Anxiety worries me - what can I do? - Matthew 6:24-34
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A friend of mine was telling me of a Vicar he knew who signed up to attend a seminar on time management. However, when it came to it he found that he didn’t have time to attend and so he sent his curate instead! There is a certain irony there. But then again I myself have been caught up in a similar irony as I was finding that I was getting anxious about preparing this sermon on anxiety! It seems that you can’t win. The fact is- anxiety is everyone’s problem.
Now when we talk about anxiety we could be referring to a number of different things. We all know what it is like to feel tense, fearful or stressed perhaps at the prospect of going into hospital, taking an exam, attending a job interview- or even preaching a sermon! If we think that these things are a big deal then they can affect our sleep, our appetite or how we relate to people so that we become ‘tetchy’. However, generally speaking when things go well, the anxiety goes away. What is more, as part of our biological coping mechanism a little bit of anxiety might do us some good- having a little more adrenaline pumping through the system can make us more alert which can be an advantage in an exam or an interview.
However, when taken to an extreme anxiety can lead to such things as panic attacks, OCD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the like. But when people ordinarily speak about having anxiety problems, it is not the normal or the extreme types they have in mind. At any one time 16% of the British population is affected by anxiety. This is that feeling of dread which grips us, the sense of fear that fills our hearts as uncontrolled thoughts fill our minds. We become preoccupied by something, we can’t let it go. We may try and distract ourselves, but the moment our guard is down; the thoughts simply come rushing back again gnawing away at us, making us feel vulnerable and insecure. It seems as if you are for ever wondering whether you will cope, with the little voice deep down telling you that of course, you won’t!
It therefore comes as something of a relief to discover that the Lord Jesus Christ himself addresses this whole subject of anxiety because he knows just what we are like. And there are three things in particular which this passage focuses for us.
First, we have the command about anxiety and it is quite categorical as Jesus repeats it no less than three times: v25, ‘Therefore I tell you do not worry’; v31, ‘Do not worry’; v 34, ‘Do not worry’. You can’t get it any clearer than that. Don’t you think that it is wonderful that Jesus cares for his people so much that he doesn’t want them to be anxious? Being anxious is not the way his kingdom is extended. The important thing we are to grasp is that while anxiety might be the mark of the pagan-v32, who is for ever running after material things to ease his anxiety and yet by doing so increases it- it is not to be the mark of the Christian. That is why Jesus commands- don’t do it. But you may say, that is easier said than done. And that would be true. But Jesus never commands anything which, by his grace, we can’t do. Neither does he leave is floundering wondering how we can obey his command for he also gives us some down-to-earth instruction on how to handle anxiety. But before we come to look at that in detail, we first need to have a better understanding of the kinds of things which give rise to our worries.
Hence the next point- the cause of anxiety. The root of our worries as believers is given to us there in verse 30 when Jesus addresses the anxious ridden as being those of ‘little faith’. Now we need to be clear what Jesus means when he talks of ‘faith’. He is not saying that we have to squeeze our eyes tight and try and work up some subjective ‘stuff’ within us called ‘faith’. Faith is not some mystical power which some people have a lot of and other have only a smattering, so it is the latter that have anxiety problems. No. Another word for faith is ‘trust’. It is ‘what’ or ‘who’ you are trusting in that matter. But trusting for what? Pretty well everything- Jesus speaks about anxiety over food and clothing in vv 25-31. Then in verse 34 he speaks about anxiety regarding the future. And why do we get anxious about these things? It is because we are afraid that without them we shall in some way suffer and be worse off. Sure, we need food and drink to live, but very few of us worry at that level- getting anxious about our survival; and certainly when it comes to clothing not that many of us are crippled with the thought that we might have to go wandering around naked. More often than not it is that we find our significance and security in these things. That is why Jesus begins this section by saying, ‘You cannot serve God and mammon – that is, material things. The thing is, we look to what we eat, what we drink and what we wear to provide us with the sense of security and significance which God is meant to provide us with. And of course if your whole identity is bound up with lifestyle- which would cover the job you do, the income you earn, the post code area in which you live- then of course you are going to be angst ridden if you feel any of these things are threatened. If it is the case ‘You are what you wear’- then if there is the slightest possibility that you are not going to be wearing the right things and so be judged down by your peers, anxiety will eat away at you like a starving rodent. So to go running after these things (and Christians do) means that you are putting your faith, your trust in all the wrong things for they are the uncertain things. So by Jesus saying that the worrying believer is exhibiting ‘little faith’ , it is not that he or she has no faith, but wrong faith- a great deal of faith is being placed in what we eat, what we drink and what we wear, but very little faith is being placed in the God who provides such things. In other words, we have become so besotted with the gifts that we have forgotten the Giver.
