We're probably all familiar with the story of Howard Hughes. Hughes was a big-time businessman who dabbled in oil, entertainment, and the aviation industry. These pursuits made him billions of dollars. You would think that anyone with this type of money would be the picture of ease and tranquility—a person sitting by the pool, sipping drinks with little umbrellas sticking out of them. Not so with Howard Hughes! The last twenty-five or so years of his life, Howard Hughes was the poster child for worry and anxiety. Overwhelmed by an unsubstantiated fear that people were out to get him, he spent his last decades living in hotels, where he would rent out whole floors. Those closest to him say he was so overwhelmed by worry and fear that he sat in a pitch-black room in pitch and for long stretches of time, refused to allow anyone to come in to see him. If you had to communicate with Mr. Hughes, specific instructions were provided. You had to take several tissues, cover the door knob with them, knock, and open the door ever-so-slightly. Hughes required this process because he was exceptionally fearful of germs. His worry led to severe stomach problems, causing him to sit in the bathroom for hours at a time. In fact, one aide notes that Hughes once sat in the bathroom for 27 straight hours. On the rare occasion that Hughes would venture out of the hotel, he gave specific instructions to his driver: only smooth roads were to be taken, and the driver was never to exceed 35 miles per hour. On the chance that they had to cross railroad tracks or some uneven part of the road, the driver was to slow down to 2 miles per hour. Howard was that nervous about getting in a wreck!
For a man who seemingly had it all, worry and anxiety dominated his life! The overwhelming paradox of Hughes was that the more successful he got—the more money he accrued—the more worry and anxiety festered in his soul.
The paradox of things and worry
The paradox Hughes faced is the same paradox we face: things do not eliminate worry and anxiety; they heighten worry and anxiety. The biggest lies we can think begin with If I could just get married, If I just had a car, if I could just send my kids to that school. There is no lasting happiness in earthly treasures. Happiness only comes in Jesus.
Notice the context of our passage for this morning. Jesus tells us not to worry right on the heels of telling us not to seek earthly treasure. Why does he follow up a lesson on materialism with a lesson on not worrying? Because Jesus understood the more one has, the more there is a tendency to worry. Materialism breeds worry.
When reflecting on his life before all the money and fame rolled in, automobile tycoon Henry Ford concluded, "I was happier when doing a mechanic's job." Multimillionaire W. H. Vanderbilt once said, "The care of 200 million is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it." Multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie once observed that "millionaire's seldom smile." Solomon, a man whom some regard to be the richest in human history, had this to say in Ecclesiastes 2:8-11:
I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Don't you see? Things—earthly treasures, people, relationships—do not eliminate worry. They only serve to heighten it. Herein lies the great paradox of Americans. We're regarded as one of the richest nations in the world, yet issues like worry and anxiety and depression are on the rise among us. Consider these statistics:
Stress and anxiety will significantly affect over 19 million Americans this year.
Thirty-three percent of Americans will suffer job burnout in their lifetime.
Seventy percent of Americans will find themselves unhappy with their job because of stress at some point in their life.
Seventy-three percent of Americans worry specifically over money.
Sometimes I long for the much simpler days of my life. When my wife, Korie, and I first got married, we lived in a little house in Sierra Madre, California, that was probably 1,000 square feet. Our bedroom was so small that my dresser couldn't fit in it, so we had to put it in another room. When Korie rolled out of bed, she had to be careful not to fall into the closet. We didn't have much, but when I think back on those days, there were no real worries. We were care-free. Fast forward ten or so years later, and the house is a little bigger, we've got three kids, we have a full calendar of speaking, and I find myself worrying a lot more!
Let me share some things that I find myself worrying about these days. Some of them might sound silly to you.
I worry about my kids' grades. I'm big on education. You know how some parents are obnoxious at their kids' games? I'm that way over my kids' math tests!
I worry about funding my kids' college education.
I worry about my sermon every day of every week. The reality that there will be somewhere around 1,400 people who will come to hear God speak through me—people who are desperate to hear the Word—carries with it a lot of pressure. I have a deep, abiding fear that I will fail.
I worry every time I go speak somewhere else. The nature of guest speaking is that if you want to get invited back, hitting a single, double, or a triple isn't enough. You've got to hit a homerun!
I worry about getting on planes when I go to guest speak somewhere. About a year and a half ago, the engine went out on the plane I was on. I haven't been right ever since.
I worry about all the stuff that has to get done for the PhD program I'm in.
I worry about my weight.
I worry that one day I will burn out and lose the love I have for what I do.
What do you worry about? What divides your attention from heavenly things to earthly things?
The problem with worry
Because Jesus understands that worry is a universal human struggle, he is emphatic when he tells us not to worry. In the original Greek, his statement against worry is couched as an imperative or a command—and three times he offers this command! But why is Jesus so passionate about getting us not to worry? Our text points out three reasons.
First of all, we are told not to worry because worry can lead to selfish decisions in life. In verses 25-26, Jesus specifically says you shouldn't be anxious about your life. He is hinting at one of the major problems with worry: at the end of the day, my worries, my anxieties, are all about me—my world, my desires, my longings. Worry is me-centered. The worry that Jesus speaks of in our text knows nothing of self-sacrifice, nothing of laying down one's rights for the good of others, nothing of humility.
A few years ago, The Atlantic ran a divorce announcement by a working mother who was obviously overwhelmed by worry:
Given my staggering working mother's to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project—that of rekindling our romance …. And along the way, I've begun to wonder, what with all the abject and swallowed misery: Why do we still insist on marriage?
Do you see it? This woman's worry led her to make a selfish decision. In essence, she is saying: I can't take it anymore, so I'm bailing on this relationship. What this woman illustrates is the sad reality that worry is the fruit of a narcissistic, me-centered life.
