Have no Anxiety… say what?

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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One of my favorite verses to share with college students is given in the second reading of this Sunday’s Mass. St. Paul is writing to the Philippians and tells them, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Phil 4:6).  It is similar to what Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, when He says, “Do not be anxious about your life,” (Mt 6:25) and instructs us to trust God to take care of us.

We are experiencing an epidemic of anxiety today, not just among college students, but in society at large. Some of it is caused by depression or other mental illness. But much of it is caused by stress over concern about the future. Beyond the usual worries about having to find a job and start paying bills there is a more deep-rooted anxiety stemming from uncertainty about life’s purpose. As a campus minister I frequently direct students to Phil 4:6 or Mt 6:25 for a little divine reassurance.

So it interesting that this Sunday’s gospel is not from that passage from Matthew. It’s a totally different part of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is telling the Jewish elders a parable about the Kingdom of God. A landowner puts tenants in charge of his vineyard, but when they mistreat the servants he sends to them (including his own son, whom they put to death), the landowner takes the vineyard away and gives it to “a people that will produce its fruit.”

The message is straightforward. The vineyard is the Kingdom of God, the landowner is God, and the tenants are the Jewish religious leaders who have persecuted the prophets and are about to put the Son of God to death. They have not been good stewards of God’s kingdom, so it will be taken away from them and given to others — a foreshadowing of the establishment of the Catholic Church. Even the Jewish elders agree that the “wretched men” deserve “a wretched death” for what they have done. But oh, have no anxiety at all…

The first reading from Isaiah also speaks of God’s kingdom as a vineyard. In this case the vineyard does not produce good fruit. Instead it grows only “wild grapes.” So God tears down the walls surrounding the vineyard to let animals in to graze and trample it down. He deprives it of rain. He lets it become overgrown with thorns and briers. “Yes, I will make it a ruin,” He says (Is 5:6). Again, the message is clear. Bear good fruit or there will (quite literally) be hell to pay. And by the way, have no anxiety at all…

Why on earth would the Church pair these readings in the liturgy with St. Paul’s assurance that we should have no anxiety? Shouldn’t the thought of being punished for not bearing good fruit for God’s kingdom fill us with anxiety? For some Christians, it certainly does. But it shouldn’t.

Some Christians — and perhaps you can identify with this — struggle with never feeling worthy of God’s love. They don’t believe they can ever truly be forgiven. They fear that their sins are too great. Or that God is just too good, and there is no way they can ever deserve to be with Him in heaven. No matter how often they pray, no matter how many times they confess their sins, no matter how good they try to be, they simply never feel good enough for God. The word for this is scrupulosity. 

You can think of it as a form of “spiritual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” The scrupulous person feels anxiety to the point where everything they do seems sinful to them. It is a horrible thing to suffer, but it can be overcome. Many of the saints have struggled with it during their lives and wrote about it in their memoirs, including St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Alphonsus Ligouri and St. Therese of Lisieux.

Another historical figure who struggled with scrupulosity was Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation. Unlike the aforementioned saints who were able to overcome their scruples with the spiritual aid of the Church, Martin Luther’s scruples led him away from the Church. Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians:

I used to make a list of my sins, and I was always on the way to confession, and whatever penances were enjoined upon me I preformed religiously. In spite of it all, my conscience was always in a fever of doubt. The more I sought to help my poor stricken conscience the worse it got. The more I paid attention to the regulations the more I transgressed them…

Luther’s scrupulosity played a part in his development of a sola fide theology teaching that we are saved by our faith in Christ alone, regardless of whether our actions in life are good or bad. This allowed him to finally let go of his worry about sin. The problem is, sola fide is a heresy that contradicts the Catholic Church’s teaching that faith and works both play a role in our salvation, following the instruction in James 2:24 that “man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Luther refused to be corrected on this issue, and his break with the Church would lead to the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of countless other Christian “denominations” with various theological teachings and religious practices. Many of these Protestant denominations teach a theology of once saved, always saved, meaning they believe it is impossible for a Christian to lose salvation once they have accepted Jesus.

By contrast, Catholic Church views salvation as more of a process than an event. St. Paul, in a different part of his letter to the Philippians, instructs them to “work out” their salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). These are the same Christians that he instructs to “have no anxiety.” So which is it? Should we be filled with fear and trembling? Or should we have no anxiety?

In both the gospel and the reading from Isaiah, God’s kingdom is described as a vineyard. A vineyard is a place where vines grow. The idea is that they will not only grow and be healthy, but produce good fruit that can be turned into wine. There is a purpose to their growth. So it is with the Christian life. We are not just magically “saved” by “accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and savior.” We, like the vines, have to grow. And there is a purpose to our growth. We have to bear fruit. We must grow into the saints God created us to be. It is a slow and transformative process that will take our entire lives. It is in fact our principle work in life, but it is not primarily our work. It is God’s work in us. Our role is to cooperate with Him.

The thought of bearing “bad fruit” by not cooperating with God’s work of redemption, by not repenting of our sins and seeking His forgiveness, should fill us with a little “fear and trembling.” But it’s not something we should be filled with anxiety over. That’s scrupulosity. It is a sin against hope, a sin of doubting God’s love and the power of His mercy. It is a sin of pride, as it essentially says your capacity for sin is greater than God’s capacity to forgive. As Pope Francis said recently, “God never grows tired of forgiving us; it is we who grow tired of asking for forgiveness.”

Enough “fear and trembling” to keep us away from serious sin is a good thing. It’s like having proper fear and respect of a large animal or a strong current in the ocean. A little fear keeps us safe. But it should not cause irrational anxiety to the point that all we can think about is getting swept out to sea, even though we might be miles from the shore.

A Protestant once asked me, “Doesn’t it fill you with anxiety to think that you might lose your salvation?” My answer was no. Salvation is not something you can lose against your will. There are no pitfalls of mortal sin that you can accidentally stumble into and be damned. Sin is something you choose, just like holiness is something you choose. Hell will always be possible because God always respects our freedom.

St. Paul tells the Christians in Philippi — and us today — that we don’t need to have anxiety about our life so long as we have the peace of Christ in our hearts. The key to keeping this peace is simple and straightforward. He tells us first, “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” In other words, give thanks to God for what you have, and ask Him for what you need. Are you doing this simple thing in your prayers every day? Doing so keep us mindful not only of our dependence upon God, but of God’s desire to provide for us.

St. Paul then gives us certain things to think about, if we want to be sure to produce good fruit in God’s vineyard and remain faithful tenants in His kingdom:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…

I want you to consider what you think about over the course of a day. Think about your media intake; the things you watch, the things you listen to, the things you read. What occupies your mind? What are your conversations with your friends about? We don’t need to listen to “Christian music” and talk about our favorite scripture passages all the time. But are the things we allow to occupy our thoughts true and pure and lovely? Are we concerned with things of excellence? If we are, then our lives will naturally produce good fruit. Things that are good and true and beautiful are like fertilizer in the vineyard, giving us the nourishment we need for a good life.

Finally, St. Paul tells us, “Keep on doing what you have learned and received… then the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9). Remember what you have been taught in the Church. Follow the commandments. Keep Sunday holy. Go to Mass. Pray daily. Love your neighbor. If you sin, repent and go to confession. Then go back to thinking of all those good things mentioned above and don’t give your sin a second thought.  It’s really that simple.

Which is not to say it will always be easy. It doesn’t mean that you won’t struggle with trials or experience suffering in your life. But you will be able to face those struggles with the peace of Christ in your heart, knowing that no matter what, your Savior is with you, helping you to bear the good fruit of a holy life, and leading you home to eternal peace and happiness in His kingdom.