Anxiety, Atonement, and Vocation

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

- Matthew 6

[1] In these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concludes a series of admonitions against commonplace worries (the Greek is as readily translated “do not be anxious”) with the command to seek first the righteousness of God’s kingdom. He is not, I think, recommending a plan of passivity in relation to basic needs of life, nor should his words be dismissed as the counsel of an interim ethic (à la Schweitzer), capable of adherence for what was mistakenly believed to be a short time before the eschaton.

James Childs [2] At the same time, it is critical to our understanding of this text and our whole approach to the questions it raises concerning anxiety to note that the Sermon on the Mount is an eschatological document. In its various sayings Jesus is making Messianic claims.[1] The call to seek first the kingdom of God is a call to entrust oneself to a coming future made present in the Christ.[2] Jesus proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God, his identification of his person and work with prophetic hopes for God’s future (Luke 4:16-21; Mt. 11: 4-5, e.g.) , confirmed by his resurrection, make clear that in Jesus the Christ God’s future dominion has been made present. Or, as Pannenberg, Moltmann and others have taught us, the resurrection is the prolepsis of the kingdom of God as the fulfillment of all things. So, we commonly say that we live in the tension of the already but not yet.

[3] In the midst of those threats of life in this not-yet world that give rise to anxiety, even debilitating or all-consuming anxiety, Jesus calls for his followers to make the promise of God’s kingdom their ultimate concern. We experience the threats of life as real and anxiety producing; they are often essentials that need to be tended to. Yet we are still called to make trust in God’s promises the paramount force in our lives. Wolfhart Pannenberg in his early and still very useful lectures on anthropology, contrasts security and trust. The drive for security is the drive to control one’s life and one’s world. When this striving for control becomes an end in itself then security and one’s own efforts becomes the ultimate concern, perversely, the object of trust. The opposite is the trust of faith in the promises of God, an openness to God’s future kingdom made present in the Christ.[3] It seems fair to assume that this openness of trust is just what Jesus was calling for in Matthew 6:33. Of course, this is easier said than done.

[4] “What will we eat?” “What will we drink?” “What will we put on?” This is pretty basic stuff that has its corollary questions in today’s world as other articles in this issue demonstrate. Millennials are worried about college debt load, uncertain job prospects, the uncertain possibility of homeownership, and the question of whether it’s a good investment if even possible. These are questions of security to be sure. Will they be answered, as suggested with the help of technological innovation in combination with the intangible fruits of education and experience? Then, as Janet Ramsey says and proceeds to illustrate in her essay, “The need for responding to fearful narratives of aging has never been greater.”[4] These as she says are a complex mix of economic and social trends that threaten security at a time in life when one’s ability to recoup losses is waning.

When the World Is Out of Whack

[5] In the brief history of our country countless numbers of folks have seen tough times when worries about the necessities of life have been real and pressing. However, it strikes me that the fears for material security, at least among those of middle age and beyond, are complicated by our postmodern and “post Christendom” social climate.

[6] People of my father’s and mother’s generation survived the Great Depression, hard as it was, with a sense that there was a structure of commonly held values pervading the culture that one could count on. With hard work, a readiness to help one’s neighbor, and a strong faith and moral code we will finally see our way through. To be sure, there was still despair among many and the Depression did not bring a great religious revival as some expected. Certainly there was socio-economic turmoil. To some degree Marxism made inroads though not really successful ones. There was social legislation under FDR that represented a new departure in government’s relation to our capitalist system. However, it is arguable that these changes did not as yet represent a dramatic reframing of the American ethos. And when prosperity returned as it had already begun to do on the eve of World War II the American dream was revitalized and the expectation of my parents and that of at least the next generation was that their offspring would be better off than they were. Not only is that no longer a sure thing, as Annelise Eeman’s discussion of the Millennials illustrates, but the world view within which such hopes and expectations were nurtured is also no longer a sure thing. We can no longer think of ourselves as a society knit together by a common Judeo-Christian heritage despite its lingering impact on our civil laws and commitment to human rights. Secularization, religious diversity, and new forms of spirituality growing outside formal religious institutions, marks of the postmodern world, have led us into post-Christendom.

[7] If postmodernity is marked by the loss of an overarching religious paradigm shaping the culture, it is also marked, as the term suggests, by an erosion of assumptions that characterized modernity. While admitting that there is a good deal of disagreement about what is involved in postmodernism, the late Stanley Grenz observed that there is nonetheless consensus on the fact that it is no longer possible to believe there is a single universal worldview, religious or secular. Furthermore, “The postmodern consciousness has abandoned the Enlightenment belief in inevitable progress.” Pessimism has supplanted the optimism of previous generations. [5]

[8] Other features of recent change add to the picture of our postmodern state of affairs. Pluralism and a corollary diversity of how different groups view reality has many shaking their heads. Our increasingly global society is being matched by dramatic demographic shifts in process in our own country. We were given graphic reminders of this during this past presidential campaign. Some thought of Governor Romney as restoring past securities and others saw the President as representing the emerging future of change. No small amount of anxiety was involved in those perceptions, accurate or not. While for good reasons Janet Ramsey sees our growing diversity as a potential strength, it is for many a threat.

