Everyone worries. Sometimes for logical reasons, sometimes for illogical reasons. Regardless of who we are or where we've been though, worry has been a part of our life in some way.
I was surprised to find out that over 25 million Americans have high blood pressure due to stress and anxiety. 8 million have stomach ulcers every week, and a total of 112 million Americans take medication for stress related symptoms, surpassing even depression as the most common mental illness in the continental United States. According to "The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders," a study commissioned by the ADAA and based on data gathered by the association and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one third of the $148 billion total mental health bill for the U.S. Make no mistake about it; we are a worried people.
When I was in India, there was a lot that I was worried about. I basically lived as a nomad for almost two months when my internship fell through and was literally placed on train after train, asked to go to these seemingly random locations all over Northern India to preach, teach guitar and soccer, work in orphanages, and minister to families. It was both enthralling, and absolutely terrifying at the same time.
One thing that I wasn't prepared for was the incredible number of bulls that roamed the streets freely every day. They are sacred and not to be killed, so they would casually saunter through the bazaar like a stray cat; a stray cat the size of an SUV. I remember on multiple occasions going for a nightly stroll through whatever town I was staying in that week, rounding a corner, and coming almost face to face with a massive meandering bull. In these instances I would do what any bold, courageous young man would do. I froze. I would stand there, firmly plastered against the nearest wall, and try not to make a noise until the bull strolled past me. Every day I would see scenes like this one, and completely freeze.
After a few weeks I made the astonishing realization that these bulls didn't care about me at all. They weren't bothered by my presence in the slightest, nor did they really even notice me most of the time. I remember observing small children, no older than five or six, swatting bulls away with sticks and yelling at them to leave their stand alone. I remember thinking "If that bull ever figures out how truly gargantuan it is, they are all going to be in trouble." But as my summer continued, the bulls never really asserted their power (kind of like a certain Chicago team we know, eh?), and they never snapped and trampled me or anyone else. I spent so much of my time stressing over a fear that was not a reality in the slightest.
Another serious contributor to my worry tank while in India was the transportation. Every day, whether I was in a rickshaw, a tonga, or a vehicle, I would look in front of me and see scenes like this:
Indians take great joy in their transit insanity - swerving in and out of literally any space they can find. It is a fascinating and terrifying dance that each and every person on the road is a part of. Buses pass each other at 60mph with only inches between them. Families will load up five people on a single scooter and buzz through the crowds. Men ride bikes with propane tanks hanging over their wheels and stacked on their rack as they speedily navigate through the masses. The name of this particular market pictures above loosely translates in English "Confused Confusion", which gives you an idea of the aberration that is Indian passage.
Even while living in the mountains, I remember riding on the back of a motorcycle climbing up the side of a cliff, and as we attempted to pass a jeep our bike skidded out from under us on the gravel and fell on top of us just in front of the jeep, allowing just enough time for driver of the to slam on his brakes and stop before hitting us. Now keep in mind that to our right is a 9,000 foot drop, and to our left is the towering and rigid wall of the mountain. Again, I would find myself in what I found to be a reasonable state of anxiety, but my driver would simply laugh, pick up his bike, and we were on our merry way.
I realized that often so much of what I considered to be rational worry is not anywhere close to the stance of those I am with. Our perspectives differed greatly, and I slowly but surely began to come to terms with those differences, and trust them. Worry is, at the very least, subjective, and what was causing me great fear wasn't even showing up on the radar of those who were not alarmed by the same things I was.
Worry is actually derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to strangle or choke", which I find fascinating. How many of us can relate to that imagery intimately -the idea of feeling completely suffocated under the weight of our crippling anxiety, often times for no reason at all? I think Vance Havner put it well when he said:
“Worry, like a rocking chair, will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere"
I think a lot of us buy into the notion that worry will somehow improve our situation, or at the very least, communicate to those around us that we really are compassionate-hence our worry. We seem to confuse concern with worry, and have a strange tendency to praise the one that worries the most, because that means he/she is truly the most invested. After time it becomes a part of our normal, daily routine.
