Fretwork

Dear Friends:

The is the first of a series of messages about “fretting,” a term for worry . Fretting is a symptom of anxiety and fear . It is a product of fear and is common to the human experience and for that reason gains a certain resigned acceptance among us.

God calls us to trust him. He condemns fretting throughout the Scripture as pointless selfishness. There is no way around this. The Scripture admits to no exception or excuse on this point,

The command that Jesus gave most often was “Do not fear.” As is always true with the commands of God, he also graciously gives us the power, his power, to obey them. “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 7).

I field tested a bit of these messages on some friends and drew an objection that I have heard all my life–“We have to be concerned about what will happen to the people we love and help.”

“Ah,” I said, “you are confusing caring with worry. We care because we love. ‘Love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself.’Those are the top two commandments. What we do with care though is to pray it in intercession. We choose to put ourselves in the place of those who we care about and substitute God’s interests in them for the sympathy we have. He cares about what we care about because he cares for us” (1 Pet 5:7). We are called to talk to the Lord, not to fret. That’s why Paul wrote, ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God’ (Phil 4:6).

The thoughts that I shared with my friends were developed in a life-time of watching people I love tear themselves up with worry, plowing through the same issues again and again in their mind until they wear a hole in their soul. That leaves them desperately trying to hold together that which cannot be held together in human weakness. The good news of the Gospel presents the needed healing alternative and that’s what these messages are about.
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Be still before the Lord,
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper
in their way,
over those who carry our evil devices.
*
Refrain from anger and forsake wrath.
Do not fret–it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord
shall inherit the land.
(Ps 37:7-8)

In the night, a father turns, tosses up out of the bedcovers like a breaching whale, and puts his fist into the pillow for the hundredth time. His racing mind and aching heart compete with the needs of his exhausted body. “What ifs,” and “If onlys” teem in his gut like hungry rats eating away at his soul. His child is out there somewhere, angry, arrogant, naive and ill-prepared. The father’s anxious thoughts follow the child out into the dark, searching, posturing, relenting, hoping, despairing, raging, then forgiving in a thousand prepared but unspoken speeches.

The lace maker cuts carefully and draws her needle again and again in delicate stitches. The result must be perfect if the desired price is to be paid. So her fingers and eyes strain to the task.

The woman picks at the thread hanging from her sleeve as she waits for the counselor. Her fingers mime her thoughts. She must do something, anything, to try to hold her marriage together. The fabric bunches when she pulls on the thread. She dare not break it because the weave will run and unravel. She cannot leave it alone. Her mind and fingers return again and again to what is loose and out of place.

The guitarist runs through his fingering over and over, searching for the sound that will tell him that his chords and timing are correct. Then, and only then, can he go on to complete the melody that his heart longs to sing through his hands.

The woodworker chisels, smoothes, and chisels again on the fine lattice that will grace the door of the cabinet. Days and months of effort are about to end, but a mistake now will mean it is all for nothing. So with the strength and confidence acquired over time and the concentration required when a error is not an option, he moves on toward completion.

It is called “fretwork”– fine detail produced by painstaking attention and human endeavor in patterns of dark and light. Even if our fingers are still, a kind of fretwork can continue in the busy spaces of the mind and heart tracing over patterns, now dark, now light to manipulate by eating away at the problem until we wear it down to size. But why can’t we get it right?

Fretwork results in the beautiful chords of the guitarist and the delicate needlework of the lace maker. It is creative. But our anxious efforts are dark and destructive like the tossing and turning of the disappointed father or the compulsive picking and pulling of the desperate wife. “To fret” or “fretting” means to corrode, eat away, wear a hole or make a worn spot by worrying, picking at, and chafing the object of our fretting.

So why not cut to the chase and just force the issue rather than gnaw at it?

Anger won’t make it happen. Forcing our way with all the wrathful force of our souls and strength can perhaps bring water from the rock but it will be adulterated with the stinging brine of misspent tears and indulged fears. People and things break too easily. The pattern must be carefully followed. No, the counsel of the Lord through David is to “refrain from anger and forsake wrath” in those situations where fretting is a temptation.

But then what? We pick and pull at problems and possibilities in the webs of our minds and the cords of our relationships–fretting–seeking inadequate answers to the question, “What am I to do?” and the demand of wounded pride–“You must do something.”  The careful pattern of beauty that we think we are making starts eating us up and taking our focus away from the Lord and onto ourselves.

“Do not fret–it only leads to evil.” Of course, evil is far from our mind at the point when we begin fretting. Our intentions are good, the very best, in fact. We only want things to work out. We say something like, “I feel so responsible. I must help” and in that moment we tread on the holy ground of God’s sovereign will like jack-booted thugs wearing an unsightly path wherever we walk.

You see, evil is not confined to movie scripts, the display cases of the Holocaust Museum or the streets and Internet sites that you dare not visit. No, evil can be as insipid and bland as it is enticing and lust-inflaming.  Evil is what we do in disobedience to God. Evil is as close as “doing the right thing” without first seeking God’s blessing and power. It is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

The venerable Oswald Chambers spoke the truth about the serious consequences of violating the Lord’s instruction, “Do not fret–it only leads to evil.”

