Anxiety at its Theological Roots
There are two painful truths that stand at the heart of the human experience. The first is that we don’t know the future. The second is that being finite and contingent beings, the future could destroy us. Bishops Barron's favorite Paul Tillich quote reads “finitude and awareness is anxiety,” which is as true as it is brief in summarizing our plight. Against this backdrop God tells us in Scripture:
Philippians 4:6 -
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
God establishes prophets up and down salvation history. He could have said, “Be anxious about nothing. Instead, let the Spirit of God open your eyes so that you can see the future and no longer wonder what lies ahead.”
Alternatively, God could have solved the problem of our anxiety by dealing with the finitude part of the Tillich equation. Scripture could have read, “Be anxious for nothing, for God has given you an immortal soul and a body that will be one day raised from the dead.”
But these are not the messages God is giving us. Instead, prayer and petition with thanksgiving is set in opposition to anxiety. So let’s dig deep into these three antidotes and see that they do far more than invite us into a new mental state, or teach us to re-frame our current woes. With these 3 things God attacks our anxiety at the root and gives us the grace to fulfill the most repeated command of the whole Bible, “Do not fear”.
What is prayer? As the Catechism puts it, “It is the raising of our minds and hearts to God”. Through prayer, our spirit gathers close to its Creator.
What is petition? It is recognizing that there is evil in the world that needs to be rectified. Petitioning God is not a low form of prayer, or a burden on God, it is the uniting of our wills with God’s will as we look together at what is wrong with the world and long together for the day when it will be all set right.
Greek savvy readers recognize that when Paul wrote the word translated as “thanksgiving”, the Greek word is “Eucharistía”, from which we get the word Eucharist.
So what does the Eucharist do for us? While prayer unites our minds and hearts with God’s and petition unites our wills to God’s, the Eucharist does all of this while also uniting our bodies to Christ’s body. When our prayer and petition is brought to God in the Eucharistic-thanksgiving meal that Christ gave us, we are able to unite His body, blood, soul and divinity to our body, blood, soul and humanity.
So what is the cure for anxiety? In short, union with God through Jesus Christ. He is the reason that we need not fear. Through union with His body we participate in His resurrection. In light of the whole-person union that Paul calls us to in Philippians 4:6, we can view both the future and our own frailty in a new light.
God reveals that uncertainty about the future is not a problem to be solved, but an adventure to be experienced. As such, we can lean on Divine Providence and throw our proverbial lots, trusting that God guides the way it lands.
Proverbs 16:33 tells us that although mankind casts the lot, God decides how it lands. The future is ours to experience with the excitement of abandoning ourselves to Divine Providence.
Proverbs 18:18 tells us that casting lots keeps strong opponents apart. Scripture shows that peace is made not when we know the future, but instead when we trust that God orders it.
We see in Joshua 18:10 that the promised land was divided to God's people by casting lots. As Christians looking ahead to the promised land of heaven, we are meant to realize that it is God’s gracious decision, not ours, that determines our participation in eternity.
Nehemiah 10:34 shows that the gifts that the people were to bring to God were chosen by lots. Often, Christians of goodwill feel as though we are failing God. Nehemiah shows that it is God who decided what we can offer Him. Our job is to stand ready in obedience, listening for His call while cooperating with the grace He has given us for that moment.
Acts chapter 1 records that the Apostles cast lots to decide who would take Judas’ place. Although people choose leaders in both spiritual and temporal authority positions, all of this is ultimately from God’s hand. Out of evil, God always draws out good.
Embracing the fact that things won't turn out the way we plan, even when we have made the “right bets”, is liberating. Our job is to play the hand that God has given us to the best of our ability, knowing that what we receive as a result is guaranteed to “work together for our good” (Romans 8:28), even when we can’t see the big picture.
When God gives us an unexpected gift, rejoice, and offer Him the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving. If He gives us a difficulty, then we should trust that God is requiring something of us and take the opportunity to give of our trust, obedience, endurance, and forbearance with a grateful heart. In such moments, God, like Nehemiah, is calling on us to give of ourselves to help rebuild. A piece of Christ's cross is offered to us to carry in order to include us in the restoration of creation.
