Anxiety is a tricky subject. Within the psychological literature, anxiety is often associated with fear. Whereas fear often arises when we are confronted with a specific threat (whether real or perceived), anxiety is a more anticipatory fear or worry in which we feel a sense of unease about a forthcoming event the outcome of which is less-than certain. Anxiety, in some sense, takes us to the worst case scenario. We highlight or foreground the people, results, or decisions that could change our lives in ways we perceive to be detrimental or, at least, uncomfortable.
Anxiety can be problematic in a number of ways. It can become debilitating or prompt us to adopt a defensive posture within the world to protect ourselves from the potential “risks” we’ve identified. When we anticipate a threat, we generally have a limited range of responses lying somewhere between complete disengagement from and avoidance of the anticipated threat and unrelenting effort to control what can’t be controlled and make certain what will always remain uncertain.
Anxiety is not without its utility. There is often wisdom in considering the risks associated with an upcoming event. Identifying potential threats can assist us in being prepared as we move into uncertain situations (and they are all uncertain). Rightly recognizing relevant threats can alert us to the sort of work we need to do as we seek to navigate the inevitable challenges we will face within a broken world.
Anxiety’s utility to prompt us to rightly recognize relevant threats and to prepare ourselves for those threats begs a few questions:
- How do we rightly recognize relevant threats?
- What does it mean to be prepared as we, particularly Christians, face them?
- How can we learn contentment if we are constantly battling uncertainty and insecurity?
How Do We Rightly Recognize Relevant Threats?
I’ve attempted to answer question 1 above in two other articles (“Discerning and Discipleship” and “A Framework for Discipled Discernment”). As we look out on the world, we highlight or foreground certain aspects of our environment while backgrounding others. The aspects we foreground are what we’ve deemed “relevant” in the moment from our unique point-of-view. Our point-of-view, however, is both flawed and incomplete. As Chrisitans, we are in the process of learning to look with eyes that see and listen with ears that hear so that we can rightly recognize the relevant aspects of our environment. For followers of Jesus, God, with all His sovereignty, wisdom, and benevolence, is always relevant…always foregrounded…despite the situations we face.
What Does It Mean to Be Prepared?
Following up on his teaching regarding the inability to serve God and money (Matt 6:24), Jesus goes on to offer a lesson on anxiety. He encourages those listening not to be anxious “about your life” (6:25) becasue: (a) God provides for his creation (6:26, 28-30), (b) anxiety will not solve the problem of uncertainty (6:27), and (c) seeking seeking security in material possessions is a worldly endeavor (6:32). Those who follow Christ do not seek food and drink and clothing, but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (6:33).
Jesus is gesturing toward what it means to be prepared in the face of uncertainty. Being anxious about what we eat, drink, or wear to the point that we seek such things first rather than seeking first his Kingdom and righteousness is what we are trying to avoid. Trusting God by seeking his kingdom and righteousness first does not mean we don’t seek to meet our physical needs. It means that we seek to meet those needs in ways conditioned by discipleship.
Far from minimizing the very real concerns of those who wake up each day not knowing whether or if they will have enough food for their family, clean water to drink, or sufficient clothing to wear, Jesus is highlighting (i.e., rightly realizing the relevant aspects of the situation) the presence and provision of God and the wisdom of following him.
To be prepared, then, requires that we (a) become the sort of people who seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness and (b) develop the character sufficient to do so despite the challenges we face and the anxieties we may feelth. If we recognize, as Jesus does, that the primary threat we face involves backgrounding God and making Him less relevant in our lives that food, drink, and clothing, part of what we must do to prepare to meet that threat is to learn to “want well.” We must learn to be content.
How Can We Learn Contentment?
If anxiety reflects our concern that we will not have or get what we think we need to be secure and fulfilled, contentment reflects our belief that what we have is what we need. Contentment does not require an absence of desire. It is possible to be content with what we have while still wanting more; however, it is not possible to be content when wanting more (of the wrong thing) drives us to orient our lives toward getting more (of the wrong thing).
We are challenged by our own misdirected desires which are often reinforced by other influences (see Influences on Discipleship and Greed which Is Idolatry: Following Jesus in an Age of Consumption). While we may be challenged, we are not controlled. In Christ we are given the resources to redirect our desires so that, like Paul, we learn to be content in any situation (Phil 4:11). This redirection comes as we begin to live according to God’s wisdom.
The key to contentment is not the elimination of desire, but a realignment of desire so that what we want more than anything is to be of service to God…to be useful to him (see Becoming Useful to God or purchase Useful to God). Being useful to God is not just about developing our God-given gifts, but about remaining open to all God desires to do through you. As we align our desires ever more closely with God’s desires, we find contentment.
Contentment will always elude us if we seek to meet our own needs in our own strength. We will live in anxiety because the world is out of our control. Life is always less settled and less certain than we would like to think. Yet, Christians are secure. We are no longer vulnerable in an ultimate sense to sin and death because Jesus Christ has conquered both. It is not that we welcome suffering, but that we refuse to avoid suffering by playing the world’s game according to the world’s rules. We find contentment through faithfulness knowing that there is no better way to live, no alternative that will result in a more favorable or certain outcome, than the obedience of faith.