Anxiety is often related to our interpretation of events. We saw last week how anxiety often tempts us to focus on the worst possible outcome in any given situation (Catastrophizing). We can become so consumed by a fear that we are unable to see other possible outcomes. In conduction with the Catastrophizing interpretation, we may also be prone to the interpretive error of False Extremes. False Extremes sees only two potential options in any given situation, the ideal or the worst fear. False Extremes fail to acknowledge the progressive nature of life and sanctification.
Tammy had been on medication for less than a week but had already concluded it was either going to completely remove her anxiety or it doesn’t work. George berated himself for becoming distracted during his prayer time; either he loved God enough to stay focused or he must be a false convert. Erica had forgot to sign her daughter’s permission slip and began to condemn herself as the world’s worst parent. These are all examples of false extremes. They are prevalent where anxiety is a common struggle, and most of us have had some experience with these sorts of all-or-nothing, black-or-white interpretations.
False Extremes see only the ideal good or the worst possibility. There is no progressive development, no middle option, no shades of gray. Either I am perfect or I am trash. Either I am always godly or I might not even be saved. Either I am at peace, or I will always be controlled by anxiety. The interpretation of False Extremes fails to acknowledge that life is an unfolding story and that most things in life take time to develop. So, Tammy was not realistic in her expectations about medicine. Medicine takes time to work and to make a difference in the body and mind. Furthermore, medicine isn’t a cure-all, but can help to alleviate some of the worst of symptoms. A False Extremes interpretation, however, can never accept those nuances. It is either perfect in its performance or it isn’t working. Likewise, George and Erica have allowed anxiety to color their perspective on personal growth. Mistakes, shortcomings, even sins still occur in all of us and we are growing and changing by degrees. So, Paul says that we are being transformed into the image of the divine Sone from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This is progressive sanctification. Change and personal growth happen slowly, over time. But anxiety says you are either flawless or worthless, perfect or a wreck. You are either the best Christian or not a Christian at all. You are either the prefect parent or the worst parent. This false interpretation will keep us stuck in our anxiety because it fails to acknowledge the progressive nature of life and personal sanctification.
Job experienced this type of thinking in his own life. The story of Job is one of deep and painful suffering, but it begins with a recognition of the man’s personal godliness. Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). As the story unfolds, however, Job begins to doubt his relationship with the Lord. The intensity of his suffering begins to create a false interpretive grid and Job is tempted to believe it over the truth. As David Murray explains:
Despite most of his life being characterized by God’s blessing and prosperity, when Job passed through a time of suffering, he decided he must be an enemy of God. (Christians Get Depressed Too, 36)
Job allows his experience to reframe his beliefs. The counsel of his friends doesn’t help either, for they lay all the blame for Job’s suffering at his own feet, arguing that he is in sin. By chapter 13 the man has fallen prey to this interpretation and believes God must hate him. We read his prayer to the Lord, saying:
Why do you hide your face
and count me as your enemy? (13:24)
Elsewhere, Elihu quotes Job as saying, “Behold, he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy” (33:10). In Job’s case either life is at peace and God loves me, or I am suffering and God hates me. There is no middle ground, no possible alternative conclusions. There are only two extremes. The notion that the wicked might prosper (Ps. 73:3), or that God might have good in mind with our suffering (Rom. 5:3-5) was unacceptable. Only the extremes can be true.
Job’s false interpretation took on the form of depression, but it often turns into anxiety too. When we cannot see God’s work in the slow development, in the gray areas (versus the black or white), then we will wrongly interpret our situations and ourselves. We must be willing to accept answers that are less than “perfect.” We must acknowledge that life and sanctification unfold progressively, and train ourselves to see this progression. A helpful exercise might be to write out a Continuum of Development.
A continuum is progression of values or elements varying by minute degrees. We might draw a line with our ideal outcome on one end and our worst possible outcome on the other end. Then begin to fill the space in between with varying degrees of difference showing us the potential development from worst-case scenario to “perfection” in our mind. The goal is to acknowledge that transformation is from “one degree of glory to another.” To broaden our perspective to allow for shading and to note that very few things happen quickly and/or perfectly in this fallen world. As we draw our continuum we hopefully will see that our current situation falls within the parameters of the Continuum of Development. So, Tammy may recognize that mild improvement in symptoms falls between the boundaries of “complete healing” and “ineffective medicine.” George may see that distracted praying falls between the boundaries of “perfect prayer” and “apostate.” Erica may see that failing to sign a permission slip falls between the boundaries of “perfect parenting” and “unfit parent”. The interpretive options before us are more of a continuum than False Extremes acknowledges.
Life is never as simple as two extremes. God works in us and our world through an unfolding development and we must be willing to see that and accept that reality. If your anxiety says that there are only two conclusions to draw about this situation, remind yourself that God has allowed for degrees of progress, then seek to acknowledge the potential continuum between your ideal expectation and your worst fear.