May 25, 2008
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. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,
29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?
31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'
32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” That question is as timely today as when Jesus posed it 2,000 years ago. Does worrying do us any good? We hope it does because we do a stupendous amount of it. We put huge amounts of time and energy into worrying about all sorts of things that might happen, most of which never actually happen..
But having burned through all that anxiety, what do we have to show for it? Have we, as Jesus asked, added even a single hour to our lives? Now this is a rhetorical question. Jesus certainly knows our answer. NO. Worrying does not add hours or even seconds to our lives. But wait a moment. Are you sure about that?
I mean, if a person is a worrier and dies at the age of 68 years, 114 days and 17 hours, who is to say that without all that fretting, he would have lived to be only 68 years, 114 days and 16 hours? In other words, did that person’s worrying gain him an hour. How can we possibly know?
Well it so happens a study has been done on this very subject, with the results published in the December 2006 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings medical journal. The study’s conclusion suggests that Jesus was right, and more so.
The study began back in the mid-60s when some 7,000 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a test that, among other things, measured the students’ tendency to be optimistic or pessimistic. Of that group, 1,630 were found by the test to be clearly pessimists and 923 to be clearly optimists. The rest fell somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. Over the next forty years, 476 of those who had taken the test died, from causes ranging from accident to illness to suicide to homicide.
By tracking and collating all this information, researchers determined that the pessimists had a significantly greater likelihood of dying sooner from any cause than the optimists. To quote their report, “... those who scored as pessimistic had decreased rates of longevity compared with optimistic individuals.” The report also said, “The current results replicate, in a non-medical sample, those of [earlier studies] that suggest that optimism is associated with increased survival.”
So, worrying is not likely to add even an hour to your life; worrying is likely to subtract hours from your life. Stop worrying, live longer.
Now you might object that this study was about pessimism, and pessimism and worry are not entirely identical. Pessimism is the tendency to assume that most things ultimately drift or march toward negative outcomes. Worry is a mental and emotional response of concern or even fear to vague or unspecified threats. Pessimism is an outlook about things in general; worry is a response to possibilities in particular. Thus, you can be a pessimist without being a worrier.
Yet, both pessimism and worry are related to a shortage of hope and trust. Pessimism does not believe things will work out, and thus can breed despair. The word pessimism literally means “un-hope.”
In today’s scripture from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus posed this question about adding to our hours through worry, he went on to make clear that he was talking about the opposite of pessimism. He is talking about hope for the future and trust in God. He pointed to the birds that do not sow or reap the fields but are fed by the heavenly Father nonetheless. He pointed to the flowers that do not toil or spin but are clothed in beauty by the heavenly Father anyway.
Now we need to understand here that Jesus is talking to people who have to sow and reap and toil and spin for a living, and he was not telling them to stop doing those tasks; he simply wanted them to realize that their lives were a lot more than the sum of their sowing, reaping, toiling, spinning.
Further, Jesus tied the call not to worry to the kingdom of God. He said: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” God’s kingdom is the ultimate reason for optimism and hope. The very meaning of the kingdom of God is that God wins. In the end, good triumphs over evil. If you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, then you might be pessimistic about human activity in the short term, but you must be optimistic about God’s activity in the long term.
Let us say a few words about the Kingdom of God. the gospels are full of references to that kingdom. In a sense, the kingdom already is. In another sense, the kingdom is yet to come. Jesus once said the kingdom of God is within you. In other words, if you believe in Jesus Christ as savior and lord, you already are a citizen of his kingdom. You already are a child of God. But that is not visible yet. Now we live in the kingdom by faith. However, the time will come when Jesus will visibly return to this earth to set things right. Then we will live by faith no more. You do not need faith when you can actually and physically see the Lord. So that is what we are praying for in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”
And if we really believe what we are praying for, we have nothing to worry about. That is what Jesus is saying, In the long run, we who follow him have nothing to worry about.
Do you believe that? Well, maybe. Or, maybe you can think of some objections that make it hard for us to go along with Jesus on this.
