Social analysts suggest we are living in the age of anxiety. Few eras have seen as much change as ours. So how does the teaching of Jesus speak into this ferment?
Some cliches are guaranteed to wind people up. Jilted lovers being told that ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ is a good example. The command to ‘cheer up, it might never happen’ is another, especially when it already has. The brush-off ‘worse things happen at sea’ invites the retort ‘in that case, bring it on’. And then there is ‘don’t worry, be happy’, as if getting on top of life were that easy.
‘Don’t worry’ are two words so easily said that they feel trite, except that they are exactly the words Jesus spoke in the course of his most famous sermon (Matthew 6: 25-34). We suspect that other people use these words as a way of drawing to an end an unwanted pastoral conversation: ‘don’t worry’ (for which read: I really need to move on now, thank you very much). It is difficult to draw the same conclusion about Jesus.
Some social analysts suggest we are living in the age of anxiety. Fewer eras have seen as much change as ours and yet the sense of impermanence only grows: relationships do not last; jobs are short-term; mobility increases. Our culture exhibits a restless yet directionless urge for the new, where history and rootedness are considered inhibitors on self-expression. In this kind of uncertain ferment, it is not surprising that people are anxious. Digital developments are heralded urgently but also mean that no-one can quite get away from it all anymore. The pace of life has palpably increased. Before the First World War, the average person slept for nine hours a night. Hardly anyone gets this now. We are becoming like rats on a treadmill.
It is odd, yet significant, that we should feel such anxiety in the era of greater prosperity. When Jesus told the people not to worry, he spoke of how God would look after their need for food, drink and clothing. For most of us these have never been an acute concern. The only anxiety some feel is over which pasta shape to cook with; which brand of coffee to drink from and which label they should ensure others see them wearing. Here perhaps lies the first challenge to us: ought we to dignify our dilemmas with the word ‘anxiety’ when what we are worried about is choice and image?
In helping the people to cope with their daily worries, Jesus encouraged them to look at the relationship God has with the natural world. If the needs of plants, birds and animals are catered for, why do they not perceive he has somewhat more than a passing interest in their welfare as humans? We are so alienated from the rhythm of the world now that this comparison sadly washes over us. Many of our human needs – for warmth and light, food and drink are available at the flick of a switch or the swish of a card. We defy the natural rhythms of life by flooding the world with light, opening shops all day, working through the night and sleeping through the day. Most of us live in built up areas where you have to train your ear to listen to birdsong among the ceaseless noise of suburbia.
We are pleased with our skill at delivering goods and services to the right places at the right prices, but there is insecurity at the heart of it all. Immersing ourselves in possessions has made us less free, not more. The sheer weight of modern anxiety should have alerted us to the failure of materialism but we keep on shopping in a vain attempt to ward off fear. Like an early warning of madness, we continue to do the same things that have failed before in a desperate hope they will produce a different outcome.
There is, however, a danger of us taking hold of Jesus’ words about the flowers and the lilies and turning them into an anti-modernity tirade where shopping malls, office blocks and motorways draw us away from God where orchards, forests and rivers bring us back. In Deuteronomy 28:3, God tellingly says that his people will be blessed in the city as well as in the country. He is drawn by his heart of love to the grittier needs of this world, which means Christ walks among us on the needle-strewn stairwell and the wind-blown estate as surely as he touches us through Alpine mountains and glacial lakes.
What Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount is a radical re-casting of personal perspective. In countering human worry, he warns us against becoming gripped by the thing we are anxious about. The more we dissect this under the microscope, the larger the object of our fear appears. Instead we should strive for the kingdom of God and let God deal with the rest. We worry because we have swapped priorities. The pursuit of a relationship with God is paramount. From this flows the relationships we form with one another and the view we take of ourselves. The rest, hard as it is for us to swallow, is detail.
I do not say this to make light of personal problems. Like the sensation of pain, which is meant to steer us away from harmful elements like fire, our conscience leads us to be concerned about problems so we can pray about them and, where possible, to act upon them. Some people are faced with genuine reasons to be worried where not to feel concerned would be either reckless or callous. This natural instinct turns sour when we obsess over the problem, which is like keeping your hand near the fire once you sense pain. Yet most of us seem to make a habit of this.
Some of us become defined by our worries and find it hard to cast our anxiety upon God because we fear a void that will be filled by more anxieties, like the house that is swept clean of demons, only for seven more to come and fill the vacancy. It is said of some hostages kept in confined spaces that they emerge to freedom only to fear what they longed for because of the new-found choices they had forgotten how to make. Worry can function, perversely, like a comfort blanket to cling on to.
It is significant that Jesus held up the future for inspection: ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’. We spend a lot of time worrying about events that lie some way off, rather than in front of us. The future easily assumes a phantom form which proves far from true when we get there. How many times have you worried about things that have eventually sorted themselves out without any need for intervention on your part? Jesus asks us to think about today, not tomorrow, because the present is the only sphere in which God can meet with us.
I cannot claim immunity here – I worry more than I should about things. I don’t know whether I worry more or less than the average Christian because most worrying is done in secret. This is one reason we tolerate it so much, as it isn’t open to the kind of public scrutiny that would shame us into reform if others knew. But God does know the secrets of our hearts and in the Gospel he has declared war on this crippling vice.
Cast all your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)
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