The Future of Anxiety
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
How high is your “anxiety quotient” these days?
These are anxious times, no? There’s so much to be anxious about: What if Trump wins? What if Hillary wins? What if I keep running out of money before I run out of month? What if I don’t have enough saved up to retire on? What if I don’t get a job that pays me enough to pay off my student loans in a reasonable timeframe? What if my job is “outsourced”? What if people find out about that really stupid thing I did/said? What if things keep heading like they are; what kind of world will my children and grandchildren have to live in? What if my health fails? What if…what if…what if…
On the one hand, we might be tempted to just dismiss all this anxiety as unrealistic and perhaps even ungodly: “Why, a lot of these things we are anxious about will never happen. And, besides, God tells us not to worry.” There’s truth there, certainly, but also, truth to tell, bad things, confusing things, troubling things, difficult things do happen in a broken world. There are things that happen to us in life that will produce anxiety. (Notice in the reading from Jeremiah above, the year of drought does come!)
So, is Peter just adding to our load of (anxious) guilt when he famously says, “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5.7)?
Anxiety is an emotional response to those bad, confusing, troubling, difficult things that can happen in life. And we’ve been created for such emotional responses. What matters is what we do with that emotion, with that anxiety. Will it run our lives or will we manage our anxiety?
How does a Christ-follower manage anxiety?
I know, it sounds like a “duh” thing to say, it’s the “correct” answer, the “holy” answer. But I wish I could get back all of the sleep I’ve lost over the years because I was anxiously turning something over and over again in my mind, hours upon hours before I commit myself to praying about the anxiety-producing matter.
Let me be clear, prayer in this case is not just, cannot be just, “Here’s what I want you to do, God; now, sic ‘em!” God is not like the Pepsi machine in the Fellowship Hall, where you just put in your money and get the very drink you desire. Rather, the prayer that I have in mind, the prayer that (if I’d only learn!) is most effective in quelling my anxiety is one in which I just say, “God, forgive me for trying to run my life on my own. Help me to see what I need to do to honor you in this situation. Help me to see past this anxiety that’s blocking my view of you and everything else. Help me to let go of my need to have an answer right this minute. Help me to just live into what you can do with this.”
Second, share the burden.
I’m not very good at being transparent and sharing my anxieties with trusted others. So, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone else here. Here’s where I am on this right now. I know this is the right thing to do, and I know that others’ perspectives are crucial in helping us manage our anxieties at times. I don’t do that well. But what I do now find myself doing is just talking about whatever it is that’s triggering anxiety with someone I trust. Not necessarily a dedicated conversation. In fact, I usually try to be a bit casual about it all (“Yeah, I’ve been concerned about X lately…”). I have found that just talking about it, not looking for answers, but just admitting to the anxiety, takes away its ability to overwhelm and control me. And maybe with time I’ll even get better at transparency.
Third, “remember” the future (God’s future).
Anxiety tries to block our sense of the future, our trust that, with God, the best is always (this side of eternity) yet to come. Paul writes these words in Philippians 4.6: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. But do you remember the words right before that, the words right at the end of v. 5? The Lord is near. Eschatological words, words that remind us that Jesus is coming to set it all straight in the end. Regardless of how deep a shadow anxiety casts, God has guaranteed the future.
Part of the cultural newsreel of my generation is the image of then-Alabama Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of the administration building at the University of Alabama in 1963 to prevent two black students from enrolling. But in the end, due to an intervention by the Kennedy administration, Vivian Malone and James Hood were enrolled. But that’s not the end of the story. The harassment and pressure on Malone and Hood was staggering and intense. A bomb was set off near Malone’s dorm at one point. Hood soon transferred out. But Malone stayed on and in 1965 became the first black person to graduate from the University of Alabama. She went on to a distinguished career in public service. After her death in 2005, someone who knew her made this statement about her: “She had a way of casting herself into the future in order to endure the present and it created a remarkable calmness about her.”
What if in my anxious moments I learned to cast myself into the future, into God’s future? What if I could but remember that this momentary anxiety does not mean that God’s future is not real and is not (for certain!) on the way?
May God grant that no matter what happens in the world writ large or in our own personal worlds writ small that we will embody his calm and calming presence in a world filled with anxiety.
"You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."
— Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.1