There are two types of anxiety. One is an acute, palpable panic. In these moments, we are keenly aware of our anxiety. Perhaps I nearly hit another car, and for the next 10 minutes my heart is racing. Or an advertisement for some medicine provokes in me an uneasiness related to my own mortality. Or I come to work expecting to be raked over the coals for my performance of late. This first type of anxiety I feel in my gut.
The other type of anxiety is more subdued. It is a chronic, structural nervousness. This anxiety is not a reaction to a situation and does not “run its course.” Rather, it is always with us, undetected and integrated into our psyches. It is this nervousness which leads us ever to wonder how we will be perceived, to be offended quickly, to react impulsively to conflict, to cast blame, to get uptight and to see life as a contest.
The first type of anxiety is noticeable, unpleasant and temporary. But the second is so constant and ingrained that we don’t think of it as anxiety. We think it is simply the way human life works.
So when we read where Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life” (Matthew 6:25), we assume he is talking about the first type of anxiety. We paraphrase him as saying, “Don’t get all worked up and panicked about how you’ll make the mortgage or what clothes will compliment your physique the best or where the groceries will come from. Take a breath. God’s got you!”
However, Jesus’ prohibition against anxiety, if I can call it that, is not a stand-alone passage on worry. It is part of a larger teaching on greed. In the sentence immediately prior, he warns, “You cannot serve both God and money.”
Of course, money (or the lack thereof) can create moments of acute anxiety and panic. But it is our chronic, structural anxiety which leads us to organize our lives around the pursuit of money. The same ever-present angst that leads us to be reactive, cast blame and be uptight also leads us to organize our lives around the pursuit of money.
What if Jesus is not so much warning us against acute panic as he is inviting us to live without chronic uneasiness? What if Jesus is actually inviting us to live at peace with what we have and to persist in the things that truly matter instead of putting the accumulation of stuff and security at the top of our priorities?
Perhaps we lack the imagination to conceive of a life that is not dominated by anxiety. After all, what would our lives center around if not money and the things it can afford us?
Jesus goes on to offer an alternative: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). He invites us to leave behind a life that is focused on ourselves and our own desires, even our own needs, and to embrace a life that looks for the reign and goodness of God.
He invites us to believe that God reigns and to organize our lives around that truth. When we live out of a deep-seated conviction that God reigns, our perpetual uneasiness will erode.
The Rev. Parker Bullard is senior minister at Poncha Springs Church of Christ.