Worry is natural to the human condition. Parents worry about their children. Workers worry about their jobs. We all worry about money. Many people are worried by their health. Then there is the broader scene to worry about: the turmoil of the world, the state of the economy, the endemic violence that we see nightly on the news. In short, sometimes we seem born to worry. So when Jesus advises us not to worry (Matt. 6.24-34) it can seem a little daunting. In fact, we might then start worrying about whether we are worrying.
I looked up the origin of the word worry in a big dictionary. I was fascinated to learn that it comes from an Old English word meaning to throttle or strangle. How true. We have all had that experience of our throat literally constricting at a time of fear. But, more generally, I think that this origin of the word worry helps us to understand what Jesus is teaching us when he tells us not to worry. You see, if we are carried away by worry then it can have the effect of throttling our ability to respond. Too much worry – anxiety, in short – can make us less able to cope. Your creativity suffers, so it is harder to find the answer. You can hardly hear the advice of others, because of the din of your own worries in your head. Sometimes you might have the solution to your worries staring you in the face, but until you step back a little by letting go somewhat, you will not recognize the answer for what it is.
Worry also erodes our ability to depend on God. Now, clearly Jesus does not intend us to sit back and leave all the work to God. Many of his parables are about the importance of taking action for the Kingdom, working with God for the good of all. But this commitment is only possible if we recognize that it does not all depend on us. God gives us grace for the necessary task, rather like the manna in the desert that was given day by day to the Hebrew people. They could not store it up but had to depend each day that they would be given as and when necessary.
The same is true at a more general level about the whole of life. We have all experienced those moments when we have unexpectedly been given something. The kindness of someone who helped us in the strange city. The right word that came to us in an interview for a job. The helping hand or gift at a time of need. These things can never be orchestrated, but they are part of life, and worry can obscure this basic truth.
Worry has its place. It can make us plan, provide and protect. But too much worry overbalances us and makes us miserable. Many years ago I was struck by the comment of a Brazilian theologian, Clodovis Boff, who wrote: ‘The pessismism and scepticism of Europeans can, literally, be seen on the faces … Europeans may have more than enough, but remain (perhaps for that reason) resentful, suspicious and disillusioned. They lack just what Brazilians have in abundance, despite being broken, toothless, illiterate, thin and ill-clad, namely hope. Their hope can be seen in the brightness of faces, the spark of eyes, the energy of language and human relations, in an enjoyment of life, in spite of everything.’ A generalization? Perhaps. But food for thought for people who worry.