A Centered Life

| Matthew 6:25-34

Week of September 1, 2019

The Point:  When your life is centered in Christ, you find all you need.

Do Not Be Anxious: Matthew 6:25-34

[25] “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? [26] 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? [27] And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? [28] And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, [29] yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. [30] 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? [31] Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ [32] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. [33] But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. [34] “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.   [ESV]

“A question of ambition [6:25-34]. It is a pity that this passage is often read on its own in church, isolated from what has gone before. Then the significance of the introductory Therefore I tell you is missed. So we must begin by relating this therefore, this conclusion of Jesus, to the teaching which has led up to it. He calls us to thought before He calls us to action. He invites us to look clearly and coolly at the alternatives before us and to weigh them up carefully. We want to accumulate treasure? Then which of the two possibilities is the more durable? We wish to be free and purposive in our movements? Then what must our eyes be like to facilitate this? We wish to serve the best master? Then we must consider which is the more worthy of our devotion. Only when we have grasped with our minds the comparative durability of the two treasures (corruptible and incorruptible), the comparative usefulness of the two eye conditions (light and darkness) and the comparative worth of the two masters (God and mammon), are we ready to make our choice. And only when we have made our choice – for heavenly treasure, for light, for God – therefore I tell you this is how you must go on to behave: do not be anxious about your life … nor about your body … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness [25,33]. In other words, our basic choice of which of two masters we intend to serve will radically affect our attitude to both. We shall not be anxious about the one (for we have rejected it), but concentrate our mind and energy on the other (for we have chosen him); we shall refuse to become engrossed in our own concerns, but instead seek first the concerns of God. Christ’s language of search (contrasting what the Gentiles seek with what His followers are to seek first [32,22]) introduces us to the subject of ambition. Jesus took it for granted that all human beings are ‘seekers’. It is not natural for people to drift aimlessly through life like plankton. We need something to live for, something to give meaning to our existence, something to ‘seek’, something on which to set our ‘hearts’ and our ‘minds’. Ambition concerns our goals in life and our incentives for pursuing them. A person’s ambition is what makes him ‘tick’; it uncovers the mainspring of his actions, his secret inner motivation. This, then, is what Jesus was talking about when He defined what in the Christian counter-culture we are to seek first. Once again our Lord simplifies the issue for us by reducing the alternative possible life-goals to only two. He puts them over against each other in this section, urging His followers not to be preoccupied with their own security (food, drink, and clothing), for that is the obsession of the Gentiles who do not know Him, but rather with God’s rule and God’s righteousness, and with their spread and triumph in the world.

