives you, will bring your life in perfect harmony with his will. When you’re aligned with God, nothing else matters.

It is possible to be be completely reconciled to him. Not while you’re carrying a load of sins that trouble you and worry you and distract you, but that’s what the Lord will remove from you. He can take all of that away, but it is entirely up to you to choose, then, to do follow obey his voice. That kind of faith will bring you the blessings King Benjamin’s people received:

And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them (Mosiah 4).

Consider the experience of this Book of Mormon writer’s experience:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

And I said: Lord, how is it done?

And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen… (Enos 1).

What made Enos’ experience real and authentic? How was it that he actually felt his guilt swept away?

Trusting God is not something we learn to do all at once. It comes gradually. The more we trust him, the more we’ll obey him. The more we obey him, the more we learn to trust him. As we learn to trust him, our faith will grow to the point that, like Enos’, our own guilt will be swept away. These things are all connected.

Alma the younger had a powerful conversion experience over the course of a few days. Note the distinction here between his pains and his memories,

17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! (Alma 36.)

Alma doesn’t say that he could remember his sins no more. He said he could remember his pains no more. He wasn’t “harrowed up” by the memory of his sins. He still remembered them, and I’m sure reflected on them with some amount of regret. I’m sure he wished he would have rather not done those things. He was totally forgiven in God’s eyes, but likely had remorse for his past. It’s my opinion that that serves as a protection to keep us from repeating our errors. It’s among the spiritual intelligence that we gain in this life.

The remedy to all of this is faith in Christ. Not mere belief, but an actual abiding trust in him.

The Purpose of Guilt

Eternal life is to know God (John 17:3). Until we know God, we’ve come short of eternal life. There are two things that consistently keep us from knowing God: sin and false tradition. These two barriers each their respective antidote; one is heed (obedience), the other is diligence (searching for further truth). Consequently, the two most important things that can be preached are repentance and the tearing down of false traditions. These will invariably bring us closer to God.

With that as a prelude, I’d like to address one false tradition that’s crept its way into every corner of the world today. This false belief manifests itself in a variety of ways, including safe spaces, trigger warnings, persistent validation, participation medals, unconditional approval, and the constant reassurance that no matter what you do, you’re “good” with God. These, and many others, are all attempts to create counterfeit peace.

To be clear, God’s love is unchanging. He will always love you unconditionally; that cannot change. But because He loves you, He desires to fix you, and set you right. In truth, we long for His love and healing. Our souls’ deepest yearnings are to be set right, at peace with ourselves. The Lord knows there is only one way this can be achieved: by becoming one with Him. On our own, we are broken and incomplete. We must be infused with His Spirit in order to experience true peace.

The pervading false belief of our day seeks to destroy that peace by offering a quick-fix counterfeit. Like many of Satan’s counterfeits, it offers immediate gratification; and like many of Satan’s counterfeits, the solution is only surface-level.

Satan creates and promotes his counterfeit blessings in an attempt to prevent us from actually getting nearer to God. That’s his ultimate motivation. One key to detecting if something comes from him is if it encourages us to stay the same. If he keeps us the same, he keeps us miserable. His sleight of hand is that he sells peace of mind on the surface.

Naturally, when someone is fearful, we want to calm them; when someone is sad, we want to cheer them up; when someone is hopeless, we want to give them hope. Things swing too far, however, when we become more focused on feeling good than doing good. We live in a world that’s beginning to see any bad feeling or negative expression as the enemy in and of itself. Instead of teaching that we remedy these feelings by doing good, the world is currently trying to put bandaids on every negative emotion.

According to the most basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid things they fear is misguided. However, this is exactly the approach we take when we create safe spaces and trigger warnings. One of the most sound forms of therapy we have for anxiety disorders is what’s called “exposure therapy.” This entails gradually exposing a patient to past stressors, allowing them to form new associations–ones that don’t reinforce the fear. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy. The solution isn’t avoiding the stressor, it’s confronting it. After all, we can’t always control the world around us. The short-term avoidant solution is an illusion, because the moment the ground shifts beneath you, everything turns to sand.

