Anxiety, Guilt, Boredom and Jesus

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I am continuing to mull over Tom Oden’s wonderful chapter in Two Worlds. Briefly, Oden, a philosopher at Drew University in New Jersey, masterfully unfolds how we experience life offering his own thoughts mixed in with thoughts from the writings of older Christians. Try to follow his thinking…

Everyone is consciously and unconsciously seeking a center of value – something that we all place importance upon. This thing or person answers the existential questions: Who am I? Am I loved? What give me significance? What really is important in life (the really good life)? All of us take finite goods and make them ultimate when we place them at the very center of who we are. If you have ever thought or said, “If I only had…”. On the other side of the “if” is the finite value that you have given infinite value to. Oden references Tertullian when he writes, “Idolatry is the elevation of any finite value to a pretended ultimacy.”

But since we are finite creatures, we relate in particular ways to time. When we have placed something of finite value and place it at the very center of who I am, as I think about the future, I will experience anxiety. Why? It’s because I perceive the this thing/person could be lost or that there will be particular threats to this being at the center of my heart, the very definition of who I am. Oden says that the deeper this finite value goes in our heart, the deeper we experience anxiety where anxiety is a kind of fear, a dread of losing something in the future. This anxiety causes us to cling even more to this finite value because to lose it would be a kind of losing oneself.

But we also have a past. Oden says that to the degree that we have internalized finite values in our heart in our past (or even in the present) we will relate to the past in terms of guilt. In other words, the deeper those finite values are in my heart, the more I will look back with deep guilt that I did not choose the right things. How many of us have said, “If only I had…” To wish that one had been or done something different in the past is to be racked with guilt.

Now we are also creatures of the present. We find ourselves not only relating to the future with anxiety and the past with guilt, but how do we experience the present? Oden says we have a tendency to experience the present in boredom. How is this true when all of us are excited and busy? The answer is not something we will like. Because we internalize values that are temporal in meaning, the temporality leads us to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that life has no ultimate meaning. Why else would people fill themselves with temporal meaning (I want to be happy, I need to be busy, I need to…) unless they were truly empty? Why else would people rush around and keep busy? Why else would people jump from church to church in search of a feeling? Boredom. Oden references John Cassian by suggesting that “Nothing of any perceived importance is happening when one is bored.”  How would you know when you are bored? When you have to fill time in your day with busyness or entertainment to keep your mind off of something…

When finite values are at the center of our heart, we experience guilt toward the past, anxiety toward the future, and we are bored. Why is  this important? First, when you experience any of these three the first question you should ask is, “What thing of finite value have I turned into ultimate value?” But also there should be a realization that the gospel speaks to our guilt, anxiety, and our boredom. It should be clear in how it speaks to the first two. How does it speak to our boredom? Simply put, the fact that your heart was made to be filled with something eternal. That’s why all the longing in the world for someone, something, or a feeling will never fill completely and permanently. Only an eternal Person can fill the eternal void in your heart.

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