Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Faith and Anxiety?

Posted by robf on September 2, 2011

I’m puzzled by a line in Jacob 1:5, where we are told that Nephi and Jacob had received revelations “concerning our people, what things should happen unto them” and that these revelations had come “because of faith and great anxiety.” What role did anxiety play in the receipt of this revelation in particular, and what is the spiritual role of anxiety in general?

I’m presuming that this revelation of what would happen to Nephi’s people is a reference to the vision Nephi recorded in 1 Nephi 12-14. We are quick to see how this vision was the result of Nephi’s faith, but in what sense might it also reflect or be seen as a result of his anxiety? And if this vision was partly the result of anxiety (cf. claims of teachings based on a “frenzied mind” in Alma 30:16), what does that tell us about the source and nature of this revelation?

We often speak of fear and faith as being incommensurate. If that is so, how are we to read this account of Nephi (and Jacob’s) revelations and motives? To the extent that they are the result of anxiety or fear, to what extent can they transcend that fear, or do they remain bound by fear and become self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling prophecies?

If Nephi’s vision, and the whole resulting project of preaching and recording spiritual teachings is motivated by anxiety, what does that tell us about the nature of the project? Of its continuation through 1,000 years of history, or even in the transmission and translation of the plates in our day and subsequent gospel restoration? Is there a proper role for anxiety, or is anxiety itself the problem to be overcome? To what extent might anxiety be a betrayal of faith?

There is a lot here to ponder that seems to get to the core of our concerns relating to our individual spirituality, as well as the whole Nephi-inspired project of record-keeping, the history of that project, and the history of the Restoration.

17 Responses to “Faith and Anxiety?”

  1. This reminds me of monastic Christian discussion about “acedia,” or carelessness. Acedia is spiritual dryness; it is not having sufficient anxiety, if you will, about spiritual things. It is the stony ground on which some seeds fall. (Over time, “acedia” become the “deadly sin” of sloth. Contemporary “laziness” is a pale comparison to the original notion of acedia.)

    Could “anxiety” be the opposite of “hard heartedness?” If hard heartedness is, at least in part, an unwillingness to mourn with those who mourn, could anxiety be those blessed who mourn that are mentioned in the Beatitudes?

    Joe, when I read this post, I’m reminded of an impression I got from Grant Hardy’s book. That impression was that Nephi may have been somewhat self-righteous. In the context of self-righteousness, such “anxiety” could at least manifest itself as the desire to go beyond the mission that the Lord has given one (oh, that I were an angel). At worst, such anxiety could be the temptation to want to coerce or manipulate or use fear in order to persuade others to do what is right in order to save one’s self the pain of the wrong choices of others. In this respect, how might anxiety compare with an idea like “the rest of the Lord” or a yoke that is easy/burden that is light?

    This all seems like a very fruitful line of inquiry.

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  3. joespencer said

    Wonderful post, Rob, and timely, timely, timely! I’ll be delivering a fireside to the Institute here in Albuquerque in October on anxiety. I toyed with Book of Mormon texts, but I’ve settled on working from D&C 58:26-28 (with its talk of “anxious engagement”). Nonetheless, I’m raising more or less the same kinds of issues you are here. I want to write a bit more about this, and in a bit more detail, in response to your post, but I’m without any real time this morning. I hope to get some time in the morning tomorrow….

    • robf said

      Would love to see what you come up with. My initial response to these texts is to see anxiety as a serious problem, or at least a huge break with my traditional way of looking at the BoM and Restoration. My initial response is to see anxiety as a denial of faith, as a fear in contradistinction to Charity. To recognize that at the heart of all this is a big eye-opener.

    • Mike B said

      Um… I’ve never heard someone be assigned the topic of anxiety in any institutional setting. Did they really ask you to speak about anxiety?

  4. Robert C. said

    Rob, your post reminds me of some similar wondering I’ve done with regard to the terms “fear” and “trembling” that occur frequently in LDS scripture.

    (I’ve also wondered why Kierkegaard uses the phrase “fear and trembling” for the title of his book on Abraham and Isaac—I’m guessing there’s a Biblical allusion to this phrase, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Anyone? My original guess was that it was from Phillipians 2:12, but that’s largely b/c I was familiar with the same phrase in Mormon 9:27, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Perhaps a less Mormon-centric perspective would suggest a different, more likely candidate passage.)

  5. NathanG said

    Interesting question to raise. I don’t know what it means, but here is more anxiety language in a potentially bad way. Fortunately, he was able to overcome his anxiety and provide us with the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon:)

    Jacob 4
    18 Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you.

  6. joespencer said

    Robert #4,

    Derrida, in The Gift of Death, offers a brief commentary on the connection between Kierkegaard’s title and the Philippians text. I think that is definitely on the mark. I actually toyed for a while with using that text in the fireside I’ll be giving, but decided against it in the end.

