You will have to use every fiber of your imagination muscles to do this, but try anyway. Imagine someone who worries so much that it changes how he or she lives. She feels frazzled. He loses sleep. Her mind churns through anxious scenarios. He worries non-stop about what other people think of him. She can’t conceive of living without being constantly preoccupied with her resume. Whenever he does anything he imagines how it will add to his online profile. Anxiety has its roots in every square inch of the soil of their lives. Is your imagination exhausted? Of course not. We don’t need to imagine at all. This is us.
What I want to suggest is pretty simple. It’s just this: your Christian faith can make a difference. Don’t junk your treatment plan or whatever you’ve been doing that helps you manage your anxiety. Don’t give that up. But I do think your Christian faith can make a difference. In Matthew 6 Jesus tells his followers to not worry about their lives. His words are not an impossible riddles meant to drive us nuts. This is the way of God’s kingdom. It might be a new way, a foreign way—but as we are made new in Christ, it is not an impossible way.
Reducing our anxiety makes us feel better. That’s obvious. However, the implications run deeper. Let me offer you a line from Thomas À Kempis, an important Christian voice from fifteenth century. He wrote a little book called The Imitation of Christ, which feels very Anabaptist, even though Anabaptists didn’t exist then. He’s thinking about the way of Jesus and he makes this little observation: ‘when [someone] becomes dull and lukewarm in spirit, even the smallest labour is distressing, and [that person] eagerly welcomes any worldly comfort’ (c .4). Does that sound familiar? One of the risks of not dealing with anxiety is that we look to unhealthy ways of coping. This is what À Kempis means by ‘worldly comforts.’ The pressure gets to us and we look for a short-term solution, something engaging enough to distract us for a little while. There’s risk in that. The broader risk is simply that we will miss out on something God has graciously offered us—the option Jesus puts before his followers of living without worry.
Our second reading came once again from I Corinthians. This is our last reading from this letter for a while. Lent takes us in a new direction. We read the first five verses of I Corinthians 4 today. What we find here is a character under scrutiny from the community of believers. It’s Paul. Remember how the church had divided up on the basis of which apostle they followed? Some identified with Apollos, some with Peter and some with Paul. In our reading today we found out that part of this involved the believers judging or scrutinizing him. The NRSV uses the word ‘judge’ in verse three, but it’s the same Greek word that is translated as ‘scrutinize’ in 2.15. My hunch is that we feel scrutinized more that we feel judged, but either word works. Here are the verses again:
‘Think of it this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself.’
Paul goes on, ‘It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.’
The Corinthians were sifting through Paul’s work. They were picking it apart and they were evaluating him. I think if we take Paul’s experience out of the first century and out of the context of his being an apostle this would all sound or at least feel pretty familiar. What else is high school but one long process of social scrutiny? Work can be much that way too. We all need accountability, but the dark side of that is constant scrutiny and judgment. For many of us it’s when we multiply the scrutiny we receive at school or at work by, I don’t know, four or five that we get a basic description of how we experience life. Every facet of our lives can feel that way. We can feel constantly judged, like every square inch of our life is competitive.
What’s Paul’s response? It comes in two parts: first, he identifies himself as a servant of Christ and, second, he changes the timeline of his evaluation. So, one part is related to identity, Paul claims the identity of being a servant of Christ, and the other part is related to the timeline of evaluation. I think we’ve hit upon some ancient wisdom here. And not just generic wisdom, this is wisdom connected to the good news of Messiah Jesus. Let’s unpack both of these parts of Paul’s response.
First, let’s think about the part of Paul’s response connected to his identity. In the face of the nit-picky Corinthians, Paul identifies himself as a servant of God. Richard Hays points out that it’s hard for us today to see the positive side or the freeing side of this servant identity. Being identified as a servant can seem demeaning, as though it means doing whatever anybody else wants: fetching water, polishing shoes, scratching backs, whatever. It can seem like being a servant would involve a crushing sense of obligation trailing off in every direction.
Paul’s point is actually precisely the opposite. Because he serves the person in charge, only one person’s opinion matters. As a servant of Jesus, he is only obligated to satisfy Jesus. Maybe it’s like being a deputy minister, or a chief of staff or maybe a foreman on a job site. I’m not sure of the exact correlate. Paul’s point is that his identity is not a matter of public opinion. He does not report to a mob. Who he is and the value of what he does is not dependent on how many ‘likes’ he gets or the number of ‘thumbs up’ he receives. He serves only one—the Messiah Jesus. What that means is that the approval of all those people in his network . . . it might be nice, but it is far from essential.
