Taking on Other People's Anxiety

Last week, I wrote about how I manage my anxiety. This week, I want to write about managing other people’s anxiety.

Warning! This post probably isn’t for you if you’ve said one of the following:

“I don’t want to be a doormat.”

“I have boundaries.”

“I have to take care of myself first.”

“I let too many people take advantage of me.”

In my experience, people who say things like that don’t really have a problem with this subject and they’re in very little danger of taking on other people’s anxiety.

This post is for those of you who cannot stop no matter how hard you try. You cannot break from caring, helping, or serving. . . And you get as anxious as the people you’re trying to save. In short, their problems become your problems.

People who are doormats don’t know it. They don’t talk about boundaries, because they don’t have any. And, they don’t take care of themselves first, because it never even crosses their minds.

In seminary, I remember one like-minded professor rebuking me for doing just that. I was an “orthodox” Christian in an increasingly “unorthodox” school. Future pastors were giving up on things like the virgin birth and the resurrection. Some were even giving up on Jesus. And I had a mission: I was going to save them! Their growing anxiety (their doubts and fears) became my anxiety. “I’ve got to fix this,” I said to myself. “I’ve got to champion Jesus to these overly impressionable students and get them back on course through my powers of persuasion.”

The only problem? It wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting anywhere—at all. Eyeing defeat, I became discouraged and frustrated, even depressed. “God, why can’t I save these people?” I’ll never forget my professor’s response—his rebuke: “You’re not the Savior! People change when they want to change and no one can do that for them.”

Edwin Friedman, in his classic “Friedman’s Fables,” tells the story of a man who ties himself to an unsuspecting passerby and then jumps off a bridge. The man left standing on the bridge, holding the rope, tries and tries to pull the now dangling man to the platform, but to no avail. He tries to save him, but he can’t. The man refuses to be saved. Still, that doesn’t stop him from sharing his anxiety.

The dangling man cries out, “If you let go, I will be lost!”

“But I cannot pull you up,” the other man cries. He is trying, but the man won’t cooperate. He won’t help.

“I am your responsibility. . . If you let go, I am lost,” the dangling man repeats.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” And while it’s a phrase I generally dislike, there is some truth in it—in particular when it comes to helping others.

Most of us don’t like taking responsibility for our own behaviors and poor decisions. We don’t like owning our actions and the consequences that comes with them. “The devil made me do it!”

So, what we do instead is put as much anxiety as we can on the people around us. “It’s your fault I’m acting this way.” “If you had helped me just a little bit more, I wouldn’t be in this situation.” Like the man dangling from the bridge, we expect others to save us and then blame them when they don’t.

“Pastor, you’ve got to help save my marriage.”

“Pastor, if you don’t change this thing, I’m leaving the church.”

“Pastor, I reached out to you for help, but you were no help at all.”

Here’s what I’m learning:

I can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

I can’t fix a marriage that doesn't want to be fixed.

I can’t prevent someone from leaving the church by changing some thing. If I did, someone else would be unhappy with the change to that thing. I’m not the reason they’re leaving. They’re the reason they’re leaving—their preferences, their desires, etc.

Bottom line: I can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. I can make suggestions. I can pray. I can make myself available, but I can’t "fix" them unless they want to be fixed themselves. Not even God will do that most days.

What did Jesus ask the man looking for healing? "Do you want to be made well?" As the old expression goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Another example: Sometimes a troubled adult child will say to his parents: “Mom and Dad, I need money.”

Your response, parents, if you’re not an enabler, will likely be: “I’m not going to give you any more money.”

“Well, if you don’t give me money, we’re done,” the child snaps back.

“Please don’t be done. I love you. I just can’t give you this money.”

“Well, then, Mom and Dad,” the child says, “You’re making the decision to end our relationship. Not me.”

Wrong! The parent (you) isn't making the decision to end the relationship. The child is.

Listen to me! LISTEN TO ME! Taking on other people’s anxiety isn’t your job. Care for them, love them, help them, but don’t carry them.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR. To quote our president, “YOU'RE FIRED!” You’re fired as the Savior.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, “Go to that person over there! They’ll give you rest. They’ll take on your anxiety for you.” No! He said, “Come to ME. . . Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus takes people’s burdens. . . not me and not you.

But Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens!” True enough. Carry those burdens right over to Jesus. He'll take it from there.

Are you gentle and humble? Very likely. Otherwise, people wouldn’t dump their anxiety on you. There’s a reason people come to you for help.

Are you finding rest? Is your yoke easy and your burden light? If not, you may be taking on other people’s anxiety a little too much. You think you’re doing them a favor, but you’re not. Instead of directing them toward Jesus, you’re directing them toward you. And they don’t need you like they need Jesus.

