These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
This subject of anxiety, especially in relation to food, drink and clothing, is a profoundly important in our day for a few reasons. For one thing, we seem to be more obsessed with the body and its comfort than ever. Flick through any magazine and just about all the advertisements will be concerning how to take care of your body, what to put it in, where to rest it, how to excite it, and so on. While our anxiety is not going to be exactly the same as a first century Jew, it seems that food, drink and clothing do not consume less of our time, but more. I think Jesus would ask the same question to a twenty-first century Londoner as he did back then: ’Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’
Another reason this subject is so important for us is to do with the widespread feeling that we are a stressed out and anxious society. It’s not that life is more stressful for us (we have never been safer or more comfortable) but that we are coping far worse. The prevalence of conditions we call ‘mental illness’ is one massive evidence of this. Another is the current trend towards ‘Mindfulness’, a Buddhism-lite that promises to solve your worries and boost your brain power. For some reason this is appealing to our society in a big way, and I find myself having conversations about this again and again with all kinds of people. What Jesus has to say about anxiety must surely resonate in a powerful way when so many people are so frayed.
Because of this, I think we can agree that as Christians we need to pay such careful attention to this. We of all people should stand out as different, and particularly in this area. Why? Because you are preaching by your life, and not just your words, the kind of God you believe in. If you are as anxious as anyone else, then your worry is preaching ‘Nobody all-powerful is taking care of me’. This really is a matter of obedience for us (‘do not be anxious’, Jesus says) because ultimately, the glory of God and the credibility of our message is at stake.
As we proceed, we find that Jesus gives reason after reason for not being anxious.
1. You are more loved and cherished than you know
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6.26)
Jesus tells us to ‘look at’ or ‘consider’ the birds. He wants us to pay attention and give this some thought. That’s a little difficult in London, where the whole thing seems to lack some poignancy. ‘Consider the pigeons: they don’t farm, but your heavenly Father feeds them chips in Trafalgar Square’. But even we get the point.
Jesus is not advocating some kind of foraging lifestyle without planning or forethought, unsure of where your next meal is coming from. Instead, he’s making one very simple and clear point: you are worth more than the birds, and they do fine.
We know this intuitively. Most people believe that a human is worth more than a bird (and hence we eat so many of them). That’s why we feel a natural revulsion when crazy old ladies leave their inheritance to their cats instead of their children.
But, when you think about it, if God is not there we have absolutely no justification to believe that a human life is worth more than a bird’s. Things only get their value by belonging to someone. A diamond is a worthless block of atoms unless it has the potential to be possessed or owned. The same goes for us; we are only valuable because we belong to someone greater than us. But the knowledge that we do belong to someone is utterly life-changing.
When you are anxious it may well be because you do not feel this at a gut-level. God wants you to know it and feel it, and to be ‘casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5.7).
2. Being anxious does not help you in any way
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6.27)
Do you know what anxiety does to your health? Anxiety causes high blood pressure, stomach ulcers (which can explode), acid reflux (potentially causing cancer), dizziness, fainting, hyperventilation, disturbed sleep, and bowel disorders. Just reading that list is enough to make you feel anxious.
And then there are the habits that arise out of anxiety, in particular the various forms of escapism from mild (like TV watching) to severe (alcoholism and the like).
So when Jesus says that anxiety won’t lengthen your life, I think we can safely conclude that chronic anxiety is quite likely to shorten your life.
It is a tragic thing to live this way. You gain nothing, since your anxiety cannot help or produce anything. And instead, you lose a great deal; your health, your joy, your time, your energy, your life.
3. Your Father is lavish and even wasteful
And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6.28-30)
I grew up in a home where there was little or no waste. Every morsel of food on our plates had to be eaten. We didn’t waste money on anything as frivolous as a professional haircut (though that might have saved many tears and tantrums at the results). We wore clothes handed down from one brother to another. It wasn’t that we were poor, but neither did we have much to spare with dad earning a fairly modest pastor’s salary and spending a good chunk of that on books.
