William Stringfellow was once addressing a group of social justice advocates on a day when they were particularly discouraged because a key project, to which they had given considerable time and effort, had failed.
Assessing both their sincerity and their discouragement, he said something to this effect: “I am old enough to scold you. I see your passion for truth and justice, and I laud that, but I hear your discouragement too. You lament the world’s hardness of heart, and you are correct there too. However, what I don’t hear in all this are many words about the Lordship of Jesus. We talk as if we need to save the world, as if everything depends on us. Well, it doesn’t. In the resurrection of Jesus the world is already saved, the powers of death and darkness have already been vanquished. We, we only need to live in such a way so as to show that world that we believe this.”
What Stringfellow is telling us is what Jesus tried to teach, namely, that the opposite of faith is not so much unbelief and doubt in the existence of God as it is anxiety and fretless worry. The opposite of faith is what Jesus cautions Martha against: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things!”
We are not to be anxious about many things. Jesus keeps telling us not to worry – about what we will eat, about what we will wear, and about tomorrow and the problems it will bring. He tells us not to worry, not because there are no real threats to us, but because there is a Lord in charge of the universe and nothing happens, no sparrow falls from the sky or hair from a human head, that is outside the scope and care of that Lord.
We are in good hands, all the time. A gracious, all-powerful, loving God is solidly in charge and nothing will happen in the world and nothing will happen to us that this Lord is indifferent to. Our faith, at its core, invites trust, and not just abstract trust, belief that good is stronger than evil. No. To say the creed, to say that I believe in God – and originally the Christian creed was only one line, Jesus is Lord – is to have a very particularized, concrete trust, a trust that God has not forgotten about me and my problems and that, despite whatever indications there are to the contrary, God is still in charge and is very concerned with my life and its concrete troubles.
When we anxiously worry, in essence, we are denying the Christian creed because we are, in effect, saying that God has either forgotten about us or that God does not have the power to do anything about what is troubling us. It is then that we, like Martha, begin rushing around and fretting about many things.
We see the opposite of this in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He truly says the creed. With all the powers of death and darkness closing in on him, just when it seems that God has abandoned him and the earth, he begins his prayer: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you.” What Jesus is saying is that, despite indications to the contrary, despite the fact that it looks like God is asleep at the switch, God is still in charge, is still Lord of this universe, is still noticing everything, and is still fully in power and worthy of trust.
This is the essence of faith, to believe that someone benign and concerned with us is ruling the universe and we can we stop our unnecessary fretting. To have faith is to believe that mother and father are home, aware of the situation, and in charge.
The trouble though is that this is hard to do, even when we do believe in a God who is Lord of the universe. Our problem is that we project our limited, selective care onto this God. We feel that God is inadequate because often we are, that God falls asleep at the switch because we occasionally do, and that God forgets about us in our problems because we have a habit of letting certain persons and things slip off of our radar screens.
You know how we are as human beings, forever letting certain things slip! We look into our closet one-day and notice a shirt or a blouse that we forgot we had. Then, we suddenly remember an invitation we were supposed to, long ago, have responded to. Things slip our minds. Our capacity to care is limited and selective. Were we Lord of the universe, many a sparrow would be forgotten and many a hair would fall to the ground unnoticed.
And so we fear that God sometimes forgets and does not notice us, that God, like us, is an inadequate Lord of the universe. That is why we get anxious and fret, because, like one without faith, we can feel that we are in an unfeeling universe.