The second thing to say is that faith not just linked to facts, as Scott reminded us last week with the Faith train- when facts are meant to fuel faith. More often than not our faith or lack thereof is linked to our imagination and that is not good because this is the very thing which causes anxiety. Let me explain what I mean.
You know, although we pride ourselves in the West of being ‘rational’ people, the truth is often the opposite, we are very irrational as we are led by the nose by an overactive and ill disciplined imagination. The 17the century Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said that the imagination is the dominant faculty in man, the source of all errors and the mistress of all falsehoods. That is so true. This is especially the case when it comes to worrying about the future, which Jesus particularly pinpoints at the end when he says, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will have enough troubles of its own.’ Let us suppose that you have a difficult task to face in a weeks time. Maybe you are going to have to confront someone and you don’t like confrontation. Or you have to deal with a tricky situation at work. What happens? Let me tell you what happens with me- and I think it is the case with most men-for obvious reasons. It usually takes place when I am shaving in a morning and given that women don’t normally do that make the necessary adjustments, perhaps it happens to you when you are taking out your curlers or putting on your face in the mirror or whatever. But this is when my imagination goes into overdrive: I imagine myself speaking to the person, I picture the room, the conversation, how it’s going to go- and boy I can really get worked up about it. The mind simply gets taken over; the heartbeat increases, your muscles begin to tighten and anxiety bites. Has it ever occurred to you what a total waste of time that is? The conversation going on in your head, the picture of that meeting whirling around your mind is pure fantasy. It doesn’t exist. And you know what? It will never exist. How many of the imaginary scenes which you have run past your mind actually come about when the time arrives? None. It is never fully like you imagine. Sometimes the things you worry about in your imagination never happen at all. Which is why we say, ‘It might never happen’. So it achieves nothing. But you may say; sometimes what happens is worse than you had imagined. True, but that simply proves the point I am making that you wasted your time being pushed around by your imagination- it didn’t even get that right. But just supposing that for once your imagination had been spot on- what difference would it have made to the outcome anyway? There is no point in bringing tomorrow’s possible troubles over into today-v 34. Now, this is not the same as properly preparing for a meeting, thinking through what questions might be raised and how a person might be approached and so on. Rather, the problem here is that we are being held captive to our imagination- unreality. And one of the things I do in order to stop myself is simply to say: ‘Imagination’- I name it for what it is and say it has no place in my life at this point for it is not real- it has to be shelved.
We have looked at the command about anxiety, the cause of anxiety, what about the correction to anxiety? Jesus tells us. It is to replace emotional thinking- which lies at the root of anxiety with Evangelical/ Gospel thinking. In other words, having our outlook and so our faith, shaped by what is really the case and not what we mistakenly imagine is the case. This means we have to be pretty ruthless with ourselves and take ourselves in hand. In one of his most pastorally helpful books entitled, ‘Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure’, Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones puts it like this: ‘The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand. You have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. The essence of this matter is to understand that this self of ours, this other man within us, has got to be handled. Do not listen to him; turn on him; speak to him; condemn him, upbraid him; exhort him; encourage him; remind him of what you know instead of placidly listening to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you.’ He could easily have said, ‘make you anxious’. So what is it that we are to remind this ‘self of’? How are we to correct the faulty imagination which fuels our anxiety with its ‘what if’s’?
This is where the teaching of Jesus comes into its own which we are to apply to ourselves not only day by day, but moment by moment if we are going to keep the wolf of anxiety away from our door.
