Friday, February 10, 2023

An Interview with Michael Gembola, Author of Anxious About Decisions

 

An Interview with Michael Gembola,
Author of Anxious About Decisions

Do you get anxious when you have to make a decision? Do you tend to overthink, overtalk, and overanalyze? When anxiety surrounds every decision, the result can be decision-making paralysis. In Anxious about Decisions: Finding Freedom in the Peace of God, counselor Michael Gembola explores this common struggle and then points to the peace that comes from knowing God as a refuge and ever-present help in trouble.

Q: What makes your book different than other resources available on making decisions?

Most resources on decision anxiety focus on teaching about God’s will and making wise decisions, and few of them give attention to the kind of obsessive-compulsive or OCD-like anxiety that some people struggle with about both big and small life decisions. This book is for those more extreme anxieties that some people frequently have, and that many others face too, though less often.

This book also sympathetically engages some of the pressures of modern life that some other resources blame the individual for, which in my view adds insult to injury. Every age has its own challenges, but there is a significant burden that young adults (and older adults) carry, a burden of self-creating and constructing a life in a culture with such poor communal ties and ambiguous coming-of-age rituals.

Q: Is all anxiety bad anxiety? When can anxiety be good and even helpful? When does anxiety cross the line and become negative?

Anxiety was meant to be a gift! God was kind to give us an alarm system for our bodies, so that we recognize danger and activate to get to safety. We even hear in Proverbs that the prudent see evil coming and hide themselves. Recognizing and avoiding danger is a mark of wisdom.

Most of us don’t think about anxiety as a gift because often it feels like a curse. In a fallen world, there are infinite possible dangers. So, if we give into the pull of anxiety to avoid dangers so much that we tolerate little or no risk, our lives start to get restricted and small. And we get stuck ruminating, panicking, and are no more safe than we were before we zeroed in on all the potential dangers.

Q: As Christians, we worry about if we are missing out on our calling. If we are truly trying to follow God’s will and are prayerful about our next move, are we really going to miss out on what God wants for our lives?

I don’t believe in the idea I sometimes heard growing up—that there is a Plan A and Plan B for our lives, and if we aren’t really careful, we might prevent God from doing the great things through us that he otherwise could have done. We really can trust God, that he will lead us, and he will be with us through hard times. We can trust that he will make sure, as the hymn says, to bring us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and lead us safely home. A friend of mine said that following God’s will is like the way an old GPS would work: You make a wrong turn, and then hear it say, “Recalculating.” God isn’t bound by our bad choices and will ultimately work it all out for good. Even the very worst outcome—our deaths—are not stronger than Jesus, and he transforms death itself into a gateway to heaven.

That said, I believe it’s more helpful for anxious believers to come to terms with the sobering reality that we really can make decisions that lead to regret and bad outcomes. That’s not pleasant at all, but it ultimately starts to reorient us away from anxiety. Starting from the awareness that we have no guarantees of worldly success puts us in a place of dependence and trust, and to some degree we view our decisions as less loaded, because we know that we can only do so much to avoid bad outcomes. Another way to say this is that we don’t buy into health, wealth, and prosperity messages, as though following Jesus leads to an excellent career and a fulfilling marriage. There is a general principle at play that we reap what we sow, but in a fallen world that’s not always the case.

Q: Some Christians speak about feeling a clear sense of God’s leading and nudges toward certain choices while others never feel a nudge at all. How can a well-meaning friend encouraging someone to wait until they get an impression or leading from God make decision paralysis worse?

I want to recognize that genuine believers differ on some of these things. But I will say that for the purposes of fighting decision anxiety, sticking with the clear messages of the Bible is a good place to start, rather than giving obsessive attention to our internal state to discern whether God is moving us toward one of several good options. This is relatively easy to recognize: maybe you’ve seen a college student stuck in trying to decide between two summer jobs. Without a clear sense of leading from God, the person can get caught evaluating minute shifts in emotion to see whether God is leading or bringing a peace about one path over the other, or the person is spending inordinate time on extensive pro-con lists. I’m arguing that this rumination isn’t ultimately more sensitive to God because it tends to drive us inward rather than upward and outward.

