Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic Magazine, described his life-long struggle with anxiety in an article written in 2014. With incredible candor, Stossel described some of the most debilitating experiences with his illness:
“I wish I could say that my anxiety is a recent development, or that it is limited to public speaking. It’s not. My wedding was accompanied by sweating so torrential that it soaked through my clothes and by shakes so severe that I had to lean on my bride at the altar, so as not to collapse. At the birth of our first child, the nurses had to briefly stop ministering to my wife, who was in the throes of labor, to attend to me as I turned pale and keeled over… On ordinary days, doing ordinary things—reading a book, lying in bed, talking on the phone, sitting in a meeting, playing tennis—I have thousands of times been stricken by a pervasive sense of existential dread and been beset by nausea, vertigo, shaking, and a panoply of other physical symptoms… Even when not actively afflicted by such acute episodes, I am buffeted by worry.”(1)
While I often worry, I have never experienced the kind of crippling anxiety that Stossel describes in his article, or that I frequently hear about from dozens of individuals in search of relief from chronic anxiety. Yet many of us feel as if we are always on edge or we sense an underlying feeling of dread. For our world is often a very frightening place. Indeed, the time that we live in has been described as the “age of anxiety.” Perhaps this is true, in part, because our 24/7 access to technology ensures that we are immersed in global images and headlines of terrorism, epidemics, the threat of environmental collapse, violent crimes, economic woes, international conflict, and political strife. Particularly in the West, the incidence of anxiety-related diagnoses are increasing among individuals of all ages, including among teenagers, college-students and young adults who have grown up in a technological age full of anxiety-producing images.
Even if one’s experience with anxiety is not as profound or pervasive as Sossel’s, it can still be all-consuming. For at its root is a fearful imagination that generates an outlook of suspicion and inadequacy: The world is a terrifying place; there are not enough resources; no one can be trusted and I am not enough. Viewing one’s existence in this way generates a mindset of scarcity and inadequacy which in turn perpetuates worry and anxiety in an endless cycle.
It is noteworthy, I believe, that Jesus chose to address worry and anxiety among the many other important topics on which we have recorded teachings. In fact, Jesus addressed worry in what has come to be called The Sermon on the Mount, which most scholars agree is the central teaching for following in his way. In this sermon, Jesus presents an alternative imagination—or way of viewing the world—that is not based on fear or scarcity, but on fullness and abundance.(2) Jesus describes the kingdom of God—a way of being in the world based on the way in which Jesus taught, lived, and operated. Here, in the sermon in which Jesus instructs his followers to “love their enemies” and that they are “the light of the world,” Jesus also includes worry as an equally critical topic.
While it is not likely that Jesus had anxiety disorders like Sossel’s in mind, perhaps he included teaching on worry because of its function on multiple levels of human existence. Jesus recognized that anxiety animates a particularly powerful imagination or outlook on life that is grounded in fear: fear that prevents open-hearted living and fear that precludes full-presence in each and every moment. So powerful is this imagination that Jesus prefaces his teaching about worry with a reminder of its totalizing power: the eye is the lamp of the body, so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!(3) In other words, one’s outlook shapes one’s total orientation.
Jesus instructs his followers to not be anxious for their lives. Instead, he lays out a different imagination—again, a deeper perspective that can hold our anxiety about security and want. Jesus uses two illustrations from the natural world to explore this deeper imagination. He asks his followers to consider the way of the birds and to contemplate the beauty of flowers as an antidote for worry and an invitation to reconsider our notion of security. Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns… Observe the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin.
Where I live, we can have very strong winds coming off the bay. When we do, which is quite often, I get to watch the most spectacular array of eagles, gulls, ravens, and hawks coasting on the thermals. They are not in a hurry to get anywhere; they are content to be blown by the wind, even tossed about and blown off course; they do not appear to be consumed by any other task than to be carried by the wind. I don’t see the birds around my house and in my yard losing their feathers or wringing their wings in anguish over finding food—even though they have no guarantee of their next meal. They do not operate out of a sense of scarcity even though they are completely dependent upon their environment for provision and care. In the same way, the variety, intricacy, and beauty of flowers and plants is not gained by striving after those attributes, or as Jesus says by “toil or spinning.”
And Jesus asks us to consider their ways. We, who worry, are tempted to be driven by fear—a fear that drives the relentless accumulation of resources or a fear that tells us we are not enough. Jesus asks, are you not worth more than the birds? Will God not so array you as the flowers are arrayed? Jesus says, look to the ways of the birds and the flowers and see a different imagination, a way of being in the world that is motivated by trust. Such trust arises from faith and dependence upon the God who provides for the birds, and the flowers, and for all of the creation.
The call to an imagination that takes its cues from the birds and the flowers comes from one who was not removed or protected from a world that invoked fear and anxiety. Instead, Jesus entered into that world of scarcity and want, of fear and anxiety. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was in distress to the point of death and like Stossel described of his own anxiety, he was profoundly sweating to the point that it was like drops of blood.(4) Out of this distress, he cried out to God to deliver him from those who would betray and crucify him. And in his Sermon, he reminds his listeners that each day has enough trouble of its own. In the midst of that trouble, Jesus tells his followers that God knows what we need. Like the birds and the flowers—both of which are completely dependent upon an environment that can bring scarcity or abundance—Jesus issues a call to surrender to trust in the One who will provide.
In fact, Jesus suggests, surrender is the only viable option, for he reminds his listeners that we cannot add a single year to our lives by worrying. In fact, we likely lose years of our lives by worrying. And here is another invitation from the birds and the flowers: theirs is an existence completely centered in the present moment. And with a kingdom imagination, it is a present filled with opportunities and possibility. Seek first the kingdom, Jesus says, and all these things will be added to you.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Stossel, Scott. Surviving Anxiety. The Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2014.
(2) Matthew 5-7. See Matthew 6:25-34.
(3) Matthew 6:23.
(4) See Matthew 26:37-38; Mark 14:33-34; Luke 22:44.