Anxiety and the Internship

Matt Williams, Wake Forest  |  October 08, 2019

Take this as my big confession: I’m an RUF intern who’s been diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder. I’m also an intern who’s received a lot of well-intentioned advice. I’ve been reminded over and over again that there’s nothing to fear. When I felt anxious about a test, someone would say, “Grades don’t define you - Jesus does. Do not fear.” When I got stressed because I didn’t know what I would do after college: “God will land you where he wants you - give him time. Do not fear.” When I fundraised for the RUF internship: “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills - he will provide. Do not fear.” A lot of people used eternal truths of God’s faithfulness to his people to comfort and encourage me as I made the transition from life as an undergrad to life as an RUF intern.

Those truths helped get me through, and now that I’m in a new stage of life with brand new stressors, my heart more calm and quiet than it has been in a long-time. I’ve even noticed a quiet confidence growing in my heart. It ebbs and flows, but I think the truths of God’s faithfulness are actually starting to seep into my life.

But anxiety is a savvy thing.

It doesn’t normally care about eternal truths. Sometimes it responds to God’s promises and leaves me alone, but sometimes it doesn’t.

I was talking with my counselor second semester of my senior year of college after I had already decided to do the internship, and my anxiety was not responding to anything. I was about to begin support raising, and my thoughts were spinning and my heart was racing. What if I don’t raise enough money. What if I launch out on support and the money runs out. Will I have to move back in with my parents? Will I have failed? What if my friends get annoyed at me - I’ve never asked them for money before. What if my campus minister is disappointed in me? What if it’s hard. What if I get tired of it.

I’m not the only one who’s felt these things. Ask almost any intern. 98% of us have never support raised before. Very few of us have the spiritual and emotional maturity to confidently ask our friends for money. A huge chunk of us deal with the external pressure to “get a real job” and have close friends who try to invalidate our desire to do the internship as just an excuse to take a victory lap. It’s easier for most of us to freak out than trust the command, “Do not fear.”

And there I was. An anxious future intern trying to deal with brand new stressors. I thought I was doing a decent job. After telling my counselor all the questions that were racing in my head, I began to talk down to my anxiety with a confidence based in God’s eternal truths that I thought reflected my spiritual maturity. I said things like…

“God will provide. I know I’ll be okay.”
“I’ve got a strong church network. I’ll be able to support raise.”
“God has brought me this far, and since he’s called me to be an intern, I know he’ll get me to campus.”

My counselor just asked, “Do you know that?”

In Philippians 4:5-7, Paul comforts an anxious church by saying, “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul comforts an anxious church by telling them that the Lord is at hand. By that, Paul means that Jesus has drawn close to them. Jesus is present in the anxieties that they feel gripping their heart. When they’re not sure where their next meal will come from or if their church will survive persecution from the Romans, the Philippians can take refuge in their Lord who cares for them. They can ask God for anything and thank him for the ways that he has been faithful to sustain them so far.

When Paul tells the Philippians the “The Lord is at hand,” he means in simpler language, “Jesus is close to you.” He knows what they need, and He created their hearts with good desires and longings that He intends to fulfill. But notice this: Paul does not assure the Philippians that they will be okay. He does not sure them that Roman persecution will never reach them because God will provide or because there’s a strong network of believers around them. Paul does not presume that God will allow their ministry to succeed because he had brought them this far. Jesus is close, but he still might let them fail.

After my counselor asked me that question, I just said frustrated, “No, I don’t know that...that’s where anxiety creeps in.”

He stopped my quasi-spiritual attempt to talk down my anxiety. I was trying not to fear by interpreting “Do not fear” as “You will not fail.” I could say confidently along with the Philippian church that God will be close to me as I launched out in support raising. With thanksgiving, I could say that God had sustained me through my senior year of college and think fondly on how he had been good to me. I could even look confidently at my future and wonder how he will care for me as I tried to support raise and start life after college. Retrospectively, I can even say that Jesus was generous to me through the support raising process. He gave me good gifts beyond what I asked for or even expected.

But I could’ve failed. Who knows? There’s still time. As I write this, I’m only a month in to 2 years of ministry. I cannot say with any confidence that God will let me be a successful intern. Interns bottom out. Some don’t make it to campus. Some make it to campus then have their support run out. Some make it to campus then have 2 of the toughest years of their life. I was anxious because I was trying to get myself to believe that God would give me a successful life and would not let me fail — and he never makes that promise. My anxiety was savvier than I was.

As I’ve talked more with my counselor, he’s helped me see that God created me with desires that are really good things. I long to have close friends. I long to feel at home. I long for intimacy. I long for peace. I long to have fun and to eat good food and to do work that’s meaningful with people I enjoy.
I long for the world before the Fall — I long for the world that Jesus will come back and turn this anxiety-ridden place into. Then I’ll be with my close friends just as we were always meant to be. Then I’ll know the home I was meant for. Then I’ll eat the best food and drink the best wine of my life.

In the meantime, I’m an RUF intern. Right now, I have food because my friends donate to my support account, and I have a ministry to my campus because God has seen fit to let me find some favor with freshmen and fringe students. I still have an anxiety disorder rattling around in the back of my head. But as I’m fumbling closer to Jesus, I’m slowly learning not to fear. He sees the desires of my heart and is faithful to cherish and to eventually fulfill every single one of them. He still might let me fail. He might let you fail too. Or maybe he’ll use our lunches with college students to bring people to Heaven. Maybe someone will taste true community and have the deepest longings of their hearts satisfied because you texted them and invited them to an RUF large group. Who knows? Well, actually, Jesus knows. And he’s at hand, listening and caring for our anxious hearts.