“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Mt 6:27)
My parents spoke German at home when they did not want the children to know what was being discussed, which was often the children themselves. It is a method parents use, with varying success, depending upon how well they have passed on the mother tongue. I was not very old when I heard my parents describe me as nervös and ängstlich. I understood enough German to know that I was being described as “high-strung” and “anxious.” I can report that their description of me was accurate and has not necessarily become less accurate with the passing of time.
When Jesus instructs us, therefore, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” it is something that I struggle to hear. And when Jesus tells us to “look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” and to “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these,” I worry about how I am supposed to put these spiritual insights into action and live my life according to them.
These passages challenge me to let worry go and depend upon God’s care for me, yet there remains a nagging concern that Jesus seems to be speaking against prudence, foresight and planning on the grounds that it is completely futile. Is it really better to live a hand-to-mouth, day-to-day existence than store away money in a 401(k) retirement plan? Exactly and in what sense do wild birds and lilies show us how to live?
Obviously, birds and lilies do not teach us literally how to live human lives. The birds and flowers are not models to imitate, but they are an example to us. If God pours care on wild birds and flowers, how much more does God care for us! It is what we call an a fortiori argument: If God cares so much for birds and flowers, how much more does God care for you, a human being, created in the image of God?
It is this faith in God’s care that allows us to live free, or at least struggle to live free of anxiety, for we know that God’s love for us transcends any of the expected or unexpected difficulties that life might throw at us. Isaiah speaks of God as a mother who cannot “forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb” (49:15). Maternal love is often the most powerful love—unconditional, lavish and limitless—that one has ever experienced. But, the prophet says, even if you can imagine mothers forgetting their children, God says, “yet I will not forget you.” God is presented here as the mother who always and without fail cares for our welfare.
Because of this love, with which God sustains and comforts us, we are encouraged to cut our entanglements with and dependence upon material possessions, for reliance on material goods leads us to seek security in them and not in God, as Pope Francis has been pointing out since the beginning of his pontificate as a challenge to the church. Possessions can be lost, destroyed and stolen. They do not last forever. As Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” We need to decide who or what is our master.
That does not mean, however, that we should not act prudently and not plan for the future or that we do not need the things that sustain our earthly life. Jesus’ teachings are not about being indifferent to the practicalities of life, but about trusting God above all things. Jesus says we should “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” For those of us who struggle most with anxiety, we can start with the promise that we need “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” We can start trusting in God today and dealing with each problem one day at a time.