In a world overcome by fear and riven with conflict, Mark Sayers says pressing into God is the only way to find peace - and influence the culture around us
If there is one word that captures the emotional mood of our day, it is anxiety. This atmosphere is thickened by the news, which presents us with a constant stream of worrying trends, unprecedented events and cascading crises. We absorb this terrifying torrent of information through our digital devices; nodes connected to the internet in a kind of global electronic nervous system. A feedback loop which thrives on anger, conflict and outrage.
And this online culture leaks out into the real world. To live in such a time is to tiptoe through a minefield, perpetually worried about setting off explosions of anxious, irate pushback.
In such an atmosphere – where everyone seems to be on edge and ready to lash out – how do we fulfil our biblical mandate to be salt and light, ambassadors of the kingdom, bearers of good news? First, we need to fully understand the dysfunction at work and its causes.
OUR DIGITAL NETWORK ACTS LIKE A SUPER-SPREADING AGENT OF ANXIETY
Any system – be it a nation, family or workplace – that is swamped by chronic anxiety will be marked by reactivity. Those within the system no longer act rationally; instead, high emotion becomes the dominant form of interaction.
The focus is directed towards the most emotionally immature and reactive members. Those who are more mature and healthy begin to adapt their behaviour to appease them.
This creates a scenario where the most emotionally unhealthy and immature members of the system become de facto leaders, shaping the emotional landscape, with the focus on their negative behaviour and what they perceive as the negative behaviour of others.
Conflict and retreat become the dominant modes of engagement. It becomes nearly impossible to gain any distance from an issue; reaction, hurt and high emotions replace contemplation and thoughtfulness. Reflection is replaced by reactivity. Nuance is substituted for name-calling.
We see this mood everywhere today – social media interactions, political discourse, even within churches. It seems that tools for gaining space and relief from an issue – humour, irony and satire – have been lost. To the emotionally immature, everything becomes at best a slight, at worst a direct assault.
Within this environment, it becomes nearly impossible for the healthier members of a system to see the bigger picture and tackle systemic issues, because the focus is always brought back to the latest crisis and the feverish emotional responses that are swamping the network. Life-saving surgery can never occur because all the focus is on immediate pain management.
The system cycles rapidly through continual crises. A marker of the emotionally unhealthy is a lack of personal boundaries and a disrespect of individual, institutional and socially accepted norms. This enables chronic dysfunction and emotional toxicity to spread virally throughout the system.
The online world has created an even larger platform for this behaviour to spread far and wide. Our digital network acts like a super-spreading agent of anxiety within relational and social networks.
A non-anxious presence
In light of similar challenges, the late rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman proposed a novel and radical solution. Traditionally, our understanding has been that we leverage influence and inspire others through unique attributes. We imagine that someone is influential because of their charisma, drive, intelligence, training or achievements.
Instead, Friedman argued that the most vital attribute, especially in anxious human environments and systems, was a non-anxious presence. Thus, if we want to influence the places in which we live, work and worship, our chief tool is our presence.
Think of it this way: you are in a room with a large group, listening to a lecture. Halfway through the presentation, smoke begins to fill the space. Someone screams: “Fire!” and panic begins to grip the crowd. The exit seems to be blocked. All eyes turn to the officials at the front, yet they too are so overcome with panic they’re crying, screaming and shaking.
But then, a woman emerges from the crowd and walks up to the podium. In a calm and firm voice, she tells everyone that there is another exit at the back of the room, assures everyone that everything will be OK and asks people to leave via the rear door in an orderly manner. In this scenario, who is the leader? Before the smoke appeared, most people would have seen the officials on the podium as the most influential people in the room.
However, once the crisis arose and anxiety swept through the group, the calm and non-anxious woman became the most influential. The lesson? In an anxious, crisis-driven environment, influence and leverage comes from a non-anxious presence.
According to Friedman, within an emotionally unhealthy social system, someone displaying a non-anxious presence plays a similar role to that of white blood cells in the human body, fighting infection and bringing health.
Just as anxiety can multiply throughout a system, Friedman argued that non-anxiousness can reset it. To do this, however, a person must understand a fundamental principle, one Friedman called “the keys to the kingdom”.
