Perhaps the finest golf coach America ever produced was the late Harvey Penick of Texas. He wrote the Little Red Book which is sort of the “golfer’s Bible.” Mr. Penick said that most golfers do not think on the golf course; they just worry. “Worrying is a misuse of your mind on the golf course,” said Mr. Penick. “Whatever your obstacle, worry will only make it more difficult. Worry causes your muscles to tense up, and it is impossible to make a good golf swing when your muscles are too tense.” “Rather than worrying,” he said, “be mindful of the shot at hand and go ahead and play it as if you are going to hit the best shot of your life. You really might do it.” 1
As I read Mr. Penick’s words, it occurred to me that this is great advice about life, not just about golf. Indeed, Mr. Penick’s words remind me of what Jesus said about worry.
Most of us worry too much. If some heavenly computer would tell us how many days we have lost or spoiled because of worry, we would be astounded. When I talk about worry, I’m not referring to healthy concern which leads to action. Worry is chronic fear that produces nothing positive. It is like driving your car with the emergency brake on.
Many of us worry about crime. Almost every day we read about robberies of banks or homes or convenience stores. There are some constructive things we can do about this threat, like joining Community Watch groups and installing burglar alarms. But just worrying about it is useless.
We live in an age of terrorism and we tend to worry about where and when the terrorists might strike next. But worry that leads to nothing constructive is useless.
Most of our worries are related more to our personal circumstances. Consider these true life examples and see if you resemble any of them:
A mother refuses to attend any of her son’s football games because she is worried about his possible injury. Her absence does not protect him one bit. And her worries steal from her some precious memories which she could always share with her son.
Consider a man who worries constantly about his wife’s possible unfaithfulness to him. Though she has never given him reason to doubt her, she is an attractive woman who in her work comes in contact with lots of men. Her husband’s constant worries, fueled by his own insecurities, destroy trust and interfere with his wife’s career. Finally, the marriage fails, a victim of worry.
Consider a lady who has been disgustingly healthy for over twenty years but hasn’t enjoyed a day of it. She reads medical journals constantly and imagines herself having every symptom. Finally, her many years of imagined illnesses lead to a real one.
Or consider my late uncle who farmed in South Carolina. Uncle Hubert was frugal and hard-working. In eight out of ten years he made a good profit. But to hear him tell it, he constantly teetered on the edge of disaster. If the crops were good, he feared low prices. If the weather was bad, he feared crop failure. The poor man enjoyed misery in farming for over forty years.
Jesus urged us not to worry. He saw three things about worry that make it destructive. Worry is irreverent, irrelevant, and irresponsible.
Worry is IRREVERENT because it presumes that God cannot be trusted, that He might not be sufficient for us. Yet Jesus pointed to the lilies of the field, how beautifully God adorns them, and asked, “Will God not much more clothe you, you of little faith?”
Worry is also IRRELEVANT because it does not help or improve anything. Jesus asked, “Can you by worry add a single hour to your life?” Of course, the answer is no.
Years ago, when our son was in high school, he worried that he would not be tall enough to promote his aspirations as a basketball player. Sometimes he was critical of us, his parents, for not having given him taller genes. Yet, for all his worry, his actual height was not affected whatsoever.
Worry is also IRRESPONSIBLE. It burns up psychic energy with only negative results. Worry is interest paid on trouble before it’s due. One renowned psychiatrist claimed that all of the following maladies are often related to worry: arthritis, asthma, ulcers, skin rash, and coronary thrombosis. There may be worse sins than worry but none is more disabling.
When Jesus said, “Don’t worry,” he did not mean that we should be unconcerned or lazy. Jesus used the birds as positive examples, and they certainly are busy workers. Nor was Jesus decrying reasonable provision for the future.