That’s not to say it’s wrong to give attention to emotion. Sometimes in a dating relationship, a person will say, “I just don’t have a peace about going forward.” And we might say that in some sense that lack of peace is from God. Often, with the benefit of hindsight, the person can discover the reasons why the peace was not there. For example, perhaps it’s a mismatch of goals in life, a conflict pattern that consistently leads to distance rather than repair, or unresolved differences in how to view money. Sometimes our emotions flag a problem before our minds can catch up. We often call this intuition, and it’s really a mercy from God that spares many of us a great deal of suffering.

But ultimately, I believe the Lord gives us a stewardship over our decisions. That means that all we have belongs to the Lord, but he does ask us to faithfully manage it. That means we make decisions. Believe me there are many times when I’ve wished that God would step in and make the decision for me. But I just don’t believe that’s how he usually works. He typically gives us what we need to make decisions rather than doing it for us, and decision-making is a skill we learn rather than something we will get 100% perfect.

Q: Is there ever a way to know with certainty that we have made the right decision?

Not on most things, unfortunately. In the book I’m advocating for finding a sense of freedom in knowing God’s peace, even where we don’t know his secret will. Looking to find God’s secret will usually means that we are pushing to get a level of certainty that God doesn’t promise to give us. Instead, being oriented to his peace means that we despair of certainty and seek to depend and rest on him, asking him to be with us through the consequences of imperfect decisions.

We can also be hopeful that there’s real help for us in our decisions. If decision-making is a skill, and if it is part of our discipleship, and if it is part of our growth in Christian maturity, then over time we really will make better decisions. By analogy, if a man who is a carpenter keeps at his craft over many years, he typically will make better chairs. That doesn’t guarantee that he will always catch every flaw in the wood or in his performance, so he might make a chair that fails. But he usually won’t, and he will usually feel a high degree of confidence in his work over time—something even approximating certainty. Certainty is a feeling we won’t always have, but over time we do get closer to it on many important decisions.

Q: Are there any dos and don’ts when it comes to praying about a decision we are facing?

I like to encourage people to live as God’s children, to listen to him and know his heart, and also to freely tell him what it is we want. Many times people who struggle with decision anxiety actually do not know what they want, so the work of trying to talk to God about ourselves and our wants can lead us to clarity that we didn’t have before. It’s a good question to ask yourself, for example, “What do I want to see God do with my career?” This may take us to specific requests, for example, “I’d like to get a promotion and a better salary so that I can pay off more of our college debt.” Often the effort of praying will help to re-orient what we pray for: “Lord would you give me an attitude of loving and caring for the people I am working with, and not just treating them as a means to an end of my projects.” These are usually the more important decisions—not so much the decision of what career step to take, but the decision of how to live out our Christian faith today.

Our prayers also change when we come to believe that God usually will not make the decision for us. We’re not prohibited from asking God what to do, and most of us probably still will ask God to make the right path clear. But we may ask for God to give us a mind of discernment, a peacefulness rather than busyness in our hearts, and humility to invite wise voices to speak in.

Q: What does having God’s peace about a decision feel like? Can you explain more about the shalom that we should all be longing for?

Peace is a rich concept in the Bible. The most important peace is the reconciliation that God makes with people who are far from him. We are “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). The wars or fighting within us as we wrestle with difficult decisions can be relativized by the deep security we have in knowing we are at peace with God. This feels like a heart at rest, with the absence of hostility. It’s the relief of knowing that the most important conflict is spiritually resolved.

But there’s also more to how the Bible talks about peace that is important to consider with reference to decision anxiety. The shalom, or peace that God was working in his people was meant to provide welfare, prosperity, and a rightly ordered society among the people of God. You get a picture of God’s law and justice creating a community where things work the way they are supposed to, in harmony. Being oriented toward this biblical vision means that we want to see God’s kind rule over us so that we at peace and rightly ordered on the inside. Then we bring that internal peace to our decisions and work for peace externally.  We then do all we can to see God’s peace and a right ordering of the world outside of us. We are working to see God’s kingdom coming and his will being done, just as it is in heaven, so we want it to be on earth. This feels like clarity and direction, and makes a big difference in the orienting values we bring to decision-making. Knowing our purpose and call makes many decisions a lot easier.

Q: You wrote Anxious about Decisions with young adults in mind. What cultural challenges does the latest generation entering adulthood have that are different than their parents’ generation, and how can those challenges intensify anxiety?

