Worrying Ourselves Sick
By Audrey Stallsmith
This June we arrived at the college where we host our annual writers' conference, only to find the once beautiful campus literally torn up. The college was in the process of constructing two new buildings, and barriers loomed everywhere.
Granted, the fact that God had given us more conferees than the previous year--even in a time of economic hardship--should have reassured me. But there are drawbacks to having a writer's vivid imagination. I, as registrar, could picture those conferees tumbling into trenches and suing us--or at least complaining bitterly about the inconveniences imposed upon them. As you can see, I'm the type of person who makes a practice of expecting the worst, just in case!
That pessimism also kicked in last summer, when I decided to try hatching some guinea eggs, in a homemade incubator made from a Styrofoam cooler and a light bulb. It hadn't occurred to me, until we were well into the process, how difficult it would be to maintain consistent temperatures in our non-air-conditioned house.
We had to do a lot of adding blankets at night or cracking the lid during the day. Despite all our attempts to hold the two dozen eggs at the required 99 degrees, by the time we were nearing the "hatch" date, the temperature inside the incubator had varied from 95 to 104. Although I was doing a lot of praying too, I began to doubt that we would see any guinea keets at all.
But the eggs actually hatched three days early, 20 of them! Not to mention that those conferees I'd worried so much about accepted the construction difficulties with Christian good humor. So all my angst was really wasted emotional energy.
But I never saw it as a lack of trust until I recently read Hannah Whithall's Smith's The God of all Comfort. Her "just as courage is faith in good, so discouragement is faith in evil," hit me hard.
After all--even for Christians--things don't always turn out as well as they did in the two situations I've mentioned. So I've always considered it more sensible to "be realistic" than to suffer disillusionment. I never thought of that "common sense" as being a "faith in evil."
But my fears are obviously not always realistic either, since good things do happen as frequently--if not more so--than the bad ones. And, even if the worst does occur, harping on it in advance just spreads the misery further than it needs to go. In her book, Smith points out that we need to have faith in God's promises rather than in our own feelings. Harping on our own feelings, after all, just makes us anxiously self-centered. But contemplating God's omnipotence and love for us will take us out of ourselves.
He has promised us, after all, that we won't be asked to endure more than what is possible for us. So, if we keep worrying, we obviously either don't believe in his omnipotence, or don't believe that he really loves us enough to keep that promise. Of course, there is one other possibility. " We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us," C. S. Lewis points out dryly. "We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."
Our own loving parents, after all, thought some very unpleasant things "good for us." Whether we are speaking of liver, cod liver oil, or simply a paddling or two! But we need to keep in mind that those parents were generally right. If we'd been permitted to have everything our own way, we would have ended up spoiled enough to stink! So the question becomes whether we really believe that God loves us even more than our parents do.
"Our lives are full of supposes," Smith points out. "Suppose this should happen, or suppose that should happen; what could we do; how could we bear it? But, if we are living in the high tower of the dwelling place of God, all these supposes will drop out of our lives. We shall be quiet from the fear of evil, for no threatenings of evil can penetrate into the high tower of God. Even when walking through the valley of the shadow of death, the psalmist could say, I will fear no evil; and, if we are dwelling in God, we can say so too."
As Corrie Ten Boom-- whose stint in a German concentration camp must have given her ample reason for fear--put it "Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength."
And Helmut Thielicke, as a minister in the Confessing Church that opposed the Nazi regime, had his own reasons for worry during that time period. But he writes in Life Can Begin Again that the gospel "teaches us everything we do not need to worry about! We need not worry about whether we shall be saved. . .We need not worry about knowing what is coming, about whether some way out of this utterly hopeless looking political situation of ours will be found. None of this is our concern. . .From now until the end of days this Jesus Christ wills to slumber and be with us in our little ship as the waves run high. It is simply not our concern whether we survive the waves and reach the Last Day."
