Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Two Kinds of Anxiety

“I want you to be free from anxieties.”

Now, you may or may not remember this, but it wasn’t the apostle Paul who wrote those famous words “casting all your anxieties upon [God], because he cares for you.” That was another apostle whose name begins with ‘P’.

All the same, many — maybe most — Christians have at one time or other heard these words appropriated to remind them to let go of all their cares and concerns, and hand their worries over to God, who loves us. Some of us heard the line from our mothers, and so the idea comes with a boatload of sentiment attached to it.

What it should not become is an excuse for passivity.

Parade, Meet Rain

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but the argument may legitimately be made that the anxieties Peter had in view when he penned these words are anxieties of a very specific sort. They are the near-panic that ensues on those rare occasions when we submit ourselves to the appropriate authority figures in our lives and in the church; when we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt us; when we show ourselves willing to be led where we would not ordinarily choose to go because it is God himself who is leading us.

The anxiety about which Peter is writing is that stomach-churning sense of impending personal risk that ensues when a wife determines she will obey her husband no matter the cost despite the fact that she is a much better student of the Bible, has a IQ two standard deviations higher than he does, and the husband she has committed herself to obeying has a track record of years of highly questionable decision-making. Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord despite his occasional failure in leadership. Her spiritual children are obedient wives who “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”

That kind of anxiety.

Falling Elevators and Teary All-Nighters

The anxiety about which Peter is writing is that sort of falling-elevator feeling you get when you walk into a meeting with a trio of elders about a financial dispute with a fellow believer and resolve to let them sort it out rather than suing him as he so richly deserves. One of the elders is a plumber, the second a welder, and the third a full-time worker with almost no real-world experience. They might not understand finance. They might get the whole thing wrong. For all you know, they might conclude you should be paying him. But you are determined to honor God by staying out of the court system and keeping your dispute private.

That kind of anxiety.

The anxiety about which Peter is writing is the teary-eyed, up-all-night sort of anxiety that presents itself when you have been dating a boy your Christian parents insist is no good for you. You know better, of course. He has a very good heart, despite his lack of education, despite not holding a job for more than a few months at a time, despite the fact that he’s in his twenties and you are not even close, and despite the fact that he has a son out of wedlock with another girl who used to go to your church. But that was three years ago, after all. He’s changed, and your parents just will not give him another chance. So you’re walking into the living room to say that he’s asked you to marry him, but you can’t do it without their blessing. And you really mean it. And you’re almost surely not going to get that blessing you’re looking for.

Those kinds of anxieties.

Submission-Related Anxiety

Anxieties. The kind you get when you entrust your future to fallible humans because that is what God has commanded. When you subject yourself to others despite knowing that they will probably not understand you and that you will probably not get what you want, but you do it for the simple reason that subjecting yourself to the spiritual authorities God has put over you is right and it pleases him. The anxieties Peter has in mind are submission-related. That is the subject of his first epistle, at least from the middle of chapter 2 through the end of the book: submission, and the suffering that often accompanies it.

Peter says we can absolutely cast these sorts of anxieties on our God; the ones we take upon ourselves for the sake of his kingdom and his glory. They are, after all, his concern. He’s the one telling us to submit; to turn away from self-will and self-determination, allowing the decisions of others to impact us even when that impact is painful. Of course God has a stake in how we feel about the consequences of obeying him at risk to ourselves. He does not promise to give us exactly what we want when we submit to the authorities in our lives, but he does promise to exalt us “at the proper time”. Perhaps that may even be in this life.

There is no real indication in 1 Peter that the apostle is speaking about anxiety more generally, and no blanket promise in these words that God will help us carry the sort of emotional burdens we freely and pointlessly heap on ourselves. He is promising to help us carry the stresses we incur for his sake, not our own.

Those Other Anxieties

Sorry if that bursts any bubbles. I think if you read the verse again in its local and larger context, a good number of our readers will probably agree with me, assuming they haven’t noted this already.