    Nathan #5,

    I think it’s quite interesting to note how much talk there is about anxiety in the words of Jacob alone. It seems that he was particularly prone to anxiety. (See, in addition to the Jacob 1 and Jacob 4 references, 2 Nephi 6:3.)

  7. joespencer said

    Rob,

    Some thoughts, now, on where I’ve been with this topic in the past month or so.

    First, I think there are some interesting developments in the Book of Mormon on this theme. In the small plates, anxiety is always experienced by individuals, and it seems always to have to do with individual anxieties about the future of those who are teetering on the brink of wickedness. The word then appears twice at the end of Mosiah, specifically in connection, both collective rather than individual experiences, and both with sharply political inflections. Here anxiety, moreover, is displaced from its focus on the future, and replaced with a focus on the present and its constitutive relation to the past. The word appears a couple of other times, but in not terribly surprising ways. I wonder, though, whether there isn’t something important about this development from individual concerns about the future of the slowly-apostatizing to collective concerns about the political status of the present.

    Second, and speaking a bit more broadly now, I think it is worth noting that anxiety is deeply connected with law. Slavoj Zizek has written a wonderful little book (called The Puppet and the Dwarf) analyzing the status of anxiety in Christianity. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, he points out that anxiety is what is experienced where law is suspended or absent. What induces anxiety (rather than, say, fear) is not knowing what is wanted of us, not know what is required of us. Christianity, as a theology of suspended law, is a religion of anxiety. I know that I need not bother with the law of Moses, but I don’t know what I’m then left with. One of the most common responses to this, of course, is to reduce anxiety by inventing new laws/rules (turning the injunction to love into a series of prohibitions, for example). But the faithful response is to allow anxiety to turn us to action.

    Third, and bringing this broader reflection back to a single text, I can say something about D&C 58:26-28. Here we are told specifically that it is not meet that God command in all things. Note: it is not meet that we have laws about everything; we are sometimes supposed to be suspended in anxiety. And so it is that the revelation goes on to say that we are to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, doing much good of our own free will. God wants us to experience anxiety, but He wants us to transform that anxiety into forward momentum in good works. Anxiety unused is an unbearable experience because in it we experience a kind of hopelessness, wishing we could know where to go or what to do. But anxiety channeled is the experience, precisely, of faith, of embracing the reality of not knowing in order finally to get to work. It may be that there is no difference whatsoever between faith and anxiety.

    A few scattered thoughts. I’ll have many more as I keep working towards this fireside….

  8. Robert C. said

    Joe, couple thoughts in response to your comments.

    1. Regarding Jacob, I’ve often wondered about Jacob 7:26, “our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people . . . wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” Your thoughts made me also think about Jacob’s focus on Isaiah in 2 Ne 9 as a source of hope. First Isaiah is a kind of despairing book to which 2nd Isaiah is a response, and thus perhaps particularly appropriate for Jacob to give voice to, as a kind of hope in response to collective despair of the present.

    2. I like how you link these ideas to a kind of participatory agency (I’m thinking esp. of Agamben’s view of law and religion as institutions that try to en-force rules, basically as a misguided response masking over the anxiety you describe). This fits well with ideas from my paper with Alan Hurst at MSH about atheology being a kind of space preserved for action that creedal theology masks over, if that makes any sense….

  9. kirkcaudle said

    A couple thoughts:

    1. I read Kierkegaard’s phrase “fear and trembling” to mean something like, always expecting God to be something wholly other than what you are expecting him to be. When this is the case, and you can admit that you do not fully understand God, you are walking by faith when you follow him.

    2. Maybe in the most basic sense anxiety=a deep seeded caring or worrying. In this way, not only does one need to have “faith” while approaching God, but also needs to “care” what God has to say. To receive a revelation without anxiety/care/worry for the subject at hand would be to receive a revelation that an individual would end up taking lightly because it would not be personal to that individual. In this way, faith and anxiety are both inseparable from love and charity.

    In a nutshell, I can only work out my own salvation with “fear and trembling” and receive revelation if I care about such things in the first place. Having faith that these things are “possible” is not sufficient. Therefore, anxiety is essential to the entire process.

  10. Clark said

    Isn’t the simplest answer easiest? They just were worried about their descendants. With Jacob it’s clear why since they already are running into significant problem regarding wives and so forth. So they got revelations on that topic because that was what they were asking about.

    I don’t think we need take anxiety as more than that.

    I’m sure the none too comforting visions Lehi and Nephi had helped with the anxiety as well. It’s interesting how some naively (especially critics) portray the Book of Mormon as a cowboys and Indians stereotype of good guys vs. bad guys. Whereas through much of the text the Nephites are hardly good guys.

    • Robert C. said

      So, were the cowboys the good guys or the bad guys? And in a stronger or weaker sense than the Nephites? The more I think about the analogy (not the stereotype you suggest, but the actual, historical analogy), the more I wonder if it isn’t apropos…!

    • robf said

      It may be that “simple”, but what is the connection between worry and faith? Shouldn’t real faith get rid of worry?

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