The great comedian Carl Hurley tells the story about trying to throw a trash can away. He said it’s the one thing you can’t get the garbage man to pick up. He said, I set an old rusty garbage can out at the street one morning thinking the garbage man would understand that it needed to be thrown away. He said, when I came back that afternoon the can was stacked up with the rest of my empty trash cans.
Well the next week I put it out again and this time I turned it upside down so they could see that the bottom had several holes in it and it needed thrown away. When I cam home it was stacked up next to the empty cans again.
The next week I took a sledgehammer and I beat the can in pretty good and I left it out front and when I came home not only was it stacked up next to the other empty trash cans but the garbage man had actually tried to beat it back into shape.
And so he said finally I did the only thing I could do. I went to the hardware store and bought a heavy duty chain and a padlock and I chained the old can to a large tree in my front yard. And sure enough, that night somebody stole it.
I think worry is a lot like that trashcan. We know we need to get rid of it, but we're not even sure how to . I think the issue isn't necessarily that worry is present, but how we respond to it. When we worry about the latest setback, or a friend getting sick, or fiances getting tight, our response in worry is often to blame others or God.
There are so many powerful verses on this topic, but my favorite comes from Luke 12:
22Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 26Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?27"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.32"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:22-34)
I think the thesis of this small section is not to convince us of the health benefits of not worrying, or to provide twelve easy steps to living a worry free life. Luke seems much more concerned with getting us to understand how truly precious we are to God. It's as if he realizes that if we can catch the powerful significance of that reality, then the rest tends to start to fall in place. That when we can buy into the truth of God's goodness, His provision, and His relentless love for us, things like outfits and menus don't seem quite as daunting.
The Greek word translated here as "do not worry" literally means "to be drawn in different directions." Worry pulls us apart. We are pulled apart because often what we do is so out of harmony, so out of tune with what God intends for humanity, for His children. We try to live our lives in our own private kingdoms, with safeguards and storehouses we've established and for built for ourselves in the name of logic and reason, but forget the God that cares for the lilies and the sparrow. The God that sleeps in a boat during a raging storm as His closest friends panic.
I think that there is a strong correlation to worry, and the pace of our lives. Most of us live at a pace that is so unsustainable, that it seems we can do nothing but worry.
I read the story several years ago about a city that was having problems with their busses. Busses were driving right past passengers at the bus stops. It caused quite a stir in the newspapers. The Transit Authorities decided to answer the questions by putting out a press release in order to explain the situation. That press release has become infamous in public relations classes. Because what the transit authority press release said was this: “It is impossible for us to maintain our schedules if we are always having to stop and pick up passengers.”
When we’re in a hurry we sometimes miss the main things.
John Ortberg pinpoints this in his article, Taking Care of Busyness. He says, "For most of us, the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them."
I think we would do well to slow down, to live a day at a time, and to keep a long term perspective. If I knew my house was going to burn down tomorrow, how much time would I spend worrying about how to decorate it today? Jesus challenges us to fix our eyes on him first and foremost.
And ultimately we need to remind each other of God's faithfulness. That is the powerful narrative of our lives. I remember a former pastor and dear friend back home had a sign on his office door that read "Worry is another form of atheism." I used to be so irritated with that sign until it finally clicked for me. That worry is not simply some ailment that each of us struggle to overcome, but a greater story that we each tell -of God's faithfulness and power, that inspires and reminds us of the greatness of the one we serve. Our stories bind us together in struggle and in victory, in the the sweet melody of our bloodline.
I pray that I will be able to slow down long enough to enjoy the silence, to rest in His stillness, and to experience more fully His mystery. May we live fully in every moment we're given, remembering the great slavery each of us have been freed from, and shout these truths from the rooftops of our existence. May proclamations fill the ears of a deaf world and sooth even the most bitter of hearts. May our lives be an example of a God that provides.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil 4:6)