Worry has become an obsession in our modern world. A look at the self-help section in any bookstore will reveal its prevalence. Hospitals and waiting rooms are filled with people who have physical problems caused by overwhelming anxiety. In addition, there are many people whose lives are disrupted or made unenjoyable because of paralyzing fear.
Christians like to hide their worry by labeling it Christian concern. In spite of protestations to the contrary, Christians do worry. But, do they have to? Not if they learn from Jesus how to win over worry.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is intensely practical. He deals with this practical problem of anxiety. If he taught about it, that means he cares about it.
We must begin our study of this passage by making sure that we understand what Jesus is forbidding and what he is demanding. The Authorized Version translates Jesus’ commandment: Take no thought for the morrow. Strange to say, the Authorized Version was the first translation to translate it in that way. Wyclif had it: “Be not busy to your life.” Tyndale, Cranmer and the Geneva Version all had: “Be not careful for your life.” They used the word careful in the literal sense of full of care. The older versions were in fact more accurate. It is not ordinary, prudent foresight, such as becomes a man, that Jesus forbids; it is worry. Jesus is not advocating a shiftless, thriftless, reckless, thoughtless, improvident attitude to life; he is forbidding a care-worn, worried fear, which takes all the joy out of life.
The word which is used is the word merimnan, which means to worry anxiously. Its corresponding noun is merimnan, which means worry. In a papyrus letter a wife writes to her absent husband: “I cannot sleep at night or by day, because of the worry (merimna) I have about your welfare.” A mother, on hearing of her son’s good health and prosperity writes back: “That is all my prayer and all my anxiety (merimna).” Anacreon, the poet, writes: “When I drink wine, my worries (merimna) go to sleep.” In Greek the word is the characteristic word for anxiety, and worry, and care.
The Jews themselves were very familiar with this attitude to life. It was the teaching of the great Rabbis that a man ought to meet life with a combination of prudence and serenity. They insisted, for instance, that every man must teach his son a trade, for, they said, not to teach him a trade was to teach him to steal. That is to say, they believed in taking all the necessary steps for the prudent handling of life. But at the same time, they said, “He who has a loaf in his basket, and who says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ is a man of little faith.”
Jesus is here teaching a lesson which his countrymen well knew—the lesson of prudence and forethought and serenity and trust combined.
Covetousness will not only cheapen our riches, but it will also cheapen us! We will start to become worried and anxious, and this anxiety is unnatural and unspiritual. The person who pursues money thinks that riches will solve his problems, when in reality, riches will create more problems! Material wealth gives a dangerous, false sense of security, and that feeling ends in tragedy. The birds and lilies do not fret and worry; yet they have God’s wealth in ways that man cannot duplicate. All of nature depends on God, and God never fails. Only mortal man depends on money, and money always fails.
Jesus said that worry is sinful. We may dignify worry by calling it by some other name—concern, burden, a cross to bear—but the results are still the same. Instead of helping us live longer, anxiety only makes life shorter (Matt. 6:27). The Greek word translated take no thought literally means “to be drawn in different directions.” Worry pulls us apart. Until man interferes, everything in nature works together, because all of nature trusts God. Man, however, is pulled apart because he tries to live his own life by depending on material wealth.
God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies. He will feed and clothe us. It is our “little faith” that hinders Him from working as He would. He has great blessings for us if only we will yield to Him and live for the riches that last forever.
- There is plenty to worry about (v. 25).
- There is no shortage of potential items to worry about. Jesus mentions several matters of common concern.
- We could add our own list of concerns.
In these ten verses Jesus sets out seven different arguments and defenses against worry.
(i) He begins by pointing out (verse 25) that God gave us life, and if, he gave us life, surely we can trust him for the lesser things. If God gave us life, surely we can trust him to give us food to sustain that life. If God gave us bodies, surely we can trust him for raiment to clothe these bodies. If anyone gives us a gift which is beyond price, surely we can be certain that such a giver will not be mean, and stingy, and niggardly , and careless, and forgetful about much less costly gifts. So, then, the first argument is that, if God gave us life, we can trust him for the things which are necessary to support life.
