February 27, 2011

An antidote for worry

Passage: Matthew 6:25

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you  will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.

There was once a man named Fred, who worried about everything.   There never seemed to be a moment in his life, that wasn’t filled with anxiety.   But then one day, a friend noticed he’d stopped worrying.  It was as if he’d turned off the tap on all the worry in his life, for he appeared to be totally free of the anxiety which had so tortured him for so many years before.
Amazed by this transformation, the friend asked him:  “How have you been able to overcome your worries?”                                  .

Fred replied:  “I’ve hired a man to do all my worrying for me.”                 .

“Wow!”  exclaimed his friend:  “It seems to be working for you.  How much is this costing you?”

“$1000 a week,” was the reply.                            .

“$1000 a week!   How can you afford to pay someone $1000 a week?”  the friend asked.

“That’s his worry,”  responded Fred!

Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do to overcome our ‘worries’, was to hire someone to worry for us!   Of course, we all know, it’s not that simple.  For most of us, it’s more like this:
It’s the middle of the night.  We’ve been tossing and turning for what seems like hours, but sleep just won’t come.  We can’t get our minds off that nagging problem that’s turning over and over in our head.
I suspect most of us have spent long nights like that?   Our sleeplessness may have been touched off by financial worry.  Maybe it’s anguish over our relationship with our spouse.  It could be worry about a teenager’s behaviour that’s tormenting us.  Or it may be a serious health issue, that’s got us tied up in knots.

There are a hundred and one things that can cause us anxiety.  For some unfortunate souls, worry is a constant companion.  Even the smallest issue can be blown up into a major crises that torments them; causing a lump in the throat, or a gnawing in the stomach.

A recent study published in the American Journal on Health found that 50% of patients in hospital are constant worriers;  that 43% of all adults suffer health effects resulting from worry & anxiety; and that between 75% & 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are stress related complaints or disorders.
It’s plain to see that worry and anxiety are among the worst plagues of the 21 century.  There are very few people who doesn’t suffer from anxiety, at some time or other.  So the big question is, - how can we handle worry and anxiety?

To the casual reader, Jesus’ teaching on this subject may sound a bit superficial and unrealistic, because Jesus says simply: “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

But is it really that easy.  Can we simply turn off  ‘worry & anxiety’ whenever we want to do so?

To better understand and appreciate our Lord’s teaching on this subject, it’s helpful to turn first to the King James translation of the Bible.  You won’t find the word ‘worry’ anywhere in the King James Bible.  In place of the words:  “do not worry about your life”, which is the translation used  in both the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV), ( the Bibles we tend to use most frequently in our congregation), - the King James says:  “Take no thought for your life”.

Now, taking “thought for your life” is quite a bit different from :  “Don’t worry.”   Taking thought about our lives is a much more contemplative and analytical process; while worrying (on the other hand)  tends to be irrational, and often frantic in nature .

Mind you, if the modern biblical scholars had translated this massage with the words:  “Take no thought for your life”,  it would suggest to many of us that Jesus was telling us not to plan for the future.  But that’s not He meant at all.  Of course we should plan for our futures, but there is a big difference between exercising concern for the future, and being worried about it.

hat Jesus is telling His followers in this passage is – “don’t worry about the basics, God will provide those.  Instead, focus your attention on the really important issues of life.”

In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul expressed it this way:  “Set your mind on the things above, not on earthly things.”  (Colossians 3:2)  In other words, get your priorities straight!

This teaching about worry doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have savings accounts, or invest for our retirement.  And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take out insurance policies on our lives, either.  Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t plan ahead.  Students are wise to exercise care in their choice of careers;  parents need to plan for their children’s futures;  all of us need to look ahead so that we can achieve positive goals, so that we can use well the life God has given us.

But if after we’ve done all this, and shown proper care and planning; and  if we’ve done  everything we can to prepare for our future, - and we still are worried; it’s at that point that Jesus says: ‘Don’t worry because God will supply all you need’.

But someone is bound to say; what about the unexpected; the things that happen over which we have no control; -the loss of a job, for example; - or the foolish or dangerous actions of someone else that seriously impacts upon our lives, – the reckless driver whose car collides with ours, or the family member who makes a mess of their lives.  How are we supposed to handle those situations?
The Greek verb which is translated in English as ‘worry’ is – mer-im-na-ō, which comes from the root word  ‘merizō’,  -  meaning to divide or split into factions.

