Sunday 15 September 2013

Anxiety and Doubt

Are you a “chronic doubter” about your faith? Let’s look at how anxiety might be in play.

Anxiety, obviously, is an emotion (or mood, or emotional disposition etc). And it’s for that reason that, if our doubt is anxiety-driven, we might find ourselves stuck in it. There can be a certain murkiness to emotions. We don’t always have a conscious grasp of what our emotions are 'about'. Sometimes they’re ambiguous (you know that you have some affection for the new girl at the club but is it you getting too excited about a close friendship or is it love – the real deal?) And sometimes it’s just that we have never given them much thought. They have moved and enthralled us and we have never been in a place where we have stood back and thought about what’s driving them. Or we haven’t even noticed them. It’s possible, as a result, that our doubt can be driven by anxiety without us being aware of it. So let’s explore the nature of this sort of doubt so we might be in a place to see it in ourselves if it’s present, and to start getting it 'unstuck'.

Anxious doubt 'sounds' a lot like this[1]:

(A) I’m thinking about taking Biblical studies next year. But what if I discover that the gospels are riddled with contradictions? What if I lose my faith?

(B) Mackie’s argument from evil makes a lot of sense to me. What if there are no good responses to it? What if he has refuted Christianity?

(C) I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer many times before but what if I didn’t do it properly? Might I not have really meant it? Maybe I’m not actually a Christian?

You might notice that with these sorts of doubts, the object of concern is not something thought to be actually the case. Rather it’s something thought to be possibly the case.  

In example (A) the doubter does not think there actually are contradictions in the Bible. Rather he/she is scared that there might be. Similarly with (B), the doubt isn’t about actually having found no adequate response to Mackie’s argument, it’s about possibly finding no response. In (C), again, the doubter isn’t mulling over some concretely present objection to the reality of their salvation, he/she is just fretting over mere possibilities. If phrases like, “what if?”, “there might be”, and “maybe there is”, often crop up in our doubts, that’s a strong clue that we’re dealing with anxious doubt.

So that’s a start. But we need to get clearer on how this anxiety business works.

Anxiety Basics

Anxiety is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon but we can nail a basic starting point for our discussion. Anxiety is essentially the fear of dreadful possibilities being actualised. If regular fear is the kind of fear you’d experience confronted with a lion, anxiety is the fear experienced over the possibility that a lion might be nearby. In itself, though, anxiety isn’t bad. In fact sometimes it’s totally appropriate, called for, and warranted by a situation. Like all emotions, anxiety can be appropriate in some circumstances, and inappropriate in others. Take anger as a comparison case.

Your friend has just spilt the contents of his cup over your table. Should you be angry? Is anger called for in this circumstance? Well, that will depend on a few things. If the liquid is a fine wine – it’s a waste of a good drop and bound to stain too – you might have more grounds for anger than if it was only spilt water. But then anger also crucially involves the perception of wilful destruction or neglect by someone else toward something you value. So if your friend innocently slipped and knocked it over, anger would be unwarranted. But if instead your friend knocked it over just to spite you, anger may well be called for. It all depends on what your anger is 'about'. It depends on whether your anger properly represents the 'evaluative situation'. And so it is, generally, with all emotions. Emotions are 'about' states of affairs. They are appropriate in some circumstances and inappropriate in others depending on whether they have properly captured the essence of what’s going on in regards to your values.

So what is anxiety 'about?' When is it called for and when is it inappropriate? In answering this question, we can get closer to figuring out how to understand anxious doubt about faith.

We have already said that anxiety is the fear of dreadful possibilities being actualised. For the Christian this is (for example) the fear of the possibility that we have bought into a lie, or that we’re self-deceived, or that we weren’t radically repentant enough in our initial conversion. The anxiety is, roughly, about those possibilities (hypothetical though they may be). But we need to go deeper to explore whether these fears are appropriate or not.

What Makes Anxiety Appropriate or Not?

