Helmut Thielicke “has a vivid awareness of the actual needs of actual people living in this age of supreme storm and stress. He sees how the biblical message, how Jesus Christ Himself as the living message, answers powerfully and sufficiently to these needs. He appreciates that faith in Him is not an easy thing, and yet that true faith carries us to victory even in doubt, anxiety, distress and the terrors of conflict and destruction. He attains almost an apocalyptic stature in his depiction of our shattered world and in his proclamation of the message of God’s salvation and judgements within it.
Here are sermons to put into the hands of contemporaries who suffer from the fears and anxieties which Thielicke so graphically describes but who do not yet perceive the true meaning and relevance of what God did for man in the giving of His only Son. Here are sermons from which to learn how the old Gospel, first given in a very different world, may come with all the living comfort and the regenerative force of truth and reality to our own age too, made relevant by the Holy Spirit on the lips of the sensitive and dedicated preacher.”
From the Introduction by Geoffrey W. Bromiley
THE SILENCE OF GOD
Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley
From Chapter One, 17–21, 23–24:
I am Not Alone with My Anxiety
Some time ago, according to a technique similar to that of the Gallup polls, a number of questions were put to mainly young people, for the most part students. One of them was as follows: “What is your basic reaction to life?” Sixty percent answered with alarming definiteness: “Anxiety.” How is it that so many who make no impression of being depressed or worried can give such a strange reply?
When we think in terms of anxiety, we are usually inclined to imagine that it arises from a mortal threat, that it is fear of death. But if we use this concept to check the correctness of the poll in question, we shall not get very far. It can hardly be said of our generation that it is particularly afraid of death. I hardly need to adduce in proof examples from the war, and especially from wartime bombing. It has often been observed with surprise that one does not have to be religious not to be afraid of death. The apathetic, the atheists and nihilists, can all show a definite nonchalance in face of mortal peril, and even an idealistic readiness for death. Thus Communist soldiers were found to be more afraid of physical pain than of actual death, and this points to a most astonishing conquest of the fear of death in the very circles which seem to be completely without the consolation and support of religion.
But perhaps I am mistaken in speaking of the conquest of the fear of death. For the obvious point is that there was no such fear to conquer. The fear of death had no genuine opponent to overcome. The terrors of the hereafter are banished from the nihilist world, so that death is no longer an overwhelming catastrophe. There is no spirit to yield up nor soul to lose. At all events, one cannot say that the fear of death is particularly common in our day. Certainly the answer that anxiety is the basic reaction does not refer to fear of death. To what, then, does it refer?
We may safely assume that it refers to the fear of life rather than of death. If the middle–aged monk Martin Luther was filled with anxious guilt in face of the divine Judge, and had to ask how he could find a gracious God, so modern man is afflicted by fear of destiny, by anxiety at the dreadful possibilities of life. Where once stood the divine Judge is now a vacuum, an empty spot. Perhaps it is just this blank which evokes in us the dreadful horror vacui, the fear of emptiness. Perhaps instead of asking with Luther how to find the gracious God we are really asking where God is. Where is he in face of the mass slaughter of war, or the frightening development of technics which seems to press us inexorably towards destruction and final catastrophe?
In the place of guilt and judgment we may now speak of anxiety and destiny. Anxiety is the secret wound of modern man.
To understand it, we should consider its linguistic root. It derives from the Latin angustiae, which signifies constriction of breathing, angina pectoris being a maximal form. It is typical that anxiety refers to a state in which the question what is feared is either secondary or is not even asked. The indefiniteness of the threat is of the very essence of anxiety.
Fear always refers to something definite. I am afraid of getting wet because of certain meteorological factors. Or I am afraid of a political complication in view of certain observations and developments.
What causes anxiety, however, is the indefinite. In this respect anxiety is like boredom. I am simply anxious, as I am bored. There is no definite cause.
