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Three Aspects of Anxiety and How to Overcome Them

November 12, 2015

blog11-12Worry is a universal human problem. Jesus speaks to it in Matthew 6 and His advice amounts to more than just “Don’t worry.” He actually sets forth how we can avoid it. Let’s see how by looking at three problems He describes that bring about worry.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:24-27, 34).

I. The Problem of Possessions – The text says, No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is variously understood as riches, greed, or possession. In an extended sense, it can refer to the agenda of the world, which is focused on material things and ties our dignity only to those things.

Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that if we wish to serve Him we cannot also serve mammon. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein), which more specifically means “to serve as a slave.” By overlooking the slavery aspect, we miss the strength of the text. In our culture it is typical that one serves in a job or some similar capacity during “working hours,” but goes home afterward and is free of obligations. Perhaps because of this, we tend to think that we can serve both God and mammon. But the Greek text here refers not to a mere servant but to a slave. And a slave is wholly subject to the will of another. Thus Greek is more intense than the English translation.

What the Lord is saying is, “You’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or a slave of the world.”  The truth is that most people are slaves of the world, of mammon, of riches, of greed, and of their associated agendas. These worldly things tend to consume us so completely that when we hear of a demand from God, we feel overwhelmed or even angry that something more is being required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are a slave to mammon.

Most of us are too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but the fact is that to a large extent we are. The world and its demands press in on us and take up nearly all our oxygen. It is this terrible slavery that is a huge source of our anxiety and from which the Lord offers to free us. The Lord describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to mammon, to the world, to its riches and agenda:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear … Why are you anxious about clothes? Do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’

Still anxious! For us who live in the Western world, the anxieties about merely having such things may have receded a bit. We are well-supplied and may not worry whether we will have clothes, food, etc. But even having them in abundance, still we worry about them obsessively. For example, we worry about whether we have the right clothes, or whether they are in style, or whether they look good on us. Many people are quite obsessed about what they eat: they worry about eating too much salt, or sugar, or fat. We have never lived so long or been so healthy, and yet we have never been more anxious about our health. It’s amazing when you think of it: we have plenty of food and still we worry about it; worry, worry, worry! Anxiety about these things is a sign that we are slaves to them. Scripture says, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep (Eccles 5:12).

The Lord offers to live his life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but to Him. You may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: we are so small and powerless that we’re going to be the slaves of someone, so it might as well be the Lord. Being wholly devoted to the Lord and what pleases Him breaks our obsession with the world, money, possessions, popularity, fashion, and the like.

As the Lord’s life and His will begin to replace our own, our obsession with the world’s demands diminishes and its power is broken. As we grow into a deeper relationship with the Lord, our concerns with worldly agendas fade and our anxiety diminishes.

Now you and I aren’t going to be able to completely stop worrying of our own accord. But the Lord, living His life in us, isn’t worried at all. And as His power and influence over us grows, our worries lessen and our anxiety dissipates.

This is the gift that the Lord is offering us if we but let him take greater possession of our heart. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, sacraments, and daily doses of Scripture and spiritual reading. Gradually, the Lord will transform our heart, mind, and will to be like His.

II. The Problem of Paternity – The Lord Jesus wants to draw us into deeper relationship with His Father. It remains a common spiritual problem, even for those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, to feel that the Eternal Father is distant or remote. To many, the Father is a stranger. They have surely heard of Him and read of Him in the Scriptures, but still He is stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of Him. Perhaps their fear stems from some Old Testament texts, or from their relationship with a stern earthly father. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus wants to lead to us His Father. Note that the phrase “your heavenly Father” occurs twice in this passage and four times in Matthew Chapter 6 overall. There are two other references to the Father as “God” in today’s gospel. It is also in Chapter 6 of Matthew that Jesus teaches us the Our Father.

All of these references to the Father, particularly in such close proximity to the invitation not to worry, cannot be overlooked. An antidote to anxiety is having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need.  He cares for birds, flowers, and countless other things and is willing and able to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening in anxiety.

Perhaps an illustration will help. When I was six years old, I was sometimes afraid that someone would break into our home or that something bad would happen during the night. But when my Father was home, I didn’t have these fears. In 1968 he left for Vietnam and was gone for a year. During that time I had an extended bout of ongoing fear at night; Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. In 1969 he returned and my fears went away. I didn’t cause them to go away. It was not an act of the will on my part. It was simply this: Daddy was home.

You and I may not simply be able to dismiss our fears and anxieties by a simple act of the will. But to the extent that our “Daddy-God” is near and we feel His presence, our fears just go away.

Here is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep, personal experience of, and love for, His Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. But when we experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we experience our fears melting away.

Seek this gift from Jesus: that his Father will be known and loved by you, that His presence will be close at hand; then watch your fears melt away. The Lord Jesus can do this for us.  Take some time and read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) slowly. Recognize that the parable is really more about the father than the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.

III. The Problem of Priorities – The text says, But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. One of our greatest struggles is to have proper priorities, to do, in the end, just one thing. This third matter (priorities) is not unlike the first (possessions) but it is more about choices and directions than things and allegiances.

We have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and how to make good decisions. This causes us a lot of grief and anxiety. We want too many things. We want to please too many people. We are too easily distracted from our goal. In many ways we have not even fully clarified our goal.

What is it that you want? What is the one thing that really guides every other thing you do? Now be honest! You may say, “God.” You may say, “the world,” or “my career.”  But a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer as to what the one thing they want is. The fact is they want a lot of things, and have never really sat down and reflectively determined the one, over-arching goal of their life. And so they run about chasing butterflies and experiencing lots of anxiety.

