Not to Worry
Not to Worry
March 5, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
“I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their messages with ‘Do not be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening,” writes Scot Bader-Saye in a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. “But I have come to think differently. I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.”1
The quieting of fear is required to hear and do what God asks of us. That idea is at the heart of this Lenten worship series called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.” Let me be clear: this is not to say that all fear is bad. Fear warns us of danger and teaches us much about ourselves. But there’s a reason why “Fear not” is the most often repeated command in the Bible. One teacher found over 365 “fear nots” in the Bible.2 Why so many? Partly because we are such fearful people! We need to hear it every day. And partly because, not just to have fear, but letting fear run your life will leave you unhappy, ungenerous, and ultimately unfaithful.
Between now and Easter we will look at fear in several ways:
fear of strangers and foreigners
at disciples who are afraid of Jesus and Peter daring, for a moment, to walk on top of the water
at the relationship between fear and love
at how the opposite of fear isn’t fearlessness but trust
and at praying through our fear.
We begin this series with what is surely the most common type of fear: anxiety. Jesus says, Don’t worry about having enough to eat--birds don’t plant crops or store up food, yet God feeds them. And don’t worry about what you’ll wear--flowers don’t work at all, and still they’re beautiful. Don’t worry.
First, a few things about what Jesus is not saying here:
He’s not saying that nothing bad will ever happen to you. Flowers eventually wither and die; some birds can't find anything to eat. Jesus isn’t saying that bad things can’t happen; he’s saying that worrying won’t make things better.
Jesus is also not saying that there’s no need to work and study and plan for the fuure. Jesus knows full well that food doesn’t put itself on the table. What he’s saying is that worry doesn’t put any food on the table.
And finally please don’t hear this scripture as a judgment or criticism of worrying. All that criticism accomplishes is that people still worry, and they feel bad about it—maybe even worry about their worrying. This scripture is not a word of judgment; it’s a word of hope—there is a way not to worry, or at least to worry less. Don't you want to know what it is?
I want to start by thinking with you about what worry is. I consider myself an expert on this topic, being an excellent worrier myself and coming from a long line of worriers
You can distinguish worry from fear. True fear, writes Gavin de Becker, is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of immediate danger—let’s say as a bear is chasing you, or a car is swerving into your lane. Anxiety, in contrast, is not a signal, but more of a “state,” a condition—it persists in the absence of any real danger and it does not serve our survival.4 So there’s a difference between true fear and anxiety. The trouble is, though, the mind and body can’t tell the difference between worry and fear. Either way, the heart races, muscles tense up, breathing grows rapid and shallow, the brain reverts to fight-of-flights mechanisms. We are not at our best when we are anxious or afraid.
Gavin de Becker is a consultant to celebrities and government officials who are being stalked or have received death threats. He knows a thing or two about fear and danger. He acknowledges that anxiety is a form of fear, but calls it “manufactured” fear, a form of “self-harrassment.”4 It’s fear based not on what’s about to happen, but on what might happen, or might not happen, or that I imagine could happen, or I hate to think about what it would be like if it did happen. Near the end of his life, Mark Twain said, “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”5 That’s anxiety.
De Becker says that most often we worry because it provides some “some secondary reward.” If you’re a worrier like me, you’ll recognize these secondary rewards, but as I list them, it will be hard to consider them rewards exactly..
Worry, he says, is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t actually do anything about the matter.
Worry is a way to avoid admitting our powerlessness over something, since worry makes us feel like we’re doing something.
Worry is what de Becker calls a cloying way to have connection with others; in other words, worry is a poor substitute for love.
Finally, worry is a protection against future disappointment. If I worry about failing now, maybe it won’t feel so bad when I actually do fail.6
That makes worry sound like a fun life, doesn’t it? When you put it in these terms, you might wonder, “Why do I worry?” That’s a good question, worthy of our reflection. But today’s question is, “What am I going to do about anxiety? How can I stop worrying, or at least worry less?”
Let me share two ideas about that. You can take them with you. They're safe to try at home. What to do about worry?
Intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different way. First, the body: simply taking three deep breaths begins to slow down your heart rate and to release the tension in your body. Try it, right now. Nothing is more effective in countering anxiety than breathing. And try forcing yourself to smile—it is harder to stay worried when you’re smiling and laughing—it's physiologically true.
And then the eyes: almost every book on fear I read had this advice--don’t watch the evening news—the steady diet of crime and car crashes causes you to see the world in an unrealistic way. Keep a gratitude journal—every day write down three things you’re grateful for. It shifts your focus from the negative to the positive, and gratitude is wonderful medicine for anxiety. Start each day expecting good things to happen. Let this be part of your morning prayers: “God, I am expecting good things to happen today." This may or may not make good things happen, but it will help you notice when they do happen. So much depends on how you look at things. I was in a Bible study one time with Jody Oates, whom many of you know. We were studying the story in Matthew where Jesus stayed behind and the disciples crossed the lake and the boat was far from the land, Matthew says, for the wind was against them. And I said, “In't that they way it always is? Isn’t the wind always against us?” And Jody said, “Actually, no, a lot of times the wind is quite nice.” And you know, he’s right. I had developed a way of looking at the world that was negative, anxious and incorrect. Worry is about how you look at the world, and about whether you hold tensions and troubles in your body or release them. And so to worry less, intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different, more positive way.
And then there’s this. In his book about dialing back fear, Dr. Marc Siegel says “that if fear is unlearned, it is because a new emotion replaces it.” Fear doesn’t just go away; you have to replace it with something. And secular though he is, Dr. Siegel suggests caring. Caring for someone else gets us out of that self-centered cycle of anxiety. It's good for you. And Scot Bader-Saye admits that we can’t just command ourselves to feel less fear—it doesn't work. Overwhelming fears must be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a larger story that is hopeful and not tragic.7
And here’s how Jesus said the same thing: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ God knows you need those things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I know this can sound like a religious platitude, but it’s really a deep spiritual truth. Again, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen, and it doesn’t mean you should work hard and plan for the future. But you don’t overcome anxiety by doing battle anxiety. You overcome anxiety by reaching out for God, by trusting in God’s care, by breathing in God’s goodness and letting God hold all that burdens you.
But what if I tried it and it didn’t work? Keep trying! I mean, what’s the alternative—keep worrying? Or rather, trying isn’t quite the right word. Keep letting this happen in you:
I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to put you ahead of my worry. I’m going to seek you first, Lord.
I’m worried sick, and your righteousness, God, will be enough.
I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to let you calm my quivering, fearful heart. Lord knows I can’t calm it myself.
God will hold you as far as, and to the extent that, you will allow yourself to be held. It’s not a platitude; it’s the truth we so desperately need.
1Scot Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 59.
2Lloyd Ogilvie, Facing the Future Without Fear, http://www.soulshepherding.org/2010/07/fear-not-365-days-a-year/, accessed March 2, 2017.
3 See Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence New York: Delta, 1999), 292-93.
4 de Becker, 302.
5 de Becker, 315.
6 de Becker, 302.
7 Bader-Saye, 60.