Anxiety, Identity, and Idolatry
I started playing soccer at the age of 6. I began representing the Olympic development team at the age of 12. I played for numerous state champions and received a Division 1 soccer scholarship. After college I played in the minor leagues then moved to Northern Ireland where I played 2 seasons with a 2nd division team. Soccer had always been my dream and passion. I still play today.
Here’s why I mention it. Soccer became an identity for me. It became the thing that gave me “significance, value, and worth”. It was the thing that helped me to feel like I mattered. I was good at it & it was good to me. As long as I had soccer I knew who I was.
All that changed after a few injuries and a few failed tryouts. Suddenly I’m sitting in my bedroom at the age of 28 crying in front of my girlfriend (now wife) b/c I’m faced with the glaring truth that apart from soccer I really had no idea who I was.
Sure, I professed Jesus. I knew the scriptures. I had experienced God. I believed in Jesus deeply.
But I still felt lost, insecure, and insignificant.
What I’m describing of course is the world of Idolatry. An Idol is anything we lean on to give us security, value, and worth besides God.
What helps you to feel “ok” inside?
When these idols are threatened or removed from our lives we will experience inordinate fear/anxiety/anger/depression.
For the most part idols aren’t little statues of buddha that we talk to and worship. They tend to be the good things in life like our family, sex, material wealth, human approval/praise, career, reputation, and security. (These are the ones I see the most as a therapist).
The book of Ezekiel puts it this way “These men have erected idols in their hearts”. Romans 1 says “They worshiped created things over the creator.” Jeremiah 2 says “My people have committed two evils, they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters and hewn for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water”. These convicting scriptures are saying similar things.
Humans are suckers for idolatry. We are prone to seek out security & significance from the tangible things on the earth because we just don’t feel like God is going to provide our needs or wants.
Not too long ago I was counseling a female client suffering with severe OCD. I know the clinical literature. I realize there are areas of the brain that can “misfire” and become hyperactive. We also reviewed her history looking for instances of trauma. Nothing there.
After some lengthy conversations the truth became apparent that “control” and “safety” had become her everything. As long as she had the perception of those two things in her life then all was right in the world. Safety and control provided peace, comfort, and meaning for her.
Without them the anxiety and fear were unbearable.
Another client was obsessed with academic and intellectual knowledge. If she wasn’t able to understand something or wasn’t viewed as highly intelligent then she would begin to experience literal panic attacks. Her idol? Intellectualism. Being known as “smart”. Being perceived as an intellectual gave her a sense of significance and meaning. She was also fixated on “being right”. As long as she was right everything was ok in the world. Being right gave her purpose and value. It made her feel “ok”. If she wasn’t right then that would mean she was insignificant & unnecessary. This of course is a lie. Idolatry. (There are many reasons a person can become like this, but rather than dive into those details I’d rather highlight the fact that humans have tendencies towards idolatry. Clinicians try their best to understand causes and cures but idolatry is often a central factor in much of what we call psychopathology.)
If you have idols in your life and they are removed or threatened, then you can be sure you will have a conniption. You’re going to experience extreme anger, anxiety, or sadness.
One of the best ways to know what you are living for is to begin asking “If I lost this thing (career, house, money, thing) or person would it crush me? Would life lose its meaning?”
Begin to trace your highlighted emotions (Anxiety, Anger, Sadness, Despair), they will often lead you to your idols.
So here’s what I’m getting at. You can try to solve your Anxiety & fear problem with talk therapy but it won’t work unless you realize that you are harboring idols. They need to be discovered, uprooted, repented of, and replaced.
I’m afraid that many of us are going to wake up one day (in this life or the next) to realize we weren’t actually living life with God, we were living for idols of human approval & safety and were guilty of worshiping ourselves. Many of us are simply closet narcissist. Obsessed with our own importance, desperate to be admired, and incredibly entitled. I know this sounds harsh but its true. Just more proof that we need intervention from the outside. In the deepest sense, we all need a savior.