One of the differences between animals and humans is that we have a harder time discerning what a reasonable provision for the future looks like. Squirrels store up food for the winter but they don’t exhibit anxiety about whether or not they have enough. Yet we humans rob today of its joy by fretting about whether we have enough stuff for the future. All of us should save, have insurance, and make reasonable plans for our latter years. But if you ask a financial consultant to tell you how much is enough, it’s almost impossible to get an answer. We cannot make provision for every possible contingency of the future. And if we could, we might cease to live by faith. God will help us know what reasonable provision for the future looks like, and how to trust him for that which we cannot anticipate.
If worry does lots of harm and no good, let us be rid of it. But how? That’s the big challenge. Jesus gave us a two-part prescription for worry control. Here it is.
FIRST, MAKE GOD’S BUSINESS YOUR TOP PRIORITY.
In the scripture just prior to our text for the day, we find Jesus saying that no person can serve two masters. Either God or something else will be supreme.
Just imagine what it would look like if we were more concerned about the lost souls in Memphis than we are about how our favorite stocks are faring. Just imagine what it would look like if we were more concerned about the public schools of Memphis than we are about the size of our next promotion. If God is the acknowledged Lord of our lives, if his agenda is our top concern, then worry is reduced. Why? Because our focus is on God’s business more than on our own.
A new book about Memphis has come out that is quite disturbing. Editor Chris Peck of the Commercial Appeal wrote about it recently. It is entitled “The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County,” published by the Urban Child Institute. It tells us that Memphis leads the nation in infants who die before age 1. About 6 of every 10 children in Memphis now live in a single-parent household or with a relative, usually a grandmother. This year, about 4,000 single mothers younger than 19 will have a baby in Memphis. When we get busy trying to bring the grace of Christ to bear on these problems, our own personal worries tend to slide into the background. We are distracted in a positive way.
The second part of Jesus’ prescription is this:
FOCUS ON EACH 24-HOUR DAY.
You’ve heard this before but we forget it so often that it bears repeating. In
How can we live in day-tight compartments? Let me suggest these three simple steps. First, start the day with God. Set aside at least fifteen minutes early in the day. Start it off by repeating
Secondly, touch base with God periodically throughout the day. This could take the form of what I call “red-light prayers,” little prayers that you can whisper with eyes wide open, perhaps when you’re about to talk with a customer or just before boarding a plane or when you have a tough decision to make. This is what St. Paul meant when he advised us to “pray continually.” (
The third key to living in day-tight compartments is to end each day with God. Before you go to sleep, say, “Thanks, Lord, for walking through this day with me. Thanks for helping me at critical points. If I have wounded any soul today, if I have caused one foot to go astray, if I have walked in my own willful way, Dear Lord, forgive. Now, I ask for a restful night of sleep, and if you see fit to give me another day tomorrow, I will receive it gladly. I love you, Lord. Amen”
The late Bishop Ernest Fitzgerald used to tell about a man he knew years ago who lived in one of the isolated corners of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Life was hard, and every day his little hillside farm was at the mercy of drought, wind, or cold. Yet he was about the most serene and deeply contented man Bishop Fitzgerald had ever known. So he asked the old mountaineer one day if he had ever had any troubles and if he had ever spent sleepless nights. “Sure, I’ve had my troubles,” he said, “but no sleepless nights. When I go to bed I say, ‘Lord, you have to sit up all night anyway. There’s no point in both of us losing sleep. You look after things tonight and when tomorrow comes, I’ll do the best I can to help you.'” 2
Remember Jesus’ prescription for worry control: First, make God’s business your top priority. Secondly, focus on each 24-hour day.
Dear friends, nothing can happen tomorrow that you and God cannot handle together, so let’s have less worry and more trust!
William R. Bouknight is Senior Pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN.
1. Penick, Harvey, with Bud Shrake, The Wisdom of Harvey Penick, (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1997), p.298.
2. Fitzgerald, Ernest A., Keeping Pace, Inspirations in the Air, (Pace Communications: Greensboro, NC, 1988), p. 18.