We do a similar thing with guilt. Naturally, violating our conscience has an effect on us. In tune with the world’s song, we tend to treat that feeling like it’s something that should be avoided. We put bandaids on guilt by reassuring people they’re being too hard on themselves, God only wants them to make an effort, or that their eternal life or standing before God isn’t contingent on their behavior. We say these things because we don’t want the anxiety of imperfection to be so demotivating that they give up hope all together. We assure them that they don’t need to live their lives in worry because their salvation is secure.

This is the spiritual equivalent to a participation medal.

The issue with participation medals is they make you feel good superficially, but something deep in your own psyche starts to feel like being rewarded for simply “being” cheapens the prize. It feels hollow and meaningless. Nothing looks wrong, but something feels wrong. On the surface, you feel good, but that feeling stays surface level. Underneath, it eats away at you.

Top 10 Check-Engine Light Car Repairs |

Another way of thinking about it is imagining the stress you feel after getting in your car and seeing the “check engine” light come on. If our goal was to avoid stress at all costs, we might consider finding a way to hack the car’s computer and turn the light off. On the surface, our stressor falls out of sight, out of mind. Under the hood, however, something is going to go terribly wrong. The issue eats away at your engine.

The prophet Alma found himself teaching against this philosophy throughout his ministry. His own life experience specially qualified him to teach against this belief. At the beginning of the book of Alma, one Anti-Christ named Nehor appears on the scene. Even though his story ends at the end of chapter one, his influence carries for years and years. He taught that

… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life (Alma 1:4).

Lift up your heads! Rejoice! This sounds like a positive message, so what’s the problem? What Nehor was selling was counterfeit peace. And yet, something about this rhymes with the consolation we offer others and ourselves. It feels nice on the surface but doesn’t address the problem underneath.

What does Alma know about this? Well, after living in a way not congruent with God, an angel appeared and made him aware of how God felt about his choices. Alma fell unconscious for a few days and described his experience thus:

12 But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

14 Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

15 Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds (Alma 36).

This wasn’t a pleasant experience until he turned his life around by reconciling himself to God. The insight this experience gave him allowed him to testify that in order to even want to be with God, we have to turn from our sins.

18 Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God? (Alma 5.)

14 For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12).

“…hide us from his presence.” Remember that this was the first thing Adam and Eve wanted to do after they ate the fruit. They chose to be apart from him.

Alma eventually has a son who loses sight on what’s important. He makes some poor decisions, and so Alma sits him down to give him some fatherly counsel towards the end of his life. He notes that he’d rather not point out his mistakes, but that it serves a purpose:

And now, my son, I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime. I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good.

But behold, ye cannot hide your crimes from God; and except ye repent they will stand as a testimony against you at the last day (Alma 39).

Consider the role of Old Testament prophets, who came warning the people that they needed to repent or they’d be destroyed. Do you think they understood the importance guilt’s role in leading us back to God? We either let a portion of his light convict us of our sins now, or face all of it when we stand before him to be judged. Have you ever wondered why God’s glory and hell are both depicted as fire? They’re the same fire! What will be the glory of God to some will be hell to others:

3… Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?

Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.

For behold, when ye shall be brought to see your nakedness before God, and also the glory of God, and the holiness of Jesus Christ, it will kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon you (Mormon 9).

Guilt isn’t inherently bad; it serves a purpose. What you’re mistaking as a tool of the adversary may actually be God pricking your heart, letting you know you need to repent to dwell with him (Acts 2:37). It may be the “check engine” light in your car informing you of some repairs that need to be made to ensure everything is running smoothly.

P.S. The purpose of this post was to expose a false tradition that prevents us from getting closer to God. The next post will offer a solution to properly addressing the guilt and anxiety that comes from our imperfection.