Matthew 6:25-33 – Do Not Worry

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (New International Version)

Jesus cares both about what we do, and why we do it. That’s because he cares about our whole selves – our physical needs and our emotional/spiritual needs. In our anxiety about the future, Jesus guides us toward a non-anxious presence for our daily lives.

We all know what worry is. It’s that unsettling feeling in the pit of your gut about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Whenever we worry, we display an inability to see beyond our own little world. Worry bogs us down and saps our faith. Our worry is significant enough to warrant Jesus repeating the command to not worry six times. And he gives six reasons why:

Life is more than food and clothes.

When we are beset with worry, we need a big picture view of what’s going on. Being overly concerned about how the necessities of life are going to be met, we need a reminder that God cares for life itself, including us. If God cares about life, which is so valuable, he will sustain us with what we need to live that life.

God cares for the birds in creation. 

People are the apex of God’s creation. And, since God cares for every other creature on this earth, and sustains their lives, God will certainly care for us, as well.

Worry begins to melt and be replaced by faith, not when we try and work up feelings of trust, but when we take the time to observe creation – watching the birds and seeing how God takes care of them. Birds don’t worry; they just enjoy God’s providence. Birds work hard, but they aren’t farmers who plant and harvest. Yet, God sustains them. So, if God will provide for small creatures that don’t plan to avoid starvation, how much more will God sustain you!?

Worry accomplishes nothing. 

Worry is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere. Worry is simply unhelpful.

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.

Charles M. Schulz

God cares for the flowers and grass in creation. 

God clothes the flowers better than we ever could dress ourselves (which is what my daughters have told me for years). Jesus specifically identifies flowers and grass because they illustrate a short and precarious lifespan. Christ’s logic is from the lesser to the greater: If God cares for something as fragile and temporary as flowers and grass, how much more will God care for you?

Jesus links worry with a small faith. We have expectations in life about how things ought to go. If those expectations are grounded in God’s promises, then whenever adverse circumstances come, we will likely respond with peace and trust. However, if we are anticipating the future to turn out a particular way, then the worry sets in. 

While we worry, we begin taking matters into our own hands. If the situation goes against our expectations, then we start to question if God is good or not, or if the Lord really has our best interests at mind. We must not tether ourselves to a specific outcome, rather, we need to rely on God’s care for us, no matter what the outcome will be.

Your heavenly Father knows your needs. 

Unlike the ancient pagan deities who were aloof, fickle, and did not pay much attention to people, God is always watching us, always attentive, always knowing our every need. Pagan worshipers keep worrying about whether the gods will really care, or not.

However, with God there is no need for worry because we know the Lord has our backs and is trustworthy. Just as my girls used to jump from the stairway in a leap of faith because they knew for sure Dad was going to catch them, so also your heavenly Father is a reliable God.

The necessities of life will be given to you. 

God’s business is to provide for our necessities; our business is to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. 

The verb form of “seek” is a continuous action of seeking. We are to daily seek God’s kingdom and submit to Christ’s lordship. We are to continually pray for God’s kingdom to come and bring all the world under the gracious authority of Christ.

We need to keep seeking social, political, cultural, institutional, and ecclesiastical reform because God cares about it all coming under Christ’s lordship. Continually seeking God’s kingdom means we dethrone wealth and possessions as our first pursuits, and instead seek heavenly treasure as defined by Jesus.

We are to continually seek God’s righteousness by seeking peace where there is discord; forgiveness when others sin against us; mercy instead of judgment; right relations with people in our family, at work, in the neighborhood, and in the church. 

The will of God is clearly stated: Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.

Conclusion

If we are busy with kingdom business, there is then no room for worry. Anxious fretting sets in whenever we are diverted from seeking the kingdom. There’s no need for worry about tomorrow because I am busy today doing God’s will.

So, how then do we overcome worry?

