Shortly after turning in my final manuscript for The Wisdom of Your Heart, I received an email. My stomach dropped as I read the words. My chest tightened.
The email was from my publisher. In the last round of editing, some theological questions had been raised, and the publisher decided to send my book through something they called a “theological review.”
I didn’t know that this is not uncommon. I didn’t know this is part of a Christian publisher doing their due diligence. I didn’t know that this would be an opportunity to improve my manuscript. None of those things occurred to me.
Why? Because when I read those words, I immediately felt fear. Fear of being told I don’t belong. Fear that some gatekeeper would judge the message of my book and (by extension) me as unwanted.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar, maybe not with a publisher, but perhaps with your boss or spouse or someone at church. That anxiety rising in your gut carries an important message if you’re willing to listen.
What lies beneath?
The details of your story are undoubtedly different from mine, but I’ll bet you’ve felt that same chill. When we have this kind of emotional response, we often react. We want the anxiety to go away. So we lash out, or we try to take control, or we shift into denial. Anything to diminish the discomfort we’re feeling.
I’ve slowly learned that when these feelings come upon me, there is usually something deeper going on. Don’t react. Don’t run. Don’t look away. In this uncomfortable space, we have the opportunity to mature, to grow in Christ.
Our precious paths to value and security
Why did I react so strongly? The email didn’t say anything about deciding my book wasn’t worthy. Why did I rush to the fear of being excluded?
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have known. I would just have been angry and reactive. But I’ve faced this particular demon enough now that I know its name. Because of my particular story, I have a well-worn path to find belonging and security. That path? Accomplishment. I came to believe that if I could perform well enough, I would be needed and included. When someone challenged my performance or told me that I wasn’t “good enough,” anxiety rose. Why? Because this was not just about doing a good job; it was about belonging. Belonging is so vital. Any threat to belonging would trigger an immediate emotional response.
Each of us has something similar. For a variety of reasons—family of origin, trauma, life experiences, temperament—a certain path seems to work for us and over the years becomes well-worn. In times of uncertainty or fear, we can quickly return to this path. Maybe your path to a sense of security is authority. Maybe it’s being seen as a perfect parent. Maybe it’s been seen as right and strong. It can be anything.
The path becomes an idol.
Over time our chosen path becomes crucial for us, the primary way we establish our sense of value and security. We depend on it. It comes to function in our hearts as an idol.
This is the picturesque language scripture uses to identify the central commitments we hold in our hearts. We think of idols as the statues primitive people worship. Since we don’t worship statues, we easily disregard all the warnings in scripture about them. But think about what an idol is. An idol represents some power we believe will provide security, belonging, and provision. We devote time, attention, and resources to these things. We sacrifice to get what we think we need.
The idol gets in the way of worshipping God. How? It becomes a replacement, something we reach out to in order to get what we need—even though it’s really incapable of providing what we ultimately desire. When we feel discomfort, or find our sense of belonging threatened, we double down on the thing we think we need. More power, more rightness, better performance.
When he was trapped inside his legendary fish, Jonah prayed a long prayer. In his prayer, he pointed out the problem with idols. He said (Jonah 2:8), “Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love.” I think he was telling us that turning toward idols causes us to turn away from God’s love for us.
This is exactly what I was doing. The email from my publisher triggered anxiety and fear that I would be excluded. The intensity of my emotion meant that in some way I was looking to them, looking to being a published author, as a way of securing my sense of security and belonging. The anxiety rising in my heart indicated I had leaned back into my old, well-worn path to belonging. I wasn’t leaning into God’s love for me as the source of my belonging. I had substituted the love and affirmation of my publisher. But, of course, that’s not their job. Their job is to help make books. Their job isn’t to offer me validation, or security, or belonging.
This is the problem with these deeply traveled paths of security and value that we walk. We take the affirmation of the One who made us, who knows us best, and who has called us, and we trade it away for the hope of affirmation from someone else. It’s not something they can give; it’s not their job.
Notice what you feel, and Lean Back.
My anxiety didn’t just evaporate with this awareness, but instead of being defensive, I was able to listen to the counsel of the people reviewing my manuscript. I was able to learn and maybe even grow. I think the process even improved the book. But most importantly, I was reminded of where my belonging truly lies. I was able to lean back into the love God has for me once again.
Do you know what your well-worn path to security and belonging is? If you do, then you know one of the main obstacles in your heart to living in a trusting relationship with God. Are you able to notice when emotional stress or fear push you back onto that path? If so, you have access to an opportunity for growth. When the fear rises, you are facing an opportunity to lean back into the love and belonging God has for you.