Friedman discovered that to remain present within an unhealthy environment often means enduring sabotage and backlash. As the leader faces this, the great danger is that anxiety will rise within them, enveloping them and making them part of the problem rather than the solution.
The leader would then have what Friedman called a “failure of nerve”. Those who wish to be a non-anxious presence must push through the betrayal, criticism and emotional pain to keep growing towards the higher vision in a non-anxious way.
Reading Friedman, I resonate with much of his analysis and solution. However, it has always perturbed me that it can appear as though a kind of superhuman resilience is required to counter the emotional pushback that leaders face.
Friedman is proposing that we must influence from a non-anxious posture, yet adopting and maintaining that posture requires tremendous stamina, pain tolerance and emotional discipline. How does one find such resilience? What power source do we plug into to adopt the non-anxious presence?
IN A CRISIS-DRIVEN ENVIRONMENT, INFLUENCE AND LEVERAGE COMES FROM A NON-ANXIOUS PRESENCE
The good shepherd
As we turn to scripture we find an example and an answer in the life of King David. David faced betrayal, emotional sabotage and a rebellion by his loved ones. He led in an anxious environment undergoing tremendous cultural change.
He faced a revolt from those closest to him. Yet David is recognised in scripture as one of the most outstanding leaders the world has ever seen. David wasn’t king because he possessed deep natural reserves of grit and resolve. David was a non-anxious presence because he had the presence of God.
When we first encounter David, he appears to be an afterthought. Seeking to anoint a new king, Samuel approaches Jesse. Jesse’s son Eliab seems to be perfect leadership material. Yet God reminds the prophet to look not at the outward attributes but rather at the heart (1 Samuel 16).
As Samuel assesses Jesse’s sons, now viewing them with a spiritual rather than earthly lens, none is found to be suitable. Finally, Jesse recalls that he has another son, who is out tending the sheep. This seemingly innocuous statement is, in reality, deeply profound.
David was a shepherd. In the shepherd, we find a biblical model of leadership, of a non-anxious presence, which is not dependent on reserves of personal power but on the presence of God – encountered in the isolation of the wilderness. David the shepherd – the man after God’s heart – was formed in this remote environment.
His duties demonstrated his place in his family and provide an insight into how he must have felt about his position in the world. He was overlooked and forgotten. David endured not just physical isolation, but emotional and relational isolation, too. When Samuel arrived to anoint one of Jesse’s sons for kingship, Jesse didn’t believe that there was any potential for greatness in his youngest son. He was the runt of the family; nothing more than an afterthought.
WE CAN ONLY BE A NON-ANXIOUS PRESENCE WHEN FILLED WITH GOD’S PEACEFUL PRESENCE
Yet there was something special about David that earthly eyes could not see. Before the moment of his anointing, which was played out in front of his family who thought so little of him, David encountered God. The where, when and how remains sealed in the precious hidden moments between God and David; what matters is the evidence we see, of a life that had encountered the presence of God in the wilderness. His isolation, which distanced him from others and was undoubtedly painful, also brought him closer to God.
Without God’s presence, the wilderness offers only isolation. With his presence however, it can offer us insulation from the deception of the crowd. Separate from the noise and alone in the wilderness, David found – and was formed by – the voice of God.
David’s psalms are filled with the imagery of that wilderness and the closeness to God that he found there. In particular, Psalm 23 reflects the life of a shepherd, isolated from human connection and community, vulnerable, yet walking closely with God, dependent on him for everything.
When David declares that the Lord is his shepherd, he is expressing his utter dependency on God. David declares that God, the shepherd, “makes [him] lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2). It is important to note that sheep are anxious creatures and a flock of sheep are an anxious system. Anxiety over a predator can send them into a panic.
When there is an imbalance in their social hierarchy, as battles occur over who is the top sheep, anxiety also ripples through a flock. Yet the presence of the shepherd calms this, enabling the sheep to lie down in green pastures.
This illuminates a vital truth: the only presence that can calm our anxiety is “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and flows from giving our whole life to Christ, as we depend on him for everything.
We can only be a non-anxious presence when filled with God’s peaceful presence. Those who persist in this truth, who live and press into the presence of God, will find themselves being transformed into healing agents in our streets, workplaces, families and churches.