At the end of Friedman’s fable, the man left-standing on the bridge finally makes a choice. He lets go of the rope. Friedman doesn’t tell us what happens next to the man dangling in the air. We can only imagine.

The man standing on the bridge makes a decision and it’s a difficult one. It’s consequential. In letting go, the dangling man will likely fall to his death and blame the other on the way down.

However, the man standing on the bridge understands something many of us don’t (including me, many days). The anxiety isn’t his to carry. He lets God be God and he fires himself as the Savior.

Are you listening? Yes, I’m talking to you! YOU! The one with the Savior complex. “You’re fired!”

Jesus loves you and I love you. And, if this post makes you anxious, try reading the one below: Three Way to Conquer Anxiety.

Three Ways to Conquer Anxiety

Do you struggle with anxiety? We all do to some extent. The most common cure? Distraction. The Christ-follower’s cure? Prayer and Scripture. The only problem is, when we’re anxious, it’s hard to distract. And, it’s even harder to sit down, pray, and read our Bibles. We just get too anxious!

Here are three things I do to conquer anxiety:

1.  I walk.

I love to take walks. I really do. Whenever I feel anxious, I grab my 50-pound, chocolate Labradoodle, Henry, and, together, we hit the pavement. Sometimes we take long walks. Sometimes short. It depends on my anxiety level.

You may remember the schmaltzy hymn, In the Garden. It starts off, I come to the garden alone. . .

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Walking clears my head. It just does. It gets me out of my anxious world and into God’s. And God’s world is much calmer than mine. He isn’t anxious at all.

Walking helps me pray.

2.  I sing.

Some people hum. Others whistle. I sing! One of my kids asked me the other day, Why do you sing so often? And, why at such random times? (Truth be told, my singing embarrasses them a little.)

My answer was twofold: joy and anxiety. I sing when I’m happy and I sing when I’m sad.

The psalmist cries out,

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
   Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Singing about Jesus (not sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll) releases something in me—someone—the Holy Spirit. Singing is not so different from reading God’s promises in Scripture. It’s just more powerful, I think. Try it! God loves it when we sing!

3.  I speak in tongues.

Now, whenever I talk about speaking in tongues, someone inevitably says, “But I don’t do that.” And while there are many different teachings on this subject, here’s mine: If you want to speak in tongues, you can. Just start.

Ask God to fill you with his Holy Spirit and then start babbling. Babble, babble, babble! At first, you’ll likely focus on what your mouth is doing. That’s natural and normal. Over time, however, you’ll shift your attention to God and you’ll be blessed in doing so.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. A couple of verses later he writes, Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

Can I be honest? When I’m anxious, I’m not thinking about edifying the church. Anxious people don’t think about others, because they’re too anxious. That’s one of the problems with anxiety! It’s selfish. I’m only thinking about myself. So, I edify myself. I build up myself. And speaking in tongues does that for me. God encourages me when I practice that gift. He gets me out of myself and I think he’ll do the same for you.

If you want to speak in tongues, grab me some Sunday morning after the service, and we’ll ask God together to release that gift in you.

Some Final Thoughts

So, that’s me. That’s how I cope with anxiety. I walk, I sing, and I speak in tongues. Other things work too, like serving others. Some people have a chemical imbalance and medication is an option. Others need deliverance. These are just my top three.

We’re more anxious today than ever it seems—probably because we have more time than ever. That’s another message for another day. Whatever the cause and whatever the cure, the one thing I know is we don’t have to be anxious. Jesus loves you and I love you.

1 Peter 5:7: Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Taking A Play From Jesus' Playbook

In his three years of ministry, Jesus only raised up a dozen leaders!  (Actually, 11 when you take away Judas.)  If it wasn’t for the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight and the evidence of over 2 billion believers throughout the world, we might be tempted to question Jesus’ decision to focus on such a small group of leaders.  But Jesus was a master teacher and it is obvious now that he knew what he was doing as he built his church and raised up leaders.  As apprentices of Jesus ourselves, we should learn two main lessons from his example.  First, developing leaders is extremely important. And second, investing deeply in a small number of people over a long period of time can make a seismic impact.

Jesus only did three main things: he died on the cross and rose from the dead, he proclaimed and demonstrated the good news of the kingdom of God and he mentored leaders.  And that was pretty much it.  That is all he did.  The amount of time during his three years of ministry that he spent developing leaders underscores the gravity of the task. Leadership development was a high priority to Jesus so much so that in his final charge to his apprentices, Jesus commanded them, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mathew 28:19-20). Jesus’ entire plan for sharing the good news of the kingdom of God with the whole world was to make disciples who went and made disciples. There was no plan B. That is why developing people the way Jesus did is so critical for us too.

