An Ancient Cure For A Very Modern Anxiety

One of the common ailments of our age is a kind of existential anxiety in which we become overrun with a fear that our lives will turn out meaningless. This anxiety hovers over our everyday lives like a fog. We try everything that we can to distract ourselves from this reality; we try all kinds of things to fill this hole. We go the route of self sufficiency and we attempt make a name for ourselves. We do this because this is what every Hollywood movie has taught us to do, that is to make ourselves into something and control our own destinies.

However  for many the anxiety still stays, sure we may push it down during the day, but it will return late at night, or at moments when we are under pressure, stressed or lonely.  To alleviate this problem many turn to self medication which in turns leads to addiction which only makes the problem worse , and the destructive cycle continues.

We see this pattern throughout the book of Genesis, the fall of humanity occurs when the Serpent introduces a seed of doubt into Eve’s mind which in turn flowers into anxiety.  Adam and Eve eat of the tree because they are attempting to control their world, they attempt to make themselves ‘like God’ to take their destinies into their own hands. Adam and Eve were charged with naming all of the animals; instead they try and make a name for themselves. However such a choice does not alleviate their sense of anxiety, it only makes things much, much worse. Adam and Eve lose almost everything and find themselves exiled from Eden.  Thus we observe a pattern, a rule that is woven into the reality of the universe just like the law of gravity.

Anxiety – Making a Name for oneself – Exile/Destruction/Death

We see a similar pattern occur again during the first few chapters of Genesis. We see it in the story of Cain and Abel and we see it also in the story of the tower of Babel, in which humanity attempts to ‘make a name for themselves’ apart from God. This anxiety is also the fuel which stokes the fires of idol worship. Idols become tools for attempting to control God, one names one’s idol, they are humanities attempt to play God, short cuts to control made out of stone and wood.

Today in the West many of us may not worship idols of stone and wood. Yet our collective anxiety means that in our attempts to control our world and make names for ourselves, we turn ordinary things into idols – be it work, sex, alcohol or shopping. In fact our culture has turned the idea of ‘making a name for yourself’ into a whole industry of self improvement. Ordinary people dream of ‘making a name for themselves’ through becoming famous. However such attempts prove futile and even the famous find themselves clambering to stay in the spot light and continue to make a name for themselves.

However as we read through Genesis we find a solution. Abram is called out of the idol worshipping community of Ur to form a new kind of human family that is in relationship with God. God promises Abram that he will give him a name. He promises him a new land. However when Abram reaches this new land it is already filled with people, the Canaanites. Instantly we recognize that this is one of those moments in which doubt over God’s goodness can turn into anxiety. It is no accident that Genesis notes that Abram stops near the tree of Moreh, which was an oracle tree, that is a site of pagan or Idol worship. Abram is presented with a temptation, to go the old route and try and control his own destiny, to worship and Idol or to trust in God’s promise to give him a name. Instead of worshipping  the Tree of Moreh, Abram builds an altar to the Lord. Paul Borgman commenting on this action in his book Genesis: The Story we haven’t heard writes,

“God has promised Abram a great name, and now Abram invokes the name of the Lord, after embracing this God by building the altar. These initiatives may not indicate much of any change from the natural instinct to secure his own name, but invoking the God’s name is surely an important first step in relinquishing the effort to establish one’s own.”  

Abram with this simple act of worship has short circuited the pattern that has been bringing misfortune upon humanity.

Anxiety – Making a Name for oneself – Exile/Destruction/Death

Instead becomes

Anxiety – Invoking the name of God – Homecoming/Blessings/Life

Abram when faced with anxiety chooses to turn to God and trust in his promises and provision. This is a culturally radical act for the time that Abram lived and it is just as radical today in our world in which we are told to control our own destinies, to be self-sufficient and ruggedly individualistic. Abram’s witness tells us that the cure for our personal and collective anxiety is to give up trying to control our realities and destinies and to trust in the creator of the universe.

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