In his book Confronted by Grace, John Webster has some great insight into the way Jesus’ famous teaching about worry and anxiety in Matthew 6 applies to our current situation:
“Do not be anxious,” Jesus tells us. What’s the anxiety in mind here? The anxiety which Jesus here exposes to the light of his judgement has two elements: It’s a state of the soul, and it’s a form of activity.
The anxiety of which the gospel speaks here is more than simply feeling worried; it’s more than the passing apprehension which all of us feel about going to the dentist or facing a difficult interview. Those kinds of apprehensions are a matter of fear; we know what troubles us, and with the right sort of determined effort to screw up our courage, we resolve to face them. But anxiety is a sickness. Anxiety is that sickness of the soul in which what might happen fills us with dread. When we’re anxious, our future as a whole, the possibilities which stretch out ahead of us, becomes a matter not of hope but of terror.
Anxiety is a terrifying shadow of our uniquely human capacity of hope. When we hope, we project ourselves into the future, imagining what it may be and stretching out toward it with longing. But when we’re anxious, our imaginations busy themselves with images of threats which the future has in store for us. We fill in the gap between now and the future with all sorts of disturbing possibilities, and they eat us up. Anxiety makes us feel that the world has somehow slipped through our fingers and that we have no control over our own destiny.
It’s this fear which drives anxiety into activity. Fear properly issues in resolution and courage; anxiety produces a sort of helpless, unfocused busyness. Courage is a gathering of myself and my resources so that I can face what makes me afraid with a kind of single-minded clarity of purpose. Courage, that is, clarifies and concentrates the soul. But anxiety does the opposite; it dissipates our energies. Above all, it makes us think we can survive only if we take charge. We have to be omni-competent if we are to shed our anxieties, and so we climb onto the merciless treadmill of working harder and harder, somehow to keep everything together. Above all, anxiety is bound up with our desperate need for security – the need to know that we will be OK, that we will survive intact, that at the end of the day we will be.
This sickness of the soul is, of course, not only a private grief. It takes cultural and political form, too: Societies and institutions can be anxious in their way, driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. Institutional rigidity, the demarcation of the world into friends and enemies, competitiveness, and the elaboration of forms of social control, all express the same deep-seated worry that we may not have a future unless we make one for ourselves.
This was written in 1998. Doesn’t that last paragraph sound like it was written this week? Driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. That’s our world, right? And it was Jesus’ world, too. Famine, plague, foreign occupation. And yet, there he sat, saying, Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying? Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Like it was so obvious.
…to those terrors, too, as well as to our personal nightmares, Jesus says: “Do not be anxious.”
How on earth can he say that? How on earth can he expect us to take him seriously? To answer these questions, we need to listen very carefully to what’s being said to us here in the gospel. Jesus isn’t reinforcing some bit of conventional human wisdom. He’s not, as it were, coming into the midst of the human situation and lending the weight of his authority to a truism which has been known all down the ages – that fussing and fretting damages the equilibrium of human life, that anxiety distracts and hurts us. No: He is telling us, his hearers, that what rules out anxiety is the sheer fact of himself. He himself, Jesus Christ, the presence of God’s kingdom, the rule of God in creation – that’s what finally shows the truth of our anxiety. In him, it’s finally shown to be the sickness which it is.
What is, then, the anxiety from which Jesus seeks to detach us? Very simply, it’s our failure to grasp and live out of the significance of Jesus Christ. Anxiety is our failure – sometimes from fear, sometimes from pride – to allow that, in and as the man Jesus, God rules all things in heaven and earth, and therefore that our lives are in God’s good hands. When Jesus summons us from anxiety, he injects into the world of our responsibilities something utterly new, utterly different. He breaks the world of anxiety apart by saying that this world – the world of daily life and care, the world of work and responsibility – isn’t a world in which we and we alone have to bear the burden of ensuring that we survive. This world is the place of God’s kingdom; here, God’s rule in Jesus Christ is the great new factor.
Because this is true, Jesus tells us, we may come to learn that daily life is not a place where we’re devoured by the need to shore ourselves up against disaster. Daily life is the place where we encounter God as the one whom he calls our “heavenly Father.” Who is this Father? He’s the one who knows our needs, because we are not hidden from him; and he’s the one who provides for our needs, because he loves what he has made in all its fragility and impermanence – because he desires that we should flourish. And if God is like that – God isn’t a threat hanging over us but the astonishing Father of lavish grace – then anxiety is a kind of illusion: It doesn’t match up to what reality is truly like.
What does match up to reality, Jesus tells us, is faith.
Faith sees the truth about God and God’s merciful, gracious kingdom which is embodied for us in Jesus Christ.
Faith is not just some crazy hope against evidence (indeed, when it becomes that it is itself a kind of sickness). Quite the opposite: Faith is that deeply healthy state of the soul in which we let God be God. It’s that free, unhesitating, joyful assent to the one in the midst of whose kingdom we stand secure.