February 19, 2017
“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
This question is as apropos today as when Jesus posed it 2,000 years ago. Does worrying do us any good? There is not one of us here today that can say that they do not worry about something at some point in an average week. Just ask me this past month about worry, I have a book full.
It is good to know that, what we’ve put huge amounts of time and energy into worrying about of all sorts of things that might happen, while some do, most of those worries never actually come to pass. Further still, life has been generous in providing us with a plethora of possible problems in which we can invest our anxiety.
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? Certainly, since Jesus asked that question rhetorically, he intended for his audience to answer it in their minds with a resounding “No.” But if you’re at all analytical, another possible answer may occur to you, and that might be, “Who knows?”
As an example, if a man is a worrier and dies at the age of 68 years, 114 days and 17 hours, who’s to say that without all that fretting, he would’ve lived to be only 68 years, 114 days and 16 hours? In other words, his worrying gained him an hour. How can we possibly know?
One can suppose that by setting up a study using the scientific method, we could possibly find out. And it just so happens that that has been done, with the results published in an issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings medical journal.
The study does not say whether the researchers even had Jesus’ point in mind — that worry cannot add even a single hour to one’s life — yet the study’s conclusion suggests that Jesus was right. But even more, it reveals a surprising flip side to that argument, suggesting that not being a chronic worrier can actually add not just an hour, but years to your lifespan.
So, it would seem that worrying isn’t likely to add even an hour to your life; get rid of the worry, and you’ll live longer! Easier said than done, of course. None of us are exempt from the bad habit.
Of course, pessimism and worry are not entirely identical. Pessimism is the tendency to take a gloomy view of life and 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. To put it another way, we could say that pessimism is an outlook about things in general and worry is a response to possibilities in particular. And can we suppose it’s possible to be a pessimist without being a worrier.
Yet, at root, both pessimism and worry are related to a shortage of hope and trust. Pessimism, which has no confidence that things will work out, can breed despair, and that word literally means a lack of hope. But, are not Christians meant to have hope?
In the New Testament reading where Jesus posed this question about adding to our span through worry, he went on to make clear that what he was calling for instead was for us to trust 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.
It’s important to understand, however, that his words were directed to people who did indeed have to sow, to reap, to toil and to spin, and he wasn’t telling them to stop doing those tasks; he simply wanted them to understand that their lives were a lot more than the sum of their sowing, reaping, toiling, spinning, or the length of their Facebook or twitter profile. Someone get Trump on the phone!
Further, Jesus tied the call to not worry to the kingdom of God: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” That’s a significant link, because God’s kingdom is the ultimate reason for optimism and hope. The very meaning of the kingdom is that God and those who stand with him are winners. In the end, good triumphs over evil. If you’re a citizen of God’s kingdom — and all who follow Jesus faithfully are — it’s still possible that you might be pessimistic about human activity in the short term, but you’ve got every reason to be optimistic about God’s activity in the long term.
In fact, on another passage, in the Gospel of John, Jesus made that very point: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And what does “take heart!” mean other than “be optimistic!”?
So by bringing the kingdom of God into the discussion, Jesus reminds us that in the long haul, we who follow him have nothing to worry about. I suppose many of us have some objections that make it hard for us to go along with Jesus on this.
Most of us don’t, for example, live our days in anxiety over how global warming will affect us. We seldom even fret about how or when the world will end.
In fact, most of our concerns are over shorter-term issues like “Will I get a good report from the doctor?” or “Will my kids stay out of trouble?” or “Am I being a good parent?” or “Will I be able to pay my bills now that I no longer have a job?” And while many of us are not pessimists by inclination, we can be pessimistic in the dire possibilities our worries ask us to brood about.
If everyone feels “normal anxiety” from time to time, then surely we should not feel guilty about it. Further, normal worry causes us to take preventative measures against potential problems and even energizes us to make some significant and constructive changes in the way we live. It’s also natural to feel our vulnerability to the forces of nature, to sickness and to death, and we ought not to feel guilty about that either. So, some “normal anxiety” can actually be good for us. We might not make needed life changes without it.
It’s the very height of reasonableness 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.”
Unfortunately, logic doesn’t rule. We aren’t wired that way. We cannot neatly compartmentalize anxiety and then talk ourselves out of it. Some worry tends to occur despite logical reasoning, for it’s based more in our emotions than in our thinking. And so it nags at us, saying, “This may not work out, that could fall short, so and so may slip up, I may have not anticipated every contingency, whatever can go wrong probably will.” Our minds keep processing those thoughts over and over, building up dread and leaving us uneasy. So we’ve got 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. This was not his dissertation on worry. He’s not Dr. Phil giving us a prescription for how to avoid anxiety. His 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” being the key word.