(ii) Jesus goes on to speak about the birds (verse 26). There is no worry in their lives, no attempt to pile up goods for an unforeseen and unforeseeable future; and yet their lives go on. More than one Jewish Rabbi was fascinated by the way in which the animals life. “In my lie,” said Rabbi Simeon, ” I have never seen a stag as a dryer of figs, or a lion as a porter, or a fox as a merchant, yet they are all nourished without worry. If they, who are created to serve me, are nourished without worry, how much more ought I , who am created to serve my Maker, to be nourished without worry; but I have corrupted my ways, and so I have impaired my substance.” The point that Jesus is making is not that the birds do not work; it has been said that no one works harder than the average sparrow to make a living; the point that he is making is that they do not worry. There is not to be found in them man’s straining to see a future which he cannot see, and man’s seeking to find security in things stored up and accumulated against the future.
(iii) In verse 27, Jesus goes on to prove that worry is in any event is useless. The verse can bear two meanings. It can mean that no man by worrying can add a cubit to his height; but a cubit is eighteen inches, and no man surely would ever contemplate adding eighteen inches to his height! It can mean that no man by worrying can add the shortest space to his life; and that meaning is more likely. It is Jesus’ argument that worry is pointless anyway.
(iv) Jesus goes on to speak about the flowers (verses 28-30), and he speaks about them as one who loved them. The lilies of the field were the scarlet poppies and anemones. They bloomed one day on the hillsides of Palestine; and yet in their brief life they were clothed with a beauty which surpassed the beauty of the robes of kings. When they died they were used for nothing better than for burning. The point is this. The Palestinian over was made of clay. It was like a clay box set on bricks over the fire. When it was desired to raise the temperature of it especially quickly, some handfuls of dried grasses and wild flowers were flung inside the oven and set alight. The flowers had but one day of life; and then they were set alight to help a woman to heat an oven when she was baking in a hurry; and yet God clothes them with a beauty which is beyond man’s power to imitate. If God gives such beauty to a short-lived flower, how much more will he care for man? Surely the generosity which is so lavish to the flower of a day will not be forgetful of man, the crown of creation.
(v) Jesus goes on to advance a very fundamental argument against worry. Worry, he says, is characteristic of a heathen, and not of one who knows what God is like (verse 32). Worry is essentially distrust of God. Such a distrust may be understandable in a heathen who believes in a jealous, capricious, unpredictable god; but it is beyond comprehension in one who has learned to call god by the name of Father. The Christian cannot worry because he believes in the love of God.
(vi) Jesus goes on to advance two ways in which to defeat worry. The first is to seek first, to concentrate upon, the Kingdom of God. We have seen that to be in the Kingdom and to do the will of God is one and the same thing (Matthew 6:10). To concentrate on the doing of, and the acceptance of, God’s will is the way to defeat worry. We know how in our own lives a great love can drive out every other concern. Such love can inspire a man’s work, intensify his study, purify his life, dominate his whole being. It was Jesus’ conviction that worry is banished when God becomes the dominating power of our lives.
(vii) Lastly, Jesus says that worry can be defeated when we acquire the art of living one day at a time (verse 34). The Jews had a saying: “do not worry over tomorrow’s evils, for you know not what today will bring forth. Perhaps tomorrow you will not be alive, and you will have worried for a world which will not be yours.” If each day is lived as it comes, if each task is done as it appears, then the sum of all the days is bound to be good. It is Jesus’ advice that we should handle the demands of each day as it comes, without worrying about the unknown future and the things which may never happen.
The area of need explored by these words is not incidental but basic. It is a question of food, clothing, and shelter. Jesus’ argument is that God who made man and gave him life will also provide him with the means to sustain it, reinforcing his argument by the fact that God does this very thing for the lower creation.
Surely, God could not be charged with watching out for sparrows and neglecting his children! The mystery of how God cares for the myriads of his creatures both great and small is an unfailing marvel. Anyone familiar with wild life is aware of the remarkable continuation of every species from age to age. That God does indeed do this is a certainty. The weight of our Lord’s argument here is overwhelming when it is recalled that of all God’s creatures, from insects to the great animals of the forest, man alone is constantly anxious about his survival on the planet. What a glimpse this gives of the ruin and wretchedness that have resulted from man’s sin and rebellion against his Maker. Anxiety, that sure corollary of sin committed, has invaded man’s every thought, destroyed his serenity, and sent him scurrying in all directions; and, most significantly, anxiety only makes things worse!
