Should You Be Anxious About Your Salvation?

After my homily during Wednesday night’s Evening Prayer this week, I received positive feedback from several students. As they seemed to find it helpful, I wanted to reiterate the same message here for a wider audience.

The scripture reading from Evening Prayer was from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“Work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation. It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement. In everything you do, act without grumbling or arguing; prove yourselves innocent and straightforward, children of God beyond reproach.”

Phil 2:12b-15a

As tempting as it might be to remind college students not to grumble and argue, I wanted to focus on the first part of this reading, specifically the idea that we should work with “anxious concern” to achieve our salvation.

What St. Paul doesn’t mean is that we should have anxiety about our salvation. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease. Anyone can feel anxiety, but it seems like when we hear the word used today it’s most often in the context of nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness or apprehension without just cause, sometimes leading to obsessive behavior or panic attacks. This isn’t the kind of anxiety Paul means in this passage.

In fact, St. Paul tells us that we shouldn’t feel that kind of anxiety. A little later in the same letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Phil 4:6).

In this, Paul is echoing what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?

Mt 6:25-27

Jesus and Paul both tell us that we can rely on God because he cares for us. If we can rely on God to provide for our physical needs, even more can we rely on him to provide for our spiritual good.

Fear and Trembling

So what, then, does Paul mean by “anxious concern?” In other translations, this same verse from Philippians reads, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12b RSV:CE). But here again there is the possibility of misunderstanding.

We commonly use the word “fear” today to mean a certain kind of intense anxiety — a dread about a perceived future harm. But “fear” can also mean profound awe and respect. This is the sense in which it is most often used in the Bible to describe our attitude toward God. We shouldn’t be afraid of God in the sense that we think God will cause us harm. Instead, we should have an attitude of great awe and respect toward our Creator. This is the meaning behind the proverb, “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10).

When St. Paul says we should have anxious concern about our salvation, or that we should work toward it with fear and trembling, he is underscoring just how important this task should be for us. We need to take this work seriously and approach it with great awe and reverence. It is, quite literally, the most important thing any of us can do.

“Good Enough” for God

But taking salvation seriously does not mean you need to have anxiety about it (in the sense of worry or unease). At times we can feel as if we are not “good enough” for God. This is understandable, especially if we struggle with sin that has a particularly strong hold on our psyche.

But the truth is that none of us is good enough to get to heaven on our own. We’re not supposed to be. We are mere creatures limited by time and space. God is the infinite and eternal Creator. No matter how good we are, there is no ladder we can climb that would get us to heaven. There is simply no road from here to there.

So none of us is “good enough.” But God is. We can’t climb up to heaven to be with God, so God descends from heaven to be with us. Then he gives us every grace we need to rise to heaven with him. He gives us the graces of the sacraments. He gives us the grace of baptism, the grace of confirmation, the grace of his Divine Presence in the Eucharist. He doesn’t come before us in his full, unfiltered glory that would be more than we could endure. He comes before us veiled under the appearance of bread and wine, in a form that we can approach, and even take into our own bodies as food.

He gives us the grace of the sacrament of penance, lifting us up out of our sins when we fall. He gives us the grace of his word in the scriptures. He gives us the ability to pray. He gives us other people to lift us up and encourage us in our spiritual life. He gives us everything we need to achieve our salvation because he desires our salvation even more than we do. We just have work with him, because the one thing God won’t do is force us to be with him against our will.

His Good Will Toward You

By telling us to “work out” or have concern with our own salvation, St. Paul reminds us that we do have a part to play. We can’t take our salvation for granted. But he also reminds us that our salvation is primarily God’s work. “It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement.” Since salvation is principally God’s work that we cooperate with, then it has more to do with our willingness to work with God than it does with our ability to do the work ourselves.

Desire or achievement: I like how Paul uses both of those words. Our salvation consists in our cooperating with God’s grace. Anything we achieve toward the goal of our salvation — every aspect of spiritual growth — is the result of God’s good will toward us. And this is true not only of our spiritual achievements but also of our spiritual desires.

Sometimes we can feel frustrated when we don’t feel like we’ve made sufficient spiritual achievement, so it’s important to know that even the desire to be close to God is a gift that comes from God. The mere fact that we want to be holy, even if we know we aren’t there yet, means that God is at work in our lives and drawing us ever closer to him. So we shouldn’t despair.

That desire for God is like a little flame in your heart that God has lit. Our job is to kindle that flame and not let it die out. By cooperating with his grace, that flame will grow until one day in heaven it will fill our entire being with its blaze. We will be like the burning bush, aflame with God’s love, burning but not consumed. We’ll be purified by God’s fire, all of our attachment to sin burned away by his mercy.

The fact that we are not there yet just means that we are still works in progress. As St. Peter says, God’s patience is directed toward our salvation (2 Pet 3:15). We need not have anxiety about our weakness. As long as we desire union with God, we know that he is still at work within us.

God doesn’t give up on any of us. Indeed, the only thing to fear would be us giving up on God. This is just what St. Paul is warning us against by reminding us to work diligently — in cooperation with God’s work — for our salvation.