Let’s start with a non-religious example. Most of us typically care about our families. Our parents, siblings, or spouse mean a great deal to us. And though we don’t like to, we can imagine possible scenarios where bad things happen to them. It would truly be horrific, for instance, to wake up one morning and find that our loved ones have been attacked by intruders during the night. That, we would say, is definitely a dreadful possibility. But note that most of us are not, when we wake in the morning, anxious to find out whether our family are still alive and well. It generally doesn’t occur to us to consider that they might not be. We just expect our family to be fine. And that’s normal and right.

If, without some special circumstantial reason, you did feel anxious about your family in the morning, that wouldn’t be normal. Indeed, if you spent two hours every night sorting out 20 separate locks on each door or window just to ensure nobody could gain entry uninvited, you would have a problem. That level of vigilance is extreme and uncalled for. Think about that behaviour; if you knew a person who did just that, what would you say to them?

“Dan, are you sure you’re okay? Do you not think 20 locks on your door are too much? One is enough.”
“You might say that, Jess, but even a decent quality lock can give way after a little while. What if an attacker is committed enough to get through it? You need back-ups.”
“Yeah but... Dan, they’d have to have a professional team to break through more than a few.”
“And seeing as those teams exist, how can I leave my family at jeopardy?”
“I don’t think those teams operate around here, Dan. And I doubt they care that much about your house.”
“Regular citizens sometimes are targeted, Jess. It’s a fact. You need to be prepared.”

If you approach that conversation like Jess above, it’s likely that you’ll not get very far. Notice her strategy. She observed that Dan was looking for assurance that he could protect his family, and she tried to offer reasons that would give that to him. "Look, that possibility you are fearing is not a realistic possibility at all", she claimed. But what if the problem is precisely that Dan doesn’t have realistic expectations or desires at all?

Sometimes people talk to their friends and let them know that they are worrying about a particular matter, and often, from the friend’s perspective, their worrying appears clearly needless or overblown, even if understandable. There are typically two kinds of advice friends give in these situations to calm the other person. Here’s the first kind: 

“Look it’s not that big a deal really, so what if it goes wrong?” 
“Even if that did happen, you would still get it done so don’t worry.” 
“There are more important things in life than that, I wouldn’t concern yourself with it.” 

Here is the second kind: 

“There’s no point being anxious about it, there’s nothing you can do.” 
“Stressing won’t help, it’s out of your hands.” 
“Too late to do anything now, no need to torture yourself with worry.” 

Both sets of advice aim to show that the anxiety and worry in the situation is inappropriate. In them we find clues as to what it is for anxiety to be appropriate or not.

The logic that’s implicit in the first set seems to be that anxiety is only appropriate for important matters. That is, you shouldn’t worry about trivial, inconsequential things. Worry about such lesser concerns is a waste of time. Anxiety, then, we might say, is only appropriate if it is in proportion to the importance of the thing worried about. What about the second set? Notice that in the second set, the appropriateness of anxiety seems to be bound up with whether the person has any meaningful control of the situation. If you can’t affect the matter, there is no point worrying. If it’s out of your hands, worrying about the situation is wasteful and unproductive. The clues behind this second set of advice seem to reveal that anxiety is only appropriate if it is in proportion to the degree of control we have over the thing worried about it.

Jesus, in fact, uses both kinds of advice in his sermon-on-the-mount teaching on anxiety;

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6: 25)

He starts off with advice representative of the first set. He claims, essentially, that clothing, food, and drink are not important enough to warrant the sort of anxiety his audience was prone to having about those things. He then moves on to challenge their sense of control over these concerns;

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6: 26-27)

He doubly challenges their sense of control by pointing out how useless their anxiety is (it does not actually help them live any longer) and by teaching that ultimately it is God who is in control of their well-being. You matter to God, Jesus teaches, and he is looking out for you.

So we can combine the findings of both sets of advice to get a general statement about what makes anxiety appropriate or not: anxiety is only appropriate in proportion to the degree of control a person has over, and the degree of importance of, the object of anxiety.

