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“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”


Matthew 6:27   

I: — “Why do you worry?” asks Jesus, “Why are you anxious? Do you really think that worrying will let you live better or live longer? Then why worry?” Upon hearing our Lord’s question most of us find our anxiety — bad enough in itself — worsened now by guilt. After all, our Lord forbids us to worry and yet we continue to worry; in fact it seems we can’t help worrying. Plainly we aren’t measuring up to his word. We can only conclude that we are spiritually defective.

Then it’s all the more important to understand from the outset that our Lord’s word is meant to bring us relief and encouragement and hope. His word is never meant to bring us distress or despair. We should understand too that the anxiety of which he speaks in our scripture text isn’t anxiety of every sort; specifically it’s anxiety connected to acquisitiveness. This kind of anxiety is a spiritual problem. But not all anxiety is a spiritual problem. Some anxiety is a psychological problem.

Panic attacks, for instance. Panic attacks are a psychological disorder having nothing to do with one’s spiritual condition. A panic attack is a sudden onset of overwhelming anxiety for no apparent reason. One minute you feel fine; the next minute dread has iced your heart. Severe panic attacks are immobilizing. A clergyman standing in the pulpit on Sunday morning, suddenly unable to utter a word; a social worker looking into a department store window, suddenly unable to take a step; a man about to take his wife to a restaurant, suddenly unable to leave the house. As a pastor I have had all three cases brought to me. In all of these it must never be suggested that someone’s faith is weak or that someone is a shabby Christian.

If you ask me why some people are afflicted with panic attacks, I can only say, “Why do some people develop arthritis in their right knee? Why do some people develop astigmatism in their left eye? Why is it that when the Norwalk virus was going around two people out of ten came down with it, but only two?” Myself, years ago I discovered, quite by accident, that I am slightly claustrophobic and somewhat colour blind. But none of this has anything to do with my spiritual condition.

We must never suggest that if only those who suffer from sudden onsets of panic had greater faith, stronger faith, they would suffer no longer. We ought never to add guilt to their anxiety.

In the second place we should understand that another kind of anxiety is related to emotional injury. An able pastor whom I have known for years served in the Royal Navy during World War II. He was under fire dozens of times. Decades later he still wakes up in the night shouting, “My life jacket! Where’s my life jacket? I can’t find my life jacket!” His wife gets him up and they make tea. Then he goes to his study and commences work, since he knows he isn’t going to sleep again that night.

There are civilian equivalents of this. People who have survived house fires, survived train wrecks, survived automobile manglings, survived childhood traumas of every sort (abuse included); these people are wounded emotionally. Anxiety surrounds their wound. This kind of anxiety is not a sign of spiritual deficiency.

Moreover, the people who are afflicted with such anxiety display remarkable courage. It takes courage, immense courage, to keep stepping ahead in life when you know that the emotional landmine will blow up in your face from time to time. It takes courage to resist the temptation to self-pity. It takes courage to hobble or limp or stagger when everyone else seems to be galloping. These people can only be commended for their courage.


II: — If the kind of anxiety Jesus has in mind in our text isn’t the kind we have mentioned so far, then what does Jesus mean when he says, “Don’t be anxious; worrying won’t help you live longer or live better”? He means this.

There is a kind of anxiety we suffer because we persist in pursuing what isn’t of God’s kingdom. We persist in pursuing it and fear that we might not be able to get it, or fear that we might not be able to keep it, or fear that someone else might get the same thing thereby depriving us of our claim to distinction, even uniqueness, even superiority.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In other words, what we really cherish (as opposed to what we say we cherish); this is that to which we are going to give ourselves; and this is that from which we are going to expect the greatest returns. Then what do we cherish?

