If You Just Had More Faith…

Is it true that if a person simply had more faith they would not experience chronic negative emotions like anxiety?

One of the more interesting stories in the Hebrew Bible is also what scholars believe to be the oldest in all of scripture – the book of Job. Even if you have never read the Bible you may have crossed some of the cultural references to the story that remains a timeless account about human suffering. For instance, Neil Simon’s Broadway play, God’s Favorite, is based on Job as is South Park’s Season 5 episode 6. Davy Jones mentions Job in the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and then there is the still frequently used phrase, “the patience of Job.”  One could go on and on with such references but my point is that this story is a classic that might be worth a read even if you have never picked up a Bible. If you do decide to read it and it confuses the hell out of you give me a call and we can enjoy a discussion over a cup of coffee.

The reason for my reference to this book is that Job has some friends who are not unfamiliar to me. They show up in the midst of his misery to share their collective wisdom which basically amounts to, “if you just had more faith or if you just were more honest about your sin then you would not be having all of this trouble.” Down South where I grew up we would call that a bunch of hogwash – translation…a load of crap.

There really is nothing new under the sun. People still share the same unwanted advice today when they encounter suffering. For people of faith this is pretty unsettling because it can throw them into a moral tailspin causing them to doubt their faith at a time when that may be one of the only things helping them hold it together. By example, I read a post by an acquaintance on his Facebook page the other week. He spoke about his anxiety and some unhelpful soul posted beneath his public lament that he should be, “anxious for nothing” a reference found in the Bible used out of context to shame people who are hurting into believing that if they just had more faith they wouldn’t be feeling the way they do now – to which I say, “hogwash.”

Over the years of doing therapy with people who have a faith based worldview, I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If I could just trust God more or I know God is good but I clearly do not trust because I keep feeling anxious.” Is that true? Is it possible to trust God fully and still experience chronic negative emotions?

Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a Lament Psalm – poetry from the Bible where people expressed their feelings related to pain and suffering. Here is my suggestion for people who are dealing with anxiety and have a faith based worldview.

Because I trust God, I bring him my anxiety again and again.

The first couplet of Psalm 62:8 says, “Trust in him at all times, O people.” And in the Hebrew language in which this is originally written the assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? The next line reads, “Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.

Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. “They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.” It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder

  1. He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
  2. He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
  3. He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
  4. He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
  5. He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong and loving. You will remain righteous (which doesn’t mean perfect…righteous means just or virtuous) in your dealings with us.

While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.

This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a picture of acceptance which is a Jewish and Christian worldview that contrasts with avoidance which is a sort of stoic (Greek, Roman, and Eastern Religious – think Zen – worldview) that seeks to empty the self of and be unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust, we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.

If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.

So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your anxiety (which is what I believe is the intent of the Biblical reference to “be anxious in nothing) might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?

Restoration Community Counseling

is the private practice of Eric Greer, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist since 1998. A full range of counseling services are offered to individuals and couples. Don’t let the license in marriage and family therapy fool you. Family therapy is simply a holistic perspective that takes into account the systems and groups of which you are a part or have been connected with in the past. It does not require working with additional people in session, although family therapists are the only discipline of licensed mental health providers with extensive experience and training in doing so. I have also done extensive training in evidenced based therapies like ACT and EMDR for trauma, anxitey, depression, and addictions. The thoughts in my blog will range from random to professional and will have a smattering of “God stuff” throughout. Why? So, when people see me for counseling they can read my thoughts on these matters without thinking I have some particular agenda or need to proselytize. My writings are meant to make me more transparent as a person who happens to be a therapist.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

A favorite movie of mine is Saving Private Ryan. Be warned that it is very violent but I would say it is in no way gratuitous. Anyway, there is a scene in the movie where the group of soldiers on the mission to save Private Ryan are faced with a dilemma – whether to kill an unarmed German soldier they have captured who has just killed their friend in combat or to release him because they cannot take him with them. It is an emotional scene highlighting the gray area of the battlefield where up and down are not always as they seem. The Captain played by Tom Hanks ends debate when he orders the prisoner to be released and sent away explaining that it would compromise who they are as people to do otherwise. However, it comes with a high price because later in the movie the same German soldier takes the life of another member of their squad.

The Captain’s decision was the right one. But the cost highlights how ineffective it is to send away a problem without full resolution. My own experience in counseling at the VA introduced me to this concept and caused me to investigate the value of a therapeutic approach called ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy). For some time in my life I would “send away” or suppress difficult memories with ineffective solutions that created more problems. And, because I’m human I still do so from time to time. However, the tools I learned in ACT have brought me great relief and I have since taken time to better understand the therapeutic approach to share it with those with whom I work.

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of treatment that helps people observe their thoughts and emotions without judgment (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wison 1999). From a spiritual lens, the apostle Paul says it this way, “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The basic idea is to identify your values and take action, regardless of your internal state (your thoughts or feelings). Acceptance and commitment therapy does not focus on trying to change thoughts or feelings, but it does emphasize how changing your behavior can help you live a happier life. This type of therapy helps you develop psychological flexibility.

In everyday language psychological flexibility means holding our own thoughts or emotions a bit more lightly and acting on longer term values rather than short term impulses. If we trust every thought or emotion without “taking it captive” and interrogating it we can often overlook more important sustained patterns of action which bring true meaning. Acceptance and Commitment therapy is based on the following assumptions:

  • We can learn to observe our thoughts, emotions, and traumatic memories without becoming overly involved in their content.
  • Accepting our thoughts and feelings reduces our emotional suffering because we are not trying (in vain) to change our internal states.
  • Mindfulness (which can incorporate your own spiritual disciplines if you have some) is a skill that can help you as you practice acceptance.
  • Who you are is separate from your thoughts or actions. Some people might call this their soul or essence.
  • It is important to identify what you truly value and then work to act in ways that are in line with those values.

If you think this approach to handling your anxiety, traumatic memories, addictive behaviors or other concern could change your life like it has for thousands of others, please contact me.

 


Hayes, S.C., K. Strosahl, and K.G. Wilson. 1999. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press.