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Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

July 6, 2014

Many of my friends are worried about the future. Some are getting out of grad school and finding it hard to get a permanent job (or any job at all). Some have children on the way and job instability. Mostly, in fact, my friends are worried about their jobs in the future: whether they will have a job in the future, whether they will get a pay cut in the future, or whether the job they are taking and moving for will pan out. Since many of these friends are also Christians they also face another threat: the friend who comes along and says, “Don’t worry about all that, God has it under control.” One of my friends recently had a job-hunting disappointment only to be told by her roommate, “Oh, I just listened to a great sermon that will really cheer you up.” My friend seemed to think this wasn’t very helpful.

This is a rather interesting phenomenon. On one hand I completely agree with my friends. When you are worried and anxious about major life decisions, or have hit a dead end and see no clear way through and someone tells you to be happy because that’s what God wants from you I totally understand why you might want to punch that person in the teeth. They are being incredibly annoying and while I’m sure someone out there disagrees I find a general consensus on this issue. On the other hand aren’t my friends (and myself at more anxious times in my life) wrong? The title of this article looks suspiciously like the sorts of phrases I have labeled as irritating and yet it is a quote from Matthew 6:34 where Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” So who is wrong? Are those who offer “spiritual” responses to allay worry being bad friends or are those who brush them off being bad Christians? (Or, of course, is it that everyone is wrong?)

I’ll start on fairly safe ground: offering “help” that you know is annoying is a bad thing. If you know that your friend will not be comforted by your words but irritated then your words should not be uttered unless the goal is to be irritating. Sometimes it is acceptable to be irritating – sometimes people need to face things they don’t want to – but it’s probably not necessary to confront someone with what you suspect is a lack of faith immediately after they suffer disappointment. In fact, that looks suspiciously like kicking someone when they are down. “So, didn’t get that job, eh? Worried that you aren’t worth all that much? Well, consider this: you’re also a bad Christian!” I don’t really see this as the way of Jesus.

This is a small comment on the larger theme though. If timing and tone are the only issues those can be fixed: address someone after they’ve had some time, speak with them about how they might be happier if they weren’t so anxious, and point out that this isn’t God’s intent for one’s life. But should that even be done? Are those who are anxious wrong to be anxious?

I would say no (in part). In a lot of evangelical circles people are thought to be wrong when they are anxious but this is paired with a passivity about God’s work in our lives. If God wants us to be active participants in His work in our lives then the picture is somewhat different. It may be helpful to imagine this difference using the analogy of a child and parent in a canoe. If the parent is steering the child doesn’t really have anything to worry about. However, if the parent has decided to let the child learn to steer and the child is steering the child does have reason for concern. While the parent will presumably not allow the child to get into serious trouble the child can steer wrong and perhaps learn a lesson that involves wading around in the water getting the canoe unstuck. If we are active participants in God’s work in our lives, if God is letting us steer to learn how to do it, then we have a reason to worry that we might get it wrong. This is especially true when we think about the world that we live in – it is very easy for Christians to make mistakes that will really mess up their lives. If you don’t believe me try shooting up heroin and see if you get a free pass on addiction because you only made that mistake once. (Or just go antagonize some unfriendly biker gang and see if they give free passes on that behavior.)

In fact, when we frame decisions about the future in terms of responsibility most Christians suddenly become much less sure that God will make everything alright if the human beings don’t live up to their end of the deal. Not many people would say that if someone refuses to discharge their responsibilities that God will be obliged to cover for them. But don’t my friends with children (or children on the way) have a responsibility to find jobs that will support these children? Don’t my single friends have a responsibility to support themselves and even give back to those less fortunate? (And where did those less fortunate come from anyway?)

Ultimately, there is room to be anxious and concerned in the Christian life without automatically failing some test of faith. Are we doing the right thing? Are we listening to God’s guidance? Are we being stubborn or lazy or proud or otherwise sinful and getting in the way of God’s plan? (There’s also no guarantee that God’s plan for us is always exactly what we’d choose without a clear idea of the endgame. Try talking someone into going into surgery without explaining how getting cut open will ultimately make them healthier.) However, contrary to that there’s this issue that Jesus himself delivers a long discourse on not worrying.

There are two comments to make about this. The first is simple: Jesus also delivers long, worried monologues. When praying in Gethsemane and famously asking God to “take this cup from me” Jesus was clearly not calm, cool, and collected. He knew what needed to be done, he knew that it would be terribly hard, and his knowledge that what was coming was necessary did not make the hardship “all right” emotionally. That’s why we have this prayer – because even Jesus found life stressful. (Of course perspective is also needed: I don’t know anyone who is walking into certain death. This is why I say that it is OK to be anxious only in part.)

The second comment is that Jesus’ own “do not worry” discourse is a rather different beast than the standard evangelical response. Or perhaps it is what the evangelical response wishes it were: a message of hope. Jesus doesn’t merely say, “Don’t worry and trust in God,” but “God loves you and cares for you.” The discourse acknowledges that people do need the things they worry about but also that God knows this. Instead of brushing aside worry Jesus confronts it and says that God is taking care of it. This is perhaps a far better model of how we should handle the worry of others: to lift the worrier up and promise love and support rather than denigrating the worries and accusing the worrier.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    July 7, 2014 11:12 am

    The “canoe” analogy is great, because so much of the problem here is how we understand God “having it under control.” There’s a lot of complex ideas tied up in that (the most obvious being free will vs. necessity) that, if we think about them at all, often get talked about in abstract, dogmatic terms.

    For example, there’s probably a human factor behind the vast majority of anxiety these days. If I’m not careful how I approach this, I could end up acting, thinking, and praying as if everyone except me is just a non-player character God will manipulate at my whim.

    I think we also tend to shy away from considering scenarios that might force more nuanced understandings. (Ultimately, I think this is a problem with the idea of “God’s personal plan for my life,” rather than the idea of God’s will or providence.)

    It’s easy to believe God has a clear plan for me and my peers when we’re facing temporary or first-world problems. But we might not believe (though we’d never phrase it as such) that God has a plan for those in more desperate situations, mainly because it implies God’s plan doesn’t guarantee our preferred level of stability.

    • Eric permalink
      July 7, 2014 4:46 pm

      I think your comment about people in desperate situations is a really excellent one. Having to say, “I believe that people living in North Korea in labor camps are covered under God’s plan,” takes either a nuanced view of what God’s plan entails (like “God plans that you should work to free them”) or a lot of chutzpah.

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