The adolescent reads the bodybuilding advertisements. He starts ‘pumping iron’, not because exercise is good and everyone should have an exercise program of some sort; he ‘pumps iron’ in that he thinks he will look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in six months. Once he’s looking like “Hulk”, all kinds of wonderful things are going to come his way. After six months he doesn’t look much different. He thinks there’s something wrong with him. He goes to his physician, who tells him there’s nothing wrong with him, and tells him too that he’s never going to look like a gorilla. The fellow disregards the advice and goes to a speciality store to buy pills and diet supplements guaranteed to maximize muscle.

Why does he want to look like “Mr. Big” in the first place? He has absorbed the cult of the physique from his society. He’s preoccupied with being pumped up just because the world at large is preoccupied with being puffed up. (Everything we’ve said about males and muscle we could say as readily about females and silicon.)

Our concern with self-magnification and inflated ego fosters anxiety. Envy fosters anxiety. Lack of contentment fosters anxiety. For the same reason I’m always moved at the paintings of the Jewish artist, Hibel. Hibel paints the wisdom that has permeated the shtetln for centuries, the shtetln being the east European Jewish villages now consumed forever. My favourite painting is a group of old-world east European Jewish men in their fur-rimmed hats and long earlocks, together with wives in their kerchiefs, dancing and cavorting in irrepressible joy. Underneath are the words, “Who are rich? Those who rejoice in their portion.”

Other things breed in us that anxiety which is a sign of spiritual ill health.   One such is a lack of singlemindedness concerning the kingdom of God or the truth of God or the righteousness of God. Any pastor regularly sees people whose anxiety has arisen over moral compromise. Now they are riding two horses at once. They could ride one or the other, but this would mean giving up something. Then they might as well keep on riding both for a while — except that the two horses, the two paths, the two commitments, are beginning to diverge and it appears that someone is going to be pulled apart.   The apostle Paul reminds young Timothy, “No soldier on active service gets sidetracked in civilian pursuits.” Exactly. Lack of singlemindedness concerning the kingdom of God , the truth of God, the righteousness of God; doublemindedness will always mire us in anxiety.

There’s something else spiritually important that causes anxiety to surge over us and settle within us: our refusal to admit that life is fragile. Because we won’t admit that life is fragile and therefore won’t come to terms with its uncertainty, we preoccupy ourselves with rendering life 100% certain and secure, only to find that we can never domesticate life like this. The attempt at rendering life foolproof, accident proof, disaster proof, disease proof, suffering proof, surprise proof; this attempt always fails in the end, but not before we have rendered ourselves anxious beyond telling and also warped ourselves profoundly. It’s always better to admit that life is fragile; nothing is permanent; bodily security is impossible, and our true security, profound security, lies in God’s care for us and our trust in his care. Many expressions in scripture point to life’s fragility and impermanence: “All flesh is grass;” “The form of this world is passing away”; “We are dust”; “Our years are soon gone; they fly away.” All these expressions mean the same: life is precarious. Yet the myth persists that life can be made perfectly secure. The preoccupation with making life secure merely makes us inwardly more insecure as anxiety multiplies.


III: — The gospel insists, in the midst of our fragility and anxiety, that there is a security which can’t be dislodged: “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness,” our Lord insists. Whenever I lose sight of what I’m to be about first; whenever I lose sight of what is first, I’m corrected by “beaming up” one or two men with whom I appear to have little in common yet by whom I’ve been helped profoundly over and over: alcoholics who have been rendered contently sober by the grace of God. The AA man or woman who knows and cherishes contented sobriety knows, and knows from terrible experience, that the roof can be falling in here or there or everywhere in life; still, no disruption can be allowed to threaten his sobriety. Yes, he may have lost his job; but the difficulties arising over losing his job won’t be helped if he loses his job and his sanity. He may find the boss insufferable; but chemically induced oblivion won’t rid the office of the boss. Of all the slogans that adorn the walls of the room where the AA meeting is held the three that speak so very tellingly to me are, “How important is it?” “First things first”, and “It’s not your drinking, it’s your stinking thinking.”

“How important is it?” However important “it” might be, it isn’t so important as to be worth the surrender of one’s sobriety and contentment.

