It’s truly providential that we hear on this Sunday before Lent the Lord’s Word about His providential care for us, about His desire that we would be free of worry in our lives. A mother may forget or abandon the child of her womb, but, He says, “I will never abandon or forget you.” As author of our lives and of the beautiful world of nature in which we live, Jesus uses the lilies of the field and the birds of the air to demonstrate the providence of his Father for us. He provides the firm earth under our feet. He provides the air that we breathe. So how could He not provide for our food, our drink and our clothes?
Jesus introduces his words about the providence of the Father by saying that it is impossible for someone to serve two masters. Jesus then ends his words about the Father’s providence by admonishing us to choose Him as our only Master. What is a master? He is the one we serve, the one on whom we depend, the one to whom we direct our loyalty, the one whose word and wishes we heed above all others. There can be no room for two. If we set our hearts on consumerist goods, it is they who will consume our hearts. But if we set our hearts on God, the rest will be given us to the degree we truly need it.
In other words, God comes first. The primacy of God! Indeed, God must come first because our hearts were made by God and will not rest until they rest in Him. If God is not given first place, our hearts will by necessity be anxious and worrisome because they will seek either in material things, or in human beings, or in ideologies and philosophies what none of these can possibly deliver, the final fulfilment of our hearts. Our heart is not stupid. It knows its only true destiny; it instinctively yearns for God. If we do not let our hearts gravitate towards God, their great magnet, they will be pulled and tugged all over the place. The word worry comes from an old Germanic word meaning “to strangle.” In Middle English, it meant “to seize by the throat and tear.” In the 1500’s it meant to “harass by rough or severe treatment” and was used of dogs or wolves attacking sheep!
When we are truly worried about something, whether justified or not, we have all experienced something of this sense of being strangled and even torn apart by our worry. Worry savages the heart. Jesus is speaking in the Gospel about the kind of worry which ends up stealing our hearts altogether from God and from ourselves. It’s the kind of preoccupation which leads us to treat something or someone else as God. If we fall for such idolatry, we will despise God, we will hate Him. It’s inevitable.
Yet few would openly say they were idolaters. Generally, we want to be known as people who choose God or the good first. But idolatry creeps up on us. When we doubt the Lord’s care, idolatry is quick to try and gain ground by tempting us to substitute easier options for God, even in little things. We gradually find ourselves more and more indifferent towards God until it leads to outright rejection. As I said, it is inevitable.
There are of course things that we worry about which having nothing to do with idolatry. We don’t just worry about food, drink and clothes. We worry about our loved ones, their health, their state of mind, their future; we worry about ourselves, our society and even the Church. I suppose you might even say that God Himself worries about us, although it might be better to say that His love drives Him to such concern for us that He does everything He can do to draw our hearts to Himself. There is, then, a Christian form of worrying, but not in the sense of being strangled or ravaged by fear. Out of true love for the true good of others we, too, should do what God has done: put ourselves into action to show that love. But even in this we need to be careful. Our action must respect the freedom of others, as God respects our freedom. We can’t impose solutions on people as if we knew better or as if we controlled their lives. I’m not talking here about the legitimate authority which parents have over their children, or indeed a priest over a penitent, though even these loving forms of direction must respect their charge’s dignity. I refer rather to the tendency some have to take it on themselves to tell others what their problems are and how to solve them. I’m guessing we’ve all met such people! To do that is vain, disrespectful and presumptuous; it’s more about ourselves than about others.
The other thing to be careful of is that even Christian worry can become sterile and thus unchristian. That happens when we simply sit and mope and whine about anything and everything, making no attempt to put love into action; or else when we get all offended and self-righteous if the person we are worried about rejects our help. True Christian worry must begin from God, by bringing the person to God in prayer, by asking God first of all to act. That’s not difficult. “Lord, I bring this person/situation to you. Please help. If you want me to help in your name, help me to see that you do and give me the courage to act.” God may choose to act, of course, differently from the way we see it, or may choose not to act through us. Whatever it may be, once we have prayed and done all we can, it’s time to let go and leave matters to the providence of God. Otherwise we will be gripped in the stranglehold of sterile anxiety and become wrapped up and lost in ourselves.
God has created us to be free, not to be gripped by fear or worry. But our freedom only finds fulfilment if we set our hearts on His Kingdom and his righteousness. Only from within His perspective can we see things aright and know what is important and what is not. Worry which is obsessed with material things or purely earthly goals eats out the heart. Worry which revolves around legitimate concerns but which ends up being nothing more than a storm in our heads and hearts, leading to no action, also deadens the heart and makes it sterile. But worry which is born of God’s love and leads to prayer and to action in obedience to God is an exercise of Christian charity and brings God’s Kingdom closer.
Lent can be a time to sort out your worries. Label them: this one is bad, because it just keeps swirling round in my head and leads nowhere. Call it a dead-end worry and send it to the trash can. This other one is right and good, because it leads me to pray for this person or situation and to be ready to act in love. Call it a life-giving worry. In computer terms, keep it as a desk-top icon. This further one is definitely no good: it’s really only about me, concern for what people think of me, or maybe it’s just concern for my selfish pleasure, position or power. Call it a loser worry. It must be erased completely.
And whatever your worries may be, and whatever the struggles you have to trash and erase the ones that have simply no right to be taking up space in your heart and mind, remember that you are always in the hands of God. The last word is His. And that word is the Risen Christ. Think of Him as the firm earth beneath your feet, without which you would not even be able to worry. Think of Him as the safety net, sturdy but soft, who always catches you if you fall back into useless worries. Think of Him as the marrow in your bones that gives them strength and suppleness and makes it possible for you even to stand up and know yourself to be a human being.
Let this Lent be a time, not to get all tense and worked up, not to play games about how much money or weight you save on chocolate or alcohol, but a time to rediscover the great calm that descends when you realise the Father holds you securely by the hand. No-one can take you from His hand. An anxious Lent is not a Christian Lent. A true Lent is a time to withdraw quietly and simply to that still point at the bottom of the well of your heart where his arms are ready embrace you and his face to smile upon you. It’s a time to turn down the volume, to tell the worries to go strangle themselves, to withdraw from the white noise of life. The freedom from worry, the deep peace we need is not “out there”, but “in here.” Lent is the time to rendezvous with God’s acceptance of you as His beloved child, and that rendezvous is smack in the middle of your own heart. So, I say with all sincerity, have a happy and peaceful Lent!