By the available metrics, younger adults today are more anxious than their parents and grandparents were. I heard someone say recently that he didn’t buy into intergenerational warfare or sniping—and I agree—this isn’t to throw any generation under the bus. But it is worth paying attention to some of the dynamics that stoke this anxiety.

Several major writers across different fields make some version of the case that people don’t have the traditional sources of identity and purpose provided to them, so they are left with the burden of creating it for themselves. If my community, family, church, or culture does not tell me what it means to grow up and take our places as a contributing member of society, what do I do? How do I discover what I am supposed to do with my life? The popular answer is to look within, which brings us significant instability. What can I discover within myself that will be clear enough to tell me where I am supposed to live, who I am supposed to marry, and what career I am supposed to choose?

In many places and times, throughout much of history, most people had relatively few options for career and marriage. For many it was expected that they would stay in their community. Most of us would not prefer to go back to every aspect of life under those limitations, but it did provide clarity. And very little of that clarity has existed for younger adults in recent decades.

There’s, of course, much more going on that could be considered. Some argue that the post-9/11 world has introduced some new anxieties or that living perpetually online has introduced other anxieties. Both prosperity and poverty also can lead to decision anxiety. Being told you have endless options and potential can be paralyzing for the privileged. Feeling the pressure to break generational poverty also fosters a level of anxiety onto life decisions.

Q: We often look to our family to help us think through decisions, but how can family complicate our decision-making?

Many times family members do have helpful perspective on a particular decision, but I’m looking at how we learn about the way the world works from our families. We learn what to value and what to be afraid of, so we’re invited to try to navigate the world and make decisions in light of those values and fears. So, for example, to learn from your family to highly value success in your college studies or career means you’ll also likely fear failure there. It’s natural to struggle with the decision of what major to pick at college. You’ve learned that it is highly consequential, so it’s easy to get paralyzed there.

Another more foundational struggle often emerges in the context of family life that affects decisions. We don’t have to nail down the cause with certainty, but some people appear to be very confident about their decisions early on, and others just wish someone wiser would step in and make the decision for them. Some of these patterns can emerge in response to domineering or absent role models in the home. With one we never get to practice making meaningful decisions, and with the other we’re invited to believe that our decisions are all up to us, and that no one else really cares or will help.

Q: Why doesn’t general teaching on the will of God and decision-making protocols work for people who struggle with serious decision anxiety?

Writers like Garry Friessen critique what’s sometimes called a majority or traditional evangelical view of the will of God as something discoverable in the details through spiritual disciplines, surrender, prayerful waiting, or signs from God. Often this is connected with a high anxiety about missing God’s will, not finding “God’s best for my life,” or being stuck with God’s “Plan B” in life. In this way of discerning God’s will, the implication seems to be that God’s will is partially hidden, and so we must search out the way forward from the hints he gives us.

I do believe that God’s Spirit guides us, but it’s important to appeal to his character to say that he is good, and he is not hiding from us what he wants us to know. He makes clear what he wants us to know, and he invites us to trust him in our imperfect knowledge of the future, living with the wisdom we have from the Bible and the community of faith. 

Most of us understand that God is not likely to give an answer to us as to what to order off the menu (he’s entrusted real decisions to us), but that sometimes feels different when we’re talking about relationships or careers (again, he’s entrusted real decisions to us). But the will of God works the same in each. Apart from moral choices, we usually don’t know precisely what to do, and rather than God stepping in to make decisions for us, he invites us to grow in wisdom and trust as faithful decision-makers.

Decision-making protocols are great, and will be useful at some point for someone caught up in anxiety. Yet they aren’t a solution for most anxieties. Anxiety presses us to find certainty, which no protocol can provide. A weighted pro/con list or other method will give good data for the decision, but because it does not eliminate risk, anxiety can still thrive. My goal is to help people learn to live with some risk, finding refuge in God and bearing this burden together with others. 

Q: Decisions surrounding marriage are important because it’s a life-long commitment, and it’s natural to have some anxiety. Can’t anxiety during the dating phase of a relationship be a good indicator that something may not be good or right? What are some circumstances when it is good to listen to your anxiety?

