The Idolatry of Anxiety?

James Sant, Courage, Anxiety and Despair - Watching the Battle (1850)
James Sant, Courage, Anxiety and Despair – Watching the Battle (1850)

When we talk about idolatry, it’s usually in terms of worship or love. You’re either committing idolatry by worshiping what isn’t God, or (more controversially) loving someone or something more than God, or (yet more controversially) by loving someone or something more than you ought. But there’s another way of looking at idolatry, one that is deeply rooted in Scripture: idolatry as a kind of distrust, an insufficient trust in God. That’s how God describes it, for example, in Jeremiah 13:24-25,

I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert. This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, says the Lord, because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies.

Historically, that’s just what idolatry looked like. Often, this idolatry didn’t deny the existence of God: the Israelites didn’t stop believing in God altogether. What they denied wasn’t God’s existence, but His sufficiency and sovereignty. Their approach was a sort of “God-plus.” They needed God plus Baal, because God was good, but not good enough (or strong enough, etc.). You see this in the cry of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 18:21:

And Eli′jah came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba′al, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.

The Israelites wanted to be “safe” by clinging to both God and Baal, and that kind of lukewarmness is repeatedly condemned in Scripture.

The “God-plus” nature of this kind idolatry is also why the Bible can refer to unusual things like covetousness as idolatry (Colossians 3:5): “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

How is covetousness idolatry? Because it’s putting your trust in something other than God: in financial security, or material possession, or simply the prestige that comes from having money. If the idea that if I just had that one thing, then I would have enough, then I would be comfortable, then I would be safe. Whatever that thing is (unless it’s “right relationship with God”), that’s your idol. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve got your idol plus God, or instead of God, it’s still idolatry.

The flip side to this sort of idolatry is anxiety. If our trust is in something other than God, we both covet the thing, and feel anxious if we don’t have it. I don’t mean unchosen anxiety, like involuntary anxious feelings, or psychological conditions. Actual sin is an act of the will, and takes some sort of consent. Rather, I mean the kind of controllable anxiety that Jesus condemns in Matthew 6:24-33,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

Now, most Bibles present these as two distinct teachings: one on not having two Masters (God and mammon, that is, money), and one on the need for trust instead of anxiety. But Jesus presents them as one teaching: He says we can’t have two Masters and therefore we need to trust in Him instead of being anxious. Why’s that? Because this anxiety is a sign of our lack of faith, and our living and thinking like pagans. The anxiety is us saying to God, “I don’t trust that you’re going to take care of me!”

That’s why it’s impossible (not just wrong) to serve God and mammon. You can’t both trust in God and place your trust in created things for security. That’s not how it works. God’s demand is simple: you give Him all of you, and He gives you all of Him. It’s an amazing deal, but you have to give Him all of you. You can’t go halfway. If you don’t believe me, believe Jesus, who says in Luke 14:25-33,

Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Half-hearted discipleship is presented as worse than not following Christ. It’s like taking half of your regimen of antibiotics, or throwing half of your money away on a project you’re not going to see to completion. You invest so much and you get nothing out of it. It’s all or nothing. That’s why Jesus says to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-16), “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”

So if we’re guilty of this, what should we do? The short answer is: trust God more. Reflect on His omnipotence, His omniscience, and His love for you. He can do anything that needs doing, He knows what needs doing, and He loves you enough to do it. You’ll note that this is the exact remedy that Jesus employs in Matthew 6: He reminds us of God’s tender care for even the lilies of the field, and of how much more He loves us than those lilies.

But “trust more” is easier said than done, so what’s a concrete way of increasing that trust? Pray more. Follow Jesus’ practice in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-39):

 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsem′ane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zeb′edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

Faced with the imminence of the Cross, Jesus’ response is to pray, to once more place Himself in the hands of the Father. When we’re faced with life’s troubles, that’s what we need to be doing.

The promise here isn’t that if we just pray and trust that nothing bad will happen. That’s a form of the false prosperity gospel. Rather, the promise is that, even when bad things happen, God’s still in control. St. Paul says it best (Romans 9:31-39):

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul doesn’t say that we won’t face trials: in fact, he points out that, for Christ’s sake, “we are being killed all the day long.” Instead, he says that through it all, Christ’s love for us remains constant, and so we have nothing to worry about. None of the bad things in life can separate us from the love of Christ. That’s what trust looks like. And that surety is the best preservative against the idolatry of covetousness and anxiety.

14 Comments

  1. This has been a great lesson! I will take to heart.
    Now, may I please just offer something since you post to the public. In this sentence, “It’s like taking half of your regime of antibiotics” “Regime” is a word that in not used properly in our culture today so it’s easy to make this mistake. In is improperly used in place of “regimen” means a systematic plan for therapy. Regime means the organization that is the governing authority of a political unit. There, now I feel better. Maybe I didn’t trust that someday you would find this on your own, but I don’t think this applies to today’s lesson. I’m just trying to help you out in Christian love. FYI, there is another word out in the English language universe that is frequently used wrong. There is a huge difference between “idea” and “ideal.” “Ideal” frequently is used in place of “idea.”

  2. Anxiety and covetousness are the “small” sins that we all too easily ignore. Great teaching here, Joe. Indeed, we are to give thanks in all circumstances and lead the life which God has called us to–not to desire the life and circumstances of someone else.

    For covetousness was at its core the sin of Adam.