When its all said and done, our heart affections and mind must begin to garner security, peace, significance, and worth directly from Jesus. I realize this isn’t easy and typically doesn’t happen overnight but you can begin today.
The first step is spotting your idols. Owning that you have them is a massive blow. It’s like spotting a sniper. Once you spot him your chances at winning the war have just increased dramatically. If you can’t spot him then you’re a dead man. You spot them by looking at your excessive and inordinate emotions. They will lead you to the source.
The second step is to get real honest with God & at least one other person. Own every moment during your day when you find yourself lustfully looking at your idol for comfort, security, or joy. “God, I’ve been getting my sense of value and significance from people again. I know this because when they criticized me I about lost my mind and felt devastated. I repent! I need your voice & your opinion of me to be louder than theirs. I want to fear you alone. You say I am loved and you are the only person who can give me meaning & significance”.
It’s one thing to realize these things “Cognitively”. Honest prayer & meditation on scriptures will take the things you know in your head and drop them into your heart. What we need is a heart change. You can “know” certain truths through intellectual comprehension but its prayer that will take those truths into the core of your being.
The third step is to begin to savor God’s presence. You’ll need to lose some of your dignity here. You’ll need to spend time alone with God.
Follow this analogy. If I want to increase in my affections for my wife then I shouldn’t make my focus “avoidance of other beautiful women”. My focus has to be loving my wife. I increase my affection for her by thinking about her, serving her, conversing with her, and spending quality time in her presence.
We tend to appreciate and value the people & things we give our money, time, and efforts to.
You’re dead in the water if you’re trying to get rid of your idols simply by crying and saying you’re sorry.
If you want the heat you’ve got to get near the campfire.
If you want affections for God you’ve got to intentionally and qualitatively get into his presence (frequently).
If you’re serious about this then here’s a few tips:
Many of the great hero’s in the bible were early risers. They were up early with God. You’ll need to discipline yourself to go to bed fairly early so you can wake up early. (If you have a weird job with weird hours or are an exhausted parent then you’ll need to get creative). The main objective is quality time on a frequent basis.
Mix things up. Spend time in scripture. Literally read it as though God is talking to you (while also acknowledging the historical context). I know of a guy who pours two cups of coffee, one for him and one for God. He sits in his study and reads his bible to God as if he is sitting in the room. He hopes that one day God will drink the second cup.
If things grow stale, change it up. Read a story in the old testament, then switch to the new testament. Read like your life depends on it & you’ve got 48 hours to live.
Go for a morning walk. Simply listen. Simply pray. I live near a nature preserve. I go for walks in the woods in silence and I love it. I have raw conversations with God.
Spend time thanking God and asking for what breaks his heart or gets him fired up. Begin to believe his thoughts & emotions can become yours.
Fast from food periodically. Start with one meal. Then two. Then three. Etc.
Listen to biblical teachers on YouTube or podcast who appear to have “Depth” with God and carry “something different”. Lots of teachers have academic knowledge, not many carry intimacy and friendship with God. Pay careful attention to anyone who carries “Logic on fire”. This simply means the scriptures are enflamed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They hold equal value for the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. This should NOT be a primary source of encouragement for you. You’ve got to eat meat for yourself.
Be careful here, you don’t want to get legalistic and formulaic. This is about a lively relationship not a set of do’s and don’t’s.
Worship with other Christians. You’ll need to plug in with a community of people who are desperate for the “real thing”. I realize this may seem “impossible” for some of you but it’s the truth. You need to be around other Christians who are hungry, willing to grow, and haven’t figured it all out. Be teachable.
*In your journey if you find yourself in the midst of some “know it all’s” who are obsessed with sin, highly judgmental, or are driven by emotional hype then you should run. Don’t over think it. A Christian should be known for their fruit. Look for fruit. Real Christians actually exist.
**I’m heavily indebted to the seeds of thought introduced by pastor & author Timothy Keller from his book (Counterfeit Gods). His book re-arranged how I think about identity.