When my daughter Sophia was in the third grade, she began to have anxiety at school. Her teacher often gave the instruction to the class: "Don't turn your assignment in until you are sure you've done your best work." Sophia's eight-year-old brain began to spin. She always worked hard to get the right answers on her math assignments; she never left answers blank in any subject. But when it came to creative writing, art, or composition, how could she possibly know if she had done her best work? She could almost always think of how it could have been a little better.
After a few weeks of spinning, she shared her distress. "Honey," I told her, "that instruction is not for you. That's your teacher's way of telling kids to try a little harder who aren't as conscientious about doing their work. You just keep doing what you're doing and don't worry."
This moment was so profound for Sophia that she told this anecdote on one of her college application essays last year.
It's profound for me too, as a church-goer. I have had to learn to be able to sit in a Sunday service or a women's Bible study and occassionally say to myself, "Honey, that instruction is not for you." At first I felt like a really naughty eight year old. I had enough crazy training in legalistic churches to put me on the crazy train: Christian cultures that impressed on their congregations that anytime a line of a sermon irritated or offended you it was because you had a rebellious spirit. But as I have aged in years and matured in Christ, I've become certain of these two things:
Not every line of a sermon is true, or an appropriate application of scripture. We have to bring critical thinking to every lesson we hear, because pastors get it wrong sometimes. Author and Pastor Rich Villodas says when people complement a sermon, you should never say "It was all God." Because if God has said it, it would have been better. Pastors are just people.
Not every lesson taught to a large congregation is applicable to each member of the congregation. Author and Pastor John Mark Comer just posted a Reel this week about the limited ability to give spiritual direction through sermons, because it is the one speaking to the many. "Different people in that church need to hear different messages," he said, based on everything from their gender, personality, ethnicity, have they been wounded by the church or have they been wounded by secularism.
Before I came to accept these concepts, being in church on Sundays and in Christian community in general caused me a lot of anxiety. Being a recovering perfectionist like my daughter, I wanted to do right. But some of the things I heard didn't sound or feel right. I also wanted to be loved and accepted within my community, and I was raised in a family where not a lot of differentiation of belief or behavior was allowed, so to belong was to agree. So, I got anxious not only when I couldn't fully accept every word of the sermon, but also all the advice from the women around me, and all the sayings that float around Christian culture online and on coffee mugs. How do I belong where I can't obey?
As a believer, it was easy to reject advice from "the world." Bad advice from Christian women is harder to shake. It gets under one's skin.
This is not a modern problem that has just developed because of the internet and Christian merchandise. And I don't just think it's a problem for me.
As long as there have been Christians, there have been Christian sayings. We know this because Paul writes this to young pastor Timothy: "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners..." From this verse (1 Timothy 1:15), we might also assume that there were some untrustworthy Christian sayings floating around, which were worthy of just partial acceptance, in some circumstances. And I'm absolutely sure there were things Christians said that were downright untrue, hence the New Testament's many verses on keeping one's doctrine sound and keeping an eye out for false teachers.
As I close this series, How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life, I'm going to address this issue in a couple of ways. First, next week, I'm going to write about some Christian sayings that aren't really Christ-like or Spirit-inspired at all -- or are harmful over-simplifications. A few examples:
God never gives you more than you can handle.
Family comes first.
Motherhood is your highest calling.
Don't steer by your emotions.
In the second week, I'm going to address some scriptures that are often misapplied. The exegesis of these verses aren't really the point; they are more to show you how to bring your own Spirit-led, critical thinking to your Bible study and church attendance, and how to seek teachers who instruct you how to think, not just tell you what to think.
You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.
You are more than a conqueror through him that loved you.
All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
Third and finally, I'd like to write specifically about the bad advice you've gotten from Christian women. This is not an opportunity for us to be judgmental of individuals or the church as a whole, but rather to help us, as a community of women (and a few men I see there on my list) address the cultural beliefs being passed on to us that don't line up with Christ's will for us. I hereby beg you to send me some feedback over the next couple of weeks, so I can address it.
To get your wheels turning, you may have been given bad advice in regards to:
I close today by going back to the very beginning of this series: We can't fully receive the comfort and peace of God while we chronically live in ways that increase anxiety. This includes believing and following instructions that are less that God's will, that get us hung up on doing "our best work" instead of letting God do his. Let's learn together to be able to say to bad advice, "Honey, that instruction isn't for you."