- There is nothing accomplished by worry (vv. 26-33).
Let us now see if we can gather up Jesus’ arguments against worry.
(i) Worry is needless, useless and even actively injurious. Worry cannot affect the past, for the past is past. Omar Khayyam was grimly right:
“The moving finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all they tears wash out a word of it.”
The past is past. It is not that a man can or ought to dissociate himself from his past; but he ought to use his past as a spur and a guide for better action in the future, and not as something about which he broods until he has worried himself into a paralysis of action.
Equally, worry about the future is useless. Alistair MacLean in one of his sermons tells of a story which he had read. A London doctor was the hero. “he was paralyzed and bed-ridden, but almost outrageously cheerful, and his smile so brave and radiant that everyone forgot to be sorry for him. His children adored him, and when one of his boys was leaving the nest and starting forth upon life’s adventure, Dr. Greatheart gave him good advice: ‘Johnny,’ he said, ‘the thing to do, my lad, is to hold your own end up, and to do it like a gentleman, and please remember the biggest troubles you have got to face are those that never come.’” Worry about the future is wasted effort, and the future of reality is seldom as bad as the future of our fears.
But worry is worse than useless; it is often actively injurious. The two typical diseases of modern life are the stomach ulcer and the coronary thrombosis, and in many cases both are the result of worry. It is a medical fact that he who laughs most lives longest. The worry which wears out the mind wears out the body along with it. Worry affects a man’s judgment, lessens his powers of decision, and renders him progressively incapable of dealing with life. Let a man give his best to every situation—he cannot give more—and let him leave the rest to God.
(ii) Worry is blind. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of nature. Jesus bids men look at the birds, and see the bounty which is behind nature, and trust the love that lies behind that bounty. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of history. There was a Psalmist who cheered himself with the memory of history: “O my God,” he cries, “my soul is cast down within me.” And then he goes on: “Therefore I remember Thee, from the land of Jordan, and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar” (Psalm 42:6; cp. Deuteronomy 3:9). When he was up against it, he comforted himself with the memory of what God had done. The man who feeds his heart on the record of what God has done in the past will never worry about the future. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of life. We are still alive and our heads are still above water; and yet if someone had told us that we would have to go through what we have actually gone through, we would have said that it was impossible The lesson of life is that somehow we have been enabled to bear the unbearable and to do the undoable and to pass the breaking-point and not to break. The lesson of life is that worry is unnecessary.
(iii) Worry is essentially irreligious. Worry is not caused by external circumstances. In the same circumstances one man can be absolutely serene, and another man can be worried to death. Both worry and serenity come, not from circumstances, but from the heart. Alistair MacLean quotes a story from Tauler, the German mystic. One day Tauler met a beggar, “God give you a good day, my friend,” he said. The beggar answered, “I thank God I never had a bad one.” Then Tauler said, “God give you a happy life, my friend.” “I thank God,” said the beggar, ‘I am never unhappy.” Tauler in amazement said, “What do you mean?” “Well,” said the beggar, “when it is fine, I thank God; when it rains, I thank God; when I have plenty, I thank God; when I am hungry, I thank God; and since God’s will is my will, and whatever pleases him pleases me, why should I say I am unhappy when I am not?” Tauler looked at he man in astonishment. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am a king,” said the beggar. “Where then is your kingdom?” asked Tauler. And the beggar answered quietly: “In my heart.“
Isaiah said it long ago: “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trust in thee”(Isaiah 26:3). As the north country woman had it: “I am always happy, and my secret is always to sail the seas, and ever to keep the heart in port.”
There may be greater sins than worry, but very certainly there is no more disabling sin. “Take no anxious thought for the morrow”—that is the commandment of Jesus, and it is the way, not only to peace, but also to power.
Which of you, by taking thought—The third argument is taken from their extreme weakness and helplessness. With all your care you cannot increase your stature a single cubit. God has ordered your height. Beyond his appointment your powers are of no avail, and you can do nothing. So of raiment. He, by His providence, orders and arranges the circumstances of your life. “Beyond” that appointment of His providence, beyond his care for you, your efforts avail nothing. Seeing, then, that he alike orders your growth and the supply of your needs, how obvious is the duty of depending upon him, and of beginning all your efforts, feeling that He only can grant you the means of preserving life.