“Strive” means to exert a lot of energy and effort toward a goal. So, far from simply saying we should rely on the eventual coming of God’s kingdom as an antidote to daily worry, Jesus is saying we should actively work for the spread of the kingdom. And as we do, some of the things we fret about are going to become non-issues because we’ve got more important things to be busy with.
None of this is to say that we won’t therefore have some normal worries. We can’t love someone without worrying about threats to his or her well-being. We cannot be sensitive persons without occasional concern that we haven’t 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 focused enough on the things of God that we’re able to relax about our priorities and have confidence in God’s providential care. And that’s one definition of “hope.”
Hope actually assumes that the pessimists are sometimes right in the short run, but it ultimately trusts the long-run view that confidence has a way of leaking back into our present circumstances. That’s why, instead of wringing our hands in despair, we clasp our hands in prayer.
Dr. Edward Hallowell is a psychiatrist who taught at Harvard for more than 20 years and has now left academia to devote 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 the public’s awareness, but he’s also made a study of worry, which is the subject of one of his books.
Writing about worry a few years ago for Psychology Today magazine, he offered several suggestions 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.”
In his book on worry, Hallowell revealed that he is a practicing Christian, and so in an interview with Psychology Today, the interviewer asked him if that admission was a risk for someone who is renown in the psychiatric community. He acknowledged that it was a risk in that some people might dismiss him, but he added that he often advised patients to develop a spiritual life and, therefore, felt it was important to acknowledge his own. And he said that spirituality is a “very powerful part of the mind.” 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.”
You cannot add to your lifespan by worrying, but you likely will when you are open to the divine optimism that is rooted in God’s kingdom. It’s connected to the long term, without a doubt, but its power flows back to us in the present in the form of great confidence in God and energy to work for his kingdom.
Let me maybe, just to make this sermon a little longer put this all in another way.
One of the most important words is the word faith. Without it we cannot be saved. And apart from it, we can’t do anything of heavenly worth. You can’t overcome and you can’t live victoriously. So what is faith?
One might say faith is merely to believe. In Hebrew, the word emun speaks of that which is sure, solid, in true. Add an ah to emun and it becomes the word emunah. Emunah is the Hebrew word for faith. And faith is linked to truth.
Faith isn’t wishful thinking or unrealistic hoping. Faith is linked to that which is rock solid - the truth. Faith is that by which you join yourself, root yourself, and ground yourself to the truth. And the word emunah also means steadfast, established, stable, and steady. The more true faith you have, the more steadfast you become, the more stable, the more steady, and the more established. So faith causes you to become strong in a matter of speaking.
There’s another Hebrew word that also comes from the same root word as truth and faith. And everyone here already knows it. It’s the word amen. It even sounds like emun and emunah. So to say “amen” is to say, “It’s true, I agree, yes.” So, therefore what is faith? Faith is to give your amen to God’s emun, His truth. Faith is the say amen, yes to God - amen to His reality, amen to His love, in amen to His salvation; not just with your mouth but with your heart, your mind, your emotions, your strength, in your life. ‘True faith’ is to say amen with your entire being. And the greater, the stronger, and more confident your amen, the greater and more powerful will be your faith. So give the amen of your heart and your life, the strongest amen you can give to the word, the truth, and the love of God, and your life will become emunah, steadfast, established, and as solid as a rock.
Let us pray.
Father God, as human beings we tend to fret and worry over many things; most especially when life is not going quite the way we would like it to be. You taught us through Your Son, that worry will not only not add days to our life, but very well may not change the circumstances of life either. Faith and hope, however will. Lead us in our daily lives, dear Lord, to worry less and trust in You more. All things in heaven and on earth are under Your control, and thus, in very capable hands.
Father, help us to take time each day to spend some time with You. Many human studies have shown that meditation and prayer actually relieve stress and worry in our human lives. Further, You called upon us to lay our concerns at Your feet and trust in Your provincial care. We ask that You help us to “let go” enough of our daily concerns, by putting them in Your care and thus going about our day knowing full well that You are fully in control of the details and that all things happen with Your knowledge and permission and thus for the good in the long term, and even sometimes in the immediate. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.