“Just don’t worry about it.”
How many times have we heard these words, or something similar? Those five words— “Just don’t worry about it” when in combination with each other, are possibly the most useless words in the English language. They’re useless not because banishing worry isn’t a good idea. Generally, it is. Most of us worry far too much. But “Just don’t worry about it” is advice routinely ignored and impossible to obey because there is so much to worry about.
We are worried about our health, our family and their health and safety. We are worried about money and whether we will have enough to get by let alone ever retire. We worry about politics, our country, and the state of things around the world. And if you are like me, then you have worries about whether or not LeBron and the Cavs will ever again be able to beat Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors!
Other possible, but improbable, things exist about which we could worry, like being attacked by a shark, or getting hit by an asteroid. You name it— someone’s probably worrying about it.
Psychologists draw a distinction between acute anxiety and chronic anxiety. Acute anxiety, they say, is related to some immediate threat. If you step out of your front door and come face to face with a grizzly bear, that’s acute anxiety that you’re feeling. No surprise, there. Yet, if you wake up each morning with a sense of free-floating dread, but have little idea where those dark forebodings come from— nor any idea when or how you’ll break free from them— then chances are, you’re a victim of chronic anxiety.
We may imagine ourselves the most anxiety-ridden people ever; who gaze back longingly on our pre-industrial past as a golden age of serenity, but a quick look at the Scriptures reveals this was hardly the case. Even our biblical ancestors had issues with worry and anxiety—and really for good reason. They were being rounded up from their homes by the Babylonians, and forced into captivity. Which is where we encounter the prophet Isaiah, saying to those worry and anxiety riddled people then, and to us today, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. …For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Isaiah is saying, “Just don’t worry about it.” But! But he is telling them, and us, that though there is reason to be worried, everything, every thing, is going to be ok.
Isaiah is writing this message to God’s people in the midst of being overrun and taken into exile by the Babylonian Empire. Now it can be hard for us to conceive just what the Jewish people went through as they were uprooted from their homes, and transported to the Babylonian capital—but we can be certain that it was not pleasant.
It’s worth noting that not everyone was forced into relocated captivity. While certainly all were under the captive oppression of the Babylonians, some remained in Judah. It was only select others who were taken away— just the political, intellectual and economic elite—the ruling class. The Babylonian rulers seem to have followed the advice, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” because these Babylonian overlords made certain there were none from the defeated nation’s leadership who could incite rebellion back home.
Still though, the entire identity of the Jewish people was rooted in their theological understanding of their land. They were proud to be the chosen people Moses had led out of Egypt to claim the land of milk and honey for their own. The land was the principal sign of God’s favor, their continual reminder that they lived in a state of divine grace. The temple mount in Jerusalem was the spiritual center of their universe.
When all this was suddenly snatched away from them, the exiles were racked with worry, not only for their immediate physical circumstances, but, also, whether they could maintain the identity as God’s chosen people without that tangible reality of the Promised Land being theirs.
It’s then that Isaiah steps in and says, “Just don’t worry about it.” And like we would reply, all the Jewish people replied with a resounding, “Yeah right!” But there is a difference in how Isaiah is saying it. Isaiah is saying it on behalf of God.
Isaiah assures them, and gives the people a word from God. “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” This prophetic passage pictures the exiles’ journey home, passing through rushing rivers without hindrance or danger, passing through fire without being burned. Isaiah was saying, no matter what, everything is going to be ok. Who but God could accomplish such a wonder, redeeming the exiles from their hopeless situation? How could such a miraculous release from their captivity happen, unless God willed it?
Yes, there was reason to worry, but Isaiah knew that in the end—because of God and the people belonging to God—all their worrying would be for nothing because God was still their God.
This message can, and should, speak to us as well. We are not the first generation of human beings to feel inundated by worry. True, we are the first to use mass-communications technology to construct an echo chamber to amplify our natural anxieties, but the fundamental psychological fact of worry is no different. By nature, we are a worrying people. Sure, at times, worry keeps us appropriately vigilant so we may fend off tangible threats, but more often than not, worry is simply a burden that hinders life, which is why Isaiah’s message is so important and relevant to us today.
The word “anxious” is historically related to a Latin word: angere, which literally means “to choke or strangle.” Should anxiety get its bony fingers around your neck for any length of time, you’ll soon be gasping for breath.
There’s another English word that traces its lineage to the same Latin root. The word is angina— the sharp, piercing pain that precedes a heart attack. Angina arises when one of the coronary arteries becomes choked off by arterial plaque, blocking oxygen from reaching the heart muscle. Anxiety, in other words, can kill you.
Another English word that grows out of this Latin root: angere, is “anger.” Anxious people are often angry people. They sense the breath of life being choked off from their soul, and so they lash out, flailing wildly in an effort to remove the threat, whatever they imagine it to be.
Anxious. Angina. Anger—the ingredients of a chronic consternation complex that’s plaguing us in these trying times. Yet today’s text reminds us that we need not worry, we need not fear; that we can live without anxiety because: God created us, God formed us, God loves us.
The reminder here is that when you build or create something, you know it inside and out, you are in tune and in love with it, and you as its creator and life giver will forever and always care for it. God, as our Creator, knows us better than we know ourselves. Moreover, the text reminds us that God formed us, God redeemed us, God calls us by name, God says “you are mine.”
Like the Jews being cast into exile, overcome with worry about the future, we too are overcome with worry when our hearts and spirits are cast into exile by alarmist headlines that make us believe the world is a fundamentally scary place. Which is why we, like our ancestors before us, would do well to hear again God’s promise as it comes through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” We belong to God. We belong to God.
To be clear, Isaiah is telling us more than “Just don’t worry about it.” After all, even the most faithful can still have worries. I trust and have faith in God, but I still have worries. I worry about my health and the health and safety of my family. I worry about how my kids will grow up and turn out. I worry about gun violence. I worry about the future of our planet.
Sure, some of my worries are ridiculous—I do worry that the Cavs are never going to beat Golden State—which is ridiculous because of course they are never going to beat Golden State and win a championship—this is a Cleveland team we’re talking about!
But the truth is—there will always be waters to pass through… there will always be fires to walk through. There will always be tough and fearful situations that we will have to address and tend to—but we can face them in a confidant and constructive manner, instead of a desperate fearful manner, when we live in the truth that God has our back—all because we belong to God.
When someone says to us, “Just don’t worry about it” our initial reaction is likely, “Yeah, right” dripping with doubt and defeat. But as people of faith, we can—if we practice and are intentional—we can hear such a phrase as Isaiah said it—with faith and assurance that no matter what, we belong to God, and God will show us a way through.
So may we face our worries not with fear, but with faith, so that when someone says, “Just don’t worry about it” we can respond with, “Yeah, you’re right.” Amen.