Yet we have not reached the heart of the matter if we understand anxiety only in terms of individual constriction. It is not merely my personal breathing which is constricted by this mysterious unknown. It is the supra–personal breathing of the world. Perhaps the Midgard serpent of German mythology is illuminating in this respect. Beyond the horizon the great serpent encircles the world, enclosing us in its grasp. The whole world is encircled by this dreadful monster. Its shadow and terror are on all things, even on our joys and festivities in the world which is thus so terribly encircled. This will help us to understand the full terror of anxiety. When I am just afraid, when I fear something definite, I can always hope. Thus, if I am afraid I have cancer, it may be I have only a non–malignant growth, or there is always the chance of an unexpected cure. Again, if I am afraid that a missing son is dead, he may well be alive, possibly in a concentration camp from which he will return. But under the constriction of the Midgard serpent the case is very different. For now the whole world, with all its hopes and fears, is called in question; even the gods to whom we pray, and therefore the powers of hope, lie under the shadow of the twilight of the gods. In times of disaster the serpent is, so to speak, tightening its coils.
What is the source of this anxiety for modern man? I am not going to give a theoretical answer. I will simply quote a well–known vision which discloses the source of our anxiety in a way which is terrifying and yet comforting. I refer to Christ’s address from the world temple to say that there is no God, by Jean Paul. Jean Paul is here imagining that there is no God. Christ himself acknowledges in a shattering sermon that he was mistaken in his belief in God and that we are all orphans.
The author sees himself set above a burial ground. A corpse on the bier in the church raises its hands and folds them in prayer, but the arms become elongated and drop off, the folded hands with them. On the roof of the church stands the clock face of eternity, but there are no numbers and it is its own indicator. A black finger points to it, and the dead want to see the time on it.
A lofty and noble figure now comes down with infinite sorrow from above to the altar, and all the dead cry “Christ, is there no God?”
He answers: “There is none.”
Christ continues: “I have been through the worlds, ascended to the suns and flown along the milky ways trough the wastes of heaven, but there is no God. I have descended as far as existence casts its shadow and looked into the abyss and cried: ‘Father, where art Thou?’ But I have heard only the eternal tempest which none controls, and with no sun to fashion it the glistening rainbow from the west stood over the abyss and dripped down. And when I searched the immeasurable world for the divine eye it fixed me with an empty and unfathomable socket, and eternity lay on chaos and gnawed it away and repeated itself. Lament and cry through the shadows, for he is not.” The vision continues….
The surprising thing in the biblical message is that it finds in love the opposite of fear and anxiety. There is no terror—one might equally well say anxiety—in love, we are told in 1 John. The surprising thing is that anxiety is not opposed by fortitude, courage or heroism, as one might expect. These are simply anxiety suppressed, not conquered. The positive force which defeats anxiety is love. What this means can be understood only when we have tackled anxiety in what we have tried to see as its final root. That is to say, anxiety is a broken bond and love is the bond restored. Once we know in Christ that the world has a fatherly basis and that we are loved, we lose our anxiety. This is not because the powers referred to have gone. On Dürer’s picture of the Horseman, Death and the Devil, they lurk on the way. But they have lost their strength. To use a simple comparison—and simplicity is needed in ultimate questions—I need have no fear even in the darkest forest when I hold my father’s hand and I am sure of it.
Christ himself faces the constricting riddles of life. According to the oldest record, his final word on the cross is the anxious cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is characteristic, however, that he does not address this cry of despair into the night of Golgotha. He calls to his Father: “My God, my God.” He holds the Father’s hand firm in his own. He brings the anxiety to his Father. He has brought it once and for all. If I am anxious, and I know Christ, I may rest assured that I am not alone with my anxiety; He has suffered it for me. The believer can also know that Christ is the goal of history. The primitive community knows that this One has not gone forever, but will come again. It thus has a new relationship to the future. This is no longer a mist–covered landscape into which I peer anxiously because of the sinister events which will there befall me. Everything is now different. We do not know what will come. But we know who will come. And if the last hour belongs to us, we do not need to fear the next minute….
The Silence of God
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