The ineffable answer to anxiety
by Patrick Lafferty
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Matthew 6:25, 33
Everyone’s looking for an answer to anxiety. Some of late have sought to spin it as more salubrious than we might have imagined.
Mark’s answer to anxiety last Sunday from Jesus’ sermon on the subject was meditation—the patient, reflective musing upon the greatness and goodness of God. But why meditation? Why not just reading? It has something to do with the nature of knowledge.
God’s nature, character, and instruction are all conveyed in propositional terms in scripture, even when those propositions come to us in narrative form. Yet God is not known in a purely—that is, exclusively—propositional way. We may read statements about Him and pray those statements to remind ourselves of what is true of Him. Yet while the words are containers that “bring” Him to us, the words themselves, or the thoughts they express, do not fully contain Him.
Time for an illustration to rescue this from hopeless abstraction.
The statement: “my wife loves me” is a propositional statement that can be explained and verified. I know it to be true because she has chosen to abide after 12 years of learning the craggy contours of my soul. I can speak the statement, give evidence to substantiate it, but it cannot encompass the fullness of what it conveys. To say my wife loves me and to know she loves me are therefore two different things. I know her love in ways no words can convey, and in terms for which there are no sufficient comprehensive propositions.
My point: I can know a truth in a way and to a degree that I cannot express in mere propositional form. That I cannot put it in words doesn’t diminish the validity of the truth; if anything, its ineffableness adds to its authenticity. And while it might behoove me to spend more time finding a few words to characterize that love, I am content to know that part of what that love is defies description.
So it is with knowing God. He is known by His words, but He is known in ways not bound by, or contained in, words. Scripture rightly ascribes to God words such as awe, majesty, inscrutability, but to believe God is known exclusively in the mode by which words mediate truth, is to deny the analogical nature of the words we use of God.
To be clear, this kind of knowledge of God neither refutes, nor is refuted by, what His words disclose. We praise Him for revealing Himself through a linguistic medium common to humanity. But we praise Him all the more that He is known—that we commune with Him—in a way beyond the limits of propositional truth. As another example, it’s one thing to say Jean Valjean longed for Marius to return from the fighting at the Barricade; it’s quite another to hear him sing “Bring Him Home” as testimony to that longing. There is a qualitative difference between the character of knowledge those two mediums provide. Since God is God, is He not able to strengthen our confidence in Him beyond what arguments and assertions can?
What has this to do with our anxieties? Mark could spend a whole sermon intoning 1 Peter 5:6–7, “humble yourself, therefore, under the mighty hand of God...casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” They convey a familiar truth that can be explained and corroborated by other words found in scripture, but the God behind the words is bigger than the words themselves—even on days when it seems the words of the text rise no further than the opaque linen paper on which they are printed.
So as we come to the texts that explain why we can, and must, cast off anxiety, it’s both good and necessary to know that the proposition, “He cares for you,” has behind it a God who will persuade us of its truth in a way straightforward declaration cannot. Since “His Spirit bears witness with our spirit,” we read God’s words in order to receive from God what words cannot alone deliver.
That is precisely why Mark would exhort us to meditation, for only by it are we respecting the nature of God as One who works through words, yet beyond them.
C.S. Lewis’ imaginary demon, Screwtape, warns his junior demon, Wormwood, that efforts to dissuade faith in God fail when the person directs his prayers, “Not to what I think thou art, but to what thou knowest thyself to be.” Anxiety dissipates when thoughts of God strive to accommodate His greatness, and the striving begins with meditation. By it can we glean from the field that mere reading takes note of, but only passes by.