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How constant worry contributes to spiritual fatigue

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There are questions that can relieve us of the unnecessary strain we’ve tolerated in our lives for far too long.

How good are you at worrying? Do you just dabble in worry from time to time? Or are you, as one friend describes himself, “an Olympic-class worrier, dedicated to the perfection of worry”?

Can worry be practiced safely? Can worry be rewarding? How much does a lifelong commitment to worry cost? And is it worth the price?

In this third installment on “spiritual chronic fatigue syndrome” (find part one here and part two here), we’ll look at worry as a significant contributor to our spiritual fatigue, and we’ll look at worry as a symptom of a deficient practice of spiritual discernment.

Whether we worry about the past (“How could I have committed such a terrible sin?”) or about the future (“Will my children ever come back to the Faith?”), we turn our attention away from God in the present, where his providence, grace and call are always offered to us.

Attending to (humanly) unanswerable questions about the past and future, we’re inevitably crushed by worry. This causes us unnecessary pain, takes us away from the duties and blessings of the present moment and, worst of all, traps us in a cul-de-sac of isolation and despair. That cannot be what God wants for us!

What shall we do? There’s a story that’s popular among motivational speakers. (You can see one version of it here.) The most common account is of a professor who walks into a class with a large jar. He puts several big rocks in the jar and asks, “Is the jar full?” The students judge that it is. He pours a large quantity of pebbles into the jar and asks, “Is the jar full?” The students insist that it is. Finally, he pours sand into the jar, and the students see that now the jar is well and truly full.

The moral of the story, according to those who most often tell it, is that the jar could be made full only by putting the rocks in first, then the pebbles and finally the sand. The story is used to illustrate the importance of priorities. What can Christians learn from this?

Well, one conclusion that Christians shouldn’t draw from the story is: “Don’t stop until the jar of your life is FULL!” That’s the path to spiritual chronic fatigue syndrome. And it’s a way of proceeding that blunts the development of good habits of discernment. Yes, it’s true that everyone, including Christians, must have a proper sense of priority. But it’s also true that what counts as “rocks” or “pebbles” or “sand” will be judged differently depending upon whether one is serving God or Mammon.

If one is thoroughly worldly, then the “rocks,” that is, the top priorities, will be those efforts to acquire and consume as much as possible. “Pebbles” might be cultivating business contacts. “Sand” might be writing “Merry Xmas” cards to clients in December.

For a faithful disciple of Christ, one’s priorities will be the inversion of what the worldly hold dear. We’ll give a priority to worship, witness and sacrifice that the secularist would find laughable, if not downright unintelligible.

Even so, I don’t think that the “Parable of the Jar” provides sufficient guidance for the Christian; in fact, it can lead to the spiritual chronic fatigue syndrome that’s killing us. The emphasis of the parable is to make the jar FULL. Well-intentioned but not-well-guided Christians can stuff their lives with pious activities and worthy causes, yet still make themselves (and others!) miserable, even as they distance themselves from the God they purport to serve. This is where the habit of discernment can come to the rescue.

We are made to serve God in this life and enjoy him forever in the next. We are called to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We live that call not as an abstraction, but in the circumstances of our state in life, with our daily duties and privileges.

Rather than trying to “fill the jar,” we would do well by examining our lives to remove from the jar whatever is inconsistent with our Christian identity. A prayerful examination of the details of our lives would lead us to see that we’re exhausted because we carry idols in the present, while we burden ourselves with worry about the past and future.

Asking ourselves, “What do I need, here and now, to do fully only what God is asking of me?” can relieve us of the unnecessary strain we’ve tolerated in our lives for far too long. The more we empty the jar, the more God can fill it with himself.

When I write next, I will address a challenge that today’s parents face that my own parents could not have dreamed of. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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