Sermon on the Mount: Don’t Worry
Storing up treasures in heaven makes sense. Serving God and not Mammon is obviously the right choice. But if you follow this train of thought all the way, it brings up a problem. You still need to eat. In fact, you have all kinds of practical, material needs. What about those? “So,” you could ask Jesus, “if I put all my focus on pursuing the Kingdom, how can I make sure my basic needs get met?”
Jesus answers, “You can’t do that anyway, so don’t worry about it.”
Three times in Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus says, “Don’t worry,” and once he asks the rhetorical question, “Why worry?” Like everything else in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out a natural attitude—worry—that really doesn’t serve us well. Jesus is trying to free us from that. So what is worry?
Worry is focusing on possible negative future scenarios that you do not control. Now, the Greek word for worry (merimnao) can have the much broader sense of “care,” which can sometimes be a good thing (1 Cor. 7:32-34; 12:25; Phil. 2:20). It can also just be a preoccupation with something. Martha’s “worry” was hurting her simply because she was preoccupied with the wrong things (Luke 10:41-42). But Jesus is clearly thinking about our type of worry—worry that has a future orientation: What will we eat? What will we wear (Matt. 6:25, 31)? What about tomorrow (Matt. 6:34)?
“Worry is focusing on possible negative future scenarios that you do not control.”
Of course, no one worries that they might get invited to an ice-cream party tomorrow. We worry about bad things. Like not having food. Also note that Jesus’ examples are fairly specific. This is not some generalized “anxiety.” The worry we’re talking about has focus—e.g. food, drink, clothes. Insert whatever thing keeps you up at night. For me, it’s whether my kids will find a way to make a living when they grow up.
Moreover, once we start looking into the future, we open Pandora’s box. We don’t know the future. We’re just making this stuff up. We literally get worked up over imaginary things. And we can imagine all kinds of possible scenarios.
In The Nature and Destiny of Man (p. 179-186), Reinhold Neibuhr observes that, like every other creature, people are contingent. They need things in order to stay alive. Unlike other creatures, people are consciously aware of this fact and able to project it into the future. We don’t just understand, “I’m hungry now.” We understand, “I’m going to be hungry again tomorrow.” This is why we “store up treasures on earth.” We realize we may eventually need them. But our needs are theoretically infinite. There’s always another “tomorrow.”
“Our needs are theoretically infinite. There’s always another ‘tomorrow.'”
If you’re one of the day-laborers Jesus is talking to, that day is actually tomorrow. But even if you’re John D. Rockefeller, there is a “tomorrow” out there that you don’t have enough for. So how much is enough? As Rockefeller said, “Just a little bit more.” Our worry can always outpace any amount of accumulation.
But the root problem with whatever “nightmare scenario” we come up with is that we do not have control. This is the difference between worrying and problem solving. Problem solving focuses on things we can actually do, things we have the power to change. It works to see how much we can accomplish based on those things. That’s not worry. Worry isn’t putting thought into what you can do. It’s focusing on what you can’t.
Therefore, having a job that will help take care of your needs is not worry. Jesus says, “Don’t worry,” not, “Don’t work.” The illustrations about birds and flowers (that they don’t do any work) are intended to say something about God. Jesus isn’t advocating irresponsibility. In fact, Paul will insist on the exact opposite (2 Thess. 3:6-12). Remember the context—this future-oriented focus on contingencies we do not control. Having a job or not having a job doesn’t affect that. There’s always another tomorrow to worry about.
“Jesus says, ‘Don’t worry,’ not, ‘Don’t work.'”
When your focus is on these future contingencies that you do not control, you are paralyzed. By definition, you can’t do anything about them, but your worry won’t let you look away. It may feel a bit like problem solving, but you’re actually just chasing your tail. As Jesus points out, worry doesn’t accomplish anything. It can’t add a metaphorical cubit to your life (Matt. 6:27; Luke 12:25-26).
It doesn’t change tomorrow (Matt. 6:34), but instead lets this imaginary tomorrow ruin your “today.” You can’t worry yourself to life, but you can worry yourself to death.
So what do we do about worry? Jesus’ answer is pretty clear: trust God. Instead of being one of “little faith” (Matt. 6:30), remember the God you serve.
I’m afraid that we’re going to bracket out Matthew 7:1-6, for now. If we do that, Matthew 7:7 seems to pick up the discussion right where Matthew 6:25-34 left off. Matthew 7:7-11 continues the theme of physical needs (7:9-10), it develops the idea of God as our loving Father (7:11), and it even keeps using the vocabulary of “seeking” (7:7-8). On any account, Matthew 7:7-11 fleshes out how to trust God. Whatever you’re worried about, whatever it is you think you need, just ask. Hand it over to him. Because you can trust him to take care of you.
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11)
That’s the point of looking at the flowers and the birds (6:26, 28-29). God takes care of them.
“So what do we do about worry? Jesus’ answer is pretty clear: trust God.”
The other aspect of trusting God is choosing to focus on the Kingdom (Matt. 6:33). The path Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount is the progressive realization of the Kingdom. Commit to that path.
No matter what your worry tells you.
The thing about unhelpful inner chatter—whether it’s fear, doubt, worry, or whatever—is that you usually can’t get rid of it. It won’t just go away. But that doesn’t mean it has to drive the car. Worry wants to take the driver’s seat, but it won’t take you anywhere (much less to the Kingdom!).
Maybe you can’t shut it up. But you can put it in the passenger seat and keep going anyway. You choose what you focus on. Focus on the Kingdom.
“But you could die!” says worry.
Spoiler alert! Everyone dies. Jesus even makes a nod to this when he talks about adding a cubit to your life. At some point, your time is up. However that comes, would worrying about it have made any difference?
“At some point, your time is up. However that comes, would worrying about it have made any difference?”
People die. Birds die (Matt. 10:29). Grass gets mowed down and burned (Matt. 6:30). Matthew 6 isn’t a promise that God will never let anything bad happen. It’s a promise that if we focus on the Kingdom and let God take care of the rest, he will do more than we ever possibly could. “Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Matt. 6:29).
He’s the God who made manna fall out of the sky (Ex. 16). He’s the God who got ravens to feed Elisha (1 Ki. 17:1-6). He’s the God who re-defined “endless bread sticks” (Matt. 14:13-21). And he said,
“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much.”
Of course, at the end of the day, there are more important things than physical needs. Life is more than food and clothing (Matt. 6:25). There is the Kingdom. In fact, Luke ends his discussion of “ask, seek, knock,” not by asking for physical needs, but by asking for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13). It’s funny. As we let God care for our material needs more, we care about them less. When worry hits, it is nothing more than a reminder to sharpen our focus. We seek God’s Kingdom first. Whatever is second is up to him.