The Toxicity of Anxiety (1)
It is indescribably disheartening to see how many Christians continue to live beneath their privileges as children of God. I’m not talking about material or financial privileges or even physical privileges. I’m talking about the joy, freedom, peace, and confidence that are ours in Jesus and because of what he’s done for us. It truly grieves me that so many Christians experience so very little of these blessings. They muddle through life fearful rather than faithful, filled with anxiety and uncertainty, consumed with worry and doubt and hesitation. This is not God’s will for you!
Instead of flourishing spiritually and enjoying all that God is for them in Jesus, countless Christians are paralyzed with anxiety over questions like:
• “Will God love me tomorrow, after I’ve failed him so badly today?”
• “Can God even be trusted with my life?”
• “How do I know God has my best interests at heart?”
• “Will I have enough money to get by?”
• “Who’s going to take care of me in a world filled with so much danger?”
If there is one positive thing in this it is knowing that even the men and women who walked with Jesus in the first century were asking the same questions. Jesus knew that, and that is why he said what he did in Matthew 6:25-34.
“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? 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? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 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? 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. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Not everyone reading this is going to hear and respond to what I have to say in the same way. I love the way D. A. Carson explains this in his short book on the Sermon on the Mount. He asks us to picture or envision three different kinds of people.
The first is the happy-go-lucky, overly cheerful, almost irresponsible Pollyanna who hardly worries about the next five minutes, let alone tomorrow or next year. Life is a lark. This person doesn’t take anything seriously. It’s hard to get him to commit or work at anything with any degree of intensity. Most of life’s struggles bounce off him with little effect, and he’s probably even less concerned with your problems than he is with his own.
The second person is at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. This guy worries about everything. He is hyper-responsible and takes very personally every problem and burden of every other person that he knows. If it’s not the economy, it’s the weather; if it’s not the weather, it’s the government; if it’s not the government, it’s not only his bad health but that of everyone else. He’s riddled with anxiety not only about lunch today but about how he is going to be able to survive after retirement some 35 years down the road!
Our third person is somewhere in between, a solid, sane, balanced believer known for her integrity, hard work, and commitment to her family. Married with three young children, she home-schools the kids and keeps a relatively clean house. She’s got friends and everyone loves to have her around. Then one night she wakes up to discover that her husband is paralyzed on his right side and can’t speak. The diagnosis is a brain tumor which, at best, will leave him incapacitated and unable to work, and, at worst, will kill him in a year or two.
Each of these three will hear what Jesus says in this passage differently. The first guy will shout “Amen” repeatedly, thinking that our Lord’s rebuke of anxiety and worry reinforces his carefree and irresponsible approach to life. The second will probably feel rebuked by what Jesus says. He’ll finish his reading under a weight of guilt, just one more burden to add to the countless oppressive concerns under which he’s already weighed down. The third may respond with a measure of relief and encouragement, or perhaps will sneer under her breath something to the effect that the writer should watch his own spouse suffer and die before venturing out to say anything about whether or not we are justified to worry as we do.
So I realize that not everyone will like or agree with or respond in the same manner as others do. All I can say is that I hope you will hear not only in the words of Jesus but behind and beneath them the profoundly passionate love and concern he has for you and the commitment that he makes to you.
Let me begin by first taking note of the context in which our Lord’s teaching is found, and then clear up a few misconceptions that must be avoided.
First, note that v. 25 begins with the word “therefore.” I’m sure you remember the rule: always ask what the word “therefore” is there for! It is there to draw our attention back to vv. 19-24 where Jesus has just addressed the danger of laying up for ourselves treasures on earth; he has just warned us about the dangers of hoarding wealth and being overly concerned with it. Jesus is speaking to both the rich and to the poor. To the rich, who are inclined to trust in their wealth, he says: “Don’t lay up treasures on earth but rather treasures in heaven.” To the poor, who are inclined to worry about the lack of wealth, he says: “Trust God to make provision for all that you need.”
Satan’s subtlety is stunning. He doesn’t care whether you are obsessed with money because you have a lot of it or are worried about money because you have little. His only concern is that wealth takes your mind and heart off God.
Second, a few misconceptions need to be addressed. For example, in telling us not to worry about the future he is not telling us not to plan for it. Prudent provision for the future is good and right; wearing, corrosive, self-tormenting anxiety about it is not. Again, Jesus is not forbidding justified concern for matters of great importance. He is denouncing unjustified anxiety regarding matters over which we have no control, matters regarding which God has promised to provide. Another misconception is that when Jesus forbids worry about daily provisions that he’s undermining the human responsibility to work. Martin Luther said it best:
“God . . . wants nothing to do with the lazy, gluttonous bellies who are neither concerned nor busy; they act as if they just had to sit and wait for him to drop a roasted goose into their mouth!”
As we’ll see later in v. 26, God provides for birds not by dropping worms from the sky but by providing for them in nature what is necessary for them to feed themselves. One more misconception that needs to be addressed is the mistaken conclusion that this passage forbids us from taking care of other Christians who are in need. The fact that God providentially provides for the needs of his children does not free us from the responsibility of being the means whereby he does it! He tells us not to be concerned for ourselves, but not that we should lack concern for others. He may be anti-selfish, but he’s not anti-social.
So what does Jesus have to say to those riddled with anxiety and worry and doubt, people who are spiritually and emotionally paralyzed for fear of what comes next? He gives us 8 reasons not to worry, each of which we’ll examine in the next article.