Sorry for the long delay in-between posts; I’ve been busy transitioning/moving to life in Connecticut. I hope to be back posting frequently at least until my fall classes begin, which will probably reduce my posts to once a week for the semester.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18.
When one uses the word “anxiety,” they could mean many different things, especially within the context of Christianity. For Protestants or Evangelicals, this has usually meant anxiety in the face of eternity. It’s a derivative of the “fear of God” that looks upon the final day of judgment with immense anxiety. Preachers will often use the tactic of reminding the unbeliever of the ten commandments, e.g. “Did you ever steal money from your mother’s purse when you were a child?” “Have you ever told a lie, even when meant to spare someone from the harmful truth?” etc. This is designed to create a feeling of anxiety so that one runs (sometimes literally) towards Christ so that guilt may no longer be their defining characteristic before God. Using the biblical story from Matthew 7, this concept is even applied to “Christians” who profess Jesus as Lord, but whose actions speak otherwise (ironically, the Bible is also full of reassurance that anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord will be saved, see for example Rom. 10:9). Will I be one of those whom the Lord says, “Depart from me, I never knew you?” These two concepts of anxiety are closely related.
However, I do not wish to really say much about this preacher/hellfire produced anxiety. I have in mind something much closer to worrying about the everyday circumstances of life. As humans, we are sometimes primarily marked by this form of anxiety. We wonder whether our job will still be there in a few months, we are torn by thoughts of our significant other leaving us for someone else. Our anxiety consumes us when we think of a big-event in our life happening in the future. Anything with an outcome outside of our immediate control can be a cause for anxiety (sometimes caused by our desire to play God and control everything for our personal benefit). A lot of the time, we are anxious about what others will think of us, whether it is our parents, teachers, or closest friends (sometimes even people we don’t know).
So far I have highlighted things that seem more superficial in some ways, but anxiety hits us even more profoundly when it is of a matter of extreme importance to us. We worry whether or not we have lived a good life; have our choices been good ones? Am I recognizing my short time on earth? We are anxious about diseases that have fallen upon our family members; what will we do if they die from this? Adults feel this when they are anxious over whether or not they will be able to provide for their family during a recession.
In short, we seem to feel anxiety in a vast array of different situations, from mundane to life-threatening. All of life is filled with anxiety inducing moments. Perhaps our earthly fate is one filled with only these moments. Everyone, if honest with themselves, irrespective of their desire to appear as if they have it all together, will admit that anxiety of various kinds does affect their lives in powerful ways, even if the feelings do not appear as often as in others.
What are we to do given our situation? Should we be relegated to merely living in spite of this anxiety? Is there anything we can do about it? Is it only a problem of mindset, or is it much different than that?
Looking to the Christian tradition, there are a few answers that I would like to give. I cannot pretend to solve everyone’s problems, but I can point to a few things that have really helped me deal with moments of paralyzing anxiety.
First, Look at the birds. Matthew 6. Jesus used this example because he knew everyone has experiences with birds! None of us can say, “I don’t understand that.” The next time you see a bird, consider its life in regard to your anxiety. It doesn’t care to buy clothes so it can impress random people in public. They are not constantly worrying about huge transitions in their life. When it’s winter, they just fly south, knowing that anywhere they go there will be enough sticks and worms to build a nest and feed their children. They are not concerned about a pay raise, nor whether or not their teachers will give them an A on a paper. Yet, they seem to be doing just fine. They still tweet (albeit beautifully, not argumentative garbage like we tweet!) songs of joy in the morning, reminding the world that everything is okay for another day. The sun indeed came up.
You might wonder how birds have anything to do with theology, but theology isn’t just limited to abstract thought about the nature of God, but is concerned with the created world as well. As part of God’s creation, they can give us signs for how God designed life on earth. Though somewhat cheesy, Jesus’ example of looking towards the birds, does provide some comfort in the face of constant anxiety, knowing that life does not need to be filled with so much worry and stress. The biological classification giving rise to birds has been around the earth for many millions of years longer than humans! When the rest of the dinosaurs went extinct, species of birds remained, largely unaffected by giant clouds of ash and dust left by meteor strikes 🙂
Life can be a lot simpler than we imagine to ourselves when we cannot go to sleep at night. This is not a call to go back to the stone age, or to hunter-gatherer societies (what could cause more anxiety than having to hunt for food!), but rather an invitation to accept that the worries of life do not have to have an entirely damaging affect upon our level of happiness, nor our relationship with God, as our ultimate provider.
Second, consider God’s love. When Paul was in Athens, following the account within Acts, he reminded the people (using their own cultural language from popular poetry) that God is the source of their existence, both initially, and for the duration of their lives as sustainer. “For in him we live and move and have our being,” Acts 17:28. Paul knew that our very being was caught up in God as the ground of our being. If even the most intimate part of ourselves, our existence/being, is grounded in the constant provision of God, how much more our everyday lives and activities that cause us undue stress and anxiety?
A consideration of providence also supports our idea that we are much too anxious than we should be, in light of our Christian faith if we want to use its resources for our everyday condition. However, I am not talking about the kind of providence that understands humans as the puppets on a string controlled by God destined for a life without independence or freewill. Nor am I talking about the kind that supposedly predestines people to burn in a lake of fire just because they had the unfortunate occurrence of their birth.
Rather, I am talking about the kind of providence that knows God’s love and presence are inescapable. It will always be there when we need it, and we will continually be truly connected to God, our source of existence, through this unconditional love shown by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39.
Providence is believing Romans 8 to be true. It’s really believing that nothing in creation, no circumstance, no anxiety, can ever separate you from the love of God. Though trials and anxiety may come in life, we can at least rest assured knowing that our external circumstances do not affect how God loves us. Though anxiety may not be completely removed from our daily lives, understanding the nature of God’s love can help. It reminds us that our lives do not have to be controlled by our anxiety, but by confidence in the unconditional love of God.