The Message of Divine Providence for an Age of Anxiety

Anxiety is the state of every soul who thinks the future rests in our hands and that the lasting meaning of our lives will be determined by the worth of our accomplishments. Hence paradoxically, despair is the beginning of hope. And disillusionment is the first step to overcoming anxiety. If we are to experience what Paul calls the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) and the “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), we must despair of every false hope and every illusory good. Not surprisingly, then, we find in the scriptures some statements that seem intent on driving us to despair. They evoke a kind of therapeutic despair. Working like a strong emetic, they provoke nausea to help us expel the poison of misplaced hope:

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”     says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors     at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go,     but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets,     and hurries back to where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5)

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied….32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,     for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:17-32).

To say that Arthur Schopenhauer had a nose for sniffing out false hopes would be an understatement! But he is no more pessimistic than the Preacher of Ecclesiastes when he makes the diagnosis below. He is simply describing what everyone sees if you clear your mind of optimistic theories:

“The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live…reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.

That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing” (from Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence”).

When you are young the future stretches before you and disappears over the horizon. It does not present itself as a finite series of evanescent moments but as a timeless, motionless whole. And though we know each present moment passes into oblivion before we can taste it, we experience a sense of continuity and stability in our memory of the past and anticipation of the future. This sense of time’s wholeness is reinforced by the appearance that objects around us possess stability, since they endure from one evanescent moment to the next. Youth views the immediate future as a time of becoming and building and the more distant future as a time of being and enjoying the enduring fruits of our labors. But as you get older, you see supposedly “enduring” objects age and disintegrate. Your accomplishments seem less significant in hindsight. The future no longer stretches out infinitely; the horizon continues to recede but the end of your time line appears short of the horizon. The excitement of becoming and the illusion of stable being are replaced by prospect of disintegration and nonbeing. The fragility of the moment spreads itself over all moments making it apparent that the wholeness and motionlessness of time is illusory. Nothing endures. Everything dies. All is forgotten.

I know the temptation of false hopes and the paralyzing anxiety caused by attempting the make my life significant by my labor. Have I done enough? Am I really making a lasting difference in the lives of my students? Will anyone read my books or “like” my blog posts? Will my labor be in vain? Will anyone remember or care? Will it last? Sometimes, when I get in this mood of despair I remember what I have always known and wonder how I could have forgotten: the answers to these questions are completely irrelevant because they are not the right questions to be asking. The right question is this: will my faithful creator take my work and with it accomplish his will and produce something that lasts, not for a day or a hundred or a thousand years, but for eternity? Will my God remember me? The answer I hear resounding in my ears is a clear yes! When I despair completely of my strength and put my hope in God, in God alone, my joy returns. I regain energy for my work. I do not have to see it. I know it, I feel it: My work will not be in vain!

At the end of his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul expresses the hope beyond the despair of human possibilities:

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

The Lord really does built the house and raise the dead!

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8 thoughts on “The Message of Divine Providence for an Age of Anxiety

  1. Davis Savage

    I’ve always found it fascinating that God has to bring us to a place of complete hopelessness to realize there is hope – and that in Christ alone. I really liked the way that you wrote that. In general, I think we do have to realize that everything we do is futile if we do it in our own strength. Everything is meaningless unless we allow Christ to give it a reason to be. And then, suddenly, it all has meaning because God is glorified in our obedience to Him, and even simply our existing because we bear His image. I think the closer we get to the substance of eternity – that substance being embodied perfectly in Christ and most clearly made known to us in our very souls – the more meaning we can attribute to it. It does not make sense to me to say there is something in existence that has no meaning or purpose, as that seems to go against God’s nature. However, in His mind, it would seem that everything has various amounts of meaning and purpose. Compared to a rock, we as human beings are more meaningful because of our image-bearing state, but that does not mean that us tripping and falling over a rock has no purpose in the more grand, divine scheme of things. Overall, we find our purpose in Christ alone, and the more we are like Him, the more we can find meaning in the little things, and discern His much greater purposes that reach far beyond us and throughout the world as a whole.

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  2. nokareon

    I have come into criticism and sharp disagreement with some of my closest friends before over the exclusivity of Christianity–not simply in its truth, but also in the foremost flourishing of life here and now. Let me explain further: it is not politically correct to say, for example, that someone living for excellence and achievement in one’s career cannot find fulfillment and satisfaction in that pursuit. Even when dialoguing with some of my Christian friends, it is not considered acceptable to say that a person from another religious background–say, a Hindu or a Muslim or a Mystic Pantheist–cannot reach fulfillment and contentment with their lives nor live a truly flourishing life on this earth.

    And yet, isn’t this exactly what the scriptures teach, as you so precisely pointed out in the post above? Any pursuit in life, when pursued apart from God as its motivator, is meaningless. Thus, even the examples of “model lives” that we praise–the billionaire philanthropists, the 60-hours-a-week breadwinner, the devoted mother of five–lead only to ruin when pursued for their own sakes.

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    Good thoughts! I’ve heard the same objection about the ability to love. In the end, these disagreements will have to be settled by experience. And you can’t argue with someone else’s self-reported experience. If a Christian witnesses to deep joy in life because of their faith and hope in the love of God as demonstrated in Jesus, others will either see it and want it or they won’t. Making a second order argument to the truth of Christianity may be less persuasive than the original witness.

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  4. nokareon

    Certainly, it’s not effective to volunteer it without having it be solicited. It just frustrates me when one does witness the peace and contentment in a Christian’s life, wants it, and asks about its source only to reject the answer given by the one who has it. Matters become even more puzzling when the person asking is deeply distraught about their own lack of fulfillment and contentment and wants that to change. They want to know the “secret,” but only if that secret is one from their pre-approved list of answers.

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  5. John Wright

    Well said, Ron. It seems to me that age must be one of the ingredients that are necessary to reach a point of resting in the presence of life with its uncertainties. Age alone will not grant it. And, perhaps not faith alone. But, it has been my observation of people and my own experience of life that a life lived long in faith grants a bone-deep sense of well-being with God–a resting in one’s relationship with him, trusting him to take whatever we faithfully and diligently offer to him and bringing good from it.

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  6. falonopsahl

    This was exactly what I needed to hear/read at this point in my life. Entering grad school — and just because of the tendencies of my personality — it is easy to get lost in the constant “keep up, do better, strive for more, achieve, achieve, achieve” mindset. I’m so grateful to have a God who can bring eternal good out of everything I do (and fail to do). Achievements, in any sense of the word, are so fleeting, but God is eternal, and it is He who fills me up and gives me life. That’s amazing.

    This also reminds me of our discussion in class about eternity a few weeks ago. That conversation has stuck with me, and I remember regularly throughout the day how fleeting every moment is and how fleeting every version of “me” is. But God knows me in every moment at every moment in the past, present and future, and that’s so reassuring and encouraging.

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  7. ifaqtheology Post author

    I am happy that these thoughts were helpful to you! In most of what I write I am working on my own needs. I’ve found that if you go deep enough we find ourselves very much alike. Thank you for sharing this.

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