Anxiety flags risks and dangers and having this alarm-bell system is a kind gift from God for us in navigating this fallen world. Taking note of risk factors and red flags in a relationship is very wise! Usually over time it is possible to discern whether anxiety is flagging the risk of commitment in general (which can be real but surmountable) or risk of commitment to a particular person with highly concerning character deficiencies, or a particular person who is just not a good fit. One helpful way to look at uncertainty on these matters is to ask yourself if your main concern is a “what if” about the future or a present-tense concern (such as self-centeredness, alcohol abuse, controlling tendencies). The more specific concerns are identified, the more you can start to discern whether there is an established trajectory of change over time, and the more you can start to see how those concerns affect the relationship. The goal is to recognize and face the known risks soberly (listen to this anxiety), but not to allow the risks inherent to a lifelong commitment to prevent you from a good thing (don’t always let anxiety make decisions for you).

Q: Who doesn’t have some kind of job-related anxiety? Why do we place so much emphasis on making the right decisions when it comes to our jobs and careers?

Like marriage, job and career decisions really are consequential. This is why our bodies flag the potential consequences for us by way of anxiety, and in that sense to be a little anxious is to be seeing the world accurately. The Apostle Paul carried with him anxiety for the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28) which were his work and life calling. So, some work-related pressure or anxiety is natural.

What is noteworthy is how much anxiety people experience even when they never fear where their next meal will come from, and even when they are successful people by most metrics. Yet many middle-class Americans are eaten up with anxiety. Part of the reason is likely that in the modern context of frayed community and family ties, one’s career exercises a significant role in identity formation, sense of value, and purpose in life. For many, “who I am” is less about what community I belong to and am committed to, and more about “what interesting or worthwhile thing I’m doing with my life.”

Of course, it’s natural to want to see some dignity and value in what we do, but the meaning we load into our work is probably more than what our career was meant to handle. The fact that “workaholism” is in our vocabulary means that work can be a powerful and destructive force when it’s idolized. Anxious Christians would never say “work is God,” but it’s a constant temptation to look for a job or career to serve us in God-like ways, providing refuge from some of our personal fears and insecurities. But how much better it is not to look for a career to fix something in us, but for us to be free to use our work to serve God and our neighbor.

Q: What one piece of encouragement would you like to offer someone struggling with anxiety over a decision right now?

You’re not going to get every decision perfect, but decision-making is a skill to grow in over time. That also means little decisions (or smaller components of big decisions) are part of your Christian growth and maturing, and not a pass-fail test. So, engage the process prayerfully and take some good risks, which is another way of saying take steps of faith and trust in the God who loves you. He’s already prepared good deeds in advance for you (Ephesians 2:10), so look for the next right thing, the next opportunity to take constructive action in your little corner of the world that he’s given you stewardship of.  Your bad decisions are not stronger than his will, and he’ll turn even the worst things on their heads, set things right, and bring us all the way home (Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20).

Anxious about Decisions: Finding Freedom in the Peace of God
Ask the Christian Counselor Series
By Michael Gembola
September 26, 2022 / Retail Price: $11.99
Print ISBN: 978-1-64507-256-0
RELIGION/Christian Ministry/Counseling & Recovery

The Ask the Christian Counselor Series

Anxious about Decisions is part of the new Ask the Christian Counselor series. This series walks readers through their deepest and most profound questions. Each question is unpacked by an experienced counselor who gives readers the tools to understand their struggle and how the gospel brings hope and healing to the problem they are facing. The books are compact, offering accessible and insightful help in a concise format that won’t overwhelm the reader but go deeper than New Growth Press’s popular minibooks.

Image of Angry with God: An Honest Journey through Suffering and Betrayal
Image of Build a Stronger Marriage: The Path to Oneness
Image of I Want to Escape: Reaching for Hope When Life is Too Much
Image of I Have a Psychiatric Diagnosis: What Does the Bible Say?
About the Author

Michael Gembola, MAR, MAC, is an ordained minister and licensed professional counselor. He serves as executive director of Blue Ridge Christian Counseling in southwest VA and has taught counseling as an adjunct professor at several seminaries.

Gembola holds master’s degrees from Westminster Seminary in Counseling (MAC) and in Biblical Studies (MAR), and Certificates in Professional Counseling and Global Trauma Recovery from the Missio Graduate School of Counseling. He teaches at the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education and at Westminster Seminary in partnership with CCEF. He is the author of After an Affair: Pursuing RestorationAnxious about Decisions, and several articles on counseling. 

He and his wife, Kelly, live in Roanoke, VA with their two sons and daughter.

Learn more at brccva.org and follow along on Twitter (@BlueRidgeCCVA).




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