Thanksgiving ostensibly represents a time to contemplate and recall our God-given blessings over the previous year. Perhaps Thanksgiving week would also serve as an appropriate time for many of us to grapple with our fear and anxiety since these feelings are an assessment of both our present situation and future blessings.
Fear and anxiety are not only common human traits, but pervade our culture. Indubitably there is something accurate behind British author Ruth Whippman’s moniker for the United States and title of her recent book, “America the Anxious.” Whippman argues that Americans tend to remain stuck chasing happiness rather than achieving it.
That Americans overwhelmingly experience fear and anxiety is borne out by the data, especially as of late.
The American Psychiatric Association revealed that “Americans’ anxiety levels experienced sharp increases in the past year” according to their 2018 survey about fear. Anxiety increased “in all five areas” covered by the survey: “health, safety, finances, relationships and politics.”
What exactly do Americans fear? The list is expansive. Chapman University ranked nearly one hundred specific fears that Americans identified in the institution’s appropriately titled Survey of American Fears. Most Americans fear multiple different types of environmental, political, and personal disasters.
Americans’ top ten anxieties in 2018 are ranked in the chart below, compared to previous years. (Examine the complete series of 94 fears from the survey results published online here.)
Sadly, it remains true in our fallen world that tragic and terrible things do still happen. Inevitably we will all experience the brokenness inherent to our world, whether in the ways we fear or otherwise.
Fear as we may, we will also inevitably come to the conclusion implicit behind the question posed by Jesus Christ: “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:35, ESV)
In other words, fear in and of itself is fruitless.
So how should we respond to fear? I believe there are several important lessons we should strive to internalize.
First, we should realize that many of our fears are unfounded. The truth is that many of the political, environmental, and economic trends we fear are not based in reality. Quite the opposite.
By virtually every conceivable measure, our country and world are becoming better places to live and thrive. Well-being in terms of economics, health, safety, education, and science, the world’s population is better off than ever. Even religious declinism is a factually dubious theory.
“Hardly anyone thinks the world is getting better,” Forbes Senior Contributor Steve Denning writes. “And yet the facts show otherwise.”
On an individual level, an important truth to internalize is that not everything we fear will come to pass. God gives us grace for each situation that we actually encounter, but does not ask us to muster up the faith all at once for everything that could happen. Fearing every possible eventuality is simply not our burden to bear.
Christian thinker and author C.S. Lewis summed up this lessen beautifully in his book The Screwtape Letters. The book contains a series of fictional letters from one demon to another about derailing a human “patient” who has become a Christian and attempting to thwart the “Enemy” (i.e., God).
In the book’s sixth letter, demon Screwtape writes to his demon nephew Wormwood about using fear to tempt the “patient” as follows:
Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [God’s] will. What the Enemy [God] means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him-the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.
Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise [sic] fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.
Another temptation related to fear is one that many conservative Christians are likely to struggle with: nostalgia. Not all nostalgia is bad, but when it comes to politics and culture, it can actually reveal a subtle fear about the future.
Dr. Russell Moore spoke about this sentiment in his Dianne Knippers Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Institute on Religion and Democracy in October 2015.
“There is a kind of religious conservatism that can easily present itself as time travelers from the past. Those who are seeking to bring forward the values of the 1950s,” Moore said. “We are not time travelers from the past. We are pilgrims from the future.”
Moore clarified that the impetus for the appropriate future-oriented focus by Christians lies in Christ’s statement “my kingdom is not of this world” in John 18.
This language echoes Christ’s previous instruction to his disciples in the same passage quoted already. After exposing that no one can add an hour to their life through worry, Christ commanded “do not be anxious about tomorrow,” but instead “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Our faith-filled focus on Christ’s kingdom empowers us to live freely in the present. The kingdom of God is simultaneously already but not yet. This means we have faith for God to provide the grace we need today, and rest assured of the reward to come.
Christian author John Piper refers to this as faith in “future grace.” (Although he dedicates an entire book entitled “Future Grace” to the topic, find a shorter explanation here.)
“What I have in mind when I say ‘future grace’ is the grace we’ll receive at the Second Coming and the grace that is arriving every moment as I move into the future,” Piper explains. “So future grace is God’s power, provision, mercy, and wisdom—everything we need—in order to do what he wants us to do five minutes, five weeks, five months, five years, and five thousand years from now.”
So as we examine our hearts this Thanksgiving, let us take to heart Christ’s command: “do not be anxious about your life.” Let us remind ourselves during Thanksgiving week about His grace in the present and for all eternity to come.
Our King will empower us on Thanksgiving and throughout the year as we wrestle with our anxiety and lay hold of faith in future grace. This Thanksgiving week offers us a chance to exercise clear-headed thinking and hold fast to the Lord’s promises to provide for us now and forever.
Let us join with the psalmist in declaring: “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD.” (Psalm 116:17, ESV)