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The Anxiety of “What-if” Thinking and the Calmness of Seeking First the Kingdom of God

April 12, 2013

catholikon_interior_vatopedi-985x1024Sometimes, in this fallen world when it is as though God is far off, there seems to be plenty of reasons for fear. In that context, which is the context of our disconnection with a loving God, the basic emotion of fear is a powerful and all-too frequent motivator, subconsciously directing our thoughts and our actions. Thinking about fears that have been realized in the past may make us feel depressed, but thinking about fears in the future, that is what can really fill us with dread. Fearful emotions often rise to the surface when we engage in “what-if” thinking, with thoughts such as “what if I lose my job?” or  “what if my child becomes gravely sick?” “what if,  what if?” And although these misfortunes happen in life, we feel as though our own personal answers to such questions are too harrowing to even imagine, like a horror story that never ends. It is so different from the history of redemption that we are called to make our own. Those “what if” thoughts become a self-perpetuating stream of anxiety-producing ruminations that lead us to obsessively focus on the material, transitory aspects of our earthly existence and flee from the present moment and from our God Who is found therein. Such thinking leads us to focus on matters that are very often outside of our control and influence.  Yet, because they have seized our thought process, they become the focus of our attention, draining all our energy.

In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord addresses such harmful thinking when he commands, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”  In his commentary on this very same passage, Saint John Chrysostom remarks, “When He had set the soul free from anxiety, He also mentioned Heaven, for He came to do away with old things and to call us to a greater country. Thus, He does everything in order to deliver us from unnecessary things and our attachment to the earth. This is also why He mentioned the gentiles, saying that ‘the Gentiles seek after these things;’ they labor solely for the present life with no regard for the things to come, with no thought of Heaven. But these things of the present life are not to be your chief concern, for there are other matters. We were not born for the purpose of eating, drinking and being clothed, but that we might please God and attain the good things to come. Since things here come second when we work, let them also come second when we pray. Thus, He said, ‘Seek the kingdom of Heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.’”  Saint John Chrysostom’s thoughts put our own “what-if” thoughts into perspective. Our “what-if thoughts” are not so much about seeking God’s eternal heaven, but about maintaining our transitory earth. In giving ourselves over to them, we are not putting first things first, but putting first things last or not at all. From the broader perspective of eternity, the very things we fear might even be the way we find our way back to God.

Saint John Chysostom continues, “And He said not, ‘shall be given,’ but ‘shall be added,’ so that you might learn, that present things are not the greater part of His gifts, compared with the greatness of the things to come. Hence, He does not bid us even to ask for them. Instead, while we ask for other things, we are to have confidence that these things will also be added to those. Seek then the things to come, and you will receive the things present as well. Seek not the things that are seen, and you shall surely attain unto them. Yea, for it is unworthy of you to approach your Lord for such things. And you, who ought to spend all your zeal and your care for those ineffable blessings, do greatly disgrace yourself by consuming your zeal on the desire for transitory things.

“‘How then?’ one might say, ‘did He not bid us to ask for bread?’ Nay, He added, ‘daily,’ and to this again, ‘this day.’ And He does the same thing here. For He did not say, ‘Take no thought,’ but, ‘Take no thought for the morrow,’ at the same time both setting us free and attaching our souls to those things that are more necessary to us.”

Saint John Chrysostom and the ancient fathers recognized the dangers inherent in focusing our attention on needs in the near future. They try to set our gaze on further sights, beyond the “what-ifs” of tomorrow into the abiding permanence of eternity, an eternity that can be known in the present moment. They show us that trust in God and the ending of our story that God reveals to us is more important than any story we set spinning in our anxious minds. They show us that if we seek the Kingdom, the calmness of the Kingdom will descend on us like the morning dew.

In previous posts, I’ve written concerning the psychological and spiritual harm caused by focusing on the future without due regard for the present. Those comments still apply today: “We all have a spiritual heart that we can strive to discover through simple repentance and by calling upon the name of our Lord. It will take time for our fears, anxieties, and imaginings to weaken. Remembering God, remaining in the present, vigilantly guarding the heart against the ‘terrors of the night’ by trust in God will help.  Love, we are reminded in Scripture, casts out all fear. Love that is not selfish, but given wholly over to God, does not have the mental space to give itself over to fear.  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “So too, in our own lives, Jesus is not to be found in death (fear).  “He is not here.”  He has overcome death and cast out all fear, trampling down death by death.  Whatever we fear, whomever we fear has been conquered by the glory of the Cross and Resurrection.  If we have fear ever dwelling in our hearts, we are harming our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Neuroscience, psychiatry, and the Gospel agree on this point. Such fear is certainly not of God. Such fear keeps us chained to illusory and deceptive thoughts that alienate us from God and one another.  Yet, that chain has been broken, Satan has been conquered, fear has been overcome.  We need only recognize this and be glad in Him who has made us a new creation. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee! Amen.”

From → Anxiety, Thoughts

One Comment
  1. miladin permalink

    Thank you father for your words.

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