Maybe sometimes prayer is just “worrying out loud” before God.
So mused a friend over coffee yesterday when the subject of prayer came up. I was very relieved to hear this as I had just spent the previous forty-five minute motorcycle ride to the meeting worrying. Um, I mean praying.
My worries almost certainly are of a familiar variety. I worry about my kids endlessly. Yesterday, I had just gotten off the phone with my son’s high school football coach. Training camp starts next Monday but as it happens he will miss the first few weeks of camp because of our family’s upcoming European vacation. I thought about how good it would have been for him to attend this camp, not just because he’s barely played any football and needs to learn, but also because it would be a great opportunity for him to connect socially as he prepares to enter a new school. And so I worried. This morning, my daughter was getting her wisdom teeth removed. As I’ve written about before, I have a pathological hatred of the dentists’ chair. Also, like all parents, I hate watching my kids in pain. So, I worried about her, too.
(This is in addition to the usual catalogue of worries that I have for my kids and their futures.)
I can find all kinds of other things to worry about. There is no shortage of options for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. I worry about the future of the institutional church and the way my employment is inextricably linked with this. I look around at uber-competent peers and I worry about how I’m measuring up. I worry about how uncreative I often feel and how it feels like I have so little to say. I worry about how others will see me when I run out of words. I worry about the husband and father I am undoubtedly failing to be. I worry about how much I’m daily giving my kids to recover from some day. I worry about back pain and how I should exercise more regularly. I worry about those I love facing uncertain futures. I worry about the Syrian families our church has sponsored to come to Canada and how they will adapt once they’re on their own. I worry about the crude and violent culture that we are daily creating collectively. I worry about wars and rumours of wars.
And Jesus says that I’m not supposed to worry, I know. So I worry about how much I’m worrying and what this says about my faith.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry…
On the face of it, this could seem like singularly bad counsel. “Don’t worry, you can’t control anything anyway,” Jesus says. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Which is kind of like a restatement of the problem. Not having any control over things is actually one of the main reasons I worry. So thanks a lot, Jesus. Consider the lilies… Well, I’m sure they’re lovely, but lilies don’t have mortgages or kids to get through high school and I seriously doubt if they have back pain. The life of a lily sounds pretty cushy, to be frank. And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things… Well, they strive for a reason. So many people in the world could use a bit more to eat and drink, after all.
As I reread Luke 12 this morning, it occurred to me that Jesus probably wasn’t saying that I shouldn’t worry because the world is not a worrisome place. It is, obviously. And, equally obviously, it was in Jesus’ day, too. First century life was almost certainly more difficult in countless ways than mine. Poverty, war, disease, uncertainty, relational challenges, questions of identity and meaning and hope—these are not recent afflictions or discoveries. They’re as old as humanity itself. No, Jesus cannot be saying that we shouldn’t worry because there aren’t things worth worrying about. Clearly, there are.
As always Jesus is probably making a statement about the kinds of people that worrying turns us into. Worrying turns us almost inevitably inward. Rather than being actively engaged in contributing goodness to the world around us, worry so often has a paralyzing effect, rendering us myopic, melancholy, and pretty much useless. We wind up prisoners of our own making, determinedly imagining the worst outcomes before they ever materialize. Worrying makes us less than we ought to be. We don’t need any particularly deep theology to make this point. How many of us enjoy being around worriers? How many of us admire ourselves when we worry? Conversely, how many of us admire those who stubbornly keep inserting a determined joy and optimism into things, even when things look bleak on the surface? I certainly do.
And ultimately, of course, “life is more than food and the body more than clothes” (Luke 12:23). There is a kingdom worth seeking that transcends all of our real or imagined momentary afflictions. It is this kingdom that Jesus says our Father has been pleased to give us, that we are invited to treasure above all else. It is a kingdom that infects our worrisome world with hope, a kingdom that will never pass away, a kingdom that no pain or waste or decay can ever destroy. It is a kingdom for which the most determined and creative joy we can muster is but a dress rehearsal.
Do not worry, Jesus says. Not because there aren’t things to worry about but because our hearts need to be trained to treasure brighter things.