But what does all this business about anxiety in 1 Peter have to do with my original quote, which is actually from the apostle Paul in Corinthians? Good question. Well, I think what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians is those other kinds of anxieties; the ones we can choose to do something about.

You know the kinds of anxieties I mean. The ones we get from taking a job that we’re not really qualified for. The ones we get when we insist on living in the city instead of the country because we can make more money working there. The ones we get when, for the sake of taking a vacation every year and owning a second car, both partners go out to work instead of just the husband. The kinds of anxieties we get when we push our kids to do things for which they are not suited because we never had the chance to do them. The kind of pressure we feel under when we are getting into our late twenties and assume without too much thought that we ought to start looking to partner up because all our friends are doing it. The kind we get from working unnecessary overtime because we want to get ahead.

When Paul says, “I want you to be free from anxieties” [literally, amerimnos, “without cares”], he is not talking about the same thing Peter is talking about. Not at all. The anxieties that arise from obedience to God are a necessary part of the Christian life. They are not to be avoided; they are to be managed by casting them on a God who cares for us. Paul is not talking about dodging those. He is talking about anxieties we take on voluntarily, and which we could easily avoid if we choose to. He wants the Corinthians to be free from the cares that come from “the things that are of the world”, not the “things of the Lord”.

Bearing Unnecessary Burdens

In the immediate context of his comment about being free from anxieties, Paul gives several examples of how people in Corinth might complicate their lives by assuming emotional burdens they were never intended to carry:
  • One possibility is that Gentile Corinthians might feel compelled to be circumcised because of pressure from Judaizers, or that Jews in the Corinthian church might feel pressure to remove the marks of circumcision to avoid appearing to condone legalism. These are not burdens Paul wanted for his readers. They did not matter in the first century. They do not matter today.
  • A second possibility is that Christian slaves might become anxious that their bondservice made them second-class believers. They might become convinced that their primary goal in life must be to extricate themselves from slavery. Again, Paul says this is not the case; a Christian slave is at no spiritual disadvantage. He should be content in his current situation rather than agonizing about it, while remaining open to the possibility of freedom should it present itself.
  • A third possible source of anxiety involved marriage. Some who were single might feel pressure to be married; others who were married might feel frustrated that a less-than-perfect marriage was holding them back. Paul reminds his readers that neither marriage nor singleness are sinful states in themselves, and that marital status should not be allowed to become a source of anxiety that might dominate their thought lives and assume a greater importance than it had any right to.
Having said all this, he sums it up with “I want you to be free from anxieties.” We can hardly mistake his meaning now. He is saying that it is of great importance for Christians not to allow themselves to become distracted from service for Christ by the ordinary concerns of the world.

So DO Something!

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that unlike the Christians addressed in Peter’s first epistle, whose obedience brought into their lives anxieties that could not be avoided and needed special help from God, the Christians Paul wrote to in Corinth were being asked to take some personal responsibility for their situations. He does not tell them that the remedy for their various anxieties is prayer (though of course prayer never hurts), but rather some kind of adjustment to their conduct, thinking or choice-making.

In each of Paul’s examples, something had to actually be done. The men anxious about the circumcision question were to refuse to be pressured into surgery of one sort or another. They needed to stand firm and ignore the opinions of worldlings. Slaves were to think differently about themselves and take the opportunities available to them. They were to change their minds. Those anxious about the marriage question were to make whatever decision would be least distracting for them, getting married or staying single. What they were not to do was fuss about it.

My point is this: anxieties have different causes and different solutions. Where our circumstances cannot morally be changed, we must present our cares to God to help us deal with them. The confidence we have for doing that is that God is personally invested in our lives and concerned with our feelings.

But where the circumstances that cause us anxiety are within our control ... well, maybe we ought to go ahead and change them, don’t you think?

No comments :

Post a comment