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Is Worry Sinful?

I preached this sermon on August 26, 2012 at Trinity UMC in Hackettstown, NJ.

When I was a boy, my mother had the Serenity Prayer at the edge of one of our mirrors. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr and goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Courage to change the things I can.

And wisdom to know the difference.

I never really discussed with her what this prayer meant to my mother, but I can guess. My mother throughout most of her life was anything but serene. My mother was a worrier. Indeed, her anxiety was so great that twice in her life it became disabling. Yet my mother was also a person of strong faith. It has often been said that worry is a lack of faith, but that is hard to reconcile when I look at my mother’s life.

Anxiety runs in my family. My reaction to my mother’s worrying was to commit myself to not worrying about the things of life. I did not consciously focus on the Serenity Prayer, but that really was my goal. And I was pretty successful at it. In fact, it probably could be said that I was caught in the sin of pride about my ability not to worry! But then I had children. I doubt that any parent who has ever had a teenager that was supposed to be home by 11pm and is still not there by 1am, has been able to avoid worry.

My Waterloo of worry, however, was just a little over a year ago. My daughter, who is now a Lieutenant in the Navy, is also a Naval Flight Officer and was deployed to Djibouti. The area is considered part of the combat zone of the Middle East and she was flying support missions for forces fighting in the Horn of Africa. The type of plane in which she was serving as a navigator at the time is a patrol aircraft and not usually thought of as a combat plane, at least I didn’t. But in a conversation we had with her about a month or so before she was to come home, she just mentioned in passing that she could be exposed to enemy fire…not that she was, but just that she could be. My mind, however, seized on that comment and would not let it go. I became focused on the possibility that someone might intentionally hurt my daughter and just kept going over and over the thought. I could not do anything about it. I could not control it. I developed stomach problems and was miserable. It passed only when I went to Florida to welcome her home from deployment. When I woke the next day, the worry was gone and my stomach had settled. I can only now confess that I had completely surrendered myself to worry.

So what does it mean to worry? A common dictionary definition is, “Give way to anxiety or unease; allow one’s mind to dwell upon difficulty or troubles.” In the sense that we commonly use the word, worry is an emotion. Just as sadness, grief, and anger are emotional responses to bad events that impact us and others, worry is an emotional response to an anticipated bad event. Worry also is very human. We humans are problem solvers. God created us with the ability to discern likely consequences from given circumstances. It enables us to perceive danger. It enables us to minimize risk and improve our lives in all manner of ways. The entire scientific method springs from our ability to hypothesize a future event from a stated set of conditions. God intends us to use our reason to solve problems for ourselves and others. Worry though is a short-circuit in the problem-solving process. Worry is trying to solve a problem that does not exist. Honestly, how often has something that you worried about actually happened?  Yet we identify a problem and the possible consequences, but never set about either solving the problem or moving on when we cannot solve it. Our minds just seem to be in an endless downward spiral of problem identification and fear of consequences, sometimes to the point of debilitation.

So have you ever been pulled down into that spiral of worry? And when you were did you recall today’s Gospel and feel guilty that you worried? Our Gospel lesson today is the primary discussion of worry from Jesus. He tells us not to worry. In researching the text for today I found a large sample of sermons and commentaries on the text that declare that worry is sinful. Many are very thoughtful, but most seem to look on the text from Matthew in a legalistic fashion. They consider the message of Jesus as a rule that when we worry we break the rule and sin when we do. I do not share that view. But as a good faith disclosure I have to tell you that my view may be a minority interpretation. If you want to explore a more expansive view of worry as sin, you need only do a Google search on the title of my sermon today and you will find far more than you will want to read about the sin of worry and the guilt that follows. Nevertheless, I want to explore a different path.

I start with the premise that all sin is rebellion from God. Instead of living as God intended in relationship with others and God, we engage in behavior that exalts ourselves above God and fellow humans. Instead of living as a citizen of the Kingdom, we live in the world of self. In so doing, we live in that world in rebellion from God. We live in sin.

The entirety of the life, teachings, and sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ was to show us the nature of God and what it means to live in the Kingdom. He showed us that we also carry our emotions into the Kingdom life. Jesus was angry. Jesus grieved. And Jesus faced anxiety. You need only look at his night in Gethsemane to see him facing deep anxiety. Jesus did not come to call us to suppress our emotions, nor did he give us more rules. In fact, just a few verses after today’s lesson, Jesus says that the entirety of the law can be summed up as the Golden Rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you. I see no room there for condemnation of worry, or any of our emotions, as sin.