“First things first.” The man or woman’s deliverance is plainly first and must be kept first just because it can’t be relegated to second. The sober alcoholic knows that if his contented sobriety is ever moved down to second, it won’t even be second for the simple reason that it won’t exist at all.

“It’s not your drinking; it’s your stinking thinking.” “Stinking thinking” is thinking that its perpetrator believes to be the soul of rationality and common sense, when any observer knows it to be the most blatant rationalisation and glaring stupidity.

And therefore every day when this concern or that concern threatens to multiply anxiety in me I have to recall the fact of God’s kingdom and righteousness and my commitment to that kingdom and righteousness. And as often as I recall God’s kingdom and righteousness, now threatened with being eclipsed by whatever has upset me, I have to say to myself as well, “How important is it? First things first. What you think to be pure rationality, Professor Shepherd, is the shabbiest rationalisation.”

I have learned something more from my friends who have been substance abusers. They live for one thing: helping another suffering person to the same experience, the same truth. The AA member can be a farmer, a physician, a truck driver, a homemaker. At least this is how a livelihood is earned. Living, however, is something else. Living is now a matter of helping a suffering person with messed up head and heart towards a new day, a bright day; a day in whose light the old day, dark day, evil day is repudiated even as God is enjoyed and praised forever. In other words, my friends live to introduce someone else to that deliverance for which they are eternally grateful themselves.

I find myself challenged by all of this, and often rebuked by it. I’m impelled to ask myself again and again, “What do I live for? Do I live to help a fellow-sufferer and fellow-sinner with messed up head and heart towards a new day, a bright day in which God is known and God’s reign becomes the atmosphere that sustains and satisfies even as God himself is praised forever? In other words, do I live to introduce someone else to that deliverance for which I am eternally grateful myself?

I can’t avoid asking this question. After all, the fact that that I’m called “reverend” doesn’t mean I’ve entered that gate which Jesus pronounces narrow or embarked upon that way which Jesus calls rigorous. I have no doubt that the clergyman’s daily trafficking in religion can render any clergyman impervious to the gospel. And then perchance I meet the AA member whose eyes shine just because he’s had, only yesterday, the opportunity of introducing someone to that blessing which only those who are acquainted with it can understand. I recall the word of our Lord: “Do you really want to be rid of your envious anxiety and your niggling moodiness and your childish resentment? Then seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. The other matters will then sort themselves out.”

A few verses before Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and therein shed our anxiety he says, “Don’t lay up for yourselves treasure upon earth, where inflation erodes it and governments tax it. You lay up treasure in heaven, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We’ve already seen what this means; namely, what we cherish is what we pursue. Immediately Jesus adds, “The eye is the lamp of the body; if your eye is sound, your whole body is full of light. But if your eye is unsound, your whole body is full of darkness.”

The Greek word that our English bible translates “sound” has two dictionary meanings: “single” and “generous.” The Greek word that our English bible translates “unsound” literally means “evil.” “Evil eye” is a Hebrew expression that means grudging, miserly, stingy, ungenerous. According to Jesus to be miserly, stingy, ungenerous is to have our entire self darkened, while to be singleminded concerning God’s kingdom and generous as well is to have our entire self full of light.

God has given himself to us without condition, without measure, without reservation. His “eye” has been sound in that he has been singleminded in his search for us and generous in lavishing himself upon us. His “eye” has never been an “evil eye”; that is, he has never been grudging, miserly, stingy. He calls us to be “sound-eyed” ourselves, giving ourselves to him and to those whom he brings before us. If our eye is sound, says Jesus, then we ourselves shall be full of light. If our eye is evil (i.e., if we are stingy and miserly) then we shall be dark ourselves and incapable of bringing light to bear on anyone else.

“Do you think that by worrying you can live ten minutes longer?” asks Jesus. “Then seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. Where your treasure is, your heart will be. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light.” This is our Lord’s antidote to anxiety.


                                                                                                      Dr Victor Shepherd     

Feb. 16 2003