One cubit—The cubit was originally the length from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. The cubit of the Scriptures is not far from 22 inches. Terms of “length” are often applied to life, and it is thought by many to be so here. Thus, it is said, “Thou hast made my days as a handbreadth” Ps. 39:5; “Teach me the measure of my days” Ps. 39:4. In this place it is used to denote a “small length.” You cannot increase your stature even a cubit, or in the smallest degree. Compare Luke 12:26.
Stature—This word means “height.” The original word, however, means oftener “age,” John 9:21: “He is of age;” so also John 9:23. If this be its meaning here, as is probable (compare Robinson, Lexicon), it denotes that a man cannot increase the length of his life at all. The utmost anxiety will not prolong it one hour beyond the time appointed for death.
Consider the lilies of the field—The fourth consideration is taken from the care which God bestows on lilies. Watch the growing of the lily. It toils not, and it spins not; yet night and day it grows. With a beauty with which the most splendid monarch of the East was never adorned. it expands its blossom and fills the air with fragrance. Yet this beauty is of short continuance. Soon it will fade, and the beautiful flower will be cut down and burned. God “so little” regards the bestowment of beauty and ornament as to give the highest adorning to this which is soon to perish. When He thus clothes a lily—a fair flower, soon to perish—will he be unmindful of his children? Shall they dear to His heart and imbued with immortality—lack that which is proper for them, and shall they in vain trust the God that decks the lily of the valley?
Even Solomon in all his glory …—The common dress of Eastern kings was purple, but they sometimes wore white robes. See Est. 8:15; Dan. 7:9. It is to this that Christ refers. Solomon, says he, the richest and most magnificent king of Israel, was not clothed in a robe of “so pure a white” as the lily that grows wild in the field.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field—What grows up in the field, or grows wild and without culture. The word “grass,” applied here to the lily, denotes merely that it is a vegetable production, or that it is among the things which grow wild, and which are used for fuel.
Which today is—It lives today, or it lives for a day. It is short-lived, and seems to be a thing of no value, and is so treated.
Is cast into the oven—The Jews had different modes of baking. In early times they frequently baked in the sand, warmed with the heat of the sun. They constructed, also, movable ovens made of clay, brick, or plates of iron. But the most common kind, and the one here probably referred to, was made by excavating the ground 2 1/2 feet in diameter, and from 5 to 6 feet deep. This kind of oven still exists in Persia. The bottom was paved with stones. It was heated by putting wood or dry grass into the oven, and, when heated, the ashes were removed and the bread was placed on the heated stones. Frequently, however, the oven was an earthen vessel without a bottom, about 3 feet high, smeared outside and inside with clay, and placed upon a frame or support. Fire was made within or below it. When the sides were sufficiently heated, thin patches of dough were spread on the inside, and the top was covered, without removing the fire as in the other cases, and the bread was quickly baked.
III. There is a way to defeat worry (v. 33, 34).
To worry about material things is to live like the heathen! If we put God’s will and God’s righteousness first in our lives, He will take care of everything else. What a testimony it is to the world when a Christian dares to practice Matthew 6:33! What a tragedy it is when so many of us fail to practice it.
This is a divine appeal for men to put first things first. The kingdom of God should be placed first: (1) in importance, (2) in point of time, and (3) in emphasis. The righteousness men should seek is that of Christ, not their own. This means that God’s commandments should be honored, rather than men’s, and that his doctrine should be received and practiced instead of the commandments and traditions of men. As a result of true obedience, God will add “all these things” to the estate of his children. This is true not merely of individuals, but of nations and states as well. It can be no accident that those areas of the world which are most characterized by attention to and observance of the teachings of Christ are also those areas most civilized, having the highest standards of living and the greatest abundance of “all these things”!
- Trust the heavenly father to provide for us as he has promised (v. 32b).
- Seek first his kingdom and righteousness and all the things we need will be added to us (v. 33).
- Live one day at a time. Handle each worry as it comes. Many will never come to pass. Those that do occur can only be handled in the present (v. 34).
