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Holy Anxiety

Updated: Jun 10, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 18th of Tenth Month, 2020

Speaker: Brian Young

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 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? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

I’m going to hazard a guess that most of us are pretty well-versed in North American Quakerese. Like all tribes, we have our special language, and part of knowing this language is being able to read between the lines. There are times when a Quaker will use a certain phrase that seems straightforward, and yet if you know the language well, you’ll realize something quite different is being expressed. This, coupled with the passive-aggression common among North American Friends, means that often our mildest phrases cover the most intense emotions. One example of this is, “I have a concern.” If you know the language well, you know this often means, “I am really angry right now.” Sometimes an intensifier can be added, so if you hear, “Friend, I have a concern,” that probably means, “I am really angry with you right now.” And, if on the floor of meeting for business, you hear “Friends, I have a concern,” you can usually read that as, “OVER MY DEAD COLD QUAKER BODY!!!”

Today I want to say more about concerns and being concerned for something or someone—but not in the passive-aggressive North American Quaker fashion. I hope to connect this with what I spoke about last week, when we considered “high anxiety.”

The place to begin is to clarify a distinction between anxiety and concern. The Greek word that is generally translated “worry” or “anxiety” or “care” in the New Testament is merimna, and the verb form, “to be anxious” is merimnao. This is the word that Paul uses when he counsels the Philippians to “be anxious for nothing,” as in last week’s passage (Phil 4:6); and also in Luke 10 in the story of Mary and Martha, when Jesus says to Martha, “you are worried and distracted by many things” (Lk 10:41). Merimna is what I’m calling high anxiety: worry that consumes us, that demands that we continue to focus on ourselves and our problems, that prevents us from opening our eyes to God's possibilities and the needs of others. It's the word that shows up in multiple places in today’s passage, for example, when Jesus asks, "can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Mt 6:27)

Last week, I alluded to a passage from I Peter that reads, in the King James Version, “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” ( I Pet 5:7). This verse brings together two kinds of “care”: the first, “[cast] all your care” on God, is merimna, that all-consuming anxiety. But then there’s also, “because [God] careth for you.” This second instance is not the verb merimnao, but melo, which is generally used in the New Testament to mean “to care about” or “to be concerned for.” So here we have anxiety contrasted with concern.

One way to understand this contrast is that anxiety, merimna, is usually self-focused, and concern, melo, is usually other-focused. Jesus contrasts these two qualities for us in today’s passage, when he speaks of anxiety for food and drink, or clothing: that’s all merimna. Then, the assurance of God's concern for all of these things, so that we don't have to be preoccupied with them (although note: the verb melo isn’t used in this particular passage). Now, Jesus doesn't say that food and drink and clothing are unimportant: God “knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32). God cares about our being provided for, and will provide for us in the same fashion that God provides for the creation: the birds of the air, the lilies and the grass of the field. But it's the orientation of our hearts that is of most concern for God here.

One of the things that it’s important to acknowledge is that for many of us in this meeting, high anxiety doesn’t come from not knowing where our next meal is coming from, or not having a warm coat for the winter. Most of us are able to provide for ourselves amply, or, as we’ll be asked to consider next Sunday—Stewardship Sunday—God has amply provided for many of us. In fact, some of us have more than we need for any given day or week or month; and this also is a cause for anxiety. We are embedded in an economy built on stoking consumer appetites so that we will acquire more, when we already have enough. For those who have much in our culture, the question is not, “How will you share what you have been given?” but rather, “Are you positive what you have is enough? Shouldn’t you have just a bit more, to be sure?” And then, equally pernicious, “how will you keep what you have safe?” Think of the image from Luke 11 of the strong man in his armor, guarding his spoils in his castle, which we looked at last month—there’s a lot of anxiety in that image.

The mission statement of Right Sharing of World Resources says in part, “God calls us to right sharing... from the burdens of materialism and poverty into the abundance of God’s love…” I’ve always appreciated their dual emphasis on poverty and materialism: the acknowledgment that both Right Sharing’s partners and their supporters are bearing a burden. Clearly, those burdens are not the same, and the effects of carrying them are not equal. But we are all encumbered in some way, and God, in the infinite care that God has for each of us—melo--in that care, God seeks to liberate us all from those burdens.