Human frailty is not a state of being to be mourned, but rather a reality God chose to share with us in the Incarnation. As such, the evil and pain we experience can be united with the redemptive suffering of Christ and used to atone for our sins and heal the world that mankind has broken.
Philippians 2:7 tells us that God, in the second person of the Trinity, emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave. He didn’t choose to redeem creation from a place of strength and exalted height. Instead, He wanted to do it from the lowest place.
It has been said that every sin can be combated with humility. This is precisely what Jesus chose to use on the cross. When contemplating our own finitude and weakness, we ought to remember that from dust we were made and to dust we will return. Nothing is owed us because out of nothing we were made. Nevertheless, God gave the human person enormous dignity by first shaping us in His own image and then entering material creation in ours.
In the Mass, the priest will often pray prior to the Eucharist sacrifice, “You have fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself”. Yes, the future can destroy us, but we celebrate that in the Eucharistic-thanksgiving sacrifice of Christ, a remedy for this finitude has been fashioned for us out of mortality itself.
You may be wondering, if Paul tells us to be “anxious for nothing”, does that mean that it is a sin to be anxious? Yes and no- look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He felt all of the fear, pain, abandonment, and heartache a person could possibly feel. He was anxious about His upcoming Crucifixion in the sense that He truly felt the weight and the pain associated with its coming. In a more important way, no, He was not anxious, because He had offered His obedience to the Father out of love for both Him and the whole of His fallen creation.
It is trust that turns fear of the future into a sacrifice of praise to God. It is not wrong to feel the weight of anxiety. Jesus has felt this, too. What is wrong is to choose against hope in favor of despair, to choose disobedience to God, or to choose rejecting the grace on offer out of pride.
To conclude, let's look at the story of Zechariah in the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel:
"Now while he (Zechariah) was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John."
There was uncertainty about who would offer the incense. The priests embraced this uncertainty and submitted the outcome to God by casting lots. Priests are human and can mess things up. But the multitude held up the priest in prayer and trusted in God to work in spite of human weakness and frailty.
Maybe those who knew Zachariah were anxious. After all, the following conversation between the angel Gabriel and him didn’t exactly go well. Here is my spiced up translation of the conversation:
Gabriel: Your prayers are answered and your wife will bear a son in her old age.
Zechariah: How will I know that this will come about?
Gabriel: Are you kidding, man? I am the angel Gabriel. I literally just came from Heaven with this message. Two seconds ago, I has hanging out with God. (Muttering: How will I know that this will come about?) You know what, I'm sick of your mouth, Zechariah.
Gabriel: *Strikes Zechariah mute*
Maybe the other priests rolled their eyes when he came up in the casting of lots. Why him? After all, immediately after meeting the angel, he drops the ball. However, Gabriel carried a message for only one priest that day and it was Zechariah.
The annunciation of John the Baptist, the man who would clear the way for Christ, depended not on the holiness of Zechariah, nor on the wisdom of the priest selecting the best person to go into the temple, nor on the foreknowledge that an angel had a message for Zechariah. Ultimately, it depended on God's providential mercy. The prayers that the multitude surrounding the temple prayed were not meant to increase the priest's odds of success. Those prayers were meant to shape their hearts for the reception of God's grace, regardless the shape it took.
The incense that Zechariah offered would have been strong and thick in that small space. The law prescribes two handfuls of incense to be offered. The smoke is meant to sting the eyes and obscure the sight of the holy vessels used on the Day of Atonement. Yes, the incense represented the prayers of the people offered to God, but it also symbolized the stinging haze through which we see God’s redemption on earth.
Like Zechariah we are weak, surprised at God’s plans, thrown into God’s service, sometimes by chance, and called to participate in the redemption of God’s people. We, too, may find ourselves blind to God's coming work, and stung by a haze of confusion. Nevertheless, God has chosen each of us for a purpose and gives us the grace to succeed in following Him, even when like Zechariah we might stumble.
Like Jesus did, our anxiety can be battled by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, because we too can be in union with God. God fashioned the remedy out of mortality itself, through Christ’s body. It is the same body offered to us in communion at the Mass, where the Church prays, petitions, and gives thanks together as we offer ourselves to God and prepare to be sent out to the world in obedience to the Father.