Even though we do fear at times that God must be napping, as long as our souls are saved, why should we worry too much about whether our physical lives will be too? We will be with Christ, no matter what happens.
In a movie we just watched, called Saving God, an inner city minister merely smiles when a drug dealer points a gun at his head. Although that minister has spent most of the movie worrying about his church and other people, his own safety doesn't concern him overmuch. His bad temper causes him not to have much faith in himself, but he does have faith in God. And God has promised that we believers will go to be with Him when we die.
"It has been well said," George MacDonald writes, "that no man ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow's burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear. Never load yourselves so, my friends. If you find yourselves so loaded, at least remember this: it is your own doing, not God's. He begs you to leave the future to Him, and mind the present."
As Helen Mellincost puts it, "I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly God was speaking: 'My name is I am.' I waited and God continued: 'When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I was. When you live in the future, with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I will be. When you live in this moment, it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.'"
A high percentage of our worries for the future are centered, one way or another, on money. Most of us believe we don't have enough of it!
But keep in mind that, if we did, we would put our trust in it. Recently, when my new dentist presented me with a long list of things that needed done to my teeth, I could only say "Help!" to God. As a self-employed person with no health insurance, there was no way I could afford it all. But I am trying to practice trust by doing what I can at this time and not harping on the rest.
"Earthly goods," Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, "deceive the human heart into believing that they give it security and freedom from worry. But in truth, they are what cause anxiety. . . Worry is always directed toward tomorrow. But the goods are intended only for today in the strictest sense. It is our securing things for tomorrow which makes us so insecure today. . . Only those who put tomorrow completely into God’s hand and receive fully today what they need for their lives are really secure."
Or, as Helmut Thielicke put it in Between God and Satan, " worry is nothing else but the worship of. . .means – the worship of bread, or the earthly lord of bread, who can put us on short rations.” And we are commanded to worship only God!
Of course, many of the scrapes we get ourselves into are our own fault. My penchant for chocolate probably contributed to those dental problems. Not to mention that a sensible person would probably say "What sort of idiot tries to hatch eggs in a Styrofoam cooler anyway?" But only asking for help when we deserve it is a form of pride--sort of like only asking for forgiveness when we deserve it!
I hate to admit it, but I had to haul out that cooler again this summer, when a turkey hen abandoned her nest, and I couldn't get the "genuine" incubator that someone loaned me to work. My conscience wouldn't allow me to abandon the eggs, so I just put the whole thing in God's hands and didn't fret overmuch. And, despite the fact that the cooler's Styrofoam lid had gotten cracked in the meantime, all of the eggs hatched this year. Leaving me to worry about what I was going to do with all those turkeys. (Hey, it's a hard habit to break!)
Those turkeys who have a real mother rather than a light bulb run to her whenever trouble threatens. It's not something they have to think about. They just do it by instinct. Perhaps, if we practice, we will learn to run to God as automatically. And, as H. E. Manning recommends "lie quiet under His hand (or wings), having no will but His."
Padre Pio, reportedly one of the most holy men who ever lived, put it quite simply when he said "Pray, hope, and don't worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer."
Note: Shortly after I finished this article, a tomcat broke into the pen where we were keeping the baby turkeys and killed all of them. (Except a couple that I had earlier given to my nieces.) A small tragedy compared to some that have recently happened to other people. As those bright-eyed birds had been helping me get through some other discouragments, however, I was tempted to return to my old habit of "expecting the worst."
But then I realized that I was seeing this as some kind of cruel test, and had to remind myself that God didn't cause the birds' deaths. The vagaries of corrupted nature did that. And he certainly didn't cause a man in Norway to pick up a gun and kill a large number of innocent children. Evil did that. Since God can--and sometimes does--prevent such occurences, we have a hard time understanding why He doesn't always intervene on our behalf.
As I've covered this topic in a previous article--What Was God Thinking?--I won't go into that again. Except to say that I realize lying quietly under God's hand isn't always easy. But it's the only way we learn to trust Him.