First Objection: The things most of us worry about are not long-term issues. Most of us, for example, do not live our days in anxiety over global warming, and we seldom fret about the end of the world. Most of our concerns are over shorter-term issues like “Will I get a good report from the doctor?” or “Will I pass this test?” or “Can I afford to buy gas this week to drive to work?” And while many of us are not pessimists by inclination, we can be pessimistic about the dire possibilities of the immediate future.
Second Objection: you might say normal anxiety is a good thing. Normal worry causes us to take preventative measures against potential problems. Normal worry is natural because we are vulnerable. Life is sometimes cruel. We can get sick. We can die. All manner of bad stuff can happen. To smile and say don’t worry is just idiotic.
Third Objection: Jesus is too logical. It is very reasonable for him to say, in effect, “Since you trust God that all things will ultimately work out for the good, and since you trust that he cares for you even more than he cares for birds and flowers, you therefore should not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear.”
Jesus is logical but logic does not rule in human affairs. We are not wired that way. Worry is more emotional than reasonable. And so it chatters at us, saying, “This may not work out, that could fall short, I may have not thought this out right. Things could go wrong.” Our minds keep processing those thoughts over and over, building up dread and dismay.
So we have objections to being told not to worry. But what all of these objections really tell us is that we have missed the heart of what Jesus is talking about in this passage. The main point is this: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“Strive” means to exert a lot of energy and effort toward a goal. Jesus is not just saying that we should rely on the eventual coming of God’s kingdom as an antidote to our daily worries, Jesus is saying we should actively work for the spread of the kingdom. And as we do that, some of the things we fret about become non-issues because we have more important things to do.
None of this is to say that we will not have some normal worries. We cannot love someone without worrying about threats to their well-being. We cannot be sensitive persons without occasional concern that we have not done all we should. We cannot listen to the news without some uneasiness about the direction many things in the world appear to be going. But we can be so focused on the things of God that we have confidence in God’s providential care--and that is a definition of “hope.”
You can have hope and still think that the pessimists are sometimes right in the short run. You can have hope because ultimately, you trust in the long-run view, and that trust has a way of leaking back into our present circumstances. That is why, instead of wringing our hands in despair, we clasp our hands in prayer.
Dr. Edward Hallowell is a psychologist who taught at Harvard for more than 20 years and now devotes his full professional attention to his clinical practice, lectures, and the writing of books. Back in the 1990s, he was the one who brought Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to public awareness, but he has also made a study of worry.
Writing about worry a few years ago for Psychology Today magazine, Dr. Hallowell offered several sugestions for dealing with excessive worry, but finally he said this: “Talk to God when you feel worried.... Brain scans and EEG monitors show beneficial changes in the brain during meditation and prayer. The changes correlate with most of our measures of improved health, including longevity and reduced incidence of illness.”
Hallowell also wrote a book on worry, and in the book, he revealed that he is a Christian, and so in an interview with Psychology Today, the interviewer asked him if that admission was a risk for someone of his standing in the psychiatric community. He acknowledged that it was a risk insofar as some people might have preconceptions about what a Christian psychologist is, but he added that he often advised patients to develop a spiritual life and, therefore, he felt it was important to acknowledge his own spiritual life. He concluded, “In my case, a relationship with God is another source of connection. And ultimately, it makes sense of my life in ways that nothing else can.”
So let us summarize. You cannot add hours to your life by worrying, but you are likely to add years to your life when you are open to the divine optimism that is rooted in God’s kingdom. That is long-term optimism flows back into the present and gives us the confidence to work for God’s kingdom here and now. So the slogan is not “Don’t worry, be happy.” The slogan is “Don’t worry, trust God.”
Brummett, Beverly H., Michael J. Helms, W. Grant Dahlstrom, Ilene C. Siegler. “Prediction of all-cause mortality by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory optimism-pessimism scale scores: study of a college sample during a 40-year follow-up period.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, December 2006, 1541-1544.
Hallowell, Edward H. “Fighting life’s ‘What ifs.’” Psychology Today, November-December 1997.
“Weaving a web of life: A talk with Edward Hallowell, M.D.” Psychology Today, November-December 1997.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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