Anxiety and Time

by Revd. Dr. Mike Michielin

Anxiety is a major problem in today’s culture. It’s rightly called a disease, a misfunction of brain waves and a chemical imbalance, that requires medical intervention and sometimes counselling. I get that. But it’s also a deeply spiritual issue. Why have the cases of anxiety/depression in the last few years drastically risen? And this sudden rise in cases just happens to coincide with a culture that is overwhelmingly rejecting its Christian roots. Is it just a coincidence? I don’t think so. Neither does the bible.

In a recent sermon of my dear friend, Father George Westhaver (Principal of Pusey House, Oxford), he addressed this issue, the connection between spiritual waywardness and anxiety. He turns to Mathew 6.24 and 34 to help him make the connection. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon … Take therefore no thought for the morrow. As a good Anglo-Catholic he always uses the KJV. Jesus is not suggesting we should not plan for tomorrow. Our financial advisors would not like that. More importantly, it would contradict what Jesus says in his parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 14.31-32). The real issue here regarding anxiety is who we worship and how this impacts our understanding of time, specifically the future. Father Westhaver turns to C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters to help him describe this connection between worship, time, and anxiety. In his book, Lewis illuminates the instructions of a senior devil, Screwtape to a junior devil on how to capture and destroy a particular man. ‘The humans’, says the devil Screwtape, ‘live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity’.[1] For the devil Screwtape, the enemy is God:

‘[God therefore] wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present.                      For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience                            analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.’ For                            God, all time is immediately present, for us, only in the present can we choose, and act, and enjoy or hold fast to the presence of                          God.’

Notice what Lewis says. ‘For the present is the point at which time touches eternity’. Sounds like philosophical jargon. It may, but it’s rather profound. What causes us to be anxious? It always comes from not knowing the future. It is ‘only in the present,’ says Lewis, that we ‘can choose, and act, and enjoy or hold fast to the presence of God’. Screwtape wants human beings, his prey, to focus on the future because,

                  ‘the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and                     no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.’

Since the ‘future is unknown to’ us, when we ‘think about it’, we ‘think [about] unrealities.’ And what are these ‘unrealities? The ‘mammon’ or false gods we turn to give us hope when we are anxious. Our anxiety or fear about the future often reveals the idols, false principles, or illusory goals that are lurking in our souls. When we find ourselves in despair and without hope, it is quite possible that we are attached to idols that get in the way of holding fast to the confidence only our Lord’s words can give us.

Our Lord commands us to be not anxious. How do we do that? There are three stages: 1. Purgation or repentance, 2. Illumination and teaching, and 3. Union with God. First, we must repent, and thus purged of, the idols we are worshipping and causing us to be anxious. Whatever we are anxious about – money, relationships, health etc. – has become more important, ‘mammon,’ to us than God. Therefore, we must turn away from the ‘unrealities’ of the future to what’s real in the present.

Second, we need illumination and growth in understanding. Jesus says, consider the lilies of the field and how they grow. Anxiety is often driven by a lack of wisdom and in particular, God’s wisdom. If God can create an intricately, beautiful world, surely you can trust in God’s providential care, no matter what happens. And here is where the past is helpful. God illuminates and increases our understand as we recall God’s faithful acts of salvation, how He delivered Israel from Pharaoh, protected David from his enemies, turned Joseph’s enslavement into an opportunity to save his people that culminates in the sending of His Jesus Christ to die on the Cross for our sins and rise from the dead. We read the bible so we can recall the many ways God has been faithful to His people in the past so we can trust He will be faithful to us in our future.

Finally, and most importantly, the point of purgation and illumination is so we can be united with God which is the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. I can’t describe to you exactly what experiencing God’s presence looks like. We don’t physically experience Him as we do with each other. Still, in the Spirit, we can sense His presence as feelings of deep joy, peace, and being loved. When you do experience God’s joy, love, and peace, it will displace your anxieties. Now, other earthly gods can displace your anxiety too, but only for a short while. For instance, you may get the good news you don’t have cancer, will not lose money on a business venture, or the Toronto Maple Leafs have had a successful regular season. But what happens when (and it’s only a matter of time), you get a bad medical prognosis, lose money on the stock market, and once again the Maple Leafs loose in the first round of the playoffs? Your anxiety floods back in. Only your heavenly Father’s joy, love, and peace can displace and keep out of your heart, soul, and mind your anxiety. For that to happen keep focused on the present.

 

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Anxiety and Time