I was having an anxiety attack when I finally opened up Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion and Healing the Divided Self by Chuck DeGroat. My palms were sweaty. I was going through the breathing routine that helps me calm down. “We all feel that nasty pull,” I read on page 1, “that pull to and fro, as if we’ll come undone at some point.” I closed my eyes and inhaled until my lungs were good and full.
I began having anxiety attacks in January of 2015. They nearly ruined me. This unfamiliar enemy came on sudden and fierce. The anxiety ran unchecked in my mind and caused me to doubt everything: relationships, my abilities and knowledge, God’s existence, whether I had faith, whether someone who doubts God and cannot find his own faith during his fifth year of seminary ought to be a pastor. I lived with a constant volley of questions that caused my stomach to knot and my fists to clench. A line from Thomas Merton describes what I felt well, “you are out of your depth; your mind and will have been led beyond the borders of nature and they can no longer function.”1
What I could not imagine at the time, was that this chaos and fear would become an integral part of my journey towards wholeheartedness.
During this season of anxiety, I picked up Jim Brownson’s book, The Promise of Baptism. In a section defining faith, I found a line that led to the most significant conversion in my life. Brownson writes, “Paradoxically, the only way to be sure of your salvation when you become aware of all your internal contradictions is to trust in Christ, rather than in your capacity to trust Christ purely.” My shoulders relaxed and I began to weep. The idea that I could trust in Jesus rather than in my own ability to sustain my faith was a freedom that I had never experienced. It was a freedom that would carry me through my fears and doubts.
My internal contradictions had led me out of my depth to a place where my own spiritual habits and self-assurance could no longer suffice. In the throes of my panic, my years of Christian education at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, all of the answers I had memorized, and all of the spiritual progress I had made could not generate faith. And so, perhaps for the first time in my life, rather than trusting in my own ability to be faithful, I fixed my eyes on Jesus.
He was either going to be the author and perfecter of my faith or I was not going to have faith.
I stopped listening to the voice that had always been in my ear asking whether I had enough of the right answers to be a pastor or if I prayed hard enough or read my Bible diligently enough. I stopped listening to that voice because I had finally given up trying to satisfy it. I did not want to be a perfect man or Christian or pastor. I just wanted to sleep at night. And so I stopped trying to please that inner critic, as DeGroat calls it.
At the time, this was not a step I was consciously taking on the path towards wholeheartedness. I was simply exhausted. In my exhaustion, I stopped checking the boxes of a good Christian. The journey I was unknowingly on was the journey of descent. DeGroat talks about it at length in Wholeheartedness. “The way of ascent is descent,” he writes. In the midst of my anxiety and fear, I could no longer climb the spiritual ladder. Concocting the right cocktail of spiritual habits had been a major effort in my life. I chased an elusive blend of prayer, journaling, and reading that would inch by inch draw me closer to Jesus. If I did a little bit more, was a bit more disciplined, then maybe I would be enough. My panic-induced doubt and fear forced this part of me to die.
There was death.
And death hurt.
One of the analogies for the spiritual life that DeGroat uses is the caterpillar. The caterpillar’s cells tell it to consume, consume, consume. Eat more! But the caterpillar, to become a butterfly, must die. It must stop, form a chrysalis, and wait. There is a battle between the consumer cells of the caterpillar and the cells that eventually cause it to form a chrysalis. This is the death that happened to me in the chaos of my anxiety. I was unable to consume my way to freedom and life. Stopping felt like death.
As many have pointed out, we would prefer the verse read, “come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you a list of things to get done.” The journey of descent brought me to a place where I could no longer satisfy the voice that told me to do more, be more, read more. It was a terrifying place. It was the place where I could finally breathe deeply, and trust, not in my own set of orthodox beliefs and practices, but in Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith.
It took a professional therapist, conversations with close friends, time, and the most honest prayers that I’ve ever prayed to journey with my anxiety. Kneeling on the floor with the churn of panic in my gut was not some divine plan to humble me. I don’t want to idealize that pain or suggest that anyone ought to be in that position. But I can be thankful for it now. It was in that humility that I finally stopped trying to save myself.
The next step on this journey to wholeheartedness has something to do with the true self. That’s what I hear at least. I’m not there yet. I’m breathing slower. I’m fixing my eyes on Jesus. I’m dipping my toes into the contemplative life. Merton writes, “In active contemplation, a man becomes able to live within himself. He learns to be at home with his own thoughts.” That’s where I’m headed. To that wide open space where Jesus gives us our truest selves.
I still feel that anxious knot in my stomach sometimes. My palms get sweaty every now and then, but I am learning to live with them face up. I’m learning to come to Jesus for rest, to inhale until my lungs are good and full.
Want to learn more from the author, Chuck DeGroat, mentioned in this article? Plan to attend Chuck DeGroat’s First Mondays’ presentation, “From Hiding in Shame to Hidden in Christ: Journeying toward Wholeheartedness,” on Monday, October 3 at 11 am on Dordt College’s campus. Or, watch it via live stream here.