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Effectual Worrying

There was a time in my life when I worried about money. These were not just occasional thoughts about how little money we had, but the kind of worry that would wake me up in the night, bathed in sweat, my mind racing, trying to figure out how on earth I was going to scrape together a few hundred dollars to pay another bill. I was being eaten up by worry and I came to believe that the solution was to worry some more. Every few days I’d make up a list of all the money we had, all the money we owed, all the money that was coming to me, and would try to make the pieces fit. They didn’t. That night I’d wake up again, lying in the dark, trying to figure it all out.

I thought of those days last week when I was studying the book of Ruth. There was one little thing there that caught my attention and got me thinking about this. At the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth and Naomi have returned from Moab and Ruth declares that she is going to head out to the fields to work; she will take on the role of breadwinner. But here’s the question I had: Why doesn’t Naomi go out as well? It seems that at this point she is not yet an old lady; she is older but not old. At least it is unlikely that she is so old that she can’t go along with Ruth and put in a day’s work. And since gleaning was dangerous work—a woman out in a field alone was always vulnerable—2 would be better than 1. But we are not told why Naomi remained home.

And this led me to wonder if she was experiencing the kind of paralysis that can come when we are overwhelmed with worry. Naomi is convinced that God is sovereign, but she is not at all convinced that he is good. Perhaps she is in a funk and in such a dark place that she can’t even bring herself to get up and get going. Maybe she believes that her job is to stay home and worry. Have you ever been there before? We all worry at times—we all have problems that weigh on our minds, problems related to health or love or money. I think there are times when we feel like we need to worry, like if we don’t worry, God won’t pay attention. We can feel that our worrying is effectual, like it is effective, like it gains the ear of God.

Effectual means “Successful in bringing about a desired effect.” It means “Producing or capable of producing an intended result or having a striking effect.” In those dark days so many years ago, I honestly believed that my worrying was somehow making the difference—that my worrying would bring about the result of having enough money. I was convinced that if I stopped worrying the money would dry up. If I stopped making my little lists of assets and expenses, I would one day wake up to find out that our rent check had bounced. If I stopped worrying, God would stop providing; I just knew it. I truly believed that my worrying was effectual, bringing about what I desired. I had to worry, didn’t I? If I didn’t worry, who would? If I didn’t worry, God would think I was complacent about the money and wouldn’t provide. My part was to worry and his was to provide.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is where Naomi found herself, overwhelmed with worry and believing that she needed to worry, like her worrying would function like that persistent widow of Luke 18; surely her worrying would wear God down so that he would provide. In those times, those times when we long for a cure or need a few more dollars or are crying out for a job, we can make worry into something that is noble, something that is necessary. “God, can’t you see how worried I am? Won’t you respond to my worry?” 

What bothers me most of all as I look back on those days is that God was so faithful to me. I don’t think we ever missed paying a single bill. Not one. God always provided. Yet he provided despite my worry, not because of it. He provided to show me that I didn’t have to worry, that he was faithful, that he cared. Every time I worried, every time I lay awake at night, I declared that I still did not trust him to provide for us. I declared that my faith was weak. I declared that I had missed the many, many lessons he had been trying to teach me about his care and his provision.

It took me a long time—too long—to see that my worrying accomplished nothing good. As God did with Naomi, he continued to provide, he continued to bless and eventually I learned what he wanted to teach me.  My worrying did not bring God closer to me; actually, my worrying pushed God away from me. It was untrusting, it was anti-faith, it was the very opposite of prayer. And God was good to me still.