In looking at the Gospel we have to start with the point that the use of the word “worry” is more prevalent in more modern translations of the text than older versions. The King James Version, for example, does not use the term, but rather encourages us to “take no thought” about life, food and drink, or clothing. I see that as an important distinction from the modern emotion, and sometimes mental illness, that we characterize as anxiety. Thought and thinking is the opposite of emotion. Taking thought is being intentional. Choosing a path to follow is intentional. So I consider the lesson from today’s text not to be how we should feel about life, food, and clothing, but rather a more important teaching about where our priorities should be.

Buried in the middle of this lesson is what I see as the key here. Jesus says in verses 32 and 33:

For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all of these things will be given to you as well.

If Jesus is speaking here of sin, it is not sin in worry, but rather the sin of putting ourselves and our concerns ahead of seeking life in God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we live life in the presence of Christ and interact with each other as God intends. Jesus is emphasizing that our focus, our energies, our thoughts should be on life in the Kingdom. He is encouraging us to be thoughtful and intentional about our life choices and make every choice we make a Kingdom-choice.   He is saying that even our basic choices of how and what to eat and wear must be subordinate to pursuit of the Kingdom. He does not say that making those choices is unimportant, for indeed he says they are part of life in the Kingdom. What he is saying is that all of our choices must reflect that our priority is life in Christ, even down to our food and clothes. Jesus is telling us to put no concern about our life ahead of life in the Kingdom, for once we find life in Christ all other concerns fall into proper focus.

Although I do not consider Christ as declaring worry as sinful, I do not want to leave us there. Worry and anxiety can be a spiritual problem. I do not believe the emotion of worry is sinful, but it certainly can lead us to sin. The Israelites in our Old Testament text for today are a perfect example of precisely how worry about food and daily necessities can lead to sin. I’ve observed on many occasions that God’s treatment of the Israelites is second only to salvation in Christ as demonstrative of God’s grace, mercy, and love. Really, these people are amazing. They had just been rescued from slavery in Egypt in a dramatic and divinely miraculous fashion, but they immediately fell into worry about where they were going to get their next meal and fell further into a rebellious spirit. As the story unfolded beyond today’s lesson, they were led into full rebellion against God and great sin. But their sin was not in the worry, but in allowing it to cause them to doubt God and try to take control of their lives and needs. In their worry, they became self-absorbed and put their wants and needs ahead of where and how God was leading them.

Sinfulness is not in our worry, but rather what we do with our worries. Worry can consume us if we allow it to overwhelm us and become fear and doubt, or it can be God’s way of reminding us to pay attention to things in our lives into which we need to invite his love and healing care. Carrying a burden is not sinful, but allowing the burden to carry you is. The fear that develops can crush your faith.

Jesus told us what to do when we are burdened. In John 14:27 he said:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

He promised us that we do not have to be troubled and afraid. We can find peace when we give our fears and troubles to him. That is precisely the message from Philippians today. When we are anxious, present those anxieties to Christ and find peace. Jesus also showed us the proper path in Gethsemane.  He turned to God in his time of greatest anxiety, and he turned to other disciples to share his burden with him. For we find peace not only directly through prayer, but also through confiding our cares in one another. For Christ calls us to bear each other’s burdens. Whatever worry you may carry, it becomes lighter when shared with another Christian. And lighter still when shared with Christ.

So the sin in worry is not worry in itself, but trying to bear the worry without Christ. Jesus loves us through our worries. I simply cannot imagine Christ sitting on a judgment throne and declaring that my mother sinned because of her anxiety. The image that I hold in my mind is Jesus with his arms wrapped about her, telling her how his heart ached with hers, and loving her because she never turned from him no matter how severe her anxiety became.

Worry, and guilt about worry, are sinful only if they separate you from Christ. And when you think you either do not need to share a burden because you can handle it, or cannot share it because of shame and guilt, then that worry is separating you from Christ. Jesus will love you through your worry to the other side. Only you can allow it to separate you from Christ. Jesus taught us to never lose sight of the Kingdom, to let nothing distract us from seeking life in Christ first, not even thoughts of our next meal or the clothes on our back. So often a burden shared is a burden lifted. Cast your cares before Jesus and your Christian brothers and sisters as a natural part of life in God’s Kingdom. The promise is not that you will then be without cares, but that your burdens will be shared and peace will reign. May the peace of Christ be ever present in your life and may worry never draw you from his arms.


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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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