This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Seeking inner peace

Anxiety must have troubled the writer of Psalm 139, who prayed, “Search me, O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” These words of David speak to all of us. Everyone worries. To be human is to be anxious some of the time.

But today there’s a sense that we’re more stressed than ever. Recent data show how anxiety particularly afflicts young people. The Christian research firm Barna Group surveyed what it calls “the connected generation,” those from 18 to 35, and found that 39 percent of U.S. respondents — the highest of any country surveyed — said they often feel sad or depressed.

More alarming still is the prevalence of anxiety and depression among teenage girls. According to the American College Health Association, between 2011 and 2016 the segment of female college freshmen who said they experienced overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks increased from 31 percent to 62 percentage. In 2019 the Pew Research Center found 36 percent of teenage girls reported being extremely anxious every day.

Digital culture takes some of the blame. Social-media obsession causes isolation from real-world experiences and feeds insecurity based on constant comparisons to others’ carefully curated digital lives.

“Youth suicide is climbing faster than suicide by any other age group, perhaps because of social media, which can cause rising anxiety and depression among teenagers,” writes Catherine Cheney, a correspondent at the media platform Devex, in The New York Times.

While social anxiety weighs heavily on the young, fear-based politics raises anyone’s blood pressure. Politicians and their media enablers stoke racial and religious tensions for personal gain.

Christians have their own sources of anxiety. In Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians (Herald Press, 2019) Ed Cyzewski lists “fears of failing as a Christian, fears of apathy about important causes, fears about the decline of church attendance, fears about contemporary culture wars and the need to defend a particular theology or doctrine.” As anxiety becomes normal — even expected, making busyness and stress a point of pride — it is no wonder that unease afflicts our spiritual lives, too.

There are no simple answers to anxiety. For some, mental-health treatment is necessary. Yet for Christians it is not simplistic to say that part of the answer is to turn our eyes toward Jesus.

Followers of Christ should take to heart the biblical assurance that it is possible to drive out fear with love, as 1 John 4:18 says. The late Catholic writer Henri Nouwen says an essential part of following Jesus is letting go of fear. In Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety (Convergent, 2019), published 23 years after his death, Nouwen says: “Following Jesus is moving away from fear and toward love.” This following, Nouwen believed, is not a matter of teeth-clenched effort but of naturally following what we are attracted to: “It is not first of all letting go of all fears. It is first of all being led to love.”

How shall we follow Christ closely enough to cast out fear and anxiety? Mennonites are among those who find inner peace through centering prayer. This way of praying approaches God in silence. Focusing one’s thoughts on a sacred word removes distractions and opens the seeker to a deepening faith in God’s presence. Cyzewski describes how he experiences it: “My own role in centering prayer is to make myself still and to direct my intentions toward God’s love so that God can work in my soul.”

Peacemaking Christians need to recognize a growing need for inner peace, particularly among youth. Mennonite churches and colleges should become known as places where people can gather to calm anxious spirits.

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