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The Anxiety Driven Life

August 2, 2013

When Jesus tells his disciples not to be anxious (or not to worry) about their life–what they will eat or drink or wear (Mt. 6:25)–many have thought primarily of the anxiety (or worry) of not having enough to eat or drink or wear. But the context before and after this verse shows that the anxiety here is more about wanting and getting even more than enough; it is about the worrisome task of working hard to accumulate the “better things” of life.

Matthew 6 starts out with Jesus teaching about giving alms (to the poor), praying (for daily bread), and fasting. In 6:1-18 Jesus says to do these religious acts secretly, rather than showing off in order to receive praise from others. Then in 6:19 Jesus turns to the topic of not laying up treasures on earth; for where your treasure is, there your heart (with its desires and plans) will be (6:21). Here Jesus is raising the issue of a life where one’s heart should not be obsessed with treasures on earth. In 6:24, Jesus personifies mammon (wealth) as a master that competes against God.

So when Jesus speaks against anxiety about food, drink, and clothing, he is building on his words about a heart that is hell-bent on accumulating wealth, on getting treasures like the best and most food, drink, and clothing. In contrast to such an anxiety driven addiction, Jesus points to the birds that do not work at sowing, harvesting, and gathering into barns; yet the heavenly Father feeds them (6:26). Likewise the lilies of the field grow and bloom beautifully, even though they don’t work or spin (wool) to adorn themselves (6:28). Even king Solomon–in all his glory (wealth)–was not that elegant (6:29). And not only the Jewish elite like Solomon, but also the Gentiles are seeking all these things (6:32): they are anxiously pursuing treasures on earth that show they are elite; they are driven to want and work for more and more treasures.

Such hustlers are filled with greed, manipulation, and accumulation; they seek the glory that comes from succeeding in a constant competition with others around them. They can never rest, because they are worried that someone else might be gaining on them, or that someone else is still ahead of them in this race for glory (wealth, status, and honor).

Such a life is what the American Dream is all about; it is what the “pursuit of happiness” really means (for most people). Rather than give alms generously to the most needy, many Americans assert that anyone who is not too lazy to work hard can go “from rags to riches.” Rather than pray for simple daily bread, numerous Americans thank God for the daily “blessings” on their dinner tables (red meat and soft drinks). Rather than fast, busy Americans buy fast food. The American Dream is the anxiety driven life on steroids (now dreaming of better houses, stock portfolios, cars, and screens).

But Jesus is talking about what everybody–Jewish elites like Solomon as well as Gentiles–is busily pursuing as worthwhile in life. And it is even a major temptation for his disciples. Later, in his parable about the sower, Jesus speaks of “thorns” that grow and choke the planted seed (Mt. 13:7); then he explains that the soil where the thorns are is the one who hears his word (about the kingdom) but the “cares” (the same Greek word as in Mt. 6 for “anxiety” or “worry”) of the world and the delight in riches choke the word and it becomes unfruitful (13:22). The anxiety of the world in general is feverishly seeking the delight of riches. Disciples who retain (or catch anew) that “fever” will not be spreading Jesus’ word of the kingdom, and its righteousness of giving alms and praying for daily bread, instead of seeking the world’s glory. Moreover, when churches delight in their buildings and budgets, and desire tithes and offerings to satisfy that delight, with maybe a little left over for the poor, they also choke the word of the kingdom (and substitute religious platitudes).

Earlier, in Isaiah’s day, when the calamities of Israel should have led to mourning, the people pursued “slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine,” saying “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isa. 22:12-13). In our day, disciples of Jesus will be blessed if they mourn over the anxiety of the world and instead hunger and thirst for the righteousness of showing mercy to those in need. If it is more blessed to give than receive, the blessed life for disciples will include the downward mobility of generous giving and sharing rather than the upward mobility of restless receiving and gloating.

  1. Jeffrey O'Rourke permalink

    Very good! And timely, I’m teaching this passage this Sunday. Thank you!

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