Wired magazine published an interesting article this past summer on the effort, led by a biologist named Robert Sapolsky, to develop a vaccine against chronic stress. That might sound strange, but while stress doesn’t cause any diseases—we used to think it causes ulcers, but it’s turned out that’s not really true—it can have devastating effects on every major system in our bodies, making us far more vulnerable to disease, and making every disease we develop worse. As the article says,
The list of ailments connected to stress is staggeringly diverse and includes everything from the common cold and lower-back pain to Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, and heart attack. Stress hollows out our bones and atrophies our muscles. It triggers adult-onset diabetes and is a leading cause of male impotence. In fact, numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life. It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter. It’s that our levels of stress matter more . . . the effects of chronic stress directly counteract improvements in medical care and public health.
The article goes on to cite a public-health survey called the Whitehall study, which has been tracking tens of thousands of British civil servants for over 40 years; they’ve found that even after you control for all other known factors, people at the bottom of the hierarchy died twice as often between the ages of 40 and 64 as people at the top. Why? Primarily because those at the bottom have considerable stress from the demands of their jobs, but absolutely no control over those demands. They can’t choose what they’re going to do, they have no status to defend themselves from those above them—there’s nothing they can do but to endure, and it’s literally killing them.
In other words, Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “Which of you by being anxious can add even a single hour to his life?” Anxiety is corrosive, and erosive: it wears away our energy, our character, and ultimately our lives, and eats away our relationships, dissolving the bonds between us. Chronic stress makes us more susceptible to the effects of stress, making us more anxious and more likely to perceive things as threats; the more anxious we are, the more anxious we’re going to be, the more mistrustful we become, and the harder it is for us to relax and rest.
This is the story of our culture, because ours is an anxious time. Part of that, of course, is the down economy, but that’s not all, by any means. Part of it is the tenor of our politics, which are very much anxiety-driven; that’s not the fault of all those high-powered political consultants running around, but they’re still doing their best to make it worse. I remember being struck during the 2000 political campaign by polls showing that over a quarter of the electorate professed to be “terrified” at the prospect of Al Gore becoming president, with a similar percentage saying the same thing about George W. Bush; and then, just as that was all settling down, along came 9/11 to give us all something to be terrified about. It certainly wasn’t going to get any better from there.
In times like that, people tend to look for comfort in what we think we can control; which was probably one of the things driving the housing bubble. There were plenty of people around talking about the dream of home ownership, and real estate as the safest investment, tying in to the deep emotional association between home and security; to have that go bust for so many folks was like having their legs kicked out from under them, like being hit from behind. I would say that’s the sort of thing that sends anxiety through the roof, except the roof isn’t there anymore—that’s part of the problem.
The reality here is that this kind of thing inevitably happens when we’re trying to be the ones in control. That’s really the root of anxiety: we’re carrying the weight of our lives on our own shoulders—we’ve given ourselves the full responsibility for making our lives happen and making everything work. We put our trust in things because we think we understand them, we believe we can control them; we think we know what they’re worth, and we trust in our own understanding and our own abilities.
Ultimately, we see ourselves as our own providers; at the practical level, we make ourselves the little gods of our day-to-day lives. As long as circumstances are favorable, we can pull it off, and we feel pretty good about it; but when circumstances turn, as they always do, it all comes crashing down, and we become anxious—we worry—because our little gods have failed. That’s why the New Testament scholar Robert Mounce declared, “Worry is practical atheism and an affront to God,” and it’s why Jesus calls us to something better.
The opposite of worry is trust, and the opposite of anxiety is faith; it is to release our lives to God and leave them in his keeping. It’s the spirit captured in Psalm 46:10, which commands, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” Of course, this doesn’t mean to stop working and just laze around; the wisdom of Proverbs 6 has not been repealed. We are responsible to use the gifts God has given us to do our part in taking care of his people, and that includes being prudent to work to meet our own needs as much as we are able; this is part of the way he provides for us, through the abilities and opportunities he gives us. The point is not to stop working, the point is to stop putting our trust in our own work; it’s to do what God gives us to do and leave the rest up to him.
Now, you might say this is harder in difficult economic times like these, but I’m not really sure that’s true; it’s just a different challenge, that’s all. Right now, we’re most of us anxious about having enough—about being able to pay the bills, keep the house, put food on the table—and we’re driven by fear of going without and losing what we have. When the economy is better, that’s not so much of a question; but when there are more jobs to choose from, we have more opportunity to choose based on what will make us the most money rather than on what is most pleasing to God. Whatever the circumstances, the Devil’s going to try to use them to get us to put our trust in money instead of God.
If we let him, it’s a tragedy, because it makes us less than God wants us to be; and more than that, it’s foolish. As Jesus says, we have every reason to trust God—just look at the way he takes care of the rest of his creation. We try to find security through planning our careers, saving our money, and making investments—all wise things, certainly, but not what we make them out to be; the birds don’t do any of that, but they still have enough to eat. And look at the flowers—they don’t work at all, but they’re still more beautiful than any human being. Why? Because blessing comes from God, and only from God. Our own labors are necessary because God asks them of us, because he gives us work to do as a part of our own growth—he gives us the dignity of responsibility in our own lives, which we need—but their results aren’t truly in our hands; they are in God’s, and God’s alone, as the one who created all things and holds all things together.
This means that all our anxiety is ultimately for nothing, because putting our trust in anything other than God is doomed to fail; whether we rely on him or on the money we have in the bank, he will determine our success either way. All we can accomplish through our mistrustful worrying is to make ourselves sick, take time off our lives, and lose a lot of our enjoyment of them in the process; we can’t do anything to make them better than what God has planned for us, because it’s beyond our ability and the breadth of our understanding. God alone is able to guide us perfectly through the choices we make and the challenges we face, because he alone knows perfectly what we need and what is best for us, he is powerful enough to give us perfectly what we need and what is best for us, and he absolutely desires to do so; we can’t do that, and we’re the worst kind of fools to try, because all we ever manage to do by our own efforts is to get in the way.
What we hear Jesus saying here is what we hear God saying so many places in Scripture: “Just trust me.” Just lay down your anxiety, just lay down your striving, just lay down your frantic efforts to get things for yourself when I’m trying to give you something better. I know what you need, and I’m not going to fail you—I will take care of you, as I always have. Don’t worry about yourself—just put me first, make serving me your top priority, and I’ll provide for you, everything you need to do what I’ve called you to do and be whom I’ve called you to be. Don’t worry about the future—just do what I’ve given you to do right now, care for the people who are before you this moment, and let the future take care of itself, because I’m watching over it, too. Just let go, Jesus tells us, lay down the weight of your life, and let God be God; he’s better at it than we are. Give generously, live freely, and don’t worry about keeping yourself up—trust God to do that. He’s faithful, and he will never let you down. Never.