Sunday, July 22, 2012

Overcoming Anxiety - Part Deux

(Part one was several years ago—also linked here.) Recently I heard some things about anxiety, and I wanted to share them.

The first thing is that anxiety is related to trying to manage outcomes. (Where did I hear that? It wasn't here.) This put me in mind of something I read in Merton's No Man Is an Island, which I've been (re-)reading for years:

Johannes Tauler somewhere makes a distinction between two degrees of pure intention, one of which he calls right intention, and the other simple intention. …

When we have a right intention, our intention is pure. We seek to do God's will with a supernatural motive. We mean to please Him. But in doing so we still consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside Him. Our intention is directed chiefly upon the work to be done. When the work is done, we rest in its accomplishment, and hope for a reward from God.

But when we have a simple intention, we are less occupied with the thing to be done. We do all that we do not only for God but so to speak in Him. We are more aware of Him who works in us than of ourselves or of our work. …

4.17 (pp. 70-71)

With a right intention, you quietly face the risk of losing the fruit of your work. With a simple intention you renounce the fruit before you even begin. You no longer even expect it. Only at this price can your work also become a prayer.

4.18 (p. 74)
Since much of the time my intention is impure, it's no wonder that I have anxiety; I want to do what I want to do, and I sometimes see God's will as something I have to accommodate myself to. So naturally when I'm doing my will, I'm pursuing some outcome; I want my work to produce some result—that's why I do it!

So I need to be transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:2) so that I can have a pure intention—and more than that, a simple one.

I wonder if that's what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience
Hebrews 4:9-11 (NIV)
If I can really do that, truly surrender the fruit of my work before I even start, then maybe I'll be able to enter that rest, to be transformed.

And the world will be a better place, at least for people who interact with me.

A couple more things

A friend asked us to pray "that I would be less concerned about what other people think of me, and more interested in what God thinks." This is certainly an important part of finding rest for our souls (which Jesus promised in Matthew 11:28-30); when we are working for others' approval, it's a tough row to hoe... especially since every day brings new opportunities to be criticized or judged by somebody. Jesus wasn't talking about this in John 6:27-29, but if we truly believe in Jesus, believe that he is the source of life, and look only to Him for our approval, I wonder if we'd have less anxiety, less hunger in our souls.

And on the other end, something that can increase anxiety is… being an American! A recent article points out that the United States is, in the author's words, "the world's leading exporter of worrywarts"—which, she says, is a consequence of our broken meritocracy. We Americans like to think that we can have "success"—we can manage our career outcomes—by ability and effort, but it's not actually true. The uncertainty exacerbates the anxiety that would be there anyway.

This doesn't mean that anxiety is inevitable for Americans, but if you're an American and wondering why you can't get rid of anxiety, that may be part of why it's harder than it ought to be.

The good news, though, is that our God is mighty to save.

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