I am terrible at living in the present. Even in good circumstances, I am always anticipating whatever is next. But in difficult circumstances (like leaving my PhD program, looking for employment, watching my daughter for entire days alone, and my wife having to be back at work), me giving my full attention to the present is close to impossible since my brain is so terribly busy spinning out possibilities for the future, a future in which all things will be right again.
In times of stress and difficult circumstances I often engage in a range of unhealthy behaviors, among them not eating, not exercising, constantly doing, and frequent ruminating. In particular, I become wracked with anxiety.
Many people in my life have pointed out Jesus’s command to not worry as well as Paul’s similar command to the church at Phillipi. I have often brushed aside these sections of scripture because the command to not worry seems to assume that one only worries because one doesn’t trust God.
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Jesus, in the midst of explaining why his disciples should be rigorously focused on the moment, provides that God takes decent care of the birds. They get fed even if they don’t have barns. And, later, Jesus notes that God pays attention when the sparrows fall to the ground.
Well, I say, that’s all fantastic, Jesus, but that brings me no comfort. You know, maybe the birds should start worrying seeing as how a lot of them end up dead despite the fact that they also eat. And, besides, God being aware of their deaths doesn’t really bring tons of comfort. If God, I don’t know, prevented their deaths, then maybe we would be getting somewhere. But he doesn’t. He just sort of watches it happen.
And Paul’s command seems similar. Rather than spending all that time worrying, Paul says we should pray. But since when has prayer ever calmed anyone’s anxiety? Sure, maybe your prayer gets answered and your problem goes away (if tomorrow I were offered a decent paying job doing something I reasonably liked, I would consider that an answer to prayer); in those circumstances, you stop worrying. But if you don’t end up with what you want, you’re left with both anxiety AND trust issues.
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But maybe the assumptions we read into the command to not worry aren’t really there. Maybe Jesus wasn’t trying to convince everyone that it would be okay. Maybe all he wanted people to know is that life goes on one way or the other, but flipping out about it because you don’t get your way isn’t really the way to live a healthy life. I mean, as Jesus asks, do you really think your life will be longer because you worry about it?
And maybe it’s true that God orchestrates life for us the way Amanda and I do for Ellie. Maybe he intervenes moment by moment to give us food or change our diapers. Or maybe not. Maybe Jesus just wants people to take a cosmic view of their lives for a second, to step outside of their lives see it as God might.
Maybe Paul’s point is not that everything will work out the way you want it, but that an anxious mind prevents you from seeing goodness and truth and beauty. Paul encourages us to replace anxious thoughts with meditation on what is authentic and beautiful. Focusing our minds there, orienting our hearts toward the moment, won’t ensure anything beyond a life well-lived for another second. It certainly doesn’t prevent failure.
You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. (found here)
The promise is not that God works everything out the way we want it, but that God is with us, not unlike the sparrow who falls to the ground in the company of God.
Maybe the encouragement that Jesus offers his disciples is the encouragement of solidarity, the solidarity of God.
Do not worry, he says, God is here with us. He suffers and dies and celebrates and rejoices with us.
No, it will not all go well with you, but that is the point: life is to be lived, and people are to be loved, and the Spirit of God fills the cracks in between.