  1. Confess and renounce worry. Call worry for what it is: a lack of faith.
  2. Observe creation. Take regular walks in nature. See all the flora and fauna around you. Perceive how God cares for all of it – and you.
  3. Get to know the God of the Bible. Spending time with God increases our faith and reliance upon the Lord. Knowing that he is trustworthy, increases our faith. Engaging in the spiritual practices of prayer, giving, and fasting build our trust in God.
  4. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Busy yourself with kingdom pursuits, instead of worry.

May God’s blessing rest on you, as you value what Jesus values, and as you seek the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Temptation in the Desert

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:9-15, NIV)

We are in the season of Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we take a forty-day journey, leading to Holy Week and Easter. Jesus spent forty days in the desert being tempted by Satan. So, the church remembers this event with the season of Lent. This is the time of year in which Christians are to give awareness of the temptations we face on a regular basis. We intentionally seek to fast or give up something for six weeks so that we might see how much we attach ourselves to other things and rely on them, instead of trusting in God.

Just as it was important and significant for Jesus to be in the desert, it is necessary for us, as well. Jesus retraced the steps of his ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years. They had an extended time in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land because they needed to re-connect with God after having failed in their faith. Their trust had to be strengthened and developed before they could ever be ready to receive God’s promises.

Jesus faced down the devil and overcame temptation in the desert. The forty days were a necessary preparation for the upcoming three years of ministry that would culminate in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But before any of that could happen, Jesus had to experience the desert.

We, like Jesus, need to have a desert spirituality. If we are not formed into followers of Jesus through learning to overcome temptation, then we are at risk to be shaped into followers of Satan. God desires to strengthen our faith. We, like Jesus, need to face down the devilish temptations which would impede our spiritual development.

In every sport, weightlifting has become a necessary part of athletic training. Athletes now know their muscles must be properly developed for their respective sport. Through weight training the muscle fibers are broken down with stress. Then, with proper hydration, nutrition, and rest, the muscles are re-built as better, stronger, and more agile. 

Christ in the Desert by Julie Lonneman

As Christians, the desert becomes the gymnasium where we are broken down through the stress of temptation so that we might become spiritually stronger in our faith. Without this kind of spiritual training, we become vulnerable to satanic accusations and become easy targets to demonic seduction.

After the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit “sent” him into the desert. The word is perhaps better translated as “thrown” or “hurled.”  It is an extraordinarily strong word conveying that the Spirit flung Jesus out into the desert.

Being tossed into the desert demonstrates how important spending time there was for Jesus. It was in the desert he learned to resist temptation in his ministry. There was real danger in the desert, wild animals, and vulnerability to the elements. Yet, put in that situation and having come through it, Jesus was able to deal with the crafty pursuits of Satan to distract him from his mission. 

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, after tossing demons out of people, Jesus would tell the unclean spirits not to tell anyone who he was. Part of what was happening is that Satan wanted to tempt Jesus to gain fame and power through popularity and accolades. And that was not the way of Jesus. Our Lord was not going to bring in the kingdom of God through the usual avenues of careful marketing and brand recognition.

Another practice Jesus kept up throughout his ministry was to seek places for solitude and prayer. The needs Jesus daily saw and dealt with were large and vast and never ending. Jesus resisted the temptation to continually work without any rest or guidance in prayer. It was through solitude and prayer that Jesus connected with his Father and would move from place to place traveling and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.  Jesus never gave in to the temptation to settle in one place and build a petty kingdom of his own, apart from the Father.

As Jesus went about the countryside telling people to repent and believe the good news, he often spoke in parables designed to encourage thought and reflection. He did not succumb to the temptation to always be black and white about everything, giving just the bottom line of his teaching to people. 

Jesus did not teach to get immediate results or to let people know which side of the fence he occupied concerning the issues of the day. Instead, Christ understood his business – a ministry of building something permanent that would far outlast his mere three years of ministry. Because of the desert, and through his Father’s affirmation, Jesus lived a unique three years on this earth that has never been equaled before or since.

