In the book we call Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said the following, regarding anxiety:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour 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, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith. And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
In the preceding verses, Jesus had spoken about money. Here he turns his attention to an often related issue – worry. Our society is, unmistakably, dominated by worry. We tend to colloquially prefer the word ‘stress’, employing it as an umbrella term for obsessive concern, emotional exhaustion, fear and anxiety. In response to these phenomena, we pop pills, try out relaxation techniques, and attend wellbeing seminars. A whole industry of books, medications and cheap self-help DVDs exists purely to feed our desire to make ourselves feel better.
When we look at the world, there are plenty of things we could worry about. Environmental problems, the economy, persistent wars, violence, and on-going racism, to name but a few, are inescapable. Meanwhile, many people are also dealing with marriage, health, work and financial problems. Although we live in the most materially affluent society there has ever been, we are still remarkably stressed.
Our culture offers a number of different solutions. One is to encourage carefree irresponsibility; the idea that if we merely try hard to be happy, do some relaxing things, and distract ourselves from reality with entertainment, everything will be okay. We are encouraged to attempt, through natural means or otherwise, to block out unpleasant emotions and thoughts. Spiritual and religious solutions often prompt us to focus on trite, practically unhelpful slogans, or perhaps we might read books offering 189 self-hypnosis techniques. To many people, the invitation to stop worrying is like an invitation to stop eating – it seems unrealistic, too entrenched in our very personalities and nature.
When Jesus talks about worry, he uses the Greek word merimnao, meaning to be anxious or overly concerned. His assessment of worry, and indeed his remedy, are unique. Rather than attempt to distract us from worry with sickly platitudes, Jesus wants to battle head-to-head with worry and disarm it. It’s worth noting, when considering his words, that the low-income peasants who made up his audience would have had far more cause to be concerned about material necessities than many of us do.
Jesus has a radical view of the interaction between God and man. Traditional and religious cultures tend to believe that God (or Gods) is a somewhat whimsical deity who must be appeased through various acts of worship and compliance. This view of God, which leaves us stumbling around in beholden confusion, is in very nature both disagreeable and implausible to modern cultures. In deference, atheistic western cultures tend to view the universe simply as the work of mechanistic cause and effect, untouched by deity. In this instance, our lives are simply the sophisticated yet ultimately meaningless interactions of energy, matter and space.
Each of these views, if accurate, gives us plenty of rational cause to worry. We can and will be affected, for better or worse, by millions of factors which are completely outside our own control. We are left, then, to helplessly attempt to carve out some modicum of stability and security for our own lives, with no guarantees but for the knowledge that those with the good fortune to be born in the ‘right time and place’ and with the ‘right gifts and opportunities’ will probably be better off than everyone else.
Jesus takes a different stance. He sees a world governed unmistakably by cause and effect, but under the executive, involved, power of a personal God. He points to things in the natural world, such as birds and flowers. Birds fly and eat. Flowers photosynthesise and take up nutrients from the earth, and yet with little effort they are more beautiful than Israel’s all-time wealthiest king (Solomon, who was a hit with the ladies and must have been fairly good-looking) in his best clothes. Natural processes keep these things going.
Jesus does not deny this, but suggests that both birds and flowers are in some way provided for, ultimately, by God. It is reasonable to suggest, he implies, that the God who takes an interest in pets and plants is also concerned with people.
If we see God as Jesus sees God then our causes for worry begin to dissipate. There is no need for doom and gloom, no need for austerity, no need for fear. Jesus doesn’t condemn our felt need for food and clothes and advocate ‘pious poverty’ like some sort of brainless ascetic cult leader. He also doesn’t say that we should simply try harder to think positively, rather he says look around you, use your head, think, where did this come from, how is it sustained? The person who made this cares about you too. That means you aren’t an accident, and you don’t have to run around doing weird things to appease God. You just have to acknowledge him, follow me, and relax.’
Jesus implies that worrying about what to eat or wear is an act of paganism, ie, Godlessness. He’s saying that if we really knew that God cared about us, we wouldn’t worry about these things because we would know that we don’t need to. The son of a billionaire doesn’t usually worry about whether he can afford a new pair of trainers. In the same way, Jesus suggests that people who are following him needn’t worry either.
Jesus’ solution to anxiety is found in his words ‘seek first his (God’s) kingdom and righteousness’; his suggestion is that we have a God who is particularly skilled at looking out for our interests, and the best thing we can do is look out for His. Our anxiety comes from a realisation that we are helpless to control things, and thus we fear that something difficult or terrible may happen. Jesus suggests that if someone is in control who does have both power and good intentions, then our need to worry is negated.
Rather than an overbearing demand, Jesus presents this as the best way out of a lifetime of stress. There is, thankfully, a way out of anxiety, but the solution is not merely a view of God but a relationship to God. His solution to anxiety is not extended to everyone, only to those who follow him; by definition, one who does not trust God will have every reasonable cause to worry.
The practical implications of Jesus’ message are huge. Imagine if stress was truly diluted in our world, facilitating better marriages, fewer health problems, and free generosity with money. This is not just fluffy spiritual rhetoric, Jesus suggests, this is something that can fundamentally change real lives. We live in a society full of tranquilisers; medicating ourselves to death on drugs, TV, and inane wishful thinking.
In the midst of this, Jesus says there is a way to live, a way to see the world, that totally rips apart anxiety. By trusting a personal and good God, everything changes – not through gormless optimism or another book about advanced breathing techniques, but by trusting a person who is powerful, eminently clever, and relentlessly loving.
Finally Jesus says, perhaps with a wink, tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. He does not deny that life brings inherent difficulties, and does not suggest that his view of God diminishes these difficulties. Rather, he makes the pragmatic suggestion that we focus on a day at a time.
His response to worry, then, is not inauthentic denial or religious sloganeering, it is a practical dependence on a caring God.
Ultimately, the simple, familiar phrase ‘don’t worry’ is either a trite saying from someone with no power, or true saying from someone with all power.
What are the greatest worries of our culture? Why do you think we worry?
What do you worry about? Are there any ‘side effects’ to your worry?
Does what Jesus says about worrying make sense to you? Why or why not?
What practical things do you do to combat worry? Do they work?
Photo credit: anjan58 (Creative Commons)