Social Anxiety in the Gospel
Biblia Luna # 29
Welcome to Issue #29 of Biblia Luna, the weekly newsletter about the intersection of mental illness and faith.
Crazy Lectionary — Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023 is the Second Sunday in Lent. The lectionary readings for this day are Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; and John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9.
In the reading from John, we encounter Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night to visit him and speak with him. He seems honestly interested in learning from Jesus. But why does he come at night? We learn later, in chapter 7, that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin. After the crucifixion, Nicodemus is linked with Joseph of Arimathea, as they both care for the body of Jesus and place it in the tomb. Joseph is said to be a “disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Judeans” (John 19:38). Perhaps Nicodemus was also afraid, afraid of what the council would do to him if they learned he was a follower of Jesus. (The rest of the council did after all mock him in chapter 7 when he recommended a fair trial for Jesus.) The fear that Joseph had, and Nicodemus perhaps shared, was likely a justified fear. Their career, their reputation, perhaps their lives would be on the line if the council found out.
But if you’ll permit me a bit of creative license, it is also possible to read Nicodemus (if you squint a little) as someone suffering from social anxiety disorder. The symptoms of this form of anxiety include fear that other people will judge you; fear of being with other people, especially people you don’t know; self-consciousness in front of others; staying away from places with many people; and some physiological effects of this (sweating, high pulse rate, nausea, etc.).
I have a mild case of social anxiety disorder. I feel very uncomfortable in large crowds – it feels like a hand squeezing my head, and I can’t focus or concentrate. I also have a constant worry that I have done something wrong at a social gathering, even when it’s completely composed of my friends. On the drive home, my wife has to reassure me every time that I did nothing wrong. Nonetheless, I always have a free-floating sense of guilt that I try to find a reason for.
Anyway, so did Nicodemus have social anxiety disorder? Probably not. But let’s play “what if.” What if Nicodemus was someone who was irrationally scared of the judgment of his colleagues? What if Nicodemus didn’t want to see Jesus in the daylight for fear of the crowds? It’s not too much of a stretch. So he came to Jesus in the safest way he could think of, under cover of darkness. Jesus begins to talk to him, saying, “You must be born again from above.” Nicodemus, who clearly should be aware of the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words, responds, “How can someone enter the mother’s womb and be born again?” He reduces it to the literal, almost as if he is so nervous he can’t think straight. Jesus even chides him, saying, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and yet you don’t get this?” Maybe he would in more comfortable circumstances.
So what message is there for those with social anxiety? Perhaps the message is right here in Jesus’ words. Jesus says that in order to enter the kingdom of God, you must be “born again from above.” It’s hard to know exactly what that means, but one thing that’s clear is that it is completely God’s action, and not ours. With apologies to those Christians who emphasize that being “born again” is a decision that people make, the truth is that birth is something we have absolutely no control over. We do not “bear ourselves,” we are born. Which of us decided to be conceived, and to be born? None of us. It was all a gift from our parents and from God. So “born again,” whatever else it might mean, can’t be about a conscious choice, because otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have used the word “born.”
Jesus also says, “The wind blows where it will, and while you can hear it, you don’t know where it comes from or goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” You can’t predict the Spirit, you can’t impress the Spirit, you can’t satisfy the Spirit – the Spirit just goes where the Spirit goes. You don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to be in the right place. You don’t need to get over your reluctance. God loves you, and will choose you for the right path at the right time. Perhaps this is some comfort for those with social anxiety, who often believe that their disorder prevents them from being with people, and causes them to miss things that seem important. Jesus tells them here, “You won’t miss me. There’s nothing you can do to miss me, because I’m coming to you, when and where I choose. So try not to worry. Whether you’re pushing yourself into uncomfortable situations, or recharging at home by yourself, I know where you are. I will find you. And I will lead you.”
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Blogging in Lent
I’m spending some time on my blog this Lent talking about the question of what I “deserve.” Turns out that I have something of a problem figuring out what that means in my life, and I’m journaling daily and blogging on and off about it this season. Check it out if you’re interested.
I will be having an Author Visit at the Bangor Public Library on Saturday, March 4 at 11:00 am. If you’re local to Bangor, stop by! You can download a flyer here.
"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they're never weakness." — Brené Brown