Imagine a man who is headed for New York City from Philadelphia. Along the way he sees many signs but is able to determine quickly which ones pertain to his journey and which can be ignored. When he sees a sign for “95 South to Baltimore,” he knows he can ignore it and experiences no anxiety about it at all.

But now consider a second man, who is not sure where he is headed. It may be to New York City, but he may go somewhere else; he just isn’t all that certain. He hasn’t thought about much and just sort of lets things happen. When he sees that same sign for “95 South to Baltimore,” he wonders whether or not he should follow it. The sign makes him anxious. It’s a fork in the road and he’s not sure what to do. Should he take it or not? And when he does make a choice, he wonders if he did the right thing. Having made the choice only heightens his anxiety. He keeps looking back, second-guessing himself, and wondering about his choice. He’s anxious because he didn’t first determine his real destination.

Many people today live this way. They have no real priority, no definitive choice. And even if they have some vague direction (e.g., “I want to be happy”) they have little idea what it really takes to get there. And, frankly, they don’t really want to know the specifics. Commitments and decisions are eschewed. But, strangely, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they become more anxious, not less. Every fork in the road of life is bewildering to them and brings about the question, “What should I do?”

The Lord wants to save us from all this anxiety and thus offers us the grace to clarify what we want and where we are going. As He begins to live his life more fully in us, our mind gets clearer and our heart desires with greater clarity. When Jesus’ own life begins to replace our own, we want what He wants. And He wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves His Father, and everyone and everything His Father loves.

And so do we. By grace and by degrees, the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us. Increasingly, our life becomes about only one thing: That I want to die and leave this world loving God and his kingdom … That I want to be with him forever.

Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not saying to us that by our own power we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depended only on us, it wouldn’t last twenty minutes!

No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person, and of what we will increasingly experience if we let Him live His life in us and transform us by stages. This work begins and continues in us when we get down on our knees and beg the Lord to do it. It begins and continues when we are serious about having a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, sacraments, Holy Mass, and holy fellowship.

Now if you want to just stay anxious and fretful, fine. But if you seek serenity, then ask the Lord into your life; re-invite him every day. Remain faithful to spiritual practices. If you do, I promise (for I am a witness) that you will see your anxieties lessen, your fears abate, your serenity grow, and your confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.

After such solid advice from the Lord, I hope you’ll pardon this lighthearted video. Consider it a tongue-in-cheek bit of advice.

Comments (6)

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  1. Giacomo says:

    Most excellent, Monsignor. Listening, I hear “apart from Me you can do nothing”, and I know this is true. Thanks be to God.

  2. Richard Miller says:

    Somewhere it says that a time will come when people can’t wait for the sun to rise and then once it has risen they can’t wait for it to go back down. This is wall to wall fear, and the tragedy is the things we fear are not to be feared. If God granted you a glimpse of what really goes on right in front of you in the spirit world, most people would die of a heart attack. If people only knew how much work it took just to keep the devil from tearing us up and how it is only the Grace of God keeping us alive from ravenous wolves, it would make the things that we fear not only pale in comparison, but our fears, the things that we fear would be an utter humiliation to us. We should all remember the story of Lazarus and the rich man, how the rich man wanted to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers to change their ways, how the cares they were fretting over amounted to nothing compared to where he is now. But we don’t care about that, we like to show off how clever we are by seemingly having it all together. It is said that man can not live by bread alone, I would add that rest, true rest doesn’t come from only sleeping either, I mean one needs more than just sleep to get fully rested. What we need, I need, is the Jesus that was able to sleep through the storm on the deck of a boat, that is peace indeed. All we need do people is just get through this little bitty baby 60 or 70 years here, that’s all. Yeah, the devil hates us but Jesus loves us more, so if your feeling uncomfortable, your dirty, hungry worried scared whatever, don’t worry, it’s not forever, Jesus comes soon and His reward is with Him

  3. edraCRUZ says:

    That’s funny, err, I mean the video. The post, well, profound and in-depth and provides us a choice to be freed from angst and distress not only of mind but of spirit as well. Not easy to do in these times of secularism, materialism and hedonism where peer pressure and environment easily expose each of us 24/7 in media and everywhere one turns to. But the good Monsignor is witnessing (maybe done that, been there) to us and sure is, the wisdom of this priest is challenging us we can do it. Thanks, Monsignor. Possess GOD, PATER Noster, Prioritize GOD. YHWH EL GIBOR!

  4. Andy Nock says:

    I just want to say thank you, Father, for your articles. This one, like many others, is excellent advice that I will try to put into practice. You have a rare gift to combine orthodoxy (as far as this convert can tell) with speaking from the heart. God bless and guide you.May he bring a rich harvest from your faithfulness.
    With great love and respect,
    Andy Nock, Colchester, England.

  5. Lucil says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you so much for what you do; I honestly don’t know how you find time to do all these. I was at your talk yesterday at Our Lady’s Center in Ellicott City, MD; thank you for your encouragement to stay the course and to live out the Gospel in our marriage vocations. I wish most priests will not sugar coat the gospel, but preach the real gospel with love like you do.

    May God continue to give you strength, and bless you as you preach the GOOD NEWS of OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.

    Lucil

  6. Margi Christos says:

    Hi Monsignor,
    I have been reading your columns for a while and your own struggle and victory over anxiety. This is something I have struggled with my whole life and I am 61. I was raised in a very abusive home with no love and fear, guilt and criticism our daily food. I definitely trust in God’s mercy but when it comes to God’s providence I have a difficult time. Things have made worse by mental and ongoing physical problems that have left me mostly in bed all the time. I do invite God into my life everyday and all the practices you prescribe but anxiety still plagues me. I have been wondering lately if this is my cross to bear in life but I don’t want it to keep me from seeing God when I die.
    Margi