Finding Serenity in an Age of Anxiety

Thomas Oden, a renowned pastoral theologian, states that there are three basic problems human beings face in life – guilt, anxiety and boredom. I am not sure if you concur with him in all three areas, but it looks like the one we will resonate most is that of anxiety. 

The reason is obvious – we are in for tough and trying times. The present and unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic has, on one hand, brought the world to a standstill, yet on the other, thrown it into chaos. Its impact on the economy is certainly gloomy and our Governmental leaders are free to admit it.

On a personal level, many of us are hard pressed, trying to hold our jobs, keep pace, or else just “hanging in there.” Imagine those who have lost their jobs. Others have to reckon with relational or mental health issues. Factor in global warming, political tensions and the threat of terrorism and you have the formula for anxiety or even a panic-attack!

The perceived threats come about not only because of the health or economic concerns, but as noted, personal ones as well. It could well be a threat to some values we hold essential to our existence, such as achievement and success, the loss of freedom, meaningful living or the love of someone. Thus, a possible retrenchment, marital and family tensions, and ailing health, can exact a heavy toll on us. In the light of these, it is also natural for us to become anxious.

Anxiety, as defined, is a normal response to a perceived threat that triggers unpleasant symptoms such as a sense of apprehension, helplessness, confusion and negative thoughts.

Many of the anxieties are understandable in the light of the present circumstances, many of which are beyond our control. But what is within our “control” is how we respond to them. One is to allow these anxieties to “paralyze” or “strangle” us. The other is to see it as an invitation or an opportunity for faith. The familiar passage of Matthew 6:25-34 (do read this again) covers both responses.

Worries and anxieties can strangle us and distract our focus on all things important, which Jesus sums, as “to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.”  It is interesting to note that the word anxiety, comes an old Latin word, angere, which means “to strangle or to choke.”

The mind is a very narrow channel. It permits us to think of only one thing at a time. There is not room in a single mind for both purposeful thinking and trivial self-concern. Too often, unfortunately, our mind occupies itself with trivia.

What functions (activities) shall we attend? What shall we eat when we get there? Can we eat that much and stay on diet? What about those fatty desserts? If we don’t eat that, will we appear ungracious?

If a simple dinner invitation can engender so many questions, consider the anxiety one feels about clothes. Many spend their lives buying clothes, washing clothes, putting them on, primping before mirrors, and receiving compliments. We want to look just right for the just-right occasion!

Added to these are many other concerns – our children’s education, purchasing or maintaining a car, buying or investing in a private home, our jobs and careers, our relationships, our health, our future.

While we agonize over these, the flowers in the field, the plants in the gardens grow effortlessly and beautify our earth. The birds of the air are well-fed by our Heavenly Father.

The antidote to anxiety is clearly faith – faith in a God who cares and provides. Faith in a God who is in control of everything.

Many of us are prone to fantasies of self-sufficiency, invulnerability, immortality and even omnipotence! In reality, we are frail, finite, mortal and vulnerable. We want to be masters of our own life and destiny; we try to “play God,” but we soon discover that safety, security and control are elusive.

Anxiety then invites us to faith. Anxiety need not be an absence of faith but an opportunity for faith.  In faith, we call on God for His mercy and grace, and find in Him to be our refuge and strength, our anchor and strong tower. And in so doing, find the resilience and courage we need.

Don’t let anxiety strangle you; instead strangle it with faith and with the right priorities!