Saturday, June 2, 2012

Fret Not!

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret — it leads only to evil (Psalm 37:1-8).

This psalm used to be running joke between my friend, James, and I.  We were both Christian musicians who used guitars as our primary instruments (heaven forbid!) and received a lot of criticism for it.   We deduced that our ministry was founded on Psalm 150:4, “Praise the Lord with tambourine and dance; praise the Lord with strings and pipe!” while our nay-sayers obviously took the phrase “Do not fret!” literally.  Get it?  Musician humour: seldom funny, but always ‘pun’-y.  Anyway...

When I read this psalm again last week I was taken aback by what verse 8 actually does say, “Do not fret — it leads only to evil.  Woah there!  I’m used to hearing (and giving) the platitude, ‘Don’t worry so much,” but I’ve never connected it to the idea of evil before.  What is the psalmist getting at here?  How can fretting or worrying actually lead to evil, let alone only lead to evil?

As is my normal practice when exploring meanings, I started by researching the roots of the words ‘fret’ and ‘worry.’ Both words have their origins in Old English, but do not refer to emotions in any way.  To ‘worry’ has its roots in the words ‘to strangle, bite or harass,’ while ‘fret’ similarly finds its roots in ‘to eat up or consume.’  So, simply put, to worry or fret involves something being strangled, or harassed, or consumed!!  Let me tell you, it’s not the issues or problems in question that are strangled or consumed by worry.  I would challenge anyone to deny this.  Show me how any problem, real or imagined, has been affected by the power of worry.  On the other hand, I can easily offer a list of people (myself included) whose lives have been emptied, worn away, or consumed through worry.

There is a Newfoundland saying that applies here.  When someone receives a piece of unexpected bad news that person might say that “the news took the good right out of them.”  This is the ultimate effect of worry: it wears us down – consumes us - until we become hopeless, and a hopeless person is open to all options, even evil.

The psalmist also suggests that worrying implies a lack of faith in God.  If we believe in a God who is good and who loves us, what is there to worry about, ever?

There is an old Irish saying that I am very fond of.  It goes like this:

Why worry?
Things will go one of two ways:
they will either get better or worse.
If they get better, great!
If they get worse...
Things will go one of two ways:
you will either live or die.
If you live, great!
If you die...
Things will go one of two ways:
you will either go to heaven or you will go to hell.
If you go to heaven, great!
If you go to hell, worrying won’t change a thing.
Why worry?

It sounds a bit glib, I know, but it also points clearly to the futility of worry.  Not only does it wear you down, it has no effect on the outcome of things.

The Psalmist goes on to write a prescription for how we are to live, if we take the advice not to worry or fret.  Here it is, taken line by line, with comments by yours truly.

“Trust in the LORD” – This command is repeated two times because it is the crux of the psalmist’s argument.  If we are a people who truly, honestly and completely trust in God, we should never have reason to worry, even when things look at their worst.  Yet, we know that this is the ideal and not the practical way we must live our lives.  If I see a truck barrelling down the highway towards me on the wrong side of the road…I’m going to worry about it.  I am NOT going to say…. “Eh…God is in control!”  The reality is that this command to trust the LORD is global in perspective.  Though you should worry about the truck about to hit you or the icy front steps or that rash that won’t go away, in the grand scheme of things, we are a people of faith who believe that in some way our God hold us in the palm of God’s hand and will make good out of this world.  Hard stuff to live by, but the psalmist does go on to give us even more practical ways to live out this trust, versus worrying ourselves away.

“Do good” – Find a way to change whatever you are worrying about into an opportunity to do good.  Worried about finances?  Ask what good thing you can do about your finances.  Worried about a fight you had with a friend?  Ask what good you can do to mend that relationship…and so on.

“Take delight in the LORD” – Focus on God’s goodness in the midst of your worries.  You might not be able to change the situation which is the source of your worry, but God can.  Worried about the diagnosis that is coming over the next few weeks?  Focus on God’s blessings, here and now.  What delights are being ignored because of the worry that is consuming you?

“Commit your way to the LORD” – This sounds like a repeat of trust, but it has a twist.  If something is worrying you, pray about what God wants you to do about it (even if that means doing nothing but waiting) and commit to that.  God DOES give us direction, usually through the prayerful advice of our Christian community.  Seek it out!

“Be still before the LORD” – Stop your restless pacing and come before God.  Give the issue, problem and worry to God.  Let God deal with the issue, especially if it something you can do nothing about.

“Wait patiently for him” – Patience….patience…patience.  Lord, grant me patience…but HURRY!  (This is one of my mother’s favourite sayings.)  Patience is a virtue.  The hardest thing in the world is often the waiting, but it happens so often you think we would start to build a resistance to it.  Each of us needs to learn how to let time pass and let the unknown be revealed when the time is right.

“Refrain from anger and forsake wrath” – The easiest thing we can do when worried by an issue is become overwhelmed by anger and frustration.  Eventually, when we allow ourselves to be consumed by our worries, anger will become our response to everything and everyone in our lives.  This is the heart of the reason why the psalmist is adamant that we stop living a life of worry.  In the end it leads us into temptation.

I know.  Right away most of you are saying, but it’s not that easy.  You can’t tell me not to worry and that be it.  You are right.  Not worrying is difficult, absolutely, but who said that living out our faith was going to be easy?  My suggestion? (Because I know you’re all dying to hear it!)  If we put our energy into the psalmist’s prescriptions and not worry about worrying (see what I did there?) we will foster good habits and disciplines of faithfulness, and not encourage the growth of anger, frustration, anxiety and wrath in our lives.  Isn’t that worth the effort?

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