There was a video floating around the web this past week of a group of chubby tigers in a Chinese zoo. Someone thought they might get more exercise if they could chase a flying drone. As you’d expect they were like house cats chasing a toy. They ran all over their enclosure chasing the thing. I imagine that we can be a bit like those tigers. We can be drawn in all kinds of different directions, caring about the scrutiny of so many different people, running back and forth, trying to keep everyone satisfied.
The tigers caught the drone.
That made for a great video, but it wrecks my sermon illustration. Running about, serving more than one leader is not a recipe for success at anything. It’s a recipe for a frantic life and a meltdown. When we know who we are and whose approval we need, things become clearer. Our priorities become more obvious.
I imagine that Paul had to remind himself of this. I bet there were many times when his internal monologue ran around like a chubby tiger trying to please too many people. Could it be that this is part of the reason he so often refers to prayer in his letters? Could it be that one of the things prayer can do is reconnect us with the One we really serve? I think so. I think one of the things prayer does is shape our self-understanding. Prayer reminds us of who we are—servants of Messiah Jesus.
Paul’s words echo some of the things Jesus says about the kingdom. Jesus tells the crowds not to worry. Don’t worry about your life, your body, your clothes, how long you will live. Don’t worry about any of that. Why? Because God cares for you and God knows what you need. ‘Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.’ The ‘Father’ language here reflects both a cultural reality from the first century and the nature of the relationship between the Creator and human creatures. Psalm 131 expresses a similar sentiment but changes the gender of the parent in the analogy. It talks about the contentedness of a young child with its mother. The point is simply this, we are children of a loving God. Thinking of ourselves in that way can help keep a check on anxiety. If we believe we are beloved children, if that forms the core of our identity, worrying about how things will work out is more of an intriguing mystery than something to get loss sleep over.
All that relates to the first part of Paul’s response to a judgmental community. He first affirms who he is: he is the servant of Jesus. The next thing Paul does relates to the timeline of his evaluation.
One of the best things about this time of year, in my humble opinion, is baseball spring training. Somewhere down south the boys are getting ready for another season. Now, aside from following the Blue Jays, which is required for Ontario residents, I pay some attention to the Philadelphia Phillies. Yes, I can still picture Joe Carter hitting that home run against them in the 1993 World Series (the shaggy-haired Mitch Williams was pitching, the count was 2-2). If you’re a Phillies fan, you have to extend the timeline.
The Phillies were originally known, in 1883 at least, as the Philadelphia Quakers. That makes them the nearest thing we’ll get to a professional team called the ‘Mennonites’. They become the ‘Phillies’ shortly after that, and this makes them the oldest professional sports club to have one consistent name and to have remained in one city. This also means that the Phillies have lost more games than any other professional sports team. So, with a new season upon us, we ask ‘Will this be a successful season?’ The answer depends on our timeline. The Phillies will almost certainly not win the World Series this year. They will probably not win their division. They might win more games than they lose. But what really matters about this season is how it positions them for 2018 . . . or maybe 2019. The point is just that to judge the success or failure of this upcoming season requires us to extend the timeline and see it in the context of the future.
This is the other part of Paul’s response to being scrutinized. He submitted his being to the judgment of God. Don’t judge me too early, he said, don’t judge me before the end. This was critical because Paul’s life was not one that would have looked like a success. He describes himself and the other apostles as a ‘spectacle to the world’ a ‘fool for the sake of Christ’. They didn’t have honor or a good reputation. They were hungry and poorly clothed, beaten, homeless and just plain weary. He and the other apostles had ‘become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things’ (v13).
So let’s not say that these early Christians had it easy. Let’s not say that our lives are uniquely hard. Let’s not say that somehow what was effective for them can’t possibly work for sophisticated and troubled people like ourselves. They did not have it easy. And as long as we have Cheese Wiz and reality TV, we are not all that sophisticated.
If we grant that we might have something in common across these many centuries, we can see that part of pushing back at those voices that would scrutinize us is extending the timeline. Greg Boyd, the Anabaptist preacher from Woodland Hills in St. Paul, would say that we need to not stop the movie too early. We need to play it through to the end. Part of taking back some of the power we give to the voices that keep us up at night is remembering that true worth and true value is seen in the long arc of Kingdom time. Seek the kingdom of God first, as Jesus says in Matthew 6. Seek to take seriously the mandate of the kingdom—and the weight we give to worry can’t help but change.
I’ll close with this: the ancients were fond of saying that there were two ways, the way of life and the way of death. We have both before us. Let us choose life. The good news offered to us is that we can discover our identity in something more dependable than constant scrutiny of an always-on and always-connected culture. We have a more life-giving option. The good news is that we can decline to be judged just yet. We don’t have to pant after real-time feedback about our performance, our clothing, our athleticism, our humor, or even the success of our children or friends. One day the one we serve will have something to say about us—that day is not just yet.