Some years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness.  We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. We had to be continually vigilant to not attract bears. The wilderness can be a dangerous place. On one of the days in that week, we were each dropped off on our own personal islands for an entire day, alone. Being face to face with yourself can be hard to deal with, which is what a desert experience does – it exposes the idols of our hearts and the ways in which we are tempted.

A person need not be in the Canadian wilderness or in a real desert to experience the effects of desert life. The Holy Spirit has a way of throwing us into the desert through changes of circumstances so that we will flex our spiritual muscles to get into spiritual shape.

The top three temptations of people today are worry, procrastination, and gossip. So, how do we face down those temptations (and others) and retrace our steps back to the path of God?  Here are some lessons I have learned in my own wilderness experiences through God’s Word:

  • Know your weaknesses. Know yourself. Know the temptations of Satan. The three temptations just mentioned all come from a tendency toward perfectionism. We worry about the future and not saying or doing something perfectly. We procrastinate saying or doing things for fear of screwing up and not being perfect. And we gossip to others about their faults and weaknesses because it maintains the illusion that our perfectionism is intact, at least as compared to others. However, perfectionism is slavery. 

We have freedom now because Christ made us free. So, stand strong in that freedom. Do not go back into slavery again. (Galatians 5:1, ERV)

  • Understand the importance of timing.  When are you at your weakest, at your most vulnerable time? What triggers you to sin?  We know that when our kids and grandkids act up, we first wonder if they are tired, hungry, or have some other need. It is the same with us. Carrying a massive sleep debt, skipping meals, or eating poorly because we are constantly in a hurry will set us up for temptation.

Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

  • Look to God and others.  Do not rely solely on your own willpower or think you ought to resist temptation all by yourself, all the time. Even Jesus looked both to his Father and his disciples. During a time of intense stress, Jesus said:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:38-41, NIV)

  • Have a plan. Flying by the seat of your pants will not always work. One of the major ways I personally resist temptation is by having a daily plan of worshiping God, praying, and reading Scripture at set times throughout the day.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. (Proverbs 22:3, NLT)

  • Overcome evil with good. If we apply this to the top three temptations people face, that means the worrier will love his/her enemies and pray for those who persecute. It means the procrastinator will take intentional steps of faith and risk, being real and vulnerable with others through accountable relationships. It means the gossip will seek to speak words of encouragement that build others up.

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21, NRSV)

  • Realize you are never alone.  Angels attended Jesus. Even the Son of God was never on his own.  Whatever you are facing is likely not unique to you. Others face similar struggles. Our brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of problems when they seek to walk with Christ.

Let the desert shape and strengthen your faith. If the Holy Spirit has thrown you into a dry place, learn all you can about resisting temptation so that you can come out the other end a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus Christ. 

1 Corinthians 7:32-40 – Relational Worries

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (NIV)

Everyone experiences worry and anxiety. It is part of our human condition in this broken world. You may have even woken up this morning with deep furrows of anxiety about the state of your life – and maybe God was lost somewhere in your worry. The Bible addresses worry many times, and the Apostle Paul brings it out here in our New Testament lesson for today.

Throughout the letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt with several issues effecting the life and health of the church. One of the topics of discussion was the prospect of marriage for unmarried persons (sounds like Paul spoke at a lot of college campuses). Paul went back and forth with the people as if he had a daisy in his hand giving a pre-marital counseling illustration of “she loves me, she loves me not” as he pulled petals off the flower.

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.”

thomas merton

Paul vacillated between whether to get married or not because of his larger concern about individual and congregational anxiety. The Apostle wanted everyone in the church to be free from worry. This, then, becomes a sage grid from which to make an important life decision: Does being unmarried create worry and anxiety within you, to the point that you cannot think about pleasing God? 

