“In a sense, God cannot be remembered. He can only be discovered. God’s presence is something that does not belong to the past or to the future but only to the present.”
Most of us know plenty about the suffocating inner spiral of worry. We worry about what has happened; we worry about what will happen; we worry about what might happen. Worry removes us from where we are and puts us somewhere else; the inactivity we’re convinced will bring results, but that only ever ushers in turmoil.
Jesus doesn’t address a good many of our pressing concerns. But one topic Jesus does specifically speak about is ordinary, everyday worry. Perhaps because worry has to do with facing the loss of control. Perhaps it’s because worry seems to take us in the opposite direction of trust. Perhaps it’s because worry is rooted in fear and is universal, and because the resounding message in the whole of scripture is “don’t be afraid.” For whatever reason, Jesus speaks explicitly about worry (Matthew 5), and his antidote to worry is usually underwhelming at first glance: as best you can, just don’t participate in the business of worry. Easier said than done, we probably think. But Jesus opens a door out of worry with such confidence that we’re almost left wondering why we wouldn’t promptly walk through it, out from inner anguish and into fresh air.
In his discussion of worry Jesus speaks about three ideas in stark imagery.
If we’re prone to worry we’re told first that we must learn to observe. “Look at the birds”, says Jesus. For the person tangled up and turned inward Jesus says to first look beyond themselves and to notice the world around them; to remember the orientation of the universe and their place within. It’s almost as if he says, “take a walk; get some air; remember there’s more going on around you which might just help you discover a better state of mind.” So the first way out of worry is to become increasingly aware of what is beyond us. To stop the spiral inward, Jesus first invites us to look outward. If our eyes are anxiously, tightly shut, we’re told first to open them in order to gain some perspective. This doesn’t cure worry in itself, but it’s a start.
The second idea is closely related to the first. When we take a moment to look beyond ourselves and to gain perspective, Jesus knows this draws us into reality, away from unreality. He points to natural phenomena and asks us to notice God’s activity. “Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your Heavenly Father feeds them…Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.” Since worry can easily morph into delusion, Jesus directs us away from a sometimes illusory inner world and toward concrete reality – in this case the concrete reality of the created order. This is not to say that reality never plays a role in worry, since we worry about very real things, but as worry has so much to do with what we don’t know and can’t control we must concede that reality can tend to evade us when we worry. What we say “reality” we are also referring to what is most often connected to the present. When we worry we live in what might have been or could one day be, neither of which we actually inhabit or have control over. Instead, Jesus says to live in our present reality. He asks us what (other than our inner remembrances or premonitions; what we don’t know or can’t control) might give us a clue as to how the universe operates and what to expect from God. He invites us to meet God in the only place we can truly inhabit – the present.
Finally, Jesus asks us to be mindful of God’s character. “…Your Heavenly Father feeds the birds. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?…And if God case so wonderfully for the wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you?” These are some of the most vivid and tender words found in the Gospels. Observe what is real and present, and consider what is unseen and active behind it all, says Jesus. The natural world order points to the character of the one Jesus calls our “heavenly Father” and an assurance that we are incredibly precious to God. Worrying, or working for that matter, won’t change the constancy of God’s care for us, assures Jesus. So observation leads to reality, which leads us to the most “real” thing in the cosmos – the loving character of the one who “gives life and breath to everything…” in whom “we live and move and exist.” (Acts 17). It’s important to note that we’re not told our feelings aren’t valid or real, and Jesus isn’t asking us to suppress emotion or to become robotic. He simply invites us to be attentive to the preeminent reality found in the true character of God. God, whom for Jesus, values human beings with the same kind of intricate, eternal mindfulness that ensures birds are fed and flowers are beautifully adorned – only more so.
What we’re left with is a choice to either trust God or not. We can argue about conditions or imagine we’re experiencing something unique from any other human in history, but Jesus says it comes down to the trust of God’s character in the blackest of nights. And that trust draws us into the present with God, not the past, not the future, where worry tends to live. Living in the present is what Jesus closes with: “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” We can almost feel a comforting arm around the shoulder in these words, as if Jesus is stood there with us in the doorway, taking in the birds in the tree, the flowers in the field, urging us to walk out amongst them with him.
I recently heard the story of a man who had lost his child to cancer, and then faced the same fate with his wife. Upon her diagnosis he recalled laying on the floor and saying to God, “I’m not sure I can trust you.” That was the moment he called his crisis of faith. But then he remembered the story in John’s Gospel when Jesus’ friends were faced with the option to trust or abandon him. When Jesus asked if they were going to leave him like the crowds had, they replied, “Lord, where can we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6). Unsure of the future, worried for his wife and family, the man chose to trust God at that juncture. Where else could he go? Not backwards, not forwards, he only had now and he only had God. His wife died soon afterward. By my limited observation this man has lively, deep faith today. Is it possible that such life and depth has sprung from a consistent choice to trust rather than worry?
This, I think, is what Thomas Merton means about God not belonging to the past or future, but that our trust of God can only be found in the present. And that’s what Jesus draws us into, a trust of God in the here and now, because now is all we really have; a transcendent relinquishment of control and fear in the presence of someone who sustains the birds and flowers. Do the circumstances change? Perhaps not. Do emotions run amuck? Probably. But our confidence is restored for the moment through a determination to actively trust, rather than to stay in the illusory, counterproductive business of worry. We can breath a little again in the freedom faith. Not a conditional faith, not faith devoid of emotion, but the kind of faith that trusts God with eternal stakes.