Maybe you’re like me. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a Christian without anxiety, so I can’t even imagine what it’s like on the other side, but I get the sense that some people need reminding of their sin, in the church. It’s why we do corporate (or personal, depending on your brand) confession, it’s why there are certain kinds of sermons. People, in general, need to remember they need Jesus. You and I, we don’t have that problem. We see almost every sin, real and imagined, played out in technicolor every one of our days. We sit in despair and under condemnation. No, we don’t need to be reminded of our sin. We need to remember something else.
I had a friend who went up at multiple altar calls to “pray the prayer”. (I’m going to use the singular “they” here for extra anonymity.) In between altar calls they spent years desperately afraid that they were going to hell. When I heard their story years later my heart both broke for the terrified child they were and seethed in anger against a church system that did nothing to help them. They’re no longer attending church, unsurprisingly after years of emotional turmoil like that.
My church has this saying, the sin behind the sin. Maybe it’s a Presbyterian thing, I don’t know. I think it might be helpful for people who are always rationalizing that they’re okay, better than so-and-so, and can’t feel their need for Jesus because of it. Jesus himself invented the sin behind the sin, when he talked about the lust of the heart being the same as actual adultery. My problem is that my entire life, I’ve lived as though I had actually committed every single sin behind the sin. I writhed in internal agony, with every word uttered in anger toward my children, because of the abusive parent I clearly was (I once even sobbed through a worship service I was singing in because I couldn’t forget how horrible I’d been to my oldest a few days earlier). Every flaw was evidence of the deep depravity, and the weight of the sin behind the sin was drowning me.
Those of us who are anxious Christians, who have overly sensitive consciences, we don’t need to think about the sin behind the sin. We don’t need help sitting with our sin, we do that all day every day, don’t we? And there’s something that feels good about wallowing in mental self-immolation, isn’t there? It’s all we’ve ever known, so it’s comforting, in a way. That neural pathway is well worn. We see a flaw or a failure, or an outright sin against another person, and away we go. And it feels somehow spiritual, maybe because of the influence of the church cultures we’re in.
But there is now no condemnation. Hear that? Your sensitive conscience may be the result of a different kind of wiring which you can’t necessarily change, but it does not have the final word in your life. He does. And hear me, any conviction that the Spirit brings is not to send you into the depths of despair. It’s not to show you how horrible you are. It’s to bring you to freedom! It’s to make you better! It’s because you’re his kid and it’s because it is possible to change, regardless of what your sensitivity to sin may tell you. Bit by bit, over your lifetime, my dear anxious Christian, you are being made into an image of Christ by the work of the Spirit. Sometimes your conscience will help you in this work of the Spirit and sometimes it will hinder you. I think for the other half, maybe their conscience hinders them by being too hard, so they miss that abundant life. Like I said, I don’t really know and can’t even imagine. For us, though, our conscience hinders us by being too soft, and keeping us in a cycle of despair so we miss that abundant life, too. So look up!
For me this means, when I find myself beating myself up again, I will shut that unprofitable garbage down. Last night I found myself chanting “Stupid stupid stupid” in my head at work for such a silly mistake, putting an olive scoop somewhere and getting oil on that surface. I mean, really, the neural pathways are wellllll worn in this brain. When I heard myself saying it, I stopped. I didn’t even spend any time working out why it was okay or not okay, because trust me, that is just a recipe for more rumination which is a sure-fire way to spend a lot more time in anxiety. There is a time for you to strategically address the areas in your life where you need growth, but it’s not when you’re in your head going over and over it. Set it aside, and pick it up later, preferably when you can talk about it with somebody who understands you and your anxiety, and can be matter of fact about it and not add more weight.
Look, in the end, you’re going to have to talk to yourself while you’re at church. You need to understand how you work, and you need to be able to know what’s going to trigger you, so you will be prepared to talk yourself through it. Church is hard for lots of people for lots of reasons, and it can be extra hard for those of us who are extra sensitive. But you don’t have to leave, and you don’t have to let your brain make the messages into something they’re not.
The bottom line is, we all need Jesus, and he brought us back into his family. And he is doing his good work in us, sensitive or callous conscience and all. Don’t be afraid.