Take therefore no thought …—That is, no anxiety. Commit your way to God. The evil, the trouble, the anxiety of each day as it comes, is sufficient without perplexing the mind with restless cares about another day. It is wholly uncertain whether you live to see another day. If you do, it will bring its own trouble, and it will also bring the proper supply of your needs. God will be the same Father then as today, and will make then, as he does now, proper provision for your wants.
The morrow shall take thought—The morrow will have anxieties and cares of its own, but it will also bring the proper provision for those cares. Though you will have needs, yet God will provide for them as they occur. Do not, therefore, increase the cares of today by borrowing trouble from the future. Do your duty faithfully now, and depend upon the mercy of God and his divine help for the troubles which are yet to come.
Worrying does not prove that we are caring Christians. Worry only proves we do not yet trust God fully. The worry-free life provides freedom for the Christian and a good example for those who aren’t. It’s hard to imagine Jesus worrying. If we want to be truly Christlike, we must resist the temptation to worry.
An anonymous piece of doggerel says:
Worry is a futile thing It’s something like a rocking chair
It will keep you occupied But it won’t get you anywhere.
A wise man once said, “There ain’t no use worrying over what you have control over, because if you have control over it, there’s no use worrying about it. There’s no use worrying about what you don’t have control over, because if you don’t have control over it there’s no use worrying about it.” That covers everything, doesn’t it?
’Tain’t worthwhile to wear a day all out before it comes. Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work. Sir John Lubbock (1834–1913)
Care admitted as a guest quickly turns to be master. Christian Nestell Bovee (1820–1904)
Don’t tell me that worry doesn’t do any good. I know better. The things I worry about don’t happen.
Happy is the man who is too busy to worry by day, and too sleepy to worry at night.
If only we would stop lamenting and look up. God is here. Christ is risen. The Spirit has been poured out from on high. All this we know as theological truth. It remains for us to turn it into joyous spiritual experience. A. W. Tozer (1897–1963)
If we bring into one day’s thoughts the evil of many, certain and uncertain, what will be and what will never be, our load will be as intolerable as it is unreasonable. Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667)
It ain’t no use putting up your umbrella till it rains. Alice Caldwell Rice
It is distrust of God to be troubled about what is to come; impatience against God to be troubled with what is present; and anger at God to be troubled for what is past. Simon Patrick (1625–1707)
Leave tomorrow’s trouble to tomorrow’s strength; tomorrow’s work to tomorrow’s time; tomorrow’s trial to tomorrow’s grace and to tomorrow’s God.
Life’s too short for worrying. Yes, that’s what worries me.
Misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never happen. James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)
No man ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear. Never load yourself so. George Macdonald (1824–1905)
Not work, but worry makes us weary. S. I. McMillen
One is given strength to bear what happens to one, but not the one hundred and one different things that might happen. C. S. Lewis (1898–1963)
Only man clogs his happiness with care, destroying what is, with thoughts of what may be. John Dryden (1631–1700)
Only one type of worry is correct: to worry because you worry too much. Jewish Proverb
Seventy percent of all patients who come to physicians could cure themselves if they only got rid of their fears, worries, and bad eating habits. O. F. Gober
There are people who are always anticipating trouble; they manage to enjoy many sorrows that never really happen to them. Josh Billings (1818–1885)
To carry care to bed is to sleep with a pack on your back. Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796–1865)
When worry is present, trust cannot crowd its way in.
Where care lodges, sleep will never lie. William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Work won’t kill, but worry will. English Proverb
Worry gives a small thing a big shadow. Swedish Proverb
Worry is a species of myopia—nearsightedness. E. Stanley Jones (1884–1973)
Worry is an indication that we think God cannot look after us. Oswald Chambers (1874–1917)
Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere. Bernard Meltzer
Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its strength. Archibald Joseph Cronin (1896–1981)
Worry? Why worry? What can worry do? It never keeps a trouble from overtaking you. It gives you indigestion and sleepless hours at night And fills with gloom the days, however fair and bright. Helen Steiner Rice
Your ship is equal to the load of today; but when you are carrying yesterday’s worry and tomorrow’s anxiety, lighten up or you will sink.