But here Jesus wants us to understand that our Father God is not so careful about his spending, in a sense. Flowers are the epitome of wasteful extravagance. That’s why our wives like to be given them (and why we are so reluctant to spend money on something that dies three days later). Consider that most flowers in this world are never seen by a human eye, and many species have never even been discovered in order to be appreciated.
If God is lavish in how he dresses the flowers, then he will also be mindful of how he takes care of us. This is not meant to lead us to extravagance and indulgence (where we say ‘I deserve this’). But rather, our Father made beauty, he made us, and he wants to take care of us.
4. You’re not an orphan
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6.31-32)
The Gentiles (i.e. the non-Jews) did not know God, and they certainly didn’t know him as Father. Life without the knowledge of Father God is bleak indeed. There is nobody to thank for the good things we enjoy, and nobody to turn to for rescue and help in trouble. Life without God is like floating adrift at sea without any sight of land, and no hope of safe harbour. It is meaningless, purposeless, and empty.
When we fail to be grateful for God’s kindness, or fail to pray when we’re anxious, we are basically living like atheists or ‘Gentiles’. That is why the command ‘Do not be anxious’ is in fact a moral issue; it’s a sin issue! We are giving way to unbelief, living as though God isn’t there, when we are controlled by our fears. As Michael Reeves puts it so pithily: ‘If you want to be anxious today, pretend you’re in control’. That is functional atheism, even if you profess faith in God.
A Christian ought to have a divine optimism about life. This is not the same as wishful thinking, and nor is it the groundless positive thinking that the world speaks of (with absolutely no objective reason to be positive). Instead, it is what the Bible calls ‘hope’, and it’s built on the character of God. You’re not an orphan, so don’t act like one.
5. You have a higher purpose to be concerned with
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6.33)
Anxiety will derail you. It will stop you from living for God. It will infect all of your decision making and cause you to pull back from obeying the Father. You won’t be as generous, as ready to say ‘yes’, as willing to step out in abandoned faith. Your energies will be diverted into securing your future, and not into the kingdom.
Jesus wants you to have one great preoccupation that controls your entire life: the kingdom of God. It ought to be the great ‘Why?’ behind everything you do, including your job, your family, your free time, and everything else. Anything less is a wasted life. But when the kingdom controls you in this way, your anxieties shrivel as you discover that God takes care of the little things like food, drink, and clothing.
6. You should focus on present concern rather than future worry
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6.34)
We are not to be overly concerned with a future we can’t predict, and certainly can’t control. In the run-up to the turn of the Millennium there was a good deal of anxiety over the potential catastrophe that was the ‘Millennium Bug’. Would all the computer systems the western world is built upon fail in an instant, leading to widespread anarchy?
What a waste of anxious energy.
Jesus is calling for us to focus on the day in which we can act, in which we can do something: today. When you look at Jesus’ own ministry, we know that he was marching towards a great plan and mission, that he’d set his face to go to Jerusalem. And yet we never find him so focussed on the future that he isn’t present in the moment to answer the needs of the people around him. He was spontaneous, compassionate, often exhausted, but always available. Today’s ‘trouble’ (literally ‘evil’) was his concern. He preoccupied himself with the situations that were in his face, not the ones that were to come.
God gives us enough grace for today, and we are not to waste it on tomorrow. Like the manna in the wilderness, we are given provision to deal with the trouble’s in front of us, and we are meant to trust God that he will continue to give us provision for future troubles. But until then, put them out of your mind.
This is a very childlike posture in which we refuse to pretend to be in control, but rather trust our great Father. If this is not your experience, if you cannot honestly say that you are God’s child, and that you can trust him for each day, then perhaps you need to pray to God and ask him to adopt you into his family. Then you will know him as Father, and be able to truly cast your burdens upon him.