As with the previous portions of this series on obedience or whatever one might choose to call it, what follows is not meant to be a universal teaching. Far, far from it. Take what is useful; toss the rest.
“It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
These two quotes are both from Soren Kierkegaard (Keerk-e-gore), who after all wrote an entire book called “The Concept of Anxiety.” They suggest a real tension which exists within every human being. In fact, “exists within” is precisely right. Existentialist writers and thinkers in the mid-twentieth century owed a huge debt to Kierkegaard’s understanding of anxiety and borrow the root of their ideas from this anxiety which, for them, is the central point of struggle in being human.
But let’s keep this simple.
Anxiety is a form of fear. But unlike, say, the fear I felt as a teen when I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake before its whirring warning filled me with a very specific terror for my life (and unfortunately led to my ending the snake’s), anxiety’s signs are often non-specific. I can’t trace their general feeling of unease, of (to again borrow from Soren) dizziness. His afore-mentioned book’s title, when translated in English, replaces “Anxiety” in the title with “Dread.” And the latter word captures the feeling. “Angst” is another word for it (German) and entails “A feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.” Depression often accompanies such anxiety.
People who are depressed, whether clinically or not, understand this anxiety thing in a way others don’t. At an extreme, anxiety becomes something debilitating, preventing a person from making otherwise simple choices. To choose is to abandon one’s route of escape. To act is to rule out the sense of safety that doing nothing offers the high-anxiety person. But the other options are just as possible. To continually choose, to enter into a sort of hyper-activity, can also provide a sense of escape from this oppressive and seemingly omnipresent sense of unwellness, of hopelessness, even of meaninglessness.
And yes, I have visited these places. I am tempted to visit them on a weekly, often daily, basis. I am in this sense quite the existentialist. Jean Sarte, who dismissed Christianity but certainly understood dread, wrote of this anxiety as “Nausea.” The Catholic existential novelist Walker Percy offers a character who plays golf expertly; but suddenly, in the midst of a life where everything has begun to be questioned, the man falls down on the fairway. He has not been tripped; there has been no external interference with his game or his physical self. Rather, the issue is with his psychological self, or (to be Christian overtly here) his wholistic Self — the mixture of spirit and flesh that define being human. He experiences spiritual vertigo.
I suffer these things. They embarrass me. After all, I am poor by American standards but certainly not world standards; I am clothed, housed, and fed. I am happily married to my life’s love. I am even in the midst of fellow believers in Christ who will and have come to my aid when I am in physical, psychological, and spiritual need.
But anxiety, this fog of sadness and self-doubt and (yes, sometimes) doubt even of God and my brothers and sisters in Christ…. it is not something I can dispel with a formula. It haunts me. Anxiety — dread — is my companion.
My least favorite phrase in Scripture is this one: “Be anxious for nothing…” And then Paul goes on to suggest what I should do instead: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” [Philippians 4:6 NASB].
I find it Hallmarkish advice, at least on its face. “Love Jesus! Pray! Have a nice day!”
Let’s be brutally honest here. Even prayer is cause for anxiety. After all, God does not always answer my prayers the way I expect or desire. God does not give me what I consider the antidote to anxiety, namely, comfort! Instead, it is far too easy for me to find myself seeing all the ways in which I do not love Jesus enough, do not love my neighbor enough, exist as a parasite on the Body of Christ more than a productive member. And when my faith fails to comfort me, I again feel anxiety rising.
There is much discussion in Twelve Step programs about addiction as a response to anxiety. A person is anxious. They find comfort in Southern Comfort. Or in heroin. Or in anonymous sex with strangers. Or in massive food consumption. Or in controlling others around them. Or in hoarding things (ever see that TV show about hoarders?). There are classic addictions and unusual addictions. It may be that at the end of the day most of us are addicts; the fortunate may be the relatively few who admit it and start dealing with it.
But my point is that behind these addictions is anxiety, this sense of dread that has no easily-defined cause and no readily-applied cure. And so the addict finds his or her own cure, the cure that brings them comfort — a temporary relief from anxiety.
Temporary is the operative word here. After all, as physician Paul Brand showed many years ago, we feel physical pain in order to preserve us from self-injury. The scars of leprosy are not, he found, caused by the desease itself but rather because leprosy removes the body’s ability to feel pain. Lepers injure themselves, sometimes severely, without knowing it. Likewise I suggest that anxiety’s sometimes terrible pain is perhaps a form of self-preservation. It warns us about something.
