Recently, I was reading the Bible and thinking about Bob Marley. In the parable of the four soils, Jesus describes worry as one of the things that thwarts our spiritual growth (the other thing he cites as a problem is pleasure, which is a post for another day). A few chapters later, he commands his disciples not to worry yet again. For a moment, Jesus seemed to be anticipating Bob Marley ("Don't worry about a thing"), Bobby McFerrin ("Don't Worry Be Happy"), Disney ("Hakuna Matata"—"it means no worries"), and Pharrell Williams ("Happy"). But even as the catchy tunes came to mind, I am struck again by the depth of Jesus' wisdom in contrast to our cultural gurus.
A simple Google search of "stress rates in America" pulls links to dozens of articles detailing workplace stress, teen stress, stress among obese people, stress among children, mothers, fathers, and on down the list. A 2010 report by the American Psychological Association found that the majority of Americans live with a moderate to high level of stress. These songs strike a chord because we want to be able to shrug away our worries. We want happiness. But pop culture doesn't give us any reason why we shouldn't worry or any ideas of how we might let go of our stress. In contrast, Jesus doesn't simply command us not to worry, but he also gives a reason why we need not worry, and he gives us a way to achieve that command. Luke 12:22-32 is a familiar passage, but it bears rereading:
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Jesus doesn't dismiss the reason for our worries. Without a loving God, it is entirely reasonable for people to worry. Jesus simply encourages us to trust that because God cares for us deeply, God will provide the material things we need. The reason we don't need to worry is because God loves us.
Don't worry; God loves you. It sounds great, and it's better than pop culture can offer, but it's worth remembering that God demonstrates his love for us in a very physical way—coming to us in the form of a baby boy, providing food and healing for those in need, taking our worries upon himself on the cross, and returning again to demonstrate the ultimate freedom from worry in the resurrection. Jesus bore these words out with action. But thankfully Jesus gives us more than a reason not to worry. He also gives us a way to let go of our worries. We replace worry not with apathy, not by a "problem free philosophy," not by being happy, not by force of will. We replace it with seeking the kingdom of God. We replace it by active engagement in God's good work in the world.
Jesus offers plenty of instruction elsewhere on how we might seek the kingdom. Certainly hearing his words and putting them into practice is one way. Practicing self-sacrifice is another. But in this passage lies one more command. Both "don't worry" and "seek the kingdom" come in the context of taking some time to consider the natural world around us. Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. Consider—take some time to notice, to think deeply about—the created order.
What would it look like to consider the lilies today? How about—Turn off the cell phone. Shut down the computer. Walk away from the television. And look at the way God has made that bird. Wonder at the intricacy of that flower. And then remember that you are of far greater worth in God's sight that even this, even this most beautiful creature you've ever seen.
Jesus commands us not to worry. He commands us to seek God's kingdom. And he does so in the context of a command I have often overlooked, the command to consider the lilies. I wrote this spring about the ways in which my spiritual life has been enhanced by birdwatching. And as I return to this passage, I wonder if taking the time to consider the birds and the flowers, the ravens and the lilies, if somehow taking that time, paying that attention, actually changes us into people who can let go of our worries and participate more and more fully in God's kingdom.
Update: I was asked via Facebook how I could say "Don't worry because God loves you" in light of all the suffering that exists in the world. It's a fair criticism of this post, so I wanted to offer my response to this question here:
It's way too trite an answer to the world's problems to say "Don't worry because God loves us." And I continue to really wrestle with the evil in the world, and, quite frankly, even more so with the things that happen that aren't evil and yet are equally tragic. It is an act of faith on my part to say that God does actively love us. It was a statement of faith on Jesus' part too, as he constantly worked to care for the wounded and broken and hungry and dying ones around him. But back to the lilies. What I was trying to say is that it is actually quite reasonable to worry. The world is a mess in so many ways. But for those of us with faith in Jesus, the call is to let go of the worries that can consume us and turn us in on ourselves and instead seek the kingdom, seek the shalom--the good for the whole community--that God has always promised. So yes, I'm saying, Don't worry because God loves you. But far more than that, I'm saying Stop spending all your time worrying and start participating in the work God is doing to heal this world. For whatever reason, God has entrusted that work to us. We mess it up a lot. But when we turn away from ourselves and our worries and turn toward others--especially when we do so with a sense of purpose and security from God's love--that freedom from worry is what enables us to serve.