We can now examine why it is exactly that Dan’s need to have so many locks on his house is inappropriate. We can ask whether Dan’s anxiety is proportional to the degree of importance his family’s safety has for him and proportional to the degree of control Dan actually has over his family’s safety. In regard to the first question about importance, we will probably say that, yes, Dan’s family is important enough to him to appropriately experience anxiety over their safety. His family is one of Dan’s central life concerns. This is not a trivial thing Dan is concerned about. It does indeed matter very much whether his family is safe or not. What does make Dan’s anxiety inappropriate is that it is entirely disproportionate to the amount of control he actually has to ensure their safety. What Dan needs is to “let go” of his false sense of control and responsibility.

You might object at this stage that clearly Dan does in reality have the very level of control that he senses he has. After all, Dan does have the ability to put that many locks on his door. He can, if he wants, control his family’s safety to that extent and seems to be doing so. This is a good observation. We can say, though, that the problem with Dan is that his sense of control is out of sync with the level of fruitful control that he truly possesses.

Note that past a certain level of taking control, additional efforts have increasingly little pay-off. When you start, the pay-offs are big, but they gradually dwindle in significance as you increase vigilance. There is a big difference, for instance, between having zero locks on your door and having one. In putting the one lock there, you greatly increase your home’s security. There may also be a similarly big gain in going from one lock to two. But eventually, the level of security you’ll gain for the effort of putting in another extra lock will be negligible. How much difference is there, really, between 19 locks and 20? Almost every intruder who is determined to get through 19 will also get through 20 – there’ll only be one or two perhaps in the whole world for whom just that twentieth lock would be a deterrent. It gets to the point where exercising control to that level isn’t worth it any more.

Additionally, the effort of exercising that level of control will likely have detrimental effects in your life at large. Those two hours that Dan spends locking the house every night are two hours away from his spouse and kids. Such paranoid efforts could put considerable strain on his relationships. Tragically, Dan’s behaviour negatively affects the very people he is doing all this to protect. His anxiety is indeed disproportionate to the level of fruitful control he possesses.

Bringing the Pieces Together

Let’s make an attempt to incorporate our findings so far into a fuller picture of anxiety.[2] When we develop the emotional habit of anxiety we develop an attunement toward potential threats to something cherished. In anxiety-attunement we become sensitive to possible dangers that could befall what is cherished. Let’s use family as an example again. When in our attunement we feel a threat to our family through anxiety, we are motivated to protect our family. We are motivated to secure them against threat. When our anxiety-attunement is appropriate, it is a good thing. An attunement to threat to our family and a motivation to protect them is an essential part of caring for our family.

Our anxiety is inappropriate, on the other hand, when we are attuned to threats that are not worth being attuned to. Threats, for instance, to things that are not important. If we were attuned not to our family’s well-being, but, instead, to whether we have Sky+ TV or not, that would be a wasteful attunement. Attunement to threats that we cannot fruitfully control are also not worth having. It is pointless to be attuned to the threat of intruders breaking through 20 locks when there is very little one can fruitfully do about it.

That seems to be a good round-up of the key insights gained from examining Dan’s case.    

Dan’s case is, admittedly, a high-end anxiety case but it’s easier with such a case, as opposed to a more subtle one, to “see” and pick apart the nature of anxiety. Inappropriate anxious religious doubt, like all anxious doubt, will come in varying degrees of intensity and frequency, from mild to severe. Some people, we should note, have appropriate anxious religious doubt. (Dan might have good grounds to be anxious if he took his holiday on family to a lodge and found out upon arrival that there were no locks on the doors. Likewise, if a Christian has been given little or no reasonable, basic grounds for assurance that they are saved, or that Christianity is true, anxiety about those matters will likely be appropriate. And people in that situation should be encouraged to get that basic assurance.) But I’m concerned in this post, as it turns out, with inappropriate anxious religious doubt which tends to be recurring. What can we say about that?

Let’s apply our analysis of anxiety to the case of religious doubt. Let’s say you are doubting the status of your salvation. You are thinking, “what if I didn’t say the prayer right at my conversion? What if I did but I didn’t fully mean it?” Your pastor assures you that there is no correct way to say the prayer (the Bible doesn’t even include a “sinner’s prayer”, he says). Regarding your sincerity, he assures you that you are one of the most devoted Christians of your age he knows. This is pretty good assurance. But you aren’t satisfied. You say “yeah but what if my outward devotion is just a mask concealing more confused motives? What if my pastor doesn’t know me very well? There may not be a sinner’s prayer in the Bible but God surely doesn’t accept just any old string of words as repentance – what if I didn’t pray properly?” At outside observer would probably wonder what actually would satisfy you.

