Does God Demand Anxiety?
Eric Hollas, OSB
Sermon Delivered at Saint John’s Abbey
1 February MMXV
I have to confess that of the stacks of books that I read in graduate school, not many occupy prime real estate in my brain today. But of the few I do recall, a book by Eric Robertson Dodds stands out. Dodds was Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, and the book that has stuck with me was entitled Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety.
In its day it was an important book, and I suspect it still has great value. But regardless of its fate, his work opened an entirely new perspective for me. And if I recall the gist of his thesis correctly, it’s this. As entrenched as the pagan ethos was in the classical era, as a logical system it had a fundamental flaw which Christians could point out when they met in the marketplace. Essentially, if you were pagan and you performed the rituals and did them correctly, then the gods were pretty much required to keep to their end of the bargain. And if you didn’t, and somehow offended them, then you could expect enemies at the gate of the city or an earthquake or the plague. It was a simple set of mutual expectations, and they functioned almost like a treaty between the citizens and their gods. And best of all, it required neither a conversion experience nor ethical behavior. Outside the temple, your time was your own.
That was all well and good in theory, but in practice it fell apart when bad things happened to good pagans. Naturally such people asked if they’d done something wrong or done enough. Had the sacrifice gone awry? Had somebody messed up on some little item that had offended the gods? You could never be sure, and this left thoughtful pagans on pins and needles. The thread of anxiety wormed through the lives of such people, and there was no way to put those anxieties to rest.
According to Dodds, the contrast between Christian and pagan in classical times was stark. Christians too were anxious about their salvation — perhaps even more so. But when all was said and done, Christians maximized the anxiety. In fact, said the believer, there was no way you could ever do enough to please God on your own. But that was the point. God did not send an only son so that people could save themselves. Rather, it is Jesus who forgives us despite all our imperfections. It is Jesus who reaches out to us in love, and coincidentally he puts our anxieties to rest.
Every now and again we need to remind ourselves that a life of religious anxiety is not what God expects of us. Martin Luther was certianly not the first to point out our need to rely completely on God for forgiveness, rather than on ourselves. Still, despite those periodic reminders, we all slip back into doubts about our own behavior and God’s willingness to forgive. Should we do more? Is there something I can do to guarantee a positive response from God? And conversely, if there’s nothing I can do, should I give up?
I suspect there’s not a person in here today who isn’t anxious about something. We worry about papers and exams and deadlines. We’re anxious about relationships. We’re worried about our health. But it suffices to say that we all have a lot on our minds that can distract us or raise our blood pressure.
Saint Paul writes about this in his first letter to the Corinthians. Appropriately, he cites the commonplace anxieties that grip us all; and he suggests that if we let them, these anxieties will run away with us. The result is a life that is certainly busy; but there’s also a streak of aimlessness about it. There’s no direction, nor is there the satisfaction that comes from a strong focus or anchor in our lives. We are instead just a jumble of anxieties living from day to day.
In the context of Dodds’ thesis, Jesus in today’s gospel brings a message of focus that allows us to cast aside anxiety and doubt. As the gospel tells us, Jesus spoke with authority, and those who heard him were astounded because the anxiety melted away. Suddenly they had a message that made sense and comforted them. Gone was the mechanical offering of birds and bulls to placate aloof and distant and impersonal gods. Rather, God is forgiving; God is loving; and most of all, God is personal. And despite our sins, God reaches out to us.
But still we are anxious. Naturally for some of us there’s anxiety about God hearing our prayers. We doubt that God could care for someone as insignificant as us. But there are also days of anxiety over whether there even is a god to hear our prayers. Is there something, some sign, that can assure us that this ethical life is worth anything at all.
At the end of the day the leap of faith is just that, and we all confront it. Saint John of the Cross wandered for years through what he called the dark night of the soul before once again he discovered the Lord. And Mother Theresa is only the latest in a long march of saints and sinners whose doubts about the existence of God were excruciating. And yet, through it all she clung to that shred of hope that was Jesus, until finally she came face to face with Jesus in the streets of Calcutta.
You and I both look for someting authoritative to guide our lives. Call it an anchor or a foundation, it’s the one thing on which we might build a happy and good and meangful life. It’s the one north star that guides us through the best and the worst of times, and it’s that one thing that shapes us and gives definition to our lives. It’s the one thing that also saves us when times are awful.
I can’t stand here and pretend to tell you whether or how you will find God in your life. But what I can tell you is that God is there beside you, waiting to be discovered. God is there to whisper in your ear, if you but listen. God is there in the faces of your friends, in the faces of the poor and the sick and the elderly, and in the faces of all to whom you might make a difference.
Morning noon and night we are besieged by all sorts of anxieties. But Jesus invites us to master them and throw them on the rock on which we choose to build our lives. And as one author reminds us, let’s make sure we don’t spend our lives sweating about the small stuff. If we do that, we might very well miss the invitation that Jesus puts to each and every one of us.