The Idolatry of Worry
By John Greco
June 1, 2011
I have a recurring dream that I’ve been told is pretty common. Maybe you can relate. In the dream, I’m still in college and it’s springtime. I’m enjoying the smells, sights and sounds of the world coming back to life after a long winter. Everywhere I look, I’m surrounded by beautiful, warm light, and the ground around me is a vibrant green. I can feel the sun on my skin and I can smell fresh-cut grass and flowers blooming. All is calm and peaceful. I imagine that if you saw me sleeping during this part of the dream, I’d have a big smile on my face.
As the dream continues, though, things change. I reach into my backpack for something and find my schedule from the beginning of the semester, crumpled beneath my books. When I open it, the serenity I’d been feeling is lost and I break into a cold sweat. I can no longer smell the flowers and I am no longer aware of my surroundings. All I can see is a tattered class schedule. There in black and white is a course I’d forgotten I’d signed up for in January. I’ve missed every class and every assignment to date. Now it’s the end of the school year and it’s too late to drop the class. I’ve got an F average and the final exam is approaching. I don’t even own the textbooks I should have been reading for the past few months. I start thinking about ways I can fix this problem.
Maybe the professor will understand. Maybe the registrar made a mistake. How much is that final exam worth? Maybe I can get a passing grade for the class if I ace it. But it’s no use. I’m going to fail. At this point, I usually wake up. It sometimes takes me a few seconds to realize I’m no longer in college. When I do, of course, I’m relieved. It was only a dream. Still, the anxiety I felt was very real.I don’t know anyone who enjoys being anxious. Sure, there are people who seem to worry more than others, but I doubt the experience is particularly enjoyable. In fact, we talk about worry as a problem to be fixed. “I’m so worried about … [fill in the blank],” we tell people, hoping they can alleviate our trouble somehow. That’s why I find it odd that Jesus commanded His disciples not to worry: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, ESV). I think everyone would love not to worry, but it’s not that simple. It’s more like a reflex than a choice. At least it sure seems that way most of the time. When we read these words from Jesus, our natural inclination is to say: “Sure, Jesus. I won’t worry. I really don’t want to, anyway. I’d love to never feel anxiety again. Just give me everything I need (and/or want) up front so I know it’s there, and then I won’t be worried.”
But that’s exactly the kind of reasoning Jesus is addressing. Earlier in this passage, Jesus has been talking about money. He says there are two ways of life: One way stores up treasure on earth, and the other, in heaven. He says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (6:24). These are familiar words, and I think most people would agree it’s wrong to devote your life to the pursuit of money and possessions. But what does this have to do with worrying? In the parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by a man who wants Him to settle a family dispute. The man wants his share of an inheritance that his brother received. In response to his request, Jesus tells a parable about a wealthy farmer who was blessed with an abundant crop. To accommodate all the extra grain he’d harvested, he tears down his existing barns and builds new ones. By doing this, he believes he will no longer need to worry: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19). Maybe we’re not hoping for an abundant grain harvest, but we’d all like to be in a place where we can relax and take things easy for a while.
The problem with this type of thinking is it’s idolatrous. Anytime we place our hope or find our joy in anything other than God, we’re worshiping an idol. Sure, our idols may not be made of wood or silver or gold, but they’re just as real. We worry about having enough, so we serve the god of financial security. We are anxious about terrorism, so we put our trust in the god of a strong national defense. We are afraid of what people will think of us, so we spend hours at the gym and hours in front of the mirror trying to conceal our imperfections, bowing down to the god of appearance. We want success, so we build an idol out of getting good grades (and triple-check our course schedules to make sure we haven’t missed anything). Living this way reveals what we believe about this life. If we truly believed God is sovereign—that nothing happens outside of His will—we could rest in that knowledge. Even when bad things happen to us or we feel like the world is spinning out of control, we could trust that God is able to use everything for His glory and our good. It’s when we doubt God that worries creep in and we are tempted to chase after another source of help. But God alone is our only source of true rest. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. He tells us, “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27). When we look to Him—if we really trust Him—how can we be worried about anything? Besides, those other things we put our hope in offer no real security. Remember the rich man who built those really big barns? Yeah, he died that night. So, instead of eating, drinking and being merry, he found himself standing face-to-face with God. His “security” was a mirage, and instead of storing up treasure for himself in heaven, he squandered his energy on gaining earthly riches that would belong to someone else in the end.
Worrying reveals where our heart truly lies. When we are anxious, our trust is not fully set on God; there’s something else vying for our worship. Worry, then, is a warning system built into human beings, telling us something’s off. We were designed to depend on God alone, and when we start depending on someone or something else, we feel the insecurity that such idolatry necessarily brings. We lie to ourselves when we believe just a little more money or just a little more success or just a few more friends will bring us to a place where we’ll be able to rest comfortably. Jesus tells us not to worry because He knows the only way we can truly stop is by trusting wholly in God for everything we need. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take practical steps to provide for ourselves. Jesus was not suggesting we rid ourselves of all responsibility in order to become free-spirited hippies. Rather, He wants our hearts be fully devoted to Him in everything we do.
In the Psalms, we read that in God’s presence “there is fullness of joy,” and at His right hand “there are pleasures forevermore” (16:11). Our God is good and faithful. The problem is not with Him, but with our own deceitful hearts. As John Calvin once wrote, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” We must be on guard, then, not to give in to the temptation of idolatry. Instead, we must ask God for the grace to daily surrender ourselves to Him, for we were created to proclaim His glory with our lives. Joyful trust, instead of idolatrous worry, is one way we can do just that.