A.  False or secular ambition: our own material security. Most of this paragraph is negative. Three times Jesus repeats His prohibition Do not be anxious [25,31,34] or ‘Don’t worry.’ And the preoccupation He forbids us is food, drink and clothing [31]. Yet this is precisely what the Gentiles seek after. We have only to glance at the advertisements on television, in newspapers and in public transport to find a vivid modern illustration of what Jesus taught nearly two millennia ago. Now please do not misunderstand this. Jesus Christ neither denies nor despises the needs of the body. As a matter of fact, He made it Himself. And He takes care of it. What is He saying them? He is emphasizing that to become engrossed in material comforts is a false preoccupation. For one thing, it is unproductive; for another it is unnecessary (because your heavenly Father knows that you need them [32]); but especially it is unworthy. It betrays a false view of human beings (as if they were only bodies needing to be fed, watered, clothed and housed) and of human life (as if it were merely a physiological mechanism needing to be protected, lubricated and fueled). We need to clarify what Jesus is prohibiting, and what reasons He gives for His prohibition. First, He is not forbidding thought. On the contrary, He is encouraging it when He goes on to bid us look at the birds and the flowers and consider how God looks after them. Secondly, He is not forbidding forethought. Birds make provision for the future by building their nests, laying and incubating their eggs, and feeding their young. There is nothing here to stop Christians making plans for the future or taking sensible steps for their own security. No, what Jesus forbids is neither thought nor forethought, but anxious thought. Prudent provision for the future is right; wearing, corroding, self-tormenting anxiety is wrong. Why is it wrong? Jesus replies by arguing that obsessional worry of this kind is incompatible both with Christian faith [25-30] and with common sense [34], but He spends more time on the first. 1. Worry is incompatible with Christian faith [25-30]. The reasons Jesus gives why we should trust God instead of being anxious are both a fortiori (how much more) arguments. One is taken from human experience and argues from the greater to the lesser; the other comes from sub-human experience (birds and flowers) and argues from the lesser to the greater. Our human experience is this: God created and now sustains our life; He also created and continues to sustain our body. This is a fact of everyday experience. We neither made ourselves, nor keep ourselves alive. Now, our ‘life’ (for which God is responsible) is obviously more important than the food and drink which nourish it. Similarly our ‘body’ (for which God is also responsible) is more important than the clothing which covers and warms it. Well then, if God already takes care of the greater (our life and our body), can we not trust Him to take care of the lesser (our food and our clothing)? The logic is inescapable, and Jesus enforces it in verse 27 with the question: which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? So just as we leave these matters to God (for they are certainly beyond us), would it not be sensible to trust Him for lesser things like food and clothes? Next, Jesus turns to the subhuman world and argues the other way round. He uses birds as an illustration of God’s supply of food [26] and flowers to illustrate His supply of clothing [28-30]. In both cases He tells us to look at or ‘consider’ them, that is, to think about the facts of God’s providential care in their case. Birds neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet our heavenly Father clothes them, indeed more gorgeously than Solomon in all his glory. This being so, can we not trust Him to feed and clothe us who are of much more value than birds and flowers? Why, He even clothes the common grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven. 2. Problems relating to Christian faith. I need at this point to allow myself a digression in order to comment on three problems related to the child-like Christian faith which Jesus asks of us. All three are big problems and can only be touched on here, but because they arise in our minds from our Lord’s basic promise that our heavenly Father can be trusted to feed and clothe us, it would be wrong to evade them. I will state them negatively in terms of the three liberties which faith does not take in the light of God’s promise, or of the three immunities which His promise does not give us. First, believers are not exempt from earning their own living. We cannot sit back in an armchair, twiddle our thumbs, mutter ‘my heavenly Father will provide’ and do nothing. We have to work. God provides, but we still have to cooperate by using whatever means He has given us for the accomplishment of His own purposes. Second, believers are not exempt from responsibility for others. I say this in relation to the second problem, which is one of providence, rather than of science. If God promises to feed and clothe His children, how is it that many are ill-clad and under-nourished? It does not seem to me that there is a simple solution to this problem. But one important point should be made, namely that the most basic cause of hunger is not an inadequate divine provision, but an inequitable human distribution. The truth is that God has provided ample resources in earth and sea. But men hoard or spoil or waste these resources, and do not share them out. The fact that God feeds and clothes His children does not exempt us from the responsibility of being the agents through whom He does it. Thirdly, believers are not exempt from experiencing trouble. It is true that Jesus forbids His people to worry. But to be free from worry and to be free from trouble are not the same thing. Christ commands us not to be anxious, but does not promise that we shall be immune to all misfortune. It is significant that at the end of this paragraph the reason Jesus gives why we are not to be anxious about tomorrow is: Sufficient for the day is its own trouble [34]. So there will be trouble. A Christian’s freedom from anxiety is not due to some guaranteed freedom from trouble, but to the folly of worry and especially to the confidence that God is our Father, that even permitted suffering is within the orbit of His care, and that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose [Rom. 8:28]. So then God’s children are promised freedom neither from work, nor from responsibility, nor from trouble, but only from worry. Worry is forbidden us: it is incompatible with Christian faith. 3. Worry is incompatible with common sense [34]. Worry is as inconsistent with common sense as it is with Christian faith. In verse 34 Jesus mentions both today and tomorrow. All worry is about tomorrow, whether about food or clothing or anything else; but all worry is experienced today. Whenever we are anxious, we are upset in the present about some event which may happen in the future. However, these fears of ours about tomorrow, which we feel so acutely today, may not be fulfilled. People worry that they may not pass an exam, or find a job, or get married, or retain their health, or succeed in some enterprise. But it is all fantasy. Many worries, perhaps most, never materialize. So then worry is a waste – a waste of time, thought and nervous energy. We need to learn to live a day at a time. We should plan for the future, or course, but not worry about the future. Each day has troubles enough of its own. So why anticipate them? If we do, we double them. For if our fear does not materialize, we have worried once for nothing; if it does materialize, we have worried twice instead of once. In both cases it is foolish: worry doubles trouble. It is time to sum up Jesus’ exposition of the world’s false ambition. To become preoccupied with material things in such a way that they engross our attention, absorb our energy and burden us with anxiety is incompatible with both Christian faith and common sense. It is distrustful of our heavenly Father, and it is frankly stupid. This is what pagans do; but it is an utterly unsuitable and unworthy ambition for Christians. So just as Jesus has already called us in the Sermon to a greater righteousness, a broader love and a deeper piety, He now calls us to a higher ambition.