What is it warning us about? It warns us that freedom has consequences. Freedom offers us all (at least very many) choices. And it always offers them. Nothing stops us from exercising freedom of choice. Sure, some choices are simply impossible; I cannot, for instance, decide to exist in two places simultaneously or spontaneously generate a third eyeball. But as a moral being I can do or not do millions of things…. and all of those things have consequences. I am snarled up in the Gordian Knot of moral (and immoral) possibilities!
I go back to Paul’s words, because as a Christian I may hate them but I also know they are a nut that if cracked might yield to me what I need. Liking his words isn’t the point, is it? Deeply understanding, then believing, his words is the point. Take Paul’s admonition with Kierkegaard’s observation — “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” — as background.
We as twenty-first century humans are freer in some respects than we have ever been, and I for one do not imagine there is any “going back” to some imaginary pristine “Christian America” or “Christian West.” In fact, I would not want to go back even if I could. A white male dominated world is one which for me causes a whole different set of anxieties (read deeply in African-American literature and history and perhaps you’ll understand my angst in this regard). But that said, living in a polycultural world is more anxiety-producing than I suspect most of us give credence. It is a place where the respect for those with differing beliefs can easily morph into a deep disrespect for beliefs in general. “Whatever gets you through the night.”
Firmly held, life-altering-and-affirming, deeply thought-out Christian beliefs are often conflated by critics of Christianity with narrow bigotry in the name of God. There are plenty of narrow bigots… and some of them are Atheists as well as Christians or New Agers or Jews or Muslims or [insert religion and/or ideology here]. Strong belief in one thing isn’t the problem; wrong belief in the wrong thing is a problem!
So what is the alternative? Anxiety is bad enough for the Christian (the thinking and empathetic Christian, anyway). But for those caught in the multicultural swirl of belief-as-lightly-held-opinion, the sense of anxiety can go one of at least two ways.
First, it can lead toward a gently hedonistic acceptance of a world in which only the present exists. To think upon either the past or future creates a sense of near-panic… so why not simply refuse to do so? Think only of the now. In many cases, this is a serviceable option. As long as I am healthy, relatively busy, and not prone to ask questions about ultimate meanings, I might be able to avoid dread. At some point these transient factors will change, and I will no longer be able to hold onto the present-as-enough; the present itself will become my enemy. The implicit nihilism in my outlook will become explicit.
Second, it can lead toward what I first suggested was a hallmark card moment: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
You see, there are two freedoms as I read the above verse. There is freedom FROM Christ… and there is freedom IN Christ. I am, I believe, created to be a free moral agent. That is, to (creatively!) make moral choices. But I am not meant to make those choices as though I am alone in the universe, autonomous, without any responsibility to anyone beyond myself (or perhaps those I choose to be my companions).
Is it possible that my anxiety is rooted at least in part in my misunderstanding of, and misuse of, freedom itself?
There is a part of me that self-defines as a rebel. I like the idea of being the one on a lonely road, the man choosing rejection of friends for the sake of his own principles. But there is another part of me that knows this self-identity is at least in part a fiction. And of course there’s another part of me, often one I am not paying much attention to, that picks up the subtle signals from those I admire and quickly alters both words and deeds to create a sense of belonging with that social group. “Being cool” was the old term for it. Freedom in these contexts appears quite fragile, quite elusive.
My anxiety is not soothed by my faith; it is challenged by it. Be a rebel, yes. Dare to define yourself according to biblical standards and the heart of Jesus revealed in the Gospels. Dare to (as one for-instance) vote against those who would take health care from the very poor in this nation. Dare to define “Christian” as something quite different than the mythology of nationalism currently offered by so many pastors and speakers. Dare to live differently, rejecting the “American Dream” for a Christian reality of service to others. These dares are dares toward freedom, the freedom to follow the Beloved wherever He leads and to do so with mind, body, and soul completely engaged and active in the single-hearted/minded pursuit. This narrow path is not at all narrow in the way we think; it is narrow because it is demanding and takes us in a very definite and direct way toward the heart of Christ.
But all of that is an exercise in action and commitment. There is something else, which seems nearly contradictory but certainly is not. Surrender. Let go. These are words others have said to me, and I’ve had to say to myself. Let go of being right most of all, whether as a parent or a political creature or a husband or a sexual being or a (pseudo) intellectual. Let go of what you think, what you want, what you define yourself as. Let go!
Letting go is the most anxiety-producing moment I know. And yet I can report (and perhaps may one day), from personal experiences which are ongoing, that letting go of MY beliefs, MY truths, MY way of doing things does in fact greatly reduce anxiety over the long term. This isn’t some sort of mindless robot thing, the surrender of self equating to others controlling my thoughts and actions. Quite the opposite, it is about actively entering into my relationship with Jesus Christ, allowing His Spirit to illuminate my inner world and guide me into an other-centered way of seeing. My actions — and they remain the actions of a free moral being — will if so understood be rooted in a self-forgetful love rather than a self-focused, dizzying anxiety.