[9] Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of a growing shift away from a common set of standards in our society is the intense debate over same sex marriage, in particular, and even same sex intimacy in general. During my three years (2002-2005) as Director of the ElCA’s study on the church and homosexuality I came to know first-hand the intensely felt differences among us over the moral status of same sex intimacy and the prospect of the church blessing same sex unions and admitting persons in such committed unions into its ministries. It has only been in recent decades that the acceptance of same sex relationships has even been on the table. Many who believed same sex unions unacceptable also regarded the matter as long settled. Consequently, in their eyes the fact that we were even having a study was a betrayal of established norms; it suggested that there was something to study. Perhaps more to the point of our present discussion was a particular experience I had in talking about same sex unions with a number of people who opposed them. It was not only that they felt such unions were immoral and/or against the clear teaching of the Bible. They also expressed the conviction that if same sex unions or marriage were to go forward it would feel as though the order of the universe was unraveling. The meaning of their own marriage and parenthood would somehow be undermined.

[10] Cherished funds of meaning can be eroded when there is a strong sense that the world is out of whack, a perception compounded by the current anxiety producing material threats peculiar to each generation. Douglas John Hall has called attention to the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness that he believes afflict the general public of North America. It is difficult to deal with, he maintains, because it is not readily admitted. The North American context is “so determinedly fixed upon the utter meaningfulness of our entire exercise in progress, in happiness.”[6] It is, of course, a false sense of security. He believes that we are a people in despair but it is a covert despair, the despair of being unaware of our despair. For Hall the greatest theological challenge of the day is a soteriology, an approach to atonement theology that can address the underlying anxiety of meaninglessness.[7]

[11] It is not possible here to offer a comprehensive cultural analysis or gauge with certainty the prevalence of people’s anxiety about meaninglessness.[8] At the same time it seems safe to say that most everyone desires to have a meaningful life. (For some it involves the struggle to survive so that one might even have the luxury to consider the issue of meaning.) When people sense that meaning has slipped away and efforts to find it have failed, anxiety over the emptiness that ensues is a normal reaction. Seeking routes of escape through entertainment, spending, gambling, alcohol, or drugs is not uncommon.

[12] Affluent societies like our own offer many gods that promise meaning and happiness if one serves them. The idols of success and riches are often spoken of as reigning forces in business, professional life, or any number of other career pursuits. Warnings about the pitfalls of serving these idols are commonly made by cultural critics and not a few preachers. Yet, for all of that these gods of success and wealth still hold sway in the lives of many who serve them and those who are envious of others who appear to be doing well under their allure.

[13] These gods, if we can continue with that well-worn metaphor, are all law and no gospel. They demand strict adherence to the standards of success and are unforgiving of those who do not measure up. In many cases this means being trapped in a dead end situation that feels void of purpose or meaning. In worst case scenarios it can mean disgrace and despair. When success does come it can come at the cost of being turned into oneself (Luther’s in curvatus in se). Such single-minded self-absorption is corrosive of the community that is constitutive of our being in the image of God, the image of the community of the Triune God. Recalling Pannenberg, the price of pursuing personal success as one’s primary purpose in life can mean that security has trumped trust, not only trust in God but the sort of trust that love has in being open to the neighbor. Fulfilling the law of success to the exclusion of other values can bring upon us the judgment of God’s Law.

[14] We need to hasten to add that being successful and caring about doing and being one’s best is not in itself evidence of self-centered disregard for others. Success and wealth can certainly be a blessing and put to use for the common good. The real question is not only what we do with it but, even more, what place does it have in our lives? The answer to that question lies I think in having a larger framework of meaning within which to interpret the matters that occupy us. For Christians this means knowing the manifold things it means to live in the freedom of the gospel promise. This thought leads us to our final reflections.

Strive First for the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness

[15] It is time to return to the earlier observation that the Sermon on the Mount from which come our opening verses has an eschatological force. The call is to strive for the kingdom of God, the future of God’s coming reign revealed in the Christ.

[16] Traditional theologies of the atonement have sustained the faithful in the face of guilt and death up to this day and will continue to do so. Those theologies spoke contextually to the spiritual needs of the day and those needs remain still. However, Douglas John Hall, we recall, has maintained that we also need a soteriology or theology of the atonement that can speak to what he believes is a prevailing anxiety over the meaninglessness of life. This is a contextual demand for our day.