Fretting means getting ourselves “out of joint” mentally or spiritually. It is one thing to say, “Do not fret,” but something very different to have such a nature that you find yourself unable to fret. It’s easy to say, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Ps 37:7) until our little world is turned upside down and we are forced to live in confusion and agony like so many other people. Is it not possible to “rest in the Lord” then! If this “Do not” doesn’t work there, then it will not work anywhere. This “Do not” must work during our days of difficulty and uncertainty, as well as our peaceful days, or it will never work. And if it will not work in your particular case, it will not work for anyone else. Resting in the Lord is not dependent on your external circumstances at all, but on your relationship with God Himself.
. . .
Worrying always results in sin. We tend to think that a little anxiety and worry are simply an indication of how wise we really are, yet it is actually a much better indication of just how wicked we are. Fretting rises from our determination to have our own way. Our Lord never worried and was never anxious, because His purpose was never to accomplish His own plans but to fulfill God’s plans. Fretting is wickedness for a child of God.
. . .
All our fretting and worrying is caused by planning without God. (My Utmost for His Highest [Nashville, TN: Discovery House, 1992], entry for July 4).

Chambers touches here on something essential to faith. A Christian businessman whom I advise is very concerned about the future of his enterprise. Worry is wisdom to him. He keeps sabotaging the plans to help the enterprise meet his concerns. When I’ve confronted him about this, he says, “You have to understand, I worry. That’s what I do. I see problems that need to be addressed.” I responded, “The rest of us involved see the same problems, but we see solutions and that is what we are working on. Can you lift up your mind and heart and join with us in trust that we want the best too? Have some faith.”

If we could make a perfect fretwork pattern of our life, we would not need faith because we would have no need of God. We would just co-exist with him as friendly competitors. But things are not going well. There are messes and we are inadequate to cleaning them all up. We can consume ourselves in an insane frenzy of effort to keep up or we can have faith that God’s grace will be sufficient and keep our eyes on Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Faith looks for good in the future. Faith knows that God will provide that good. John Newton expressed this in the traditional third verse of “Amazing Grace.”

The Lord has promised good to me. . .
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be. . .
As long as life endures.

Worry is anti-faith. It looks for bad things to happen in the future. The worrier fears that the light at the end of the tunnel is the approaching train. If a child of God is not looking to the future with hope and is not willing to move toward the future with faith then he or she is left with the cramped hands and heart and overworked mind of the fretter.

Fretting is “works” theology personified. The fretter thinks, “I don’t think this situation will turn out like I want. If only I could do something, control the outcome, make sure nothing bad happens, . . . anything.” It takes the emphasis from God and on to us.

Listen well, the popular teaching that the Christian life means we are delivered from adversity simply isn’t true. The promise of Christ is to deliver us in adversity, not from it. “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” says Jesus, “but take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NLT). The Good Shepherd will walk through the darkest valley with us, not fly us over it (Ps 23:4).

One of the most popular verses of Scripture is Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  It is often quoted as some kind of legalistic mantra to the effect that “If one loves God enough, and is obedient to his revealed will, he or she will know only good and no suffering.” This is a superstitious perversion of the language and the principal it describes that leads many new Christian believers into disillusionment when their faith seems to be a “bait and switch” scam.

Not all of the circumstances of our lives are good for us, but the point of Romans 8:28 is that amidst all of the good and bad of life, God’s purpose will prevail. That’s why Jesus Christ came as our Savior. That’s why the Holy Spirit guides and advocates for us.

A proper reading of Romans 8:28 from the original language is that “God works in all things for the good of those who love him who are called to his purpose of eternal relationship with him.” God is the common factor that brings things together. It is his intention that everyone is included in that eternal relationship if they believe in his Son Jesus who makes it possible (John 3:16). Our Lord is not a “work-around” God. He is a “work-through” God. He works in us, he works through us, he works with us. We pay attention to God rather than trying to rearrange “things” ourselves.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31) is a question that every fretter should stop and grapple with. To borrow and paraphrase the words of an old pop standard, “He’s gonna love you, like nobody loves you, all the way.”  In the knowledge of that love, the fretter is called to make a decision of eternal consequence: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act” (Ps 37:5). You can, and will likely have to, make that commitment over and over.

To not commit our way to the Lord, to withhold our trust from him, and to continue our fretting is to live as an atheist no matter how devout we may be in our religious life because we don’t really believe the Lord and take him at his word. That’s the hard fact and if we don’t face it and surrender our worries to him in trust, the tragic day will come when we will say, “We did so many good things for you, Lord,” and he will declare to us, “I never knew you, go away from me you evildoers” (Matt 7:22-23). We will be evildoers because we chose to fret rather than trust in his way and his power.

Jesus pulls the rug out from under the fretter’s pacing feet with these words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). This is not an offer of solicitous comfort. It is a call to repentance from our anxious thoughts and efforts and return to faith in God as the answer. We can not respond to that call with a pledge not to worry and fret. That will only put the burden on us and leave us fretting about why we are worrying. No, the only appropriate response is to wait for God to act, patiently handing over our worries to him as they arise in our hearts and minds.

Next week’s message will discuss what it means to wait for God as we continue this series on fretting.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him (Ps 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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