    God bless,
    Craig

  3. Joe, especially on the eve of this madhouse of an election, with the sense of the moral basis of this nation on the line, I BADLY needed to hear this word. I seem to have allowed the panic of the country to seep into my soul, where it has worked diligently to join forces with my fear of eating Alpo in retirement. A cold slap in the face to bring me back to REAL reality is greatly appreciated! God is God of the Universe today and tomorrow as he was yesterday, and I can only continue to pray, as I have for decades, Lord I DO believe, yet help me in my unbelief.

  4. There is a fine balance between the two extremes of severe anxiety and carelessness. We can find an example of this in the Gospel account of ‘The finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple’ (Luke 2:48):

    “And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee SORROWING. [49] And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father’ s business? [50] And they understood not the word that he spoke unto them.”

    So, here we find the great love and concern of Mary and Joseph for the adolescent Jesus. And this results in their ‘sorrowing’ over Him which seems to imply there was a certain degree of anxiety exhibited here. But, as we know that Mary and Joseph are saints of the highest degree, we can only conclude that this type of anxiety, or sorrowing, is humanly acceptable and even a normal emotion; and somewhat similar to the emotion exhibited by the women who wept over Jesus as He carried His cross to Calvary. In no way can we consider this type of sorrowing of Mary and Joseph ‘idolatry’, lest we consider the Mother of Christ an idolator. So, this example must be a sort of ‘middle way’ between truely idolatrous ‘severe anxiety’ and the vice of ‘happy go lucky’ carelessness. Carelessness by Mary and Joseph would have been demonstrated if they didn’t consider looking for Him thinking “whatever happens to him, for better or worse, will be his own business. We won’t think about it at all”.

    So, as in all things there is usually the ‘golden mean’ between the virtues and vices. The problem is how to discover that ‘golden mean’ when the occasional crisis’ in our lives actually occur.

    1. awlms,

      I thought something similar at first, even thinking of that same verse. After all, some translations (like the RSV:CE) render it as “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But here’s the thing: that’s a bad translation, and doesn’t apply.

      The verb in Luke 2:48 is ὀδυνάω, and just doesn’t refer to the same thing. It means to be in agony, torment, grief or (in this context) sorrow. It’s the verb derived from the word ὀδύνη, sorrow. And nowhere in Scripture is sorrowing condemned (quite the contrary, in fact: Matthew 5:4).

      What IS condemned is anxiety (merimnaō is the Greek verb used in the NT for being anxious, although it’s broader than that). When you let the sorrows and stresses of life rob you of your peace, you’re doing something wrong – you’re not trusting enough in Christ and/or trusting too much in created things.

      So Scripture doesn’t say, “be anxious, but in moderation.” Rather, it says things like (in addition to everything I quoted above): “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).

      By the way, remember the connection that I pointed out in Matthew 6, in which Jesus goes from warning about putting your trust in worldly comforts to warning against anxiety? He makes that exact same connection in Luke 12, but using different examples. He gives the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), and then warns against anxiety (Luke 12:22-34, which I strongly encourage you to read). As with before, He connects these two teachings with “Therefore.”

      The Church is pretty clear about this, actually. That’s why the Doxology we pray after the Lord’s Prayer at almost every Mass reads, “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

      The “golden mean” for something contrary to the will of God is none. You don’t get to have an “average” amount of pride or lust or idolatry.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      1. Thanks again. It will be ordered shortly.

        On another topic, it seems that a political miracle has taken place. Much thanks should be given to God.

  5. Thanks! This is a besetting sin in my life, often confessed. I really appreciate the clarity. Couple reflections: consider the courage of St. Ignatius of Antioch, eagerly facing his death; should we not much more have courage in the face of life? Then I also thought of St. Faustina, and Jesus emphatically urging her (and us) to trust his mercy. Thanks again. I will save for when the fog comes in. BTW, it’s Romans 8.

  6. We have an adequate idea of the difference between the unacceptable vice of anxiety and the acceptable emotion of sorrow, but what about the opposites of these, the one being the spiritual joy, i.e. “Rejoice in the Lord always”(Philippians 4:4), and the other type of joy that might be found in a pub or tavern, after a pint or two of beer, at 1:00AM in the morning?

    In reading the life and works of Martin Luther (by Grisar) I find a mix of all of these vices and virtues all lumped together. And, in our own lives, it is sometimes hard to distinguish the differences between the virtues from the vices. They are often not very obvious, especially the ‘joy’ associated with certain vices which might in reality be the ‘foolishness’ that Jesus condemns in the Gospel Mark 7:21, “For from within out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts….foolishness”. So, anxiety and sorrow are similar to some degree, but different in their moral character. But, their opposites also…. ‘the joy of the spirit’ and the ‘joy that might be found in drunkenness, or foolishness’, are also pretty similar. I think a lot of people are very confused about the differences between these virtues and vices. That is, what it is that distinguishes them from one another.

    Any ideas?

  7. Wow did I ever need this! I thought, who the heck wrote such a powerful article! Then to find out that you are a seminarian, well that made me so grateful that God called you to share yourself with us! In these troubled times we so need priests like you! I will keep you in my prayers big time! Your article answered some questions I have been wrestling with. Again, thank you for being Gods instrument! May Mary and all the angels surround you with love, protection and guidance!

  8. I was scrolling back through the blog trying to come up with something to change for Lent.

    This is it!

    Thanks, Joe.

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