The Spirituality of Suffering For Youth Workers
In my role as a professional counselor and ministry worker, I encourage others to live their lives openly and as authentically as possible. I feel compelled to live my life that same way, but I’ve been thinking lately that there is a piece of my life I haven’t been that open and honest about, and that’s my own suffering with anxiety.
In my own therapeutic work, I know that there are some things that need to be kept private, just for me and my family, but I’ve been considering how others might be positively impacted if I showed them that my life isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Because that’s the real news.
Living with Anxiety
Somedays, living with anxiety means living like you’re a panther ready to pounce. You just itch for the fight because your levels of intolerance and irritation are so high (and you don’t know why). Other days, you are so incredibly tired and wiped out because you were SO READY to fight the day before. As I’ve been working to identify, cope and manage my anxiety over the last two years, I’ve realized that I had such a hard time identifying my problem because my anxiety wasn’t textbook, in the most standard of ways. In fact, I worried that I was just a negative person, which in my heart didn’t feel true, but my anxiety told me that it was.
My anxiety lied to me and I believed it. My anxiety also encouraged me to keep silent, because maybe I just needed to chill out. In my worst moments, all my anxiety manifested in my body leaving me hurting in physical ways (food intolerances, migraines, muscle pain, chest pain).
There were times, when my mind was foggy and cluttered, I couldn’t remember what I needed to work on, I just knew I had something important that needed to get done. Anxiety keeps you frozen, while at other times, encourages you to run… far far away.
Part of anxiety is the never knowing how it’s going to impact you next. Today could be a really great day, tomorrow could be the worst. Once, I was in a peer supervision group with some other “Christian Counselors” and one counselor said that “anxiety was when you didn’t trust God”.
I just stopped breathing as I wrote that because that might be the worst, most untrue thing ever. If anything, my faith has never been clearer or stronger. I trust God with my largest concerns (like how to be a loving parent and not to mess up this tiny human being I’ve been given) to the mundane (like get me through a boring meeting).
What I’ve learned over the last several years is, suffering isn’t a result of having a poor relationship with God. In fact, the more I’ve thought about the idea of God and suffering, the more I see that God has been with me in my suffering all along.
Suffering isn’t a result of having a poor relationship with God. I see that God has been with me in my suffering all along.
Where is God in the suffering?
I recently had the opportunity to preach on the text from Luke 23:38-43, a text I’ve seen a million times. This time, I read it and saw something different. In the text, Jesus is on the cross with two other criminals. Jesus, the only blameless one in the bunch. Yet, there Jesus was, in the center of the same, painful, drawn-out killing process. In other words, right in the center of the suffering. Because, where else can God be? Where else can God be, if not with me? In the good and the bad. At my highest of highs and lowest of lows.
I can’t answer the age-old question of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I just don’t know. That’s a mystery. But like all good counselors, I like to reframe the question to ask a much more reasonable and manageable question, “Where is God in the suffering?” What I see in the world around me is a constantly changing culture, people, nature and environment. What I see are deaths and resurrections of new things and life. It’s the process of life, one which we are all a part. Just like faith is a process. Sometimes, old ways of thinking about God and scripture die and fall away, making room for new, more vibrant ways of thinking about God.
So, what is my end game in telling you this? What I hope will happen is, that you see being open and honest about a personal struggle with yourself and others is both helpful and healing. I don’t live in shame or darkness now. I’m not hiding a secret about my life from you. In fact, maybe I’m giving you a point of connection. I’ve been emboldened by scripture to see real life struggles reflected in the life of Jesus.
What do I do if I am struggling?
Talk about it.
When we hold something in, the problem can seem so large we can’t begin to wrap our hands around it. No problem is insurmountable. When we talk about something, it’s like we can view the problem or issue from all the angles and get new perspectives. Sometimes, we even learn that what we thought was so big a problem, isn’t as big as we thought it was. Talking also helps us process what is happening with us on a much deeper level. Having a person who can reflect back to you what they hear you saying is incredibility helpful as well as lets you know you are both heard and understood.
Ask for help.
Help is out there. In your school, in your church, in your neighborhood even on your phone. You can do this. You don’t have to go through struggles alone. At the end of this blog, I’ll have some helpful and readily accessible resources for help.
Mobilize your support network.
Who are your people? Bring them in close. Tell them you need support and encouragement. If you need more, tell them.
In my counseling practice, I found most people don’t want to hear this, but being active every day for 30 minutes, three to five days a week, will help you manage anxiety and depression. All those good endorphins are released and your brain starts telling your body you feel good. I think this is a great way to “take control.” Anxiety and stress need outlets. It’s like an energy that needs a place to go, when it has no place to go, it can build.
This simply means, make yourself a priority. Give yourself what you need. What makes you feel good? Mani/Pedi, date night, prayer, yoga, warm baths, long walks in the woods, calling a friend, eating well, journal, look in the mirror and tell yourself you are an amazing person. Tell yourself, you are enough.
Connect with God. From my story, you can see that I’m in a season where scripture is speaking to me, maybe reading and studying scripture is your thing? Maybe daily quiet time for prayer, journaling and reflection give you a firm center? Maybe weekly worship and service, gives you renewal and purpose? Find ways to connect with God and your faith community.
- Find a therapist: https://www.psychologytoday.com
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255
- Available 24 hours every day
- NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) provides more than a dozen free programs on education, skills training and support for people affected by mental health conditions and their loved ones. https://www.nami.org/#
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.