Developing the interior life as a guard against anxiety.
In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and Pricilla Chan wrote an open letter to their daughter Max. It is in this letter that Zuckerberg and Chan famously pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook shares in order to help address some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as poverty and environmental issues. Although Zuckerberg and Chan discuss the harsher realities that the world currently faces, they mostly appear optimistic about the future because of emerging technological advances and the potential they believe that their daughter and her generation may reach. As they state, their goal is to “[push] the boundaries of how great a human life can be.”
I think that Zuckerberg and Chan’s letter says something about the way our minds work today. We are forward-thinking people who like to dream about how great life could be if certain things fall into place. Indeed, most of us have similar hopes that Zuckerberg and Chan have: to make the world a better place, to realize our full potential, and for our children to have a better life than we do. Certainly, these things only seem natural to us.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder if this drive to “push the boundaries of how great a human life can be” is also why so many people feel so anxious today? Is it not easy for us to believe that a much better life awaits us if only we work hard and certain things happen to go our way? Like Zuckerberg and Chan, who named their daughter “Max" because they want her to “maximize” her potential productivity in order to help make the world a better place, don’t we often place our hopes on our own productivity potential? I just can’t help but wonder if such pressure is at the fountainhead of all the anxiety that has washed over our society today.
But while our world is often focused on “output” in hopes of making the world a better place, the Bible is often more concerned about “input.” The Scriptures constantly point us to the importance of developing an interior life that is able to face the inevitable challenges and uncertainties that are sure to come our way in this life. Consider, for example, Philippians 4:6-8:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
In this text, Paul can say “do not be anxious” because he knows the remedy for anxiety: “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” along with meditation on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. Notice, he doesn’t say, “don’t be anxious, you can always change your circumstances with hard work.” Nor does he say, "don’t be anxious, we can make the world a better place." No, he is saying that the development of a rich inner-life is the key to facing whatever life brings your way. When you do this, says the apostle, God’s peace will guard you, no matter the circumstances. Paul’s vision for peace is not about output or what one might achieve through productivity. It is about an inner-life that is resting in the Lord.
Zuckerberg and Chan’s letter echoes much of the impulses of modern society today; their aim is to direct our attention to our potential future happiness, if only we work hard and embrace the changes they envision. Similarly, politics often thrives off of creating a sense of dissatisfaction amongst voters and keeping us preoccupied with envisioning an ideal world, indeed of working to “push the boundaries of how great a human life can be.” Such thoughts and expectations can often leave us feeling anxious, empty, and often pessimistic about life when we sense that these things likely won’t be realized.
But the Gospel tells us that Jesus actually did reach full human potential. Only, then He laid down His perfect life for us in order to pay the penalty for our sins and to secure for us a truly perfect future. Thus, the Gospel releases us from the pressures of trying to make this life or this world perfect by our own efforts (something we know in our hearts that we can’t actually do). Instead, God has given us all the tools we need right now to experience true peace, even in the face of affliction. We can trust that He will make the world a truly better place in the end.
As Christians living in this anxious age, we need to honestly assess what our own spiritual health looks like. Have we truly taken the time to cultivate an inner-life that is quick to pray and quick to consider what is true and honorable, just and pure, lovely and commendable? Do we spend substantial time with God? Are the things we watch and read and listen to truly helping us learn how to face life with a sense of God’s peace and presence and beauty? Or are we following the cultural winds of our time, believing that we will only achieve peace through hard work, self-actualization, or social-transformation?
Let us endeavor instead to rest in the Lord, offering up prayers and supplications with thanksgiving, and meditating on goodness. When we do this, God’s peace will guard us, in Christ Jesus, through any circumstance we might face.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.