[17] I believe that Jesus’ call to strive first for the kingdom of God is our way into an understanding of Christ’s atoning work that offers a hope-filled meaning and purpose for life that speaks to its varied anxieties.

[18] Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God; this is the testimony of the synoptic gospels. He gathered to himself the hopes of the prophets and in his teaching and work revealed to all what that coming reign of God would involve. He identified himself with the messianic hope of Isaiah 61:1 in his temple appearance recorded in Luke 4:16-22, good news for the poor, the captives, and the afflicted. To the disciples of John the Baptist who asked if he was the expected one, he gave this reply: “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matt. 11:4-5). These are the signs of God’s kingdom and the works of the Messiah (Isaiah 29: 18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1) to which he added “the dead are raised” that had become in Jesus time an expectation of the fullness of God’s reign (see John 11:24). Jesus’ resurrection, then, was a clear sign that the kingdom of God had broken in. We add to these texts the further testimony that the whole creation is the object of God’s creating and atoning work in Christ (Rom. 8:19-22; Rev. 21:5), fulfilling the promise of the peaceable kingdom of messianic reign that Isaiah foresaw (Isaiah 11: 1-9). In God’s rule, moreover, all are equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

[19] When we assemble these and others sources from scripture that we could turn to, we get a picture of the promised kingdom as one that includes the victory of life over death, wholeness and health for people and all living things, equality over injustice, freedom in the forgiveness of sin from bondage to all that enslaves, peace, and reconciliation. Jesus’ call to strive first for the kingdom of God is a call to set our sights on these values. The atoning work of the Christ is as broad as the whole creation and part of God’s work for the fulfillment of that creation. That is the full gospel promise.

[20] The Christian community has been blessed to see in Christ the future of the world and empowered by grace to anticipate it in love for God, neighbor, and all creation by actively seeking its promised values. This is a gift of Christ’s atoning work. This is our vocation on behalf of the world. Herein lays the larger framework of meaning that can speak to the anxieties of lost purpose and the material and existential threats of change.

[21] Janet Ramsey’s “new vocational directions” for baby boomers fits right in here. Heather Dean’s concern to deal with the continuing negative impact of the heritage of patriarchy on the self-worth of women is certainly on the agenda of seeking the values of God’s dominion. It is a ministry of outreach to those whose anxieties are born of life’s tragedies and vicissitudes.

[22] The great twentieth century Lutheran theologian and preacher, Joseph Sittler, has told of his first call to a small Cleveland area parish during the Great Depression. Many of the people in his congregation were impoverished by those circumstances. Given that reality, said Sittler, “…no jazzed-up veneer ‘clap your hands for Jesus’ gospel would do. It had to be at the level of tragedy, of deprivation, of the ultimate loneliness, of being unable to look your own children in the face. At the level of that kind of pathos, one had to say something on Sunday morning or shut up.”[9] Sittler did deliver the gospel goods and he also delivered what material help he could scrape up for his families. The church also must speak to tragedy and the anxiety and grief that it brings in manifold ways as the people of anticipation. Were we to fail in that calling, we would be subject to Sittler’s charge to simply shut up.

[23] We are talking here of faith and hope active in love striving for the righteousness embodied in the values of God’s coming dominion, not because we can bring them to pass by our own efforts but because God has assured them in the victory of the Christ. The fullness of the values of God’s future are coming (Advent) and we run ahead to meet them.

[23] The following statement from the ELCA social statement, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” is worth quoting at this point:

Faith is active in love; love calls for justice in the relationships and structures of society…. The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and enter more deeply into the world. Although in bondage to sin and death, the world is God’s good creation, where, because of love, God in Jesus Christ became flesh. The Church and the world have a common destiny in the reign of God.

[22] The social statement affirms our vocation in the world but also reminds us that we are still in the proleptic tension of the already-not yet world. And, we should add, we are already-not yet people (simul Justus et peccator). Causes for anxiety will not go away and the experience of anxiety will not go away but neither will the grace of God for the power to say yes to Jesus command with a joy that anticipates the fullness of joy in God’s future.

James M. Childs, Jr. is Senior Research Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics and Former Dean at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.


[1] See for example, Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1982), 27-28. See also, Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol. 1, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 44-45.

[2] See the treatment of Mt. 6:33 in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 330-331.

[3] Wolfhart Panneberg, What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective, trans. Duane A. Priebe (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 28-40.

[4] Reference her piece

[5] Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 12-13.

[6] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003)130-131.

[7] Ibid., 131-132.

[8] The comments that follow draw heavily on my book, The Way of Peace: Christian Faith in the Face of Discord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 60-67; 73-77.

[9] “His God Story,” The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. James M. Childs, Jr. and Richard Lischer (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 19.




© January/February 2013
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 13, Issue 1