Though not as dramatic as the tightrope walker, we all - myself included - struggle with fear and anxiety. I am what you would call a worrywart. I tend to get anxious very easily and worry about all kinds of things: tasks I need to do, health and the future. In fact, I tend to become anxious if I am not worrying - it makes me wonder if I have forgotten something that I need to be doing! Often, well-intentioned people will want to ease the burden of anxiety that I feel. Their advice? Often it boils down to this: just stop worrying! Though I appreciate their thoughtfulness, this is hardly helpful. Today’s gospel is especially appealing for me because Jesus is advising not to worry. Jesus’ words, however, are not just well-intentioned fluff. He gives us both reasons and a method for coping with worry in our lives. This is an extremely important teaching as we all struggle with fear and worry.
Have you ever seen pictures of people tightrope walking? Recently I saw an old picture of someone walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls. I became anxious just looking at the picture. If it were me, I don’t know how I could ever do something like this. I would be so worried of falling I probably could not take one step and would just freeze in my tracks. How do tightrope walkers conquer their anxiety and fear? When I looked closely at the picture, I discovered the tightrope walker’s trick: they keep their eyes focused straight ahead towards their destination. When they focus on what is most important - their destination - they are able to continue walking in spite of their worries.
Jesus it not promising to remove all the challenges from our lives that cause us anxiety. This point reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with another seminarian. We were talking about a challenging exam that we both had to take the next day. I had just explained to my friend that though I had been studying for some time, I worried if I would be able to learn everything in time. I explained that I intended to stay up late that night to prepare. My friend had a different strategy. He explained that he had basically given up studying and would go to bed early that night. If God really wanted him to learn the material He would infuse it into his mind while He slept. When I heard this I thought to myself, “good luck with that”! Jesus never said that He would remove all difficulties and challenges from our lives. We need to plan, be organized and work hard. As Mother Teresa would often say:
Pray like everything depends on God, work like everything depends on you.
Jesus does not claim to remove all fear and anxiety from our existence. In fact, feeling a certain degree of worry can be helpful as it spurs us on to do what we need to get done. What Jesus does promise us in the gospel is that if we follow Him, our fear and anxiety should never become so large that it paralyzes us or becomes overwhelming. The tightrope walker will always have fear and worry when they are performing, however, they must ensure that it doesn't stop them in their tracks. Jesus never promised us a carefree life.
If God is our master and we are working to build up His Kingdom, then we should never worry too much, because God will surely take care of us. At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus explains that we are always serving one of two masters: God or mammon.
- Serving mammon means that our main concerns are about getting more and more things for ourselves. We worry about things like getting the best and latest smartphone or car. We are anxious about exceeding at work so that we can gain more power, prestige and influence.
- Serving God means committing ourselves to build up His kingdom by following the commandments and the Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. In our relationships, we strive to model the love, compassion and mercy of God. We are anxious about how we can be of service to other people: family, coworkers and the needy.
Here’s the point. If, and only if, we have chosen to focus on serving God and His kingdom, we can be sure God will take care of us. If God takes such good care of His creation, then surely He will take care of those who are working to build His kingdom. This knowledge should be a remedy against excessive stress in our life. We become like the tightrope walker. We will experience struggles and difficulties, but if we keep looking ahead, focused on God’s kingdom, then we should know that we will cross to the other side unharmed. We just need to focus on serving God and we can know He will take care of us. If, on the other hand, we have chosen to serve mammon, then we have no such guarantee. If all we are focused on ourselves and getting more stuff, then we have good reason to be anxious. When God is our master and we are focused on building His kingdom we should never worry too much because He will take care of us.
It become easier to live with reduced anxiety when we remind ourselves of how God has taken care of us in the past. It is so much easier to trust that God will take care of us in the future when we remind ourselves of the times He has taken care of us in the past. You have probably noticed that a lot of the Old Testament recounts the history of Israel. This happens in the psalms and in the so-called “historical books” such as the Book of Kings or Chronicles. The striking thing about these historical books is that they are not history as we talk about it today. It is not like a book about World War II, where the author tries to remain completely objective. Rather, in the Bible, Israel looks back at its history in order to see how God was active in it. Time and time again they found that when they turned from God they got into trouble. On the other hand, when they followed God’s plans, when He was their master, He always took care of them. Israel remembered and celebrated this fact so that they could look ahead to the future with great hope, trusting in God. We need to read our own history the same way. Can you identify moments in your past in which the challenges seemed overwhelming yet somehow God carried you through it, often in an unexpected way? When we remind ourselves of these moments it becomes easier to trust that God will take care of us in the future. This helps us to live with less anxiety and fear.
When we follow Jesus, we are all like the tightrope walker. We all face challenges and risks that can scare us and fill us with anxiety. It is imperative that we keep our eyes forward and do not look down. We need to remember that if we keep our eyes on God’s Kingdom, if God is our master and we are concerned to build His kingdom, He will take care of us and we need not be paralyzed by stress. Today let us strengthen our trust in God’s constant care for us. Do this simple exercise. Try to remember one moment in your life in which you are aware that God really took care of you. Call to mind this moment and give thanks for it. God has cared for you in the past, He is caring for you now and will take care of you in the future. “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself”.