Jackson Browne sings in Soldier of Plenty:
God is great, God is good, He guards your neighborhood
Though it’s generally understood, Not quite the way you would
You try to take the slack, Stay awake and watch His back
Anxiety is a powerful driver of human behavior. Just Google “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and see how many hits you get. Anxiety, and the fear it produces, can lead us into all manner of behaviors, most of which, upon our reflection, don’t draw from us a strong testimony to God’s Grace and Providence. And yet, we live in a time when political leaders use our anxieties as weapons of control. They know we’re anxious about things like terrorism, unemployment, and health care, so they play on those anxieties, reassuring us that if we just elect them, then they’ll take care of us and end our anxieties. They want us to believe that God is outflanked by what’s wrong in the world. So, as in Jackson Browne’s song, we need someone powerful to watch “God’s back.” But that’s such a weak god. It’s the god of the functional atheist. Functional atheism means we give assent to God’s Grace and Providence, but we actually live our lives as if we’re not part of a divinely coherent story of redemption in Jesus. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ isn’t stumped by our sins, and certainly not by our anxieties.
Now there’s nothing wrong with having anxiety. Our anxieties can be “canaries in the coal mine,” letting us know that we might need to be careful. It’s how we handle our anxieties that matter. Will they cause in us reptilian reactions or will they help us learn the higher soul-functions of compassion and empathy? Unfortunately, much of modern religion won’t help us cope with anxiety. In the U.S., there’s a direct correlation between states where people classify themselves as “highly religious” and the more frequent use of anti-anxiety medications there. When religion is used to cowl us into believing we always must be happy and content (because we’re told that’s what religion should make us), then of course we may become anxious or depressed. After all, we’re not measuring up to the religion’s expectations. Believe me, I’m all for such medication for those who need it, but maybe we’d have less need for it if we had less of that kind of religion?
The Gospel, however, isn’t about us measuring up to a set of religious expectations. It’s actually about God lovingly recognizing we can’t and then intervening in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel calls that result, Grace. When we rest in God’s grace, our anxieties don’t magically disappear, but they’re placed in the context of God’s providential Grace. Through Grace, we learn that the world isn’t a random, meaningless place. It’s God’s world full of love and meaning. That doesn’t mean the world is perfect. We know better. It’s full of sinners like you and me. But it does mean there’s a telos to the world rooted in and underwritten by God’s grace-filled Providence. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the most recurring words of Jesus are: “Don’t be afraid.” As we’re increasingly grounded in God’s grace, we’ll relieve ourselves from the anxious attempts we make each day to appear to others as if we’re always just fine and well put-together. In our hearts we know that, but we seemingly have to relearn it anew every day.