If that is the case, then drop the long engagement and get married, or put yourself out there to connect in a relationship. If being unmarried does not cause one to worry, then Paul would say to stay in your current state and be unconcerned for pursuing a marriage relationship. Instead, use your station in life to serve God freely, liberated from the worry of caring for a spouse.

Pleasing and serving the Lord is Paul’s highest good. If we are in life circumstances which make it difficult for us to serve God, then we ought to work to change the situation so that we can focus better on Christ. This is one of the most simple and wise ways of making decisions for the Christian devoted to Jesus, and discerning God’s will.

Having said that, it is important not to overthink this – because it only adds to the anxiety and really goes nowhere in making sound decisions. When it comes to issues about marriage and relationships, some folks get paralyzed wanting to make the “right” decision, and so, get too scared to even talk about their worry with others. Throw into the mix a possible underlying anxiety about being rejected, and decision-making can get quickly stymied. If we are too nervous to voice our concerns, we will likely miss out on the opportunity to potentially get reassurance and help.

Whenever we experience decision-making anxiety, there are some ways to address it…

  • Breathe. Take some deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. When you have an internal conflict, it creates inner drama, and we easily get stuck. Take a deep breath to take the edge off.
  • Be curious. When we are conflicted on the inside, be curious about what you want or need. Explore your true intentions without judgment. It is when our inner-critic chimes in with the harsh rhetoric of judgment that we often become anxious and worried. It is okay to identify and express what we really need and want.
  • Write it out. The act of writing not only helps clarify our thought process; it also calms our brains and our spirits – which allows us to calmly ask ourselves: “What is the best move at this point?”

May you blessed because you care. Although relational anxiety can vex our spirits, it is a sign that we want what is best for ourselves and others.

Gracious God, you in every way want me to be healthy and content. Help me not to be overcome by anxiety, and in all I do direct me to fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, along with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Way of Peace

Peace is neither merely the absence of conflict nor simply tolerating each other. Peace in Holy Scripture is cooperative fellowship, a harmonious way of living with God and one another based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peace is simultaneously a virtue we already possess and an ideal we need to obtain and live into.

In writing to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul strung together several verbs to make it clear how to achieve peace on the practical level. Six of the verbs are in the imperative form, that is, they are commands.  Paul gave these imperatives to the Church because they were in danger of a breakdown in their fellowship. Embedded within Paul’s message is a deep Christian spirituality based in knowing Christ, with an overall message and imperative to keep persevering and not give up on peace or on one another.

  • Stand firm in the Lord. (Philippians 4:1) 

Standing firm in faith is a function of knowing Jesus Christ – an experiential knowledge beyond mere mental acknowledgement (Philippians 3:7-10). Our feet are to be firmly planted and rooted in the soil of Jesus Christ as our highest value and our surpassing greatness over and above anyone or anything else. 

This first command is a bedrock imperative. We cannot really move to the other five imperatives until we ensure our foundation is solid. In other words, there will be no peace in our personal lives or in our corporate life together unless we embrace Jesus as our most precious relationship.

If our god is our stomach and we do not take charge and own our Christian walk through spiritual practices that connect us with Jesus, then peace will be elusive. We must patiently, deliberately, and slowly plod along with Jesus and follow him as our highest priority in every sphere of our lives.

  • Help resolve disagreements. (Philippians 4:2-3) 

Euodia and Syntyche were two prominent women leaders in the Philippian Church. Whatever their differences were, Paul made it clear to them that they must agree and be like-minded concerning the issue. 

This second imperative goes beyond telling two persons to work out their differences; the church was called upon to help do the work of peacemaking. Because peace characterizes the triune God, and Jesus Christ came to achieve peace on our behalf, God’s people are to be peacemakers.

Many differences are resolved with far fewer disagreements when we abide in Christ. If folks immerse themselves in Scripture and in knowing Christ, instead of taking the stance of being right despite any evidence to the contrary, then a lot less peacemaking would even need to take place.

