Have you ever seen the show Avatar: The LastAirbender? If so, then I’m sure you remember the scene where the young hero, Aang, has to seek advice from the malevolent spirit, Koh. All through the interview, Aang has to keep himself completely stoic and expressionless, because if his face shows any emotion at all, Koh will rip it off and wear it as a mask.
Yeah, it’s an awesome show.
I mention it, though, not just because Avatar is awesome (much better than the unrelated blue-elf Jim Cameron film of the same name), but because that scene illustrates something that St. Francis de Sales talks about in his Introduction to the Devout Life (which I’m in the process of reading). Namely, the unexpected danger of anxiety.
If you’re like me, then you read Jesus’ famous speech against anxiety (Matt. 6: 25-34) as just good, practical advice: you don’t gain anything by worrying your life away about things you can’t control, so trust in God and sack it up. St. Francis, however, brings out a different aspect which I hadn’t thought of before, but which was one of those “okay, duh” moments. St. Francis describes anxiety as not just unhealthy, but as actually dangerous for your soul. As a matter of fact, he goes so far as to say that it is the worst thing that can befall your soul, short of sin itself.
The thing about anxiety, he says, is that while it is not a sin itself it serves as fertile ground for sin to grow in. Basically, it weakens your defenses and leaves you vulnerable, like the way a city torn by internal strife is ripe pickings for an invading army (that’s what happened to Poland in the eighteenth century: some geniuses decided that every parliamentary decision had to be unanimous, with the result that Prussia, Austria, and Russia were able to help themselves to Polish territory until there wasn’t any Poland left).
I don’t know about you, but I’m most apt to commit sins when I’m anxious or stressed about something. And isn’t that our favorite excuse? “Sorry I yelled at you; I’ve got a lot on my plate.” “Yeah, I swore I’d never take another drink, but have you seen the day I’ve had?” We don’t only know that anxiety can lead to sin, we’re glad of the fact, because it gives us an excuse.
But Jesus doesn’t want excuses; He wants us to man up and overcome our sins. If we plead anxiety, He’ll say “Hm, that’s funny; I’m pretty sure I specifically told you not to be anxious! Depart from me, you wicked ones!” (*BANG*) “AAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEE…..!” (*SPLASH!*) (*GRINDING OF TEETH*)
(sorry: got a bit carried away there)
Anyway, the point is that we need to do something about anxiety, because it will destroy us if we don’t. So what do we do?
It’s so hard because when we are anxious we are trying to either escape some evil or acquire some good, both of which are laudable desires, and, as such can trick us into chasing them beyond all reason. So, what we need to do is to trust in God and stare it down, like Aang; calmly and rationally. St. Francis tells us that whenever something is making us anxious, we need to stop, pray about it, then wait and deal with it tomorrow when we’re less anxious. If that’s not possible, we still need to pray about it before we do anything else. Take a step back, remind yourself that everything is in God’s hands, that he won’t abandon you, and that whatever happens you can get through it. Then relax and go about your business.
Easier said than done, huh? Well, all of Christianity’s like that; that’s why we have prayer.