What God Says to Anxious People

There is a slogan promoted by an atheist group that appears on buses and billboards that says, “There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This presumes something about God and something about us. It presumes that God – if he does exist – is a kind of parsimonious killjoy, interested only in curtailing human fun and freedom. Since God probably doesn’t exist, then all we need to do now is to relax and let the good times roll.

Which leads us to what the saying presumes about human nature. It presumes that worry is caused by our imagined existence of a moralistic God. When God is dispensed then our worry will drain away and our vats will be naturally filled with enjoyment. It presumes that our natural proclivities will lead us into peace and our fine instincts will lead us into freedom.

The problem with these presumptions is that reality and our own experience tell us a different story. If simply taking God out of the equation would solve our problems with worry, then why, as Psychology Today stated, does the average teenager of today have the same amount of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950’s? Since the 1950’s church attendance has been on the decline, but anxiety has been on the rise.

There are many ways to talk about what the Bible calls original sin. One way is to say that we have a human tendency to mess things up. We might envision the way something should go for ourselves or for others, but we inevitably do something or some things to mess it up. As the poet E. A. Robinson asks, “What broken link, / what small satanic sort of kink / was in his brain, that withheld him from the destinies / that came so near to being his?”

What’s interesting is that every person shares this malady to one degree or another. And our tendency to mess things up usually doesn’t lead to enjoyment and relaxation, as the slogan implies. Author Francis Spufford says:

“What the atheist bus says is: there’s no help coming. What it means is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own… It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St. Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.”

In this morning’s reading from Galatians, Paul gives us a more realistic view of the human situation as well as the help that is coming and has, in fact, already come. He gives us a desultory catalogue of where our natural propensities take us. It includes “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy” which qualify as exactly nobody’s definition of enjoyment or relaxation. The other list, which comes by the Spirit, is a far, far better way to live. Because, anyone who has been in the grip of jealousy, anger, or envy knows what cruel taskmasters they are.

Marilynne Robinson says, “anxious people are anxious for a reason,” and that reason may be life itself, the “seriousness of being human, an inheritor and forbear of responsibility and failure.” I know that I will sometimes wake up in the night feeling anxious, and I know I am not alone, as anxiety is a major player among our culture’s woes right now. Sometime the anxiety stems from some kind of unseemly strife, jealousy, or anger from the previous day. Oh, if I could just undo what I did. Oh, if she could just unsay what she said to me.

Sometimes the anxiety is just free-form and floating, not attached to anything big, usually focused on the ridiculous: playing in a tennis tournament, how many calories does a fried egg have, you really spent how much on that? Sometimes the big-ticket items take the dark stage: fear of loss and death, you’re out of control in this arena but you’re covering it up (you think), but for how long until you’re exposed? Will you really, finally end up all alone? Those are just a few tickets; there are drawers full of others in your bedside table, just waiting to be punched another night.

In nearly every case, our anxiety is rooted in subterranean issues that gush up through whatever fault lines have been opened up by the conflict du jour. I can guarantee you – telling myself to stop worrying and enjoy life has a zero sum effect at 3 a.m. That’s why it is so helpful to have a medicine cabinet with a little pill you can take, or split in half, depending on the severity of the anxiety’s specter.

But medicine, as helpful as it is, and as widespread as it is now prescribed, isn’t enough on it’s own to address the seriousness of being human. As Robinson says, we do need medicine for our anxiety–but we need more. “It may be necessary to offer ourselves palliatives, but is drastically wrong to offer or to accept a palliative as if it were a cure.”

St. Paul begins this morning’s passage with something like a cure, and if not a cure, or at least the help that has come. What does God say to anxious people? “For freedom Christ has set you free.” This is not to suggest that once you know and accept Jesus Christ your anxiety will magically disappear. But it is to say, as the text suggests, that in profound ways Christ has set us free. And for what has He set us free? He has set us free for freedom.

For freedom Christ has set you free. There are no qualifiers on that statement, on that freedom. And there are many ways one could go with what this means, as the word freedom suggests. I’ll just offer some ways Paul talks about in the passage.

First is we are set free from the bondage of sin. We are free from a life that is necessarily consumed with “the works of the flesh,” the aforementioned bag of snakes that mess things up in life. This, of course, is not to say that we will no longer be angry, or envious, or factious. As St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we call God a liar.” In Christ, however, we experience episodes of deliverance from our own bondage; we have a way to deal with our sin through confession and absolution. We are even given periods of peace that pass our understanding. Because for freedom Christ has set us free, we no longer have to goosestep through the works of the flesh like prisoners on a forced march.

We are also set free from the power of the Law. This means we are given the freedom to fail. I believe that this gets to the root of much anxiety. Didn’t the singer say, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”? Since Christ has set us free from the Law, which operates on a performance basis, you are set free to fail…and still be loved. Knowing that we are loved in failure means that when some of those specters that haunt us at 3 a.m. actually come to pass, we find that we will be ok on the other side of them. There are times when you’ve been through the wringer and you’re still ok.

This doesn’t mean you still don’t pass through them though. Tim Kreider, in a series on anxiety in The New York Times, writes:

“years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”

Perhaps passing through and being known in our failure is what Christ has set us free to do. Our friend Chris Wiman wrote a poem called “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians” about the hazards of trotting out empty platitudes week after week to “peaceless parishioners” with “boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages and bored marriages.” He, the preacher, concludes, “the truth is our only savior is failure.”

It is true that we have a Savior who was seen as a failure. He didn’t deliver his people out of political bondage. He died between two scoundrels. Even in His risen form, He has failed to stamp out all sources of sin and anxiety. We still die.

Yet, if anyone has the authority to say to anxious people, “Don’t worry, enjoy your life,” it is our Savior Himself. He passed through the failure of the cross and grave and found himself more than ok on the other side. Because God does exist, on the other side of your failure you just might find “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”