But note, this is probably the sort of attitude you took to Dan in his conversation with Jess above. The extent of Dan’s desire to secure his family seemed unreasonable and insatiable. And that’s exactly what we concluded of him. His anxiety was not operating at a healthy level. His standard for assurance was not reasonably set. As such, reasonable grounds for assurance did not satisfy him. Jess was giving him good reasons not to worry, but he didn’t find them calming. Dan would only be satisfied by unreasonable grounds for assurance. He would be assured only if the possibility that intruders would break into his home was reduced to 0. What makes this level so unreasonable is that it is impossible to reduce risk to 0 or to approach 0 fruitfully. It is not worth being attuned to risk to this degree, as we noted. The same applies to religious doubt.

It is a possibility that you’re deceived about Christianity’s truth, or that you aren’t really saved (or whatever). You cannot reduce the risk of that being the case to 0. It is always possible to imagine some scenario where your greatest fear might be true after all. It is always possible that there’s some knock-down argument against Christianity you haven’t encountered yet. It is always possible that you’re self-deceived – that your motives aren’t pure and you didn’t truly repent. But these are mere possibilities. They are hardly probable. Seeking out near-infallible assurance – trying to cover every possibility – is a fool’s errand. That sort of certainty just isn’t available to finite creatures like us. Although our faith is important, such that it is worth having some level of anxiety-attunement about it, it is not worth being anxiety-attuned to every slightest, improbable, possible risk to our faith. We do not have fruitful control over those risks. If confidence in our faith depends on eradicating all those risks, confidence we will never have.

Gaining Proper Confidence

How is confidence attained, then, if it isn’t by seeking to assuage our anxious craving for absolute certainty? I humbly offer – as someone still making his way through anxious doubt – one very basic pointer. And it is indeed very basic. It is more like the end goal with virtually no comment as to how to arrive. People with highly habitual, intense anxious doubt in particular will find that much more by way of practical daily management needs to be said. You will have to find that sort of help elsewhere. Indeed, if your anxiety is quite life-hindering, it is worth your time doing further reading about it or seeing a counsellor. Sometimes the way our own particular anxiety functions includes very knotty, tangled, viciously circular thoughts that we will be very unlikely to set in order on our own.

Anyway, the basic end goal is this: letting go of ultimate control of our faith to God and trusting him with it.

We need to let go of our anxiety-attunements that are not worth having. We need to become de-attuned, de-sensitised to minute risks. This means, in effect, not reinforcing those attunements by seeking that infallible assurance when anxiety hits. The desire for that assurance is inappropriate and needs to be resisted. One must learn to cope not having absolute control of one’s faith. One must get used to living with that risk - used to giving over control to God. The more this is practised, the more those worthless attunements will phase out.  

This takes courage. In anxiety you feel a threat bear down on you. You are motivated to take action – to secure what you value. De-sensitising yourself in this way requires facing that threat square on and not trying to reduce it, resisting those motivations. You recognise, say, that the only reason you are searching apologetics sites late at night is out of fear of possibilities and you tell yourself to stop. You praise God, or go for a run, or go to sleep instead.   

As I’ve already quite clearly indicated, this will be much harder for some than others. For some, inappropriate anxious doubt is not a highly developed attunement as such but something more like an occasional episode. The result of an isolated mood, or “spill-over” from negative feelings toward some other circumstance. For others, this attunement will be well entrenched and difficult to lodge. My prayer is that as you grow in self-awareness to identify when your doubt is anxious in nature, you will find there an opportunity to grow in courage and trust in Christ.  

This article was adapted from that originally posted at

[1] My first exposure to the nature of “emotional doubt” was through Gary Habermas pointing out the “what if” nature of this doubt. His two books on doubt are both free to read at his website:

[2] This picture of anxiety, and the implicit picture of emotions generally that I’m working with, owes much to Helm, B. W. (2001). Emotional reason: Deliberation, motivation, and the nature of value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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