The Gospel writer Matthew emphasizes this meaning when he connects this passage on ‘worry’ to the proceeding one, by using a ‘bridge’ word.   The bridge word is “therefore”  and it links us with Jesus words about serving two masters.  Jesus had just told His followers that no one can successfully serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

By linking this teaching with Jesus words about  ‘worry’, - we begin to understand that what Jesus is actually telling us – is that with those things in our lives over which we have no control,  we are to simply entrust to God.  To worry about such things accomplishes absolutely nothing; so it’s far better to turn them over to God.

In other words, worry is irrelevant.  It doesn’t change a thing; nor does it help us cope with our problems.  In fact, worry is actually irresponsible behaviour,  because it burns up psychic energy, robbing us of the ability to apply constructive solutions to our problem.  Too much worrying can even cause the things we’re worrying about to be worse.

If you are constantly worrying about getting sick, you may actually suppress your immune system, making it more likely for you to become ill.   If you worry about losing your job, your performance will suffer, making it far more likely you’ll lose it.  And most of us know that if you worry too much about gaining weight, you’re much more likely to be tempted to eat more.

Chronic worry can affect many aspects of our lives, our appetite, our relationships, our sleep and our job performance.  Many people who are plagued by excessive worry make matters even worse by turning to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs to calm their nerves.

It’s been suggested that worrying is a lot like sitting in a rocking chair.  You can use up a lot of energy, but you’re not going to make any forward progress.

Throughout His ministry, and whenever He was trying to make a point, Jesus took great care in choosing the analogies He used to illustrate what He meant.  His instruction about worry, is no exception.
To help His followers appreciate the foolishness of worry, Jesus turns to nature to furnish Him with examples of worry-free living.  He points to the birds to demonstrate ‘freedom from anxiety’.  He points to the flowers to illustrate ‘freedom from status seeking’; and to the grass to show us that we need to evaluate our priorities.  Then He puts His finger on the very heart of the issue, - if God cares for these little things in nature, how much more will he care for you.

Anxiety, says Jesus, accomplishes absolutely nothing positive.  We can’t even increase the length of our lives, by worrying.  Dr. Charles Mayo, of the famous Mayo Clinic, once wrote, “I have never met or known a person to die of overwork, but I have known a lot who died of worry.”  Nothing positive has ever been accomplished through worry.

Having used analogies from nature, Jesus then says something which would have resonated throughout his audience; because the Jews regarded themselves as over and above all other races.  They were the chosen people of God.  Jesus said:  It’s the Gentiles who worry about those things, (about what they will eat, or what they will wear) but you have a heavenly Father who knows you need them, and who cares about you.  So set your sights on God, for it is God who cares for you.

I remember long ago when I was being taught to drive, my Dad warned me that in an emergency situation, never look at the obstacle you’re trying to avoid;  in stead always look to where you want the car to go in order to avoid the obstacle.  We need to apply the same logic to worry.  We should never stare intently upon the cause of our concern.  But rather, we should focus our eyes upon the One who can truly help us, namely our God.

When we allow worry to dominate our lives, we are acting no differently from those who have no faith in God.  And so, if we want our faith to be the dominant element in our lives, then we should put our trust in God; and stop worrying.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote:  “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Phil. 4:6-7)

As many of you know, I spent 18 years of my life working in the field of addiction.  Over and over again throughout those years, I heard recovering alcoholics who had been struggling with their addiction say that the one thing which really helped them overcome the power of their addiction was the inspiration of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson,  who taught them to:- “take one day at a time.”
Wilson knew whereof he spoke because he’d suffered from many years with both alcoholism and depression.   But then in 1934, when for the umpteenth time, he was back in a hospital recovering from a bout of drinking, he experienced what he called, a ‘hot flash’ spiritual conversion, and quit drinking.  According to Wilson, while lying in bed, depressed and at the point of despair, he cried out:  “I’ll do anything!   Anything at all!   If there is a God, let Him show Himself!”

At that moment, he had the sensation of a bright light; a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity.  The effect on him was so powerful that he never drank again for the remainder of his life.  When he told a doctor about his experience, the doctor replied:  “Something has happened to you that I don’t understand.  But you had better hang on to it.”  And hang on he did.
Undoubtedly, Bill got his inspiration from the Bible, and particularly from the words of Jesus.  And he knew that Jesus said:  “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

In our quest to live a worry free life, it is well for us to remember the words of our Master who said:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  (II Cor. 12:9)
And so whenever worry threatens to tie us up in knots, let us always remember that God has promised to meet our needs, one day at a time.