So whether our anxiety comes from having too little or too much, Jesus assures us that God cares for us, and wants to liberate us from that anxiety. And we have a role in that liberation; last week we looked in some detail at a passage from Philippians 4, where Paul counsels rejoicing, praying with thanksgiving, and focusing on the good things of God in the face of merimna, our high anxiety. But mainly what I've been thinking about since last week is what replaces all of these anxieties, as we submit them to God. Is it peace? Certainly, as Paul writes, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7). Whenever we have been truly able to submit our burdens to God, renouncing our hold on them and leaving them to the One who is eminently more qualified to deal with them, we will have peace. But I don't think that's all that God intends for us. True peace, God's peace, is not simply a retreat from the world, a tranquility apart from all of the need and want that daily presses upon us. Some of the time, I think that God's peace must also be accompanied by something I'd like to call “holy anxiety.”

“Holy anxiety” is God-focused and God-directed concern—melo—that results in our coming closer to God and to others. Holy anxiety comes by the leading of the Spirit, when God places a burden on one's heart—rather than the burden coming from one's own agenda.

Sometimes, this concern can be for oneself; holy anxiety can come from the realization that we are out of alignment with God's purposes. This is where repentance comes from. I think of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, from Luke 18: you might remember that Jesus speaks of these two men, praying at the temple. The Pharisee takes center stage and prays a kind of self-justifying prayer, thanking God that he is not like others who are less righteous and less fortunate than him. The tax collector, by contrast, beats his breast and asks only, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says the tax collector was the one “more justified,” which we can read as closer to God, and he was justified in part by his holy anxiety for himself.

Sometimes, the burden of holy anxiety is a burden we bear for God; it comes when we ask, “What is God concerned about in this situation? What, or whom, does God care for here?” One place I think we find this kind of holy anxiety is in the Hebrew prophets. The venerated 20th-century rabbi Abraham Heschel characterized the prophets as being motivated by a pathos for God—a deep feeling of concern for what God was concerned for. We might think of Jeremiah, frustrated at the seeming futility of his preaching, speaking to people with closed ears who would not listen. Full of the wrath of God, he was “weary of holding it in” . God assures him that his pathos is well-placed, and responds, “Pour it out!” (Jer 6:10, 11) And we also have Micah, who asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord,” knowing that many sacrifices and all kinds of abasement are unlikely to reach God’s heart. The answer that comes, as a question, is, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:6–8)

So we remember from the pathos of the prophets that God is concerned for justice and righteousness—for social and personal dimensions both. So should we be concerned, with that same kind of holy anxiety.

Third, holy anxiety is sometimes for others, so that the question is, “What, or whom, would God have me care for here?” Alongside the prophetic pathos for God comes Christ’s pathos for humanity. In the same way that Jesus models concern for us, we are to be concerned for others.

Now, this will come to each of us differently. To each of us comes a particular concern that God places on the heart—and this is not the passive-aggressive “Friend, I have a concern” that I mentioned earlier. This is work that after careful discernment we recognize as the caring that we are called to. And generally, this will be one, perhaps two things that touch us in the deepest parts of the soul. Most of you have already heard me quote Thomas Kelly on this; in his writing on social concern, he says, “We cannot die on every cross.” When something is truly a concern—if it’s not merimna, but rather comes from melo—we will be drawn to it like no other concern; it will be clear as a God-placed burden on us.

Jesus’ great imperative to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, calls for something more than just inner peace. It calls for a fire in the bones, an affliction of our comfort, a restless desire to make God’s love visible—a holy anxiety.

Friends, how do we move from high anxiety to holy anxiety? Amidst the multitude of concerns that we see and hear around us in the present, what is God calling us to in particular? How can we help each other discern the one or two concerns that touch us in the deepest parts of our souls?

Let’s consider all these things together in the quiet.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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