Anxiety is rooted in the Self. While unlike Eastern philosophy and religion, which often seems to emphasize the eradication of self, Christianity does emphasize the surrender of the self to God. As Walker Percy, tongue in cheek, suggests in his “Lost in the Cosmos,” we are lost selves in desperate need of a Sponsor.
So in the end, Paul’s verse about being anxious for nothing is truly the only way out of this dilemma. And though not a Greek scholar, I wonder if that term “be anxious for nothing” might even be better understood as “BEING anxious for nothing.” That is, the idea of living in the present tense is not wholly a bad one.
We live our lives in relationship. To ideas, yes. To religious beliefs, yes. To other human beings, yes. And finally and foremost, to God. The more we are in proper relationship to all these things, the more we will be able to forget ourselves! We will be in what used to be called “a state of Grace.” God’s own Holy Spirit will guide us in each moment. We will encounter things that make us anxious, and then, BEING anxious for nothing, we will bring that anxiety into an encounter with God.
This is not to say that we will not experience anxiety. Again, quite the opposite. The relationship does not prevent anxiety, it offers us a place to be healed, to be unburdened, to become a true Self in the ultimate True Self of God and His Love.
We may still encounter depression. If it is of a clinical variety, we should unashamedly seek medical and psychological aid for it. Such is no lack of faith but rather part of our outworking of faith and obeying God’s command to be anxious for nothing. If we encounter anxiety, the angst-ridden type, for other reasons we cannot exactly explain it may be time to consult medical / therapeutic helpers.
Anxiety with no apparent causal root sometimes will have such a root. Are we doing something or being something that we know is a violation of who we are meant to be in Christ? I’ve known that anxiety. And I know the cures for it include confessing it to a trusted Christian mentor (a pastor in my case), listening closely when they offer me counsel beyond encouragement and prayers, and taking appropriate steps to create and/or restore a Christ-informed understanding and activity in what caused my anxiety. It is called sin. It spiritually and sometimes physically kills people.
There is a kind of anxiety that is rooted in wisdom. Read the book of Ecclesiastes. What a dark read that is! Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote it. Wisdom means to have deep insight into things. And the more wisdom one has, the more one may well encounter the sorrow and futility of so much human activity and thought. This, I have found, is not avoidable. But it is not anxiety as much as it is sadness. Imagine Jesus’ sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, about to die for the sins of even those who would kill him, rejected by God’s People and abandoned at his moment of great need by his disciples (falling asleep as the Church continually does). That sort of sadness, those sort of tears, must be known and embraced and felt. We cannot get out of that without also misunderstanding the heart of Jesus Himself and the call He places on each of us.
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?’” [Luke 9:23-25 NIV]
Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. There is the tension between an anxiety caused by our own brokenness and lostness and the pain caused by our loving and therefore identifying with Jesus. The more we understand, the more we are responsible to do. So my warning to you is this; do not ask to understand the heart of Jesus if you do not want to be called to share in His sufferings. You will probably not die physically at the hands of others, tortured as He was. But you will die. And then you will be born again… and the next day the call will remain to once again take up our cross and embrace the crucifixion of self so that we might be raised from the dead as spiritually born selves.
Be anxious for nothing is a call to obedience. But it is also a call to relationship. Come into Love. Know that you as a human self are God’s beloved, the lost sheep the Shepherd yearns over. Know that as you open yourself up to Love you will also open yourself up to pain, but it is a pain that for Christ’s sake you will bear and so identify with Jesus’ heart. There simply isn’t any other way.
And finally, there is great joy in love as well as pain. God Himself demands that we ask everything of him, holding nothing back, even our wants. He is not offended but delighted at those who believe not only in his Power but also His Goodness: “…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Thanksgiving. What an interesting word to couple with anxiety. A. W. Tozer once wrote, “There is no room for cynicism in a thankful heart.” Isn’t a cynic someone who has elevated anxiety to doctrine? Thankfulness to God is all about being a person who holds nothing back from God, who invests God with everything he is, has, or ever will be. Thankfulness is rooted in trusting God as not merely one’s Lord but also one’s Beloved, one’s Intimate Other. Love is at the heart of Christian faith. And love expressed through thankfulness, continual thankfulness, is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal against being oppressed by anxiety.
Previous parts of the Obedience series: