READ : Matthew 6:25-34
“Relax, take it easy, don’t worry so much!” That’s easy advice to give, but Jesus tells us how to actually do it.
In this wonderful passage from the end of Matthew 6 Jesus talks about some of the symptoms of what could be called “practical atheism.” Very few of us, I suspect, are avowed atheists. Most of us believe in God; at least we say we do. But all too often we live from day to day as if God wasn’t real, or at least didn’t matter.
Are we really followers of Jesus? Do we truly believe in him? If we do, then the living God, the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, is our heavenly Father. So why don’t we live as if that’s true? How can we still be so obsessed by materialism? Above all, why are we still so anxious and worried about our day-to-day affairs?
THE PROBLEM OF ANXIETY
Anxiety is a common and often serious problem, to the point where some people are literally made sick by it. But everyone experiences it to a greater or lesser degree. All of us have times when we are anxious and worried. The word Jesus uses here when he says “do not be anxious” literally means to be “troubled in mind,” to be disturbed about an uncertain event or an unknown future. Usually our anxiety is over physical concerns. We worry about things like how well we will live, how to pay the bills, where the money is going to come from, whether our health will hold up, how our children will turn out, when our job will improve, where our career is going. For some reason, we rarely seem to get anxious about spiritual matters! Nevertheless it is natural and human to worry about our physical lives and their affairs, even though, as Jesus pointed out, “Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.”
We should recognize, though, this sort of anxiety for what it is. It’s a form of practical atheism. Anxiety is unworthy of Jesus’ followers. It shows that we are more concerned about ourselves than about God’s kingdom. Anxiety is undermining to our effectiveness. It spoils our usefulness for God, since we cannot put Christ first if we are obsessed with ourselves. We can’t very well speak to others about the importance of trusting in God when our own lives are torn apart by worry. Most of all, anxiety is unnecessary for Christians. If we only understood (and really believed) the things Jesus has to say to us here, we would never be anxious again.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that anxiety is easy to overcome. I do not claim that I have learned how never to worry about anything. No, don’t make the mistake of thinking that anxiety is a simple problem, as if all we have to do is read Christ’s words over and over and all our worries will fly away. It’s easy to say, “Anxiety is a sin; Christians should never be anxious.” It’s much harder to develop the kind of faith that trusts in God at all times. Jesus talks here about not worrying over what we eat and drink and wear. Food and clothing are not luxuries, they’re necessities. So he said these words not just for when we’re warm and comfortable, but for those times when the cupboard is bare and the bank account is empty, and we’re not sure how we’re going to make it. Jesus’ teaching is not simple to follow. But I think it can be believed and I think it can be obeyed, if we listen hard and take it to heart.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST ANXIETY
Anxiety is a form of fear, and the opposite of fear is faith, which means that the cure for anxiety is to learn to trust in God and believe his promises. But Jesus puts forward a whole series of truths that also serve as arguments against anxiety.
He begins by reminding us of the character of the God in whom we do believe. Our faith is in a God who is sovereign. He’s the God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field, but who also loves us and takes both a personal interest in, and responsibility for, us. We believe, if we’re Christians, in the providence of God, one of the most critically important of all Christian doctrines. (The fact is, you can’t even be a Christian in any real sense without a belief in providence .) The literal meaning of providence is “to see ahead.” In Christian understanding it refers not just to the perfect wisdom of God which can foresee all our needs (see v. 32b), but also to the omnipotent power and the infinite love of God which make him willing and able always to “provide” for those needs. The same God who is the Lord of nature, and the Ruler of the universe, and the Author and Director of history, is our Father for Jesus’ sake. He loves us, because of that we know that all things, whether good or bad, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand. He always knows what we need, and he always stands ready to supply it.
So this first argument which Jesus uses against anxiety is one of his favorites. It’s the “How much more” argument: if God takes care even of the animals and plants then how much more won’t he do for the children whom he loves and whose well-being he has promised to look after. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? . . . See the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry.” Our trust is in the loving care of our heavenly Father. Do we really think he doesn’t know what we most need? Do we actually imagine he doesn’t care enough to provide for us?
Reliance on the providence of God does not mean we don’t have to work for our living, if we are able. God usually provides for our needs by giving us the strength and the ability to do productive work. Nor does our confidence that the Lord is watching over us mean we don’t have to take sensible precautions. No, we still use medicine when we’re sick. We put seat belts on when we drive off in the car. Nor does the truth of providence mean we can ignore the needs of others because God will take care of them. God has a great fondness for offering his care through you and me, as we help each other. But knowing God does mean that we should never be consumed by anxious thoughts.
Jesus’ second argument has to do with the nature of worry itself. He reminds us of some basic truths about anxiety. For one thing, it’s useless. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Do you know anyone who can make himself grow a centimeter taller, or live a day longer, by worrying hard enough about it? No, a proper measure of concern about ourselves and our future is good; it motivates us to proper action. But anxiety doesn’t do us any good at all. It’s not just unproductive. We all know it’s actually counter-productive. Anxiety usually shortens life; it doesn’t prolong it. Worry doesn’t help; it only harms. So why give in to it?
And then there’s one more argument: the fact that anxiety is so inappropriate for believers. The anxious pursuit of food, drink and clothing – what the great preacher Charles Spurgeon called “the world’s trinity of cares” – is the obsession of people who don’t know God. According to Jesus these are all the things the pagans run after. “I was part of that strange race of people,” wrote just such a man, “aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they dislike.” Is that the way you want to live? Do you wish to devote your life to the accumulation of the world’s pleasures and playthings? Those who know God have other interests. We have more important things to care about – or at least we should. So Jesus says: Live like Christians, not like pagans.
THE GREAT PRIORITY
This brings us to his positive teaching. If we’re not to be anxious about worldly concerns and ambitions, what then should we care about? Life, for Jesus’ followers at least, is about more important things than fancy food and beautiful clothes and all the other needs and wants of the body. We are to have a different set of ambitions and a higher interest to pursuit. You may have heard of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission; well, here is the Christian’s Great Priority: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.”
God’s interests are the primary concern of each Christian man or woman. Seek first the kingdom. Most people, including most Christians (I’m sorry to say), do just the opposite: we seek first all these other things (we call it “making a living”), and then occasionally we’ll give our leftover time or money to God’s concerns. Most of us – and I include myself here – worry more about paying the bills and putting away a little extra for ourselves than we do about advancing Christ’s cause. But that’s not the Christian way, says Jesus. If you’re all caught up in these concerns, you’re acting like an unbeliever. Look at your daily calendar and ask yourself, “Am I approaching my day like a Christian or a pagan?” Look at the ways you spend your time and money and ask, ‘Am I living like a child of God or a child of the world?’ “What are you anxious about?” Jesus is saying, “What are you living for? I want you to be most anxious about kingdom business, not your own business. Think first about God and his issues, and he will take care of your needs – ‘all these things will be given to you as well.’”
So Jesus tells us to be kingdom people, people whose first thought, whose deepest, most earnest desire, is, “Your kingdom come.” And then he says not to worry, to live the proverbial “one day at a time.” “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” That’s not always easy to do, but it is always blessed, and God-honoring, and faithful.