SCRIPTURE – Matthew 6:25-34 – Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Should We Be Worried?
Nov. 18, 2012
One of Molly’s favorite books when she was little was “Wemberly Worried” by Kevin Henkes. Wemberly is a little worry-wart. The book says, “Wemberly worried about everything. Big things, little things, and things in between. Wemberly worried in the morning, she worried at night, and she worried throughout the day. She worried about the tree in the front yard (what if it falls on our house?), the crack in the living room wall (what if it gets bigger and something comes out?), and the noise the radiator made (what if there’s a snake inside?).”
Wemberly obviously never read the sixth chapter of Matthew. While Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount, he shares a few lessons for Wemberly and the other worriers among us: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear, or about your living room wall or what’s in your radiator. Do not worry.”
Yeah, right. This might have been easy for Jesus to say 2000 years ago, when all they had to worry about were swarms of locusts and getting a rip in their favorite sackcloth shirt. But has Jesus seen our world today? Worry sometimes feels like the only proper response to what we see and hear going on around us. On the surface, Jesus’ words seem almost irresponsible and dismissive of the difficulty of life. It’s like the Bobby McFerrin song that was so popular in the late 1980s. “Here’s a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note. Don’t worry, be happy.” That might be easy for Bobby McFerrin or for Jesus, but not for us.
How can we not worry? The very virtue of being alive produces worry in us. We worry about our finances, our kids, our health. I read recently that a scientific study has proven that worrying about getting cancer…causes cancer. We live in a world that creates and nurtures opportunities to worry on a daily basis.
In fact, you could argue that worrying is a part of the very fabric of who we are. John Ortberg talked about a New York Times Magazine article that said worrying could actually be genetic. There’s a certain gene that has both a short and a long version. People with the short version are more prone to fear and anxiety. People with the long version seem to not worry as much. Now, are you worrying that you have the shorter version?
The examples Jesus lifts up to keep us from worrying don’t help me much. He talks about how God cares for the birds of the air and clothes the flowers in the field. But I’ve accidentally weed-whacked enough flowers and hit enough birds with my car to know that not all of them live to their fullest potential. So how can Jesus say with a straight face, “Do not worry”?
I think we should consider where our worry comes from, because I believe that’s at the heart of what Jesus is getting at here. There is rational concern, there is healthy fear, and then there is worry. Healthy fear is what keeps a child from touching a hot stove. But worry doesn’t come from an external source. It comes from inside us. Someone once said that worry is fear that has unpacked its bags and signed a long-term lease. When our concern begins to contaminate our thinking and control our lives, it has become polluting and negative, and we become Wemberly Worried, whose life was controlled by what she was afraid of.
As human beings with free will, there’s a lot in our lives over which we have control. We control which bills get paid, what food goes into our bodies, and how we react to certain situations. We control the temperature of our house, the position of the seat in our car, and which channel the TV is on, unless we have kids. Especially in our affluent culture, there are a lot of things we control.
But even here, there are a lot more things over which we don’t have control. We don’t have control over the aging of our bodies, not matter how much we exercise and take pills and replace joints. We don’t have control over the economy or the price of gasoline. And we don’t have control over what other people think and do. And yet, we still worry about these things.
Have you ever gone bowling? What do you do after you release the ball and sent it toward the pins? Do you just stand there? No! You twist, you turn, you contort your body, you wave at the ball, you talk to it, you beg it, you threaten it. But in reality, you don’t control it. You’ve already let it go. How many times in our lives do we twist and turn and beg and threaten about something that we actually have no control over?
The danger of worry is that it causes us to do one of two things: It either paralyzes us and gives us headaches and keeps us from moving forward, or it makes us try and take things into our own hands, which gives other people headaches and usually ends up badly. Jesus says to the crowd, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” In other words, the pagan, the unfaithful, the non-believer is characterized by their worldly pursuits, their obsession with eliminating worry from their lives by filling it with things.
But for believers, we are called to a higher level of trust than that. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. If God cares for a bird, if God cares for a flower that’s here today and gone tomorrow, how much more will God care for us? We are more than what we eat or what we wear or where we live. We may care for ourselves and care for others, but God cares for us all. We live by God’s grace.
Still, “do not worry” seems a bit too Pollyanna-ish at times. If we live by God’s grace, why are people still living out of cardboard boxes? Why do we need oncologists and chemotherapy and overflowing medicine cabinets? We think God has failed us because our world still gives us plenty of reasons to worry. But God never promised to take away our fears. God promised to help us overcome them. The truth is there will always be something to worry about, if we so choose. When we were baptized or made our confession of faith, we were not promised an easy life. What we are promised is the endless, unremitting, unconditional, loving care of God over every aspect of our lives. And that, Jesus says, is why we shouldn’t worry. Our attitude should be defined, not by what we see, but how we see it and respond to it. A crisis can be an obstacle or an opportunity. A difficulty can be a roadblock or a lesson. We choose how to respond to life; we control that. We can worry, or we can trust.
As usual, Jesus gives us the blueprint for how to do this. “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you, as well.” Worry starts to consume us when we take our focus off the priority of loving and serving God. If we truly believe that God is God, then we trust that no matter what happens, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s what we wanted or not what we wanted, God is with us, loving us, working to bring about good in the situation.
We’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve thought, “I’ll never get through this. Things will never be the same. My life has changed forever.” We lose someone we love, and life changes. We get a diagnosis, and life changes. We get downsized from our job, and life changes. If you’ve gone through those things or something like it, you know that feeling of despair, hopelessness, paralyzing worry.
In the public speaking class I used to teach, I would always get a number of students who were petrified of giving speeches. You could just tell by the anxious looks on their faces and the sweat stains on their shirts. The first night of class they were already worrying about how they were going to pass. Then their teacher tells them he’s a pastor, which usually didn’t help things. But I believe wholeheartedly in a quote I once read: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
So to start the class, I would do a few things to calm my students’ worry. First, I told them that just because I’m a minister, if they fail a speech, that doesn’t mean they are going to Hell. Second, I had them interview each other, then come up to the front of the class and present their classmate. Then, when everyone is finished, I had them take their pulse. Never in all my years of teaching, did I have a student who didn’t have a pulse. In other words, everyone has survived.
So have you. You know what it’s like to be in the valley, don’t you? I’ve been there with some of you. It’s scary down there. You feel at times like you won’t make it out. But guess what? You’re here. You made it this far, didn’t you? You may not be the same person you were, but you are here. We’ve been enabled to bear the unbearable and do the undoable and pass the breaking point, but not break. That’s God’s grace at work.
You don’t have the wisdom for tomorrow’s problems. But you will tomorrow. You don’t have the resources for tomorrow’s needs. But you will tomorrow. What do you have today is your daily bread and the promise of God’s presence with you. We don’t always control what happens to us, but we do control how we respond to it. We can respond to it with worry, or we can respond with trust, trust that the God who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers also looks out for us. That doesn’t mean it will always be easy, but it does mean we will never be alone. Seek first God’s kingdom in your life, and you may just find you don’t have as much to worry about.