This kind of me-centered living is evident in our lives in a variety of ways. Some of you think there is a certain kind of lifestyle you have to have. You're thinking, I need to be able to vacation the way that I want, live in a nicer neighborhood, have my kids attend the top school, enjoy country-club-like amenities in life. You've bought into the American idea of happiness—that it is found in earthly treasure.
Others here today think their worry is legit. You're thinking, Hey, I'm not trying to get the country club membership. I'm worried about what I'm going to eat or how I'm going to pay the rent. But you're not praying about it. You're not seeking God. You're staying up late at night, trying to figure out how you can make things work. You worry because of your refusal to trust God—because of your commitment to find the answers your own way, through your own network, through your own means. That just as me-centered as the others situations I've talked about.
But there's a second, greater problem with worry that Jesus alludes to in verse 27: worry is useless. Jesus brings this point home when he says that worry doesn't add a single hour to a person's life.
Listen to these statistics on worry:
Forty percent of what we worry about never comes to pass.
Thirty percent of what we worry about happened in the past and can't be changed.
Ten percent of what we worry about relates to health. (What's both funny and sad is that researchers have proven that worry actually makes your health worse not better!)
Eight percent of worry is legitimate, but even then, your worrying about it won't change it!
Your worry will not make the loan go through. Your worry will not make you pregnant or "unpregnant." Your worry will not get rid of the cancer. Your worry will not pay the bills. Jesus is telling you in this passage that your worry is useless.
There's a final problem with worry that Jesus points out in our text. Not only is worry me-centered and useless, it's worldly. Worry is symptomatic of how unbelievers act. Look at verse 32: "For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them." Jesus is saying that the lives of those who couldn't care less about him are dominated by earthly treasure and therefore worry. When you and I worry about our jobs, our health, our money, our mortgage loans, our kids' schools, our cars, and our clothes, we're acting like the world. To be dominated by worry is essentially to show is that our ultimate hope is not in a loving, caring Father, but in the things of this world.
When word gets around the office that more layoffs are coming, and all of your unsaved co-workers are getting anxious and freaking out, Jesus says you must send a powerful message about the truth of who he is by calmly going about your work without any sign of worry in your soul. To the college students among us: When your tuition needs to be paid, and your friends in the frat house or in the dorm are getting a bit anxious, you must quietly and confidently wait on God in trust. To those who are single: When all your friends seem to be getting married and you aren't, the world expects you to worry—for your conversation to be dominated by talk of relationships and why you can't seem to find a good man or woman. Instead, shock them when you joyfully talk about Jesus, confidently communicating that your hope is not in a relationship but in Christ alone. One of the best ways we demonstrate the gospel to the world is when we don't worry, so make up your mind to glorify Christ today by making a decision not to worry.
But how can we overcome worry in our lives? In verses 26-30, Jesus employs a particular kind of argument called a fortiori—an argument that moved from lesser to greater. Jesus begins with the lesser when he says that our heavenly Father takes care of birds and grass. Then he moves to the greater when he says our heavenly Father takes care of us. His point is clear: do not worry because if God takes care of lesser creatures like birds or smaller parts of creation like flower, how much more is he going to take care of the ones made in his image.
Notice how Jesus refers to God throughout the text—as our heavenly Father. The image casts us as God's children. Children aren't prone to worry, because they assume their parents will take care of them. No child thinks, How is the mortgage going to get paid today? They give no thought to whether or not they are going to eat or how their athletic fees are going to be paid. Jesus says: Your heavenly Father knows your needs. Do you think the layoff at work was a surprise? He knows your needs. Do you think the health scare caught him off guard? He knows your needs. Trust him!
But how do I trust him? In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay offers a helpful word:
Those who feed their hearts on the record of what God has done in the past will never worry about the future. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of life. We are still alive and our heads are still above water; and yet if someone had told us that we would have to go through what we have actually gone through, we would have said that it was impossible. The lesson of life is that somehow we have been enabled to bear the unbearable and to do the undoable and to pass the breaking point and not to break. The lesson of life is that worry is unnecessary.
My parents got married young—Dad was 21, and Mom was 20. Dad was finishing up school, while Mom was working to put him through it. Money was tight. My parents can remember a time when they realized they had just 50 cents to live off of for 2 weeks. They fell on their knees and trusted completely in their heavenly Father to care for them. In tears they begged him to provide. The next day my dad went to the mailbox and there was an envelope from a church where he had preached the previous summer. Inside was a check for several hundred dollars. Their heavenly Father had taken care of them because he knew what they needed.
Some years later, when I was a child, we would often find ourselves in need. My parents were involved in a ministry where they had to raise their support. When things were especially tight, we would gather at our dinner table and dad would lead us through a time of prayer, begging God to provide. I never saw worry on his face, even when the need was great. The reason for this was because he had seen God move in the past, and he had absolute confidence that God would move in the present. He never forgot his Father's care and provision.
How do you not worry? How do you trust God to see you through the hard times? Think of a time in your past when you didn't think you were going to make it, and God showed up. Use that story to see you through your present. Think of the time when you didn't know how things were going to get paid, yet God stepped in and paid it. Think of the time when you didn't think you'd live to see another day, yet God touched your body and you're alive today. Think of the time when the stress was so great that you'd thought you'd lose your mind or your marriage, yet God stepped in and you're here today. Worry can create spiritual amnesia, causing you to forget the God who saw you through. But you must remember the stories of his faithfulness and reflect upon the testimony he's established in your past to see you through your present.
To see an outline of Loritts's sermon, click here.
Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, California and the editor of Letters to a Birmingham Jail (Moody Publishers, April 2014)