Tuesday, February 11, 2020

On anxiety

I’m thinking about anxiety, and this coming Sunday’s Gospel, which is relatively familiar and, therefore, widely misunderstood.

Jesus is addressing the experience of anxiety, which must be very common: at least, I experience anxiety, fairly regularly; other people tell me that they experience anxiety — and I see it up-close in those closest to me; and the bookshops are filled with titles addressing anxiety. So, this would seem to be a live issue.

The Greek word Jesus uses for anxiety is brilliantly descriptive: it describes being pulled apart.

The word he chooses for ‘life’ refers to the soul, or life-breath that animates us. In biblical imagery, we have heart and mind and strength and soul. Heart refers to our will, or capacity to choose, between right and wrong, good and evil; and how such choices, repeated over time, shape our character. Mind refers to our capacity for insight, informing our choices, and again, over time, shaping our disposition. Strength refers to our capacity to exercise force, in the Physics sense, to act on the basis of our informed choices. Soul refers to our life-breath, to these elements being held together, as a living person, at the sovereign decree of God.

Anxiety attempts to pull them apart. The experience of anxiety can even lead to panic attacks, to breathlessness, or the physical suggestion of a loss of soul. Again, the use of language demonstrates Jesus’ incredible insight.

Jesus also chooses a word for the body which both refers to our bodies, in the physical sense, and is a metaphor for our community — as in the use, later in the New Testament, of the term body of Christ for the church. A playful word.

So, Jesus is addressing anxiety in relation to our selves and our community, to the network of relationships that are an inextricable part of who we are. And Jesus’ concern is for wholeness, or shalom.

And the summary of Jesus’ advice (to skip the middle, which I’ll come back to) is: desire to know the reign of God over every area of your life, and to know his approval of the life he has given you, and you will find that all these elements that have been pulled apart by anxiety are brought back together. Wholeness.

Jesus’ point is not that if you seek to obey God you will not experience anxiety, but, that if you desire to know God then this is how you can respond whenever you feel anxiety rearing its head. Which, in my case at least, is often.

So, how do you do that? Firstly, Jesus invites us to look beyond ourselves. Notice the birds. They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns — this last, a play on words, the same root as the synagogue or the gathering of the people to worship. But the point isn’t really a comparison, it isn’t about us, whether workaholic or lazybones, devout or never coming to church. It is about birds, who don't experience anxiety, but, most of all, it is about God’s sovereign activity.

Likewise, the observation about the flowers of the field, except that this one also weaves in reflection on the past story of God’s dealing with his people.

If God is sovereign over our community, however it looks, and over our past or history or story; and if that sovereignty is expressed through delight, through approval and provision; then we can desire to know that in our lives too.

And so, we are invited, in all things, in the place of anxiety, the thing we are anxious about, to imagine God’s reign in this place. To eagerly anticipate that this might be so, and soon, and to look for even the smallest signs of that breakthrough. For example, by praising God for who God is and for what God has done and for what we trust that God will do again.

It is a work of the heart and the mind and the strength — our wills choose it, as an informed choice, on which we act, hard though it might be at first, until we find that, God delighting in the soul he has created, our whole being is brought back together. Anxiety is defeated, not once-and-for-all, but, over and over again, day after day.

Desire births desire, delight births delight. Worship brings our scattered lives back into wholeness. Anxiety is, more or less, universal; but, there is a cure.

[Update: this became a sermon, here]

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