"Don't worry! Don't worry about what you will eat, or what you will wear." In his sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hones in on what today is perhaps the single most damaging influence on our daily lives. Anxiety, worry, emotional distress. He appears to push it aside. "You have the choice." he seems to say. "Don't worry."
I heard on the radio this week that one in five of the nation's children are suffering from mental health problems, one in ten to the extent that professional help is desirable. And as if to justify or put in perspective this horrific news the speaker followed up the remark by saying that for adults the figure is closer to one in four of the population! Anxiety in this day and age is no longer confined to the simplistic "What am I going to eat? What am I going to drink, to wear?" Through the systems set in place by our government and society here in the U.K. there is no longer any need for anyone to starve, have insufficient clothing or lack of shelter, although there are many who for many reasons live rough on the streets, and in many countries the provision we have does not exist. But as we approach the millennium the basic necessities of life are perhaps more available to more people than in many previous centuries. But even so anxiety or worry is showing no sign of diminishing. Stress is still the buzzword. Worry is destructive. It blocks our progress, making our lives a misery, sometimes allowing us to be manipulated and controlled by others. We worry about our income, our relationships and the increasing demands and insecurities of our work. We worry about whether we ought to be doing more, or doing less, whether we are overweight or unfit or whether we measure up to the stereotypes projected at us by all sections of the media.
"Don't worry." Jesus says, after all 'Can any of you by worrying add one single hour to your span of life?' (Mat.5.27) Get your priorities right, he tells us. God has provided for us. By his act of creation he has placed on earth, by whatever means you can identify with, over six days, six millennia or six billion millennia, enough for us all to survive and lead lives that are fulfilling and pleasing to him. The resources for a fulfilling life surround us. St. Paul takes up Jesus' theme in his letter to the Philippians. "There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving." (4.6). In order to combat our crippling anxiety we need trust. We need to build our trust in the ability of God to nurture us and look after us in the same way that the lilies of the field are clothed and the birds of the air are fed. Jesus rebukes those of his listeners who fall victim to anxiety as 'men of little faith.' When the disciples were worried about the possibility of being shipwrecked in a storm Jesus used the same words, "Why are you so frightened, you men of little faith?" When Peter sank into the sea, doubting his own ability to walk on water Jesus again said "Man of little faith, why did you doubt?" And in each case the anxiety of the disciples was dissolved as their trust in this wonderful man who had bid them follow him was strengthened. In all relationships, trust is the antidote to anxiety. We do not feel anxious in the company of someone we can truly trust. A good friend is one in whose company we can 'be ourselves' without fear of ridicule or misunderstanding. The good friend senses our needs, giving a listening ear, helping us in times of crisis, and giving us space. We know that we can have faith in that person to remain true to us, and in return we feel comfortable in the knowledge that we can be as good a friend to them as they are to us.
And just as faith in a person reduces our anxiety, so faith in a situation also makes that situation less threatening. As children we play close to one of our parents, not needing their intervention, but needing the reassurance that they are there. Their presence gives us the confidence in a situation to be open to new experience, to learn and to grow. Children of faith come in all ages. Faith in God must come from getting to know him better. A child feels more confident playing close to a parent because of the bonding that has happened since birth. If this bonding process has been impaired often children fail to develop sound mental health and are unable to interact confidently with the world. Just as that enabling faith in the parent is developed through love, so our faith in our Heavenly parent is also strengthened in our experience of his love for us. For a child the experience of the love of God must come from the people around it who act as channels of that love. That is to say from us. Then as they progress in faith they can begin to find more experience of that love through seeing it in God's creation of the world, in God's message to us through the scriptures and through a developing relationship in prayer. So the witness of a church towards the younger members, as a Christian family living daily for the purpose of God's kingdom, is vital to the development of their faith.
Jesus gives two more pieces of advice in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. If we acknowledge that God, as creator, is able to provide for all our needs then it follows that by searching for him, by seeking his kingdom then all other needs will fall into place. Get your priorities right, he tells us, and your needs will be provided for. Secondly he follows up this remark by saying, 'Do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.' and in saying 'Each day has enough trouble of its own!' (Mat. 6.34) he reminds us that we can't change what is past, so why worry about yesterday, and we can't be certain of the future, so why worry about tomorrow. When it comes to today, however, we are here now and can do much to work for the establishment of the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. We can do our bit to make the world a better place for others and ourselves by building trust and friendship, serving God in one another here and now. Not worrying about the past does not mean that we don't care about what we have done. On the contrary we need to be able to let go of the past and move forward, and we do this through confession, repentance and forgiveness. Not worrying about the future does not mean that we don't care what will happen to us or to others. It is precisely because of our hopes for the future that we are called to live well today, for the foundations of the future are laid in the present.
Jesus tells us that living for God's plan is a day-by-day process. By living in this way we need not worry about what will happen next year. God will provide. We need not worry about the pressures of competitiveness, keeping up with the Jones's. There is no need to be worried about having the latest technology, the fastest car, wide screen T.V. or any of the other things which the advertising media would have us believe are essential for modern life. Whilst being grateful for the material provision with which we are blessed, not feeling guilty for our achievements, we should not see the pursuit of earthly comforts as our central aim. That is not to say that there are not many rewards for participating wholeheartedly in the rat race. We are showered with images of the rich and famous, self-made millionaires, pop stars, sportsmen and women and film stars. Many appear to be happy and enjoying the benefits of the money and status they are given. We also see how the pressures of life in the public gaze, which often accompanies this sort of success, can give rise to misery and scandal.
By following God's plan we can grow together, encouraging each other and coming to trust each other and God so that we can face new situations with increasing confidence, comfortable in each other's company. As Christians we believe that the rewards of living God's way will be far greater than anything we see on earth. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, (8.18) writes 'I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the Glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us.' No one is saying that by living God's way there will be an end to suffering, suffering in our humanity is a fact of life. But with faith in God, strengthened by a real effort to get to know him as a trusted friend, we are given the power to endure suffering and so need not be anxious about it. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks of the suffering we face as we grow older, saying these 'troubles which are soon over, though they weigh little, train us for the carrying of a weight of eternal glory which is out of all proportion to them.' (4.17)
So for ourselves we can begin to throw off the restraints of anxiety by taking control of our daily lives and deciding to live for God. We can do this because we trust God to provide for us all that we need to live fulfilling lives and strengthen us to endure suffering, and because we have hope in the certainty of a greater glory to be found at the end of our spiritual journey. And in spreading God's love in our relationships we can play our part in reducing anxiety for others, bringing his kingdom to the here and now.