Social anxiety is a rapidly growing problem in today’s culture. While we can easily spend hours interacting with others via different forms of “social” media, for many the thought of face-to-face encounters is daunting. Signs of social anxiety abound, but if you dread answering the door or telephone, cringe at an invite to dinner at someone’s home, or avoid events out of fear of embarrassment, these could be indicators that you suffer from social anxiety.
Christians are no more spared from the effects of social anxiety than the rest of the world, but Christians are particularly equipped to address and defeat it. That’s because the only real cure for social anxiety is in the Gospel.
Let’s begin by diagnosing the problem. Where is the fear coming from? I believe we could say that generally social anxieties stem from two deep-seated issues.
First, we minimize our own self-worth. We see in ourselves nothing true, good, or beautiful. This comes out in condemning thoughts like, “No wonder I’m not married, look how ugly I am.” “I’ve never been good at anything in my life and I never will be.” “I hate talking on the phone because I hate the sound of my voice.” “I can’t go out with friends because they are all funny and attractive and I am not.”
Second, we maximize other’s perceived assessment or judgment of us. Our great fear is that others are having the very same thoughts about us that we have about ourselves. Of course, there is an arrogance here: people think about us far less than we care to admit. But nevertheless, we are convinced people are thinking and saying things like, “He or she is ugly.” “He or she has no talent.” “He or she does sound weird.”
The prospect of other people sharing in these deep, intimate insecurities–much less voicing them aloud to us or others (!)–seems to be too great to bear. Thus many will avoid the threat altogether. We will live a reclusive lifestyle. Of course, this only protects us from the second of the two problems. No matter how much we remove ourselves from society, we can never escape our own doubts, fears, and self-hatred. Nevertheless, many people will convince themselves the only way to cope is to shut the world out and live in safe, peaceful isolation. To some, if we’re honest, this sounds like a dream.
Created for Community
But the Christian recognizes that it’s not an option. Why not? Because Scripture tells us we are social creatures, made to interact with other image-bearers of God and even thrive off of that interaction. In the week of creation, amidst all of the benedictions (“it was good”), the Lord found only one malediction: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” (Genesis 2:18).
Not only are we created for community, but we are also called to it as well. While Christianity is undeniably personal, it is not at all private. This, of course, manifests itself most clearly in the call to belong to a local church. The church is the place where that human fellowship so necessary and sweet in the garden–prior to the fracture and division of the fall–can be reclaimed and reestablished. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24—25).
19th century Scottish theologian James Bannerman went so far as to say (and I believe rightly so) that “according to the arrangement of God, the Christian is more of a Christian in society than alone, and more in the enjoyment of privileges of a spiritual kind when he shares them with others, then when he possesses them apart.”
The Gospel Cure
The Gospel addresses and answers both of the lies that feed our social anxieties. And it does so in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with finding some sort of inner confidence in ourselves. It has everything to do with finding our confidence and security in Someone outside of us: Jesus Christ.
If the first lie that we tell ourselves is that we have no self-worth, the story of Scripture reminds us that we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Humankind has dignity and worth by nature of this one astounding fact. The God of the universe has made us vessels to reflect His character and likeness to one another. This is true of you no matter your imperfections. No matter your complexion, body shape, or personality.
Furthermore, God so cared for and loved His image-bearers that He sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem them back from slavery to sin. If you are bought with the precious–priceless–blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19), does that not make you priceless as well? You do indeed have worth and value, but it’s not in any qualities or traits that you may possess. Rather, it’s in the fact that you have been possessed by Jesus Christ. This frees us from our crippling fear and gives us boldness and confidence. But it’s a different kind of confidence than the world would say you need: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
And do you see how this answer to the first doubt of social anxiety also takes care of the second? God has given His verdict of you in the Gospel. He has shown you what He thinks of you, how He cares for you, how much He loves you–so then why are you worried about what other people think? You have a cosmic evaluation that far outweighs any human opinion. You are loved (Galatians 2:20). You are chosen (Ephesians 1:4). You are forgiven (Romans 8:1). You are a child of the Father (1 John 3:1). You are an heir of heaven (Galatians 4:7). These sweet truths must fill our hearts and minds as we step out of ourselves and into the world to interact with our fellow image-bearers. With our minds set on these facts, the former fears and condemning doubts will melt away.
But not immediately. Let’s be realistic–it will be hard for some time to confront our fears and interact freely in society. So let me offer this final thought for you to consider: facing your social anxieties, and not fleeing them, is actually part of what it means to love your neighbor. The only way we could ever live in obedience to the second greatest commandment is by an intentional interaction with others. To love our neighbor we must live life with our neighbor, not looking for excuses to avoid them. And to live in obedience to this command should bring us joy and delight. Will it hurt? Yes. But real love hurts. The love of the Gospel hurt–“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Real, sincere love is self-giving in that way. It’s sacrificial. Its concern is for others.
Consider that the next time you are struggling with the anxieties that come with interacting and socializing with others. It may hurt you to do it. You may blush terribly. You may say something laughable. You may stumble over your words (or your feet). You may not be the best dressed. But you will be there, sharing in that sweet fellowship that humanity was made for. And you can smile at your brother or sister through it all. You can love them because God has first loved you.
- ^ Cited in Philip Ryken, The Communion of Saints, 5.