In 1977 Mel Brooks released a comedy entitled High Anxiety. Even though Brooks played the leading role, the film did not do as well as expected. Why? In 1977 people did not find anxiety funny… they still don’t.
In fact, “High Anxiety” is probably a good name for what we are going through today. It is a frightening time. Not only are we in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, but we have also purposefully shut down the economy. As a result, many are out of work, and others soon may be. Add to this mix the anxiety of isolation associated with the need for social distancing, and an argument could be made that we are putting society at risk from chronic stress both psychologically and physically. As one author writes, “The challenge is that anxiety has become as contagious as COVID-19.”
Yet, I would suggest there is something much more significant going on here than a medical pandemic. One of the fundamental cornerstones of our current secular culture is being exposed. That idea is embodied in the last stanza of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
We believe that we are in control, the masters of our own destiny. Then, an event like this comes along, and as a society, we must confess we have no control over our current circumstances. At best, we can only control our reactions to the situation in which we find ourselves.
While this often happens to individuals because of a loss of a loved one or the diagnoses of an incurable disease, I cannot think of an example within my lifetime where this has happened on such a large scale.
A Christian Response to Anxiety
As Christians, how should we see this? The Apostle James speaks to this very issue:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
We must embrace one of the cornerstones of the Christian worldview, God is in control of all things and is working everything out according to His plan for our good and his glory. (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2–4) This does not mean we are passive. We actively seek out God’s will in everything we do and diligently strive toward fulfilling God’s call on our lives to bring more flourishing to his creation. Yet, we must hold these plans loosely, being prepared to change them depending on the circumstances.
In the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus tells us not to be anxious about our lives. (Matt 6:25-34) Then he tells us how to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat, “…seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
The problem with the men in James’ story is not what they are doing; it is why.
I hope some of you sang In Christ Alone this week. Stuart Townend ends the first verse with these lines:
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—Here in the love of Christ I stand.
We love him because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19) Standing in the love of Christ is the source of all the motivation we need to do what he has called us to do. To become an interdependent part of what God is doing in the world.
Our Call to Action
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an excellent opportunity to do two things.
First, examine our own lives. What is truly motivating our behavior, what is the reason for our striving? Have idols like success, wealth or significance become the focus of our lives?
Second, there has never been a better time to share the only real antidote to fear and the anxiety it brings, standing in the love of Christ.
My friend Randy Newman once said, “Never pass up the opportunity to have a significant conversation.” We have the opportunity, what are we going to do with it?