B.  True or Christian ambition: God’s rule and righteousness. It is important to see verses 31 to 33 together. Verse 31 repeats the prohibition against being anxious about food, drink and clothing. Verse 32 adds: For the Gentiles seek after all these things. This shows that in the vocabulary of Jesus ‘to seek’ and ‘to be anxious’ are interchangeable. He is not talking so much about anxiety as about ambition. Now heathen ambition focuses on material necessities. But this cannot be right for the Christian partly because your heavenly Father knows that you need them all, but mostly because these things are not an appropriate or worthy object for the Christian’s quest. He must have something else, something higher, as the Supreme Good which he will energetically seek: not material things, but spiritual values; not his own good but God’s; in fact not food and clothing, but the kingdom and the righteousness of God. 1. Seeking first God’s kingdom. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God He was not referring to the general sovereignty of God over nature and history, but to that specific rule over His own people which He Himself had inaugurated, and which begins in anybody’s life when he humbles himself, repents, believes, submits and is born again. God’s kingdom is Jesus Christ ruling over His people in total blessing and total demand. To seek first this kingdom is to desire as of first importance the spread of the reign of Jesus Christ. Such a desire will start with ourselves, until every single department of our life – home, marriage and family, personal morality, professional life and business ethics, bank balance, tax returns, life-style, citizenship – is joyfully and freely submissive to Christ. It will continue in our immediate environment, with the acceptance of evangelistic responsibility towards our relatives, colleagues, neighbors and friends. And it will also reach out in global concern for the missionary witness of the church. We must be clear, then, about true missionary motivation. Why do we desire the spread of the gospel throughout the world? Because the glory of God and of His Christ is at stake. God is King, has inaugurated His saving reign through Christ, and has a right to rule in the lives of His creatures. Our ambition, then, is to seek first His kingdom, to cherish the passionate desire that His name should receive from men the honor which is due to it. To accord priority to the interests of the kingdom of God here and now is not to lose sight of its goal beyond history. For the present manifestation of the kingdom is only partial. Jesus spoke also of a future kingdom of glory and told us to pray for its coming. So to seek first the kingdom includes the desire and the prayer for the consummation at the end of time when all the King’s enemies have become His footstool and His reign is undisputed. 2. Seeking first God’s righteousness. It is not clear why Jesus distinguished between the kingdom of God and his righteousness as twin but separate objects of our priority Christian quest. Now we are told to seek first the righteousness of God in addition to seeking first the kingdom of God. Let me make a tentative suggestion about the difference between the two. God’s kingdom exists only where Jesus Christ is consciously acknowledged. To be in His kingdom is synonymous with enjoying His salvation. Only the born again have seen and entered the kingdom. And to seek it first is to spread the good news of salvation in Christ. But God’s righteousness is a wider concept than God’s kingdom. It includes that individual and social righteousness to which reference has been made earlier in the Sermon. And God, because He is Himself a righteous God, desires righteousness in every human community, not just in every Christian community. God hates injustice and loves righteousness everywhere. Now one of God’s purposes for His new and redeemed community is through them to make His righteousness attractive, and so commend it to all men. Then people outside God’s kingdom will see it and desire it, and the righteousness of God’s kingdom will, as it were, spill over into the non-Christian world. Of course the deep righteousness of the heart which Jesus emphasizes in the Sermon is impossible to any but the regenerate; but some degree of righteousness is possible in unregenerate society – in personal life, in family standards and in public decency. To be sure, Christians want to go much further than this and see people actually brought into God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time, we should not be shy of maintaining that outside the circle of the kingdom righteousness is more pleasing to God than unrighteousness, justice than injustice, freedom than oppression, love than hate, peace than war. If this is so, then to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness may be said to embrace our Christian evangelistic and social responsibilities, much as do the ‘salt’ and ‘light’ metaphors of Matthew 5. In order to seek first God’s kingdom we must evangelize, since the kingdom spreads only as the gospel of Christ is preached, heard, believed and obeyed. In order to seek first God’s righteousness we shall still evangelize (for the inward righteousness of the heart is impossible otherwise), but we shall also engage in social action and endeavor to spread throughout the community those higher standards of righteousness which are pleasing to God.

What, then, is our Christian ambition? In the end, just as there are only two kinds of piety, the self-centered and the God-centered, so there are only two kinds of ambition: one can be ambitious either for oneself or for God. There is no third alternative. Ambitions for God, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that He should acquire just a little more honor in the world? No. Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see Him crowned with glory and honor, and accorded His true place, which is the supreme place. We become ambitious for the spread of His kingdom and righteousness everywhere. Lesser ambitions are safe and right provided that they are not an end in themselves (namely ourselves) but the means to a greater end (the spread of God’s kingdom and righteousness) and therefore to the greatest of all ends, namely God’s glory. This is the “Supreme Good” which we are to seek first; there is no other.” [Stott, pp. 159-173].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why does Jesus start with Therefore I tell you? How does this passage connect with the previous passage? What does Stott mean when he writes that Jesus “calls us to thought before He calls us to action”?
  2. As Jesus normally does in His teaching, He presents two options for His followers. It is always an “either/or” in His teaching about discipleship. What two choices or ambitions does He present here?
  3. Three times Jesus repeats His prohibition: do not be anxious [25.31.34]. Why does He place such emphasis on this command? What is the cause of anxiety? What is the cure? What does our anxiety tell us about our relationship with God?
  4. How is worry incompatible with the Christian faith? What does Jesus tell His disciples is the true Christian ambition? What objective or goal should be the focus of our time, energy, thought, and desire? What does it mean for the way you live your daily life to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?

References:

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D. A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.

Matthew, vol. 1, Daniel Doriani, REC, P & R Publishing.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter Varsity.