A friend of mine likes to jokingly pretend he’s the ultimate egoist and will occasionally crack this quip: “Life is hard because I have to deal with the magnitude me!” Ironically our ultimate struggle in life is exactly the opposite: We are forever dealing with the insubstantiality of me! We are forever fearful that we have no substance, nothing of lasting value, no immortality. We fear that we might ultimately disappear.
Jesus called this anxiety and frequently cautions us against giving into this fear. It’s interesting to note that, for Jesus, the opposite of faith is not doubt or atheism, but anxiety, a certain fear, a certain insecurity. What, more precisely, is this fear
At one level, Jesus makes it clear: We are too anxious, he tells us, about our physical needs, food, drink, clothing, and shelter. As well, we are too anxious about how we are perceived, about having a good name and about being respected in the community. We see this in his warning about how we are to imitate the lilies of the field in their trust in God and his multiple warnings about not doing things to be seen by others as being good. But we’re always anxious about these things, all of us, and our fear here is not necessarily unhealthy. Nature and God have programmed us to have these instincts, though Jesus invites us to move beyond them.
More deeply, beyond our anxiety for our physical needs and our good name, we nurse a much deeper fear. We’re fearful about our very substance. We’re fearful that, in the end, we are really only, as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, vanity, vapor, something insubstantial blown away in the wind. That’s the ultimate anxiety and you see it already in animals, in their irrevocable and often violent drive to get into the gene pool, nature’s form of immortality. We have the same irrevocable (and sometimes violent) drive for immortality, to get into the gene pool. But, for us, that takes on multiple forms: Plant a tree. Have a child. Write a book. In essence, leave some indelible mark on this planet. Guarantee your own immortality. Make sure you can’t be forgotten.
We are always anxious about our substance and immortality and are always trying to create this for ourselves. But, as Jesus, often and gently, points out, we cannot do this for ourselves. No success, no monument, no fame, no tree, no child, and no book, will give ultimately still the anxiety for substance and immortality inside us. Only God can do that. We see one of Jesus’ gentle reminders of this in the Gospels when the disciples come back to him buoyed-up by the success of a mission and share with him the wonderful things they have done. He shares their joy, but then, in essence, gently reminds them: Real consolation does not lie in success, even if it’s for the Kingdom. Real consolation lies in knowing that our “names are written in heaven”, that God has each of us individually, lovingly, and irrevocably, locked into His radar screen. Real consolation lies in recognizing that we don’t have to create our own substance and immortality. God has already done this for us.
But because we are anxious and fearful we try, as St. Paul puts it, “to boast”, that is, to create for ourselves some immortal mark on this planet. Classical Protestant spirituality, following St. Paul, would say that we are forever attempting to “justify ourselves”, to write our own names in heaven, through our attempts to immortalize ourselves.
How do we ever move beyond this? Where can we find the trust to give up on fear and anxiety, especially to move beyond the ceaseless pressure inside us to create some kind of immortality for ourselves?
Only love casts our fear. And our deepest fear can only be cast out by the deepest love of all. To give up on anxiety and on our need to create substance and immortality for ourselves we need to know unconditional love. Unconditional love, whether it comes from God or from another person, gives us substance and immortality. Gabriel Marcel once said that to love another person is to say to him or her: You, at least, will never die!
But unconditional love, this side of eternity, is not easily found. God loves us unconditionally, but, most times, we are too wounded (emotionally, psychologically, and morally) to be able to existentially appropriate that. Simply put, it’s hard to believe that God loves us when it seems no one else does and we struggle to love ourselves. No wonder we are habitually anxious and forever trying to in some way earn love through some kind of measuring-up or standing-out.
So what’s the cure? What will cure our fear and anxiety is a deeper surrender to love, both in terms of our intimacy with those we love in this world and in terms of our intimacy with God. But that surrender requires taking a deep risk. What’s the risk?
To be continued.