Not only does Jesus’ example teach us how important leadership development is but he gives us a model for how to do it.  The way Jesus grew leaders was to invest in a small number of people very deeply over a long period of time.  Jesus did, of course, interact with others beyond the twelve; he healed individuals and taught multitudes, but he invested most of his time and energy into a small group. Those twelve became his apprentices in how to live in a relationship with God.  They had front row seats to everything he did, and then he sent them out to preach and heal and cast out demons.  In the process, they didn’t just learn leadership skills, they developed relationships with him and with each other.  They absorbed Jesus’ values along with his teaching and their lives began to embody his message.  Jesus did more than download content to his disciples; he immersed them in a culture that shaped them and which they carried with them.  It turns out that culture was contagious and it changed the world.

At Northgate, this fall we are taking a play from Jesus’ playbook as we launch a new pilot program to develop leaders.  We are calling this program the Leadership Development Course and we are piloting it in partnership with Robert Walter.  Robert is a member of the leadership team of the Alliance of Renewal Churches, and a Senior Trainer and Consultant for LeaderSource SGA. Through LeaderSource, Robert has helped local churches around the world plant similar leadership courses based on the ConneXions model of discipleship and leader development.  This program will invite a small group of emerging leaders from Northgate into a high commitment learning community for two years, which Robert will help us design.  The training will emphasize the cultivation of relationships, spiritual disciplines and the life and ministry experiences of the participants in addition to tapping into the best instruction we can provide.  The aim will not only be building skills for ministry but will be helping the participants grow in Christ-like character, understand their gifts and callings while helping them develop an intimate relationship with Christ and cultivating Christian community.  In that respect, it is a holistic model of discipleship

Even though the number of participants in this program will be small, this program will be a major focus of my ministry at Northgate for the next two years and I am writing this blog to ask for your support.  There are three reasons why I think this Leadership Development Course is so good for Northgate right now.

1.    The Leadership Development Course is consistent with the mission, vision and values of our church.  Our mission is helping people become who God purposed them to be.  The aim of the leadership development course is not only to help the participants become who God purposed them to be, but ultimately to help us build a culture that drives our mission and makes that a reality for everyone. The Leadership Development Course will be a strategy tohelp us become as our vision statement says, "A leader developing, Jesus following, people sending church.  Not an audience but an army."  The Northgate 9 is the way we articulate how we do things and the Leadership Development Course will be reinforcing values like, "We hang together" since we are intentionally building a culture that creates community, "We rely on God" because the participants will be learning about nurturing a dependent relationship with God, and "We are weird because normal isn't working," for we are aiming at life transformation.

2.    Even though not everyone is going to take this course, this course is going to bless the whole church.  By intentionally developing and discipling leaders, we will be able to create a disciple making culture within our church, because leaders reproduce culture.  Developing leaders will also help us as a church build the framework we need to grow.  Strong leaders, with character and deep relationships with Christ are what we need to launch groups and ministries that will enable us to build more relationships and become a more caring church, strengthen our capacity to reach out with love and serve our neighbors.  Developing leaders within our church will multiply our missional effectiveness and eventually position us to be a blessing to the larger church beyond Northgate, since leaders who are following Jesus will influence the world around them.

3.    It's going to work.  Here is why we think so. The Leadership Development Course is based on Jesus’ example of disciple making, so it deals with whole persons including their character and their relationship with God, not just their leadership skills.  This model has been tested throughout the world in multiple cultures. In fact, we have tested some of the features of the program in the Leadership Track we ran for two years here.  Leaders from that program have begun ministries like Connect Care Prayer and the Marriage Course in addition to leading small groups and Gateways and Impact groups.  That program was successful, but it wasn't sustainable because it depended on too many people being committed to the program at once. We are retooling and with the support and expertise of Robert Walter we think this second iteration will be even better.  One example of the insights Robert has shared with us has been how to better involve the wisdom and support of the whole church by matching the participants with mentors and prayer warriors to serve as intercessors, and also giving the participants opportunities to lead small groups and mentor others. So Northgate will be providing the support for the program and the context for ministry.

Because of the nature of the program, not everyone will be able to participate, but there are a number of things that everyone can do to support the program.

1.    Pray. Pray for the emerging leaders, and for the culture that this program creates.

2.    Volunteer. The participants will need mentors and prayer warriors to intercede for them. We will also need occasional mentors who meet with a participant just once or twice. For example if you have a servant heart or you are a person of humility you will have wisdom that the participants can glean. Also if you love to cook, you could bless this program by occasionally preparing a meal for a retreat.

3.    Encourage.   One of the best things you can do is to follow these leaders with love and patience.  Join one of their small groups. Become a protégé.  Then give them lots of encouragement and loving constructive feedback.

4.    Give.  Your gifts make ministry like this possible. The participants will be paying a significant portion of the costs, but you gifts can ensure that cost is not an obstacle that keeps someone from participating.