Love Conquers Anxiety

Helmut Thielicke was a German preacher during WW2, given the heavy task of shepherding people through their darkest and most traumatic years. Ten of his wartime sermons were collected, translated into English by Geoffrey Bromiley, and published under the title The Silence of God (Eerdmans: 1962). In one sermon Thielicke addresses the anxiety of the day with these words of reassuring comfort.

The surprising thing in the biblical message is that it finds in love the opposite of fear and anxiety. There is no terror – one might equally well say anxiety – in love, we are told in 1 John [4:15–19]. The surprising thing is that anxiety is not opposed by fortitude, courage or heroism, as one might expect. These are simply anxiety suppressed, not conquered. The positive force which defeats anxiety is love. What this means can be understood only when we have tackled anxiety in what we have tried to see as its final root. That is to say, anxiety is a broken bond and love is the bond restored. Once we know in Christ that the world has a fatherly basis and that we are loved, we lose our anxiety. This is not because the powers referred to have gone. On Dürer’s picture of the Horseman, Death and the Devil they lurk on the way. But they have lost their strength. To use a simple comparison – and simplicity is needed in ultimate questions – I need have no fear even in the darkest forest when I hold my father’s hand and I am sure of it. (pp 8–9)

Anxious Impatience

Craig M. Gay, in his book The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans, 1998), seeks to expose the symptoms of worldliness in the postmodern world. The organization of the book is quite thoughtful and the author builds a new theme off the previously theme, eventually tying all the themes together.

In a very basic form, the book develops around five progressive building blocks:

(a) Control—Man seeks to control his world through technology and rationalism. By this he refers to the impulse in the postmodern heart to control every area of life through technology, not merely to improve certain areas of life.

(b) Secularity—The aspirations of the modern man to this techno-rational control of the world leave little room for any god, save the “self-defining self.” God—if ever referenced at all—becomes a “god of the gaps,” a god whose necessity is limited to the areas of life that are outside of our control. Think “acts of god.”

(c) Individualism—The forces of control and secularity combine to encourage individualization, a fix-it-yourself mentality that breaks apart personal relationships and community.

(d) Anxiety—Man becomes an individualized self. But “the assumption of godlike responsibilities has turned out to be a heavy burden and that we have become increasingly anxious beneath the weight of this burden” (p. 308).

(e) Impatience—Combine control, secularity, individualism, and the anxiety from these godlike responsibilities and you end up with “what is possibly the master theme of modernity, and now of ‘postmodernity’: that of impatience” (p. 308).

This progression is helpful. And when the author begins to weave together the anxious impatience of our world his work really proves practical. Because, as Christians, we are called to cultivate an eschatological worldview and the spiritual disciplines of waiting and watching, distinctives directly undermined by modern forms of worldliness. I will leave the topics of prayer and community is for another post altogether.

I mention the five building blocks of his book because it provides an introduction to an important quote from the conclusion on the topic of “anxious impatience.” Gay writes:

…anxious impatience is evident in virtually all aspects of modern social and cultural existence, and not least in the increasingly frantic pace with which so much of life is carried on today. It is largely by reason of impatient frustration, after all, that we have been persuaded to try to perform the functions of the hidden—and, indeed, seemingly absent—God.

“God is either unwilling or incapable of helping us,” we say in effect, “therefore we have no choice but to help ourselves, to take matters into our own hands, and to try to engineer a habitable environment for ourselves.” Ironically, it is this same anxious impatience that has consequently moved us to surrender ourselves so naively to the dehumanizing techniques of the modern world.

Indeed, it is anxious haste that has incited us to mortgage ourselves to technical rationality for the sake of its promise of control. “After we have taken control of the world,” so we tell ourselves, implying that taking control of the world must somehow enable us to take control of ourselves, “then we will discover how to be human persons again.” But the horizon keeps receding, and we always seem to be waiting for the promised control to be established.

The longer we are forced to wait, however, the more anxious we become; and the more anxious we become, the more prone we are to placing what little hope we have left into the possibility of technical-rational control, and thus to giving ourselves over to dehumanizing modern systems; and so forth. It is an unfortunately vicious cycle.

Modern secular society is thus a culture of anxious impatience, a culture in which so much stress has been placed upon human abilities and human agency that the modern mind has effectively lost the ability to trust anything, or more importantly anyone, else.

—Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 310–311.

So it’s not difficult to see why our postmodern culture find it difficult to understanding the value of faith, why it finds trusting in God difficult, why it’s unlikely that man waits patiently for God to lead and act, and how the cultural assumptions impinges upon God and distracts the heart by anxious impatience. Even as Christians, we feel the weight of this unbelief, this worldliness.

And so if you are looking for a book to help make sense of the modern world and to expose the subtleties of worldliness (and its costs), this book is an excellent—albeit studious—starting point.

Anxious Impatience

Craig M. Gay in his book The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist argues that worldliness is life severed from daily dependence upon God. In part Gay argues that worldliness is exposed whenever we grow anxiously impatient. Why? The reason is simple.

In the modern world we grow familiar with technological advancement. As the innovations multiply we are increasingly capable of controlling the world we live. Or so we think. Convinced we have harnessed some level of control, we actually become godlike, bearing a divine weight that none of us, not all of us collectively, can carry. And although we are surrounded by evidence that our techno-rational control of the world is insufficient, we are not quick to turn to God but ironically we are prone to look for further control of the world, which further roots our modern hope in technology. This in turn heaps a further weight of responsibility upon our finite shoulders.

Thus by channeling our anxious impatience into further technology we are left with an eroding theology that refuses to wait upon God. We find in the midst of technological advancement—which itself is a gift of God—that no matter how much control of the world we believe we have achieved we cannot free ourselves from anxious impatience.

In fact our anxious impatience drives us deeper into what Gay calls “the dehumanizing techniques of the modern world” (p. 310). As we praise human potential we are, in fact, praising technological advance. As we praise technology we grow increasingly impersonal. As we become increasingly impersonal we become incapable of trusting in anyone, certainly not a god. Thus the modern man finds it impossible to trust patiently in God, impossible to walk by faith and not sight, and is found to be clutching a worldview that is not nourished by a healthy anticipation of Christ’s return. Our anxious impatience in the modern world is a signal that (to some degree) we have given up on our faith and trust in God and no longer patiently anticipate His timing.

Please do not misunderstand. Technology is not itself sinful or wrong. I believe technology is a gift of God’s common grace. However when we find ourselves growing impatient and anxious in this world we should be concerned that our appreciation for technology has overstepped its role and has displaced God. Anxious impatience is a signal that we seek to control our world and our own lives. Thus when anxious impatience appears in our hearts, it should be truthfully interpreted as a manifestation of God-ignoring worldliness. Only by grace and a firm faith in God can we be freed from the anxious impatience of the modern world.