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “Personal differences should never become an occasion for advancing your party, for stroking bruised egos, for resorting to cheap triumphalism, for trimming the gospel by appealing to pragmatics.  Focus on what unites you: the gospel. Be like-minded; think the same things; agree with one another. Work hard and humbly on these central issues, and in most instances the peripheral matters will take care of themselves. Resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other believers. This will ennoble and strengthen all sides, so that you will never abandon the Christian walk.”

  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:4-5) 

The Christian is to have a basic disposition of humility and meekness. There is to be gracious forbearance with others that is publicly observable. Rejoicing in the Lord need not be a command when we are truly pursuing the experiential knowledge of Christ (because joy then just spills out of us). Gentleness is the fruit of a meek and humble spirit, a direct result of knowing the gentle Savior.

A solid building block of conflict intervention and resolution is a humble and gentle spirit – which goes beyond personal holiness. It is being close enough to rub shoulders with others so that the gentleness can be experienced by another. This will sometimes require getting graciously involved in the interpersonal affairs of others. 

Getting involved does not mean dipping into other people’s business with unsolicited advice, angry diatribes, nor taking sides. It means, rather, extending basic human kindness in all affairs of group life, being part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

  • Do not be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6a)

Where disharmony exists, anxiety is not far behind. Worry about the future only obfuscates a way forward. Sometimes anxiety is rooted in our theology. If we fundamentally view God as a stern Being whose chief activity is dispensing disapproval and wrath, then we will likely live with an underlying sense of anxiety and fear of upsetting such a God. Performance-based living comes from trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps to placate a hard-to-please God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure we do not mess up.

On the other hand, if our theology has God as a loving Being who is pained by the damage sin does to the souls of people, then we become open to the gracious mending of broken spirits. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in handling the sin issue once for all. God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves.

Chronic spiritual anxiety usually arises from the inability to perceive a generous and hospitable God having our backs and working on our behalf. Knowing God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, leads to peace and rest.  This logically leads to the fifth imperative….

  • Present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6b-7) 

Prayer naturally arises from a heart that knows God is listening. Prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings are all congruent actions stemming from an experiential knowledge of God’s grace.

Having the peace of God which transcends all understanding is a beautiful thing. If our theological view is of God playing games with us, holding out a carrot stick we can never quite reach, then peace will be elusive. Conversely, if we have confidence to present our requests to God and have the discipline to slow down long enough to do it, this inevitably leads to peace.

We are to pray about everything, in all circumstances with all kinds of prayers. Spontaneous prayers, written prayers, heartfelt prayers, silent prayers, and loud prayers are all encouraged. We are to pray without ceasing, praying for everyone – for rulers and all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Pray, then pray some more. If we struggle to pray, perhaps we struggle with our view of God.

  • Put it into practice (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Armed with a vigorous theology, the task of spiritual formation is unlearning harmful theological approaches and discovering new and helpful ways of the Divine. This requires some basic spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer (both individually and communally), and practices of silence and solitude which put us in a position to connect with God and self.

Conclusion

Healthy spiritual rhythms help us know God and God’s peace. To put the six imperatives into practice, a plan is needed which translates good intentions into good habits. We need a rule of life. God may be opposed to earning salvation but is not opposed to sanctified effort – and effort is necessary for effective spiritual practices.

Do you have a method for being a peacemaker? Are you developing ways for making gentleness evident? Is there a plan in place for avoiding anxiety? What is your agenda for structuring consistent prayer?

Experiencing peace does not spontaneously materialize. Peace occurs through tapping into the spiritual resources we have in Jesus Christ. Realizing practical peace is rolling up our spiritual sleeves and working on the biblical imperatives Paul provided for us. It is everyone’s job, and not only the job of a few. 

May you know the peace of Christ this day.

May you experience God as your refuge and strength.

May God hasten the day when wars shall cease, and poverty and pain shall end so that the earth may know and experience the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.