Don’t Be Anxious: Easy To Say, Hard To Do

A young gay man who is a student at a evangelical Christian university is anxious. He lives in the constant fear that somehow, from someone, word will get out that he likes guys. He’s anxious, indeed, fearful, that the administration of the university will learn of his gayness and kick him out. He’s anxious that his genuinely faithful, though perhaps misinformed, parents will then reject him, that they will at best force him into some sort of “ex-gay” so-called therapy, or at worst, kick him out of the house. He sinks into a dark depression.

And Jesus comes to this young man through the Gospel and says to him: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew 6:34 – English Standard Version).

These words come in the context of a series of sayings attributed to Jesus regarding how one is to be in the world, the notion of living daily life trusting God. Just prior to this statement are those well-known words: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things [the daily stuff of life – drg] will be given you besides.” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew 6:33 – New American Bible).

A pastor is anxious. She is worried, fearful that somehow someone in her congregation will discover that which she’s sought to keep secret for so long – that she likes women. She often travels out of town to live her sexual self, far from the ever watchful eyes of church members and fellow ministers, but she can never shake that anxiety, that fear that she’ll be discovered, asked to resign her pastorate at best, or at worst, be called before an ecclesiastical jurisdiction to account for herself and quite possibly be defrocked, barred from doing that which she is so thoroughly convinced God has called her, as a lesbian woman, to do. She struggles with depression.

And Jesus comes to her through the Gospel and says: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew 6:34 – English Standard Version).

Easy to say; hard to live.

It’s interesting to me that in this narrative Jesus does not first call us to attack the external source of our anxiety. We’re not told to immediately confront those oppressive systems which precipitate our anxiety. There is a place for that, to be sure. But it’s not the first thing Jesus calls us to do.

What Jesus first calls us to do is to live as if we really believe that which we profess. How profound is that? And how, more often than not, difficult. The fact of the matter is, most people do not live consistently with what they profess. To do so would require too much of them.

Jesus, however, calls us to live what we can call kingdom life. We are called to live in the growing realization that we are dearly loved children of God, that created by God we are pronounced good, and knowing that, all other assessments of us fall by the wayside.

We’re called to live confidently; not a confidence in ourselves so much as confident of the sustaining love of God. We are called to live in trust; a trust located in God.

Again, easy to say; hard to do.

The Hebrew scriptures are simply chocked full of fascinating characters. Story after story recounts how flawed humans reacted to the world around them and God’s presence in their lives. One such fascinating character is Elijah and I think gay Christians can learn a lot from his story.

Elijah, whose name literally means ‘Yahweh is God,’ was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel and his story is set in the 9th century BCE. We’re introduced to him in First Kings, chapter 17, but for me, the defining moment in Elijah’s story is what happens in chapter 19.

Of course, chapter 18 comes before 19: Elijah, to make a long story short, confronts 450 prophets of the god, Baal, consort to Asherah. At the end of that confrontation, in which the power of Yahweh is shown to be far, far superior to that of Baal, Elijah executes those prophets by slitting their throats – probably one of the bloodiest scenes in the Hebrew scriptures.

Following this bloodbath, Ahab, the king, tells his queen, Jezebel (who worshipped Asherah and Baal, what happened. Jezebel then sends a message to Elijah (why she warned him, we’ll never know): ‘May the gods do thus and so to me if by this time tomorrow I have not done with your life what was done to each of them [the executed prophets].”

How did Elijah respond to this threat? Put simply, he tucked his tail between his legs, ran off and hid. “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life,” we’re told in the text. He became, if you will, anxious about tomorrow. Anxiety. Fear. Depression. I say depression because we also read that during his flight he prayed for death. “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers,” he said, according to the text.

Depression, which is often a kissing cousin of anxiety and fear, is something with which gay Christians are well acquainted. I know it’s often plagued me and I’d bet good money you’ve felt it, too.

Depression has multiple causes. There are a number of factors which increase the chances of our suffering from it: abuse (emotional, spiritual, physical), conflict (especially with loved ones like family), loss, stressing events, physical illness, substance abuse – and of course, biological/genetic forces (brain chemistry) as well.

Gay Christians seem to be faced with these factors in an especially profound way. We, because of being attracted to members of the same gender, are abused, even by fellow Christians; we are faced with familial conflict; we suffer the loss, far too many times, of family, friends and loved ones. It is a very human, and expected, reaction for us to feel anxious, to be fearful, to become depressed. And yet, Jesus, through the Gospel, speaks to us saying, “You don’t have to feel that way. You are going to face difficulties; you are going to face rejection; sometimes you are going to wonder how you can go on, how you can continue to live as a gay person. Each day will have enough evil [that’s the best translation of the word we often read as “trouble’] of its own.”

In other words, Jesus does not tell us that trouble/evil will disappear from our lives, that everything will be hunky-dory, that life will be free from oppressive people, attitudes and events. No, those things will continue, each day having its own. What he does tell us is that in the midst of that we live as Kingdom people.

God’s reaction to Elijah’s anxiety and depression surprises some folks. He orders, if you will, simply rest and food for Elijah. And then he speaks, not in a powerful, oppression shattering way, but in a tiny, whispering voice. We’re not told what that voice said. I’d like to think it might have been something along the lines of what Jesus is recorded as saying in the Gospel: Despite what’s going on around you today, God is God; you are a child of God; don’t be anxious.