“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
From the dawn of history, religion and anxiety have been intertwined. Animistic tribes and cultures developed complex rituals and rules to calm angered deities or ancestral spirits. People lived in fear of being accused as the source of misfortune, of having the infamous evil eye. Throughout history anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, obsessions and compulsions have all at one time or another been blamed on demonic possession or evil spirits. This is a lingering reason for the stigma that pervades mental illness to this day. Puritans recoiled in fear from sermons like the one quoted in the openning above. The hysteria lay behind countless witch hunts and burnings in this country and Europe, actual murder to rid the world of evil. With this baggage is it any wonder that anxiety and religion are so often intertwined.
It seems the standard narrative for our spiritual journey that we must wade through darkness, fear, and worry before we reach “enlightenment.” Why is this? I believe that it is the natural path we progress in. We start at a point of fear and uncertainty. God in alien and unknown and therefore frightening. Nowhere in scripture does God appear angrier and more frightening than the Old Testament. God set apart to himself a people, Israel, with a destiny to heal the world. God built these people from the impoverished and enslaved of Egypt. In essence he built civilization from scratch. I think he had to work with them appealling to their most basic instincts, fear. This is the lowest level upon which we can relate to him, and thus the starting point. What they didn’t realize is that there is a point beyond. At some point, we learn the law, we keep it. We become more capable of living with eachother and thus learning and functioning as a society.
There comes a point where we have to move from distrust to trust, from fear to faith. Only then can we grow and realize the designs God has for us. At some point we move from rebellion, or obedience out of fear to a point where we strive to be better, become more. This is a positive and important step in spiritual growth. However, it is not without some very common pitfalls.
The danger is that of perfectionism. While the appearances, goals and directions have changed, perfectionism retains this same lower level of fear within it. Perfectionism is an inner belief that for anything to be worthwhile, it must be perfect. We want to jump to the finish line now that we have learned the goal. The problem is progress isn’t enough. If we go part way, we failed. We can become fixated on details, we procrastinate projects, all out of a fear that they won’t be good enough. In the end, we can never be good enough. Even when we excel, the joy is sucked out of it. We are merely “acceptable.” There is no rejoicing in accomplishment, just relief that we didn’t fall prey to failure.
From experience I think the best thing that can ever happen to you in this state is to fail, and fail miserably, provided you don’t fall into a vicious depression cycle and become suicidal. Eighty percent of those with clinical depression also have generalized anxiety disorder. That is an astounding number. This is the path that perfectionism leads. Perfectionism and religion taken together can become a vicious circle. We are imperfect because we are unhappy, so we must be sinful or else we would be happy, so our worth goes down in a never ending spiral. We are caught in a religiously motivated vicious circle of self flagellation.
So how on Earth can failure in these circumstances be good? It forces a change in perspective. Failure forces us to a tipping point. Only when we learn to question the assumptions that lead us to fear failure and hold ourselves in low esteem can we move beyond perfectionism to a healthier striving for perfection. The first is maladaptive and harmful, the second healthy, and both are related to spiritual progress.
The key to transitioning is love. Perfectionism is done out of duty, with an underlying belief we can never be good enough unless we dot every I and cross every t. Striving for perfection is motivated by love and a profound personal change. Every religion I know of describes this point of growth. It is the point of epiphany, inner peace, enlightenment, being spiritually born of God and filled with his love. It is a point where we come to see the divinity within ourselves and the wonder of creation. It is the point where our actions flow out of our hearts rather than covering the wounds within. It is real. When I have been locked away in the lowest depths of my depression it felt like anything but real. This was due more to faulty automatic thinking and bad wiring though. It seems we often can only realize this in moments of great pain. This process is what God is referring to when he asks us to come unto him and be converted and healed. This is what the Savior meant when he said his yoke was easy and his burden light.
Is religion the cause of anxiety? In far too many cases, yes. Can religion cure anxiety? The wonder and miracle of it all is yes. In fact, studies have shown that anxiety levels are in fact lower among the actively church going. While it is very easy to criticise religion in general, or specific belief systems as toxic, perfectionist and anxiety producing, the fact is when this shift is made, it is not the doctrine that has changed. Our personal perspective has changed. God didn’t change, but our relationship with and understanding of him did. It seems most of us do get it eventually, some faster than others. We are all on this journey and if we can just keep moving forward we will change. As I look at history, I think society itself is moving along this path. Our understanding as humanity is growing. This is the great secret. Darkness, obstacles, fear, uncertainty, guilt, self loathing are merely stops along the journey to a higher, healthier, and happier state of being. Good luck in your journey.