Serving and Anxiety
By Anthony Casperson
Because I want to respect the topic and all who deal with anxiety in its variety of forms, the intro here is going to be a little shorter—and much more serious—than normal.
I mean, certain “well-meaning” scholars and bible teachers have weaponized verses like the passage we’ll be discussing today in our “Summer on the Mount” series against those of us who struggle with anxiety. (I know this to be true because I—as someone who has been clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder with panic attacks—have actually had such passages aimed in my direction before, with their intent to convince me that I need to repent from having any inkling of anxiety.)
Therefore, I want to be careful how we interact with our passage so that we can apply its truth without modifying the actual words of God just so that we can feel better about ourselves. We followers of Jesus should look at the truth first—no matter how painful—and then see how it applies to our exact situations. With the understanding that God gives us the grace to live in the midst of the truth of his creation.
And I think the problem with misapplications of our passage, Matthew 6:25-34, come from the fact that there are certain intricacies in the Greek language that are not found in English. (And yes, I know that Jesus probably preached this sermon in Aramaic rather than Greek, but this Spirit-inspired writing carries the intent between the languages.) Thus, those working only from the English translations—which are not inspired in the same manner—might unintentionally misapply the passage without understanding that their lack of knowledge causes unnecessary pain in the lives of others.
But before we get into that aspect of our discussion, let’s first look at the context of verses 25-34. Because context can help us understand more than just looking at the verses in a void.
Remember that the last blog in our series spoke about the truth that our focus determines our direction. If we focus on our part of the work of the kingdom of God, piling up a heavenly hoard, then we will have an eternal treasure while we stand in his light. However, if we focus on the things of this world, piling up a hoard that can be destroyed or stolen, then we will find ourselves serving a master that seeks only to consume our existence than aid us in living life.
Our heart will be in the place where we pile up our hoard of treasure. Life in the midst of God’s light. Or a slow death at the hands of a selfish master.
And then Jesus moves into our verses for this blog, which are an example of a continual focus in the wrong direction. And this is where we get to the intricacies of language. The vast majority of the uses of the verbs for being anxious in this passage come in a form that means a habitual, continuous, non-stop focus on the anxieties of life. (The two times that don’t carry this verbal form have reasons that we’ll discuss when we get there.)
Thus, Jesus is not saying that having a moment—or even a short season—of anxiety is a bad and sinful thing. But rather, that having a lifestyle that’s characterized by a constant state of worry, which removes our focus from the work and goodness of God, is the negative aspect of anxiety. When our worries turn our focus from God’s kingdom, and become a master that we serve instead, then we have a need to return to the grace of God. Just like everyone else who tries to do the impossible of having two foci—regardless of the second master they try to serve.
Jesus tells us in verse 25 to not be in this continual state of anxiety concerning the needs of this life. Something that might pop up in the minds of people who’ve just been told to focus on the heavenly treasure while still needing to live in this earthly realm. “How am I supposed to get the necessary things of this life, if I’m focused solely on the heavenly?”
Therefore, Jesus explains his point as he continues in verses 26-30. He reminds us that creation itself is cared for by God. He gives the birds of the air food to eat even though they don’t sow or reap or gather into barns. And we human beings are of much more value to God than the birds, so he’s that much more likely to give us the grace needed for our daily lives than he gives to them.
(This isn’t to say that God will give us our every want and desire. But instead, that as we serve God and his kingdom, he will supply us what we need for that work. And this includes the grace to live in less than ideal situations when we suffer for the truth of his kingdom.)
Switching from the need of food, Jesus speaks to the concern about our physical well-being. He asks what worrying does to the measure of our lives. Can worry serve as a master that will aid us in the extent of our lives? Can it add one more step to the path of our time on this planet? Give one more minute of goodness to our existence? No. It’s more likely to reduce our health and life span. It’s a master that breaks us down, rather than builds us up.
And then, in this trifecta of physical needs, Jesus moves on to the clothes that we wear. He points to the flowers of the field, saying that they don’t toil and spin thread for fabric that will create a beautiful appearance in them. No, their beauty comes from the grace of God. A beauty that even the richest and most powerful king of Israel paled to ever reach. Yet that very same grass of the field will wilt and become so useless that it’ll burn up in fire the next day. And we who are made in the image of God are of much more value than those flowers. So, we should continue to trust that the physical needs we require will be granted to us by the Master who can actually help us.
Jesus’ reiterates his point in verse 31. This is one of the two places where the form of the verb moves beyond the continuous state of worry. However, the preposition of the word “saying” does carry that non-stop aspect, which helps us read that verb for “don’t be anxious” with an implied form of continual meaning. Basically, we shouldn’t let a single moment of anxiety leave us speaking a continual refrain of asking how we’re going to have our needs met.
We followers of Jesus serve a God who is good and holy and able. If we’re constantly asking how he’s going to meet our needs, then is he really the master we serve? Or is it our personal needs that have removed our focus from God that have become our master?
In verse 32, Jesus reminds us that even people who don’t follow God, who don’t serve his kingdom, also seek the same physical needs. And even they receive his grace in having those needs met—because without the goodness of God, no one would have anything required to live. He provides the air for our lungs that gives us the ability to live. He keeps our hearts beating. He blesses us with jobs and money and opportunities—even if we don’t admit it’s his blessing in our lives.
Jesus, gives us the perfect application for his words in verse 33. Seek first the kingdom of God, and these things will be added to you. Let our primary focus, our sole and deliberate focus, be on the work and kingdom of God. And the God who is good and holy and able will give us what no other master is capable of giving.
Life. With exactly what we need in the situation.
Other masters—worry and anxiety among many more—only rob and steal and kill. They’re not worth serving. Not worth devoting our continuous attention on them. Not worth our focus.
So, let’s seek first God’s kingdom work and how we can best serve the only Master who can give life instead of take it.
Oh, and you might be asking where that second non-continuous verb for “be anxious” was. It’s in verse 34, where Jesus says that we shouldn’t have anxiety over the things of tomorrow because today has enough trouble on its own. Notice that Jesus doesn’t condemn the momentary worry of a current situation. Doesn’t disregard concern for today’s troubles. If he had meant that, then the second half of that verse would’ve been the perfect place to condemn a single thought of anxiety.
It’s not a moment of anxiety that Jesus speaks against, but rather a lifestyle that focuses so much on the worries of this world that we have no room left to focus on God. The point isn’t to shame and condemn people who struggle with anxiety. Instead, it’s to call us to return our focus to the best Master, and let him show us his care and goodness.
Let’s set our focus on God’s kingdom, and allow our worries about this life to be met in him. That other master, the anxieties and worries about future problems and things out of our control, will leave us only with slow and miserable decline into death.
Stop serving that master.
Don’t feel shame or guilt for moments when anxiety strikes us from the shadows. There is no sin in a momentary worry or concern for today’s problems. As long as we keep our focus on God and his kingdom. The sin is in serving any master other than him.
It doesn’t stop the problems of life. But it does make the life worth living.