The first thing we are to notice is that Jesus wants to get his followers to think. If the root cause of anxiety is faulty thinking, the answer is not, no thinking but correct thinking- we are to reason our way out of anxiety. The method Jesus uses is that of arguing from the lesser to the greater. In formal philosophy it is called an a fortiori argument – ‘if ‘this’, then how much more so ‘that’’? We tend to be limited and narrow in our thinking. Our culture does peddle the lie that life is pretty much all about what you eat, drink and wear- it is all about pleasure and style. These are the things which are meant to make us feel good and give us a sense of value. Jesus says, ‘Don’t buy into that lie’. The truth is that life is much more than these things. What that ‘more’ is, we shall come back to in a minute. But in verse 26 Jesus points to what we can see around us with the birds. They are well catered for in terms of food, he says, they are not frantically killing themselves by hoarding up things in storehouses. So if they are looked after, will God not look after you who are more valuable in his sight? Your see, the move from the lesser to the greater- think it through. Then in v 28 he turns to the matter of clothes. The flowers which adorn a meadow in spring or summer are far more glorious in their splendour than even the greatest dandy of all- Solomon. Think it through, says Jesus. If these look fantastic as God designed them to be- and they are literally here today and gone tomorrow- do you think that you are going to be neglected in the clothing department? Of course not.
Then Jesus rubs in a good dose of common sense in v 27, ‘Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?’ We might be able to see how saving up some money might enable us to buy the necessary car; or drawing up a CV might improve our chances of getting that job. But whenever has worrying about a thing made it go away? In fact it is the reverse- worry reduces your life span it doesn’t increase it.
But did you notice what the reality is which enables us to apply such thinking? Jesus is not urging us to close our eyes to the difficulties we face and simply ‘whistle a happy tune’. He is urging us to open our eyes to what is the case about the nature and character of God and our relationship to him. Did you notice how God is referred to in verses 26 and 32? It is as ‘Father’. Think about that. I have met many fathers in my time, some good and some bad. My step-grandad on my dad’s side was as wicked as they come. But I have never yet met a father who has wanted his children to be anxious. Most I know will, as far as they are able, relieve their children’s anxiety, at least by offering re-assuring words, ‘It’s going to be alight’. But our heavenly Father has no limitations. Everything is going to be alright- ultimately with his children and he really does not want to see us crippled with anxiety. So he says, ‘Look at me. Think about me. Take time out to look at the creation I have made. Instead of wasting time fretting about this and that, spend your time pondering on my faithfulness to you over the years- not least in my faithfulness in giving my one and only Son to die for you on the cross to secure you as my child for ever by adoption.’ At the end of the day, it all comes down to our view of God and so our trust in God. If we view God wrongly as some distant ruler, an Allah-like figure who could change his mind at the drop of a hat- you would have every right to be anxious. But if he is Father, a kind, relating God- then it is an insult to him for us to worry. Sure, he will bear with us in our anxiety; he calls us to cast all our anxieties upon him, and gives the reason why we should do that, ‘because he cares for us’ say the apostle Peter. But to let ourselves go and be eaten away with worry is not only to have ‘little faith’ it is to show ‘unfaith’. But it is as we go deeper into our knowledge of who God is, which, as Scott reminded us last week over the matter of doubt, means that we have to deepen our study- read Christian books, listen to good sermons, keep in with the fellowship here week after week, that anxieties will be put in their place and begin diminish as they are placed before this great God who is our Father.
I have previously mentioned Mike Reeves book, ‘The Good God’ which is worth selling your shirt to buy. This is the way he puts this truth which lies at the heart of Jesus teaching here and from which everything else flows, including our ability to trust God and reduce anxiety: ‘Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that God ‘does’ being Father as a day- job only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God’. It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on the top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father. That is who he is. He creates as a Father and rules as a Father; and that means the way he rules over creation is most unlike the way any other God would rule over creation.’ (p.5). He then quotes John Calvin’s thoughts on this reassuring truth: ‘We ought in the very order of things (in creation) diligently to contemplate God’s fatherly love… (for as) a foreseeing and diligent father of the family shows his wonderful goodness towards us….To conclude once and for all, whenever we call God the Creator of heaven and earth, let us at the same time bear in mind that… we are indeed his children, whom he has received into his faithful protection to nourish and to educate… So, invited by the great sweetness of his beneficence and goodness, let us study to love and serve him with all our hearts.’ (p.6). That is precisely what Jesus is saying.
What lies at the heart of our being put here on earth? If life is more than what we eat, what we drink and what we wear, what is that ‘more’? We are told on v 33- ‘Seek first his kingdom’- that is, enter into the loving, Fatherly rule of God. Let your thoughts gravitate to him and be filled with him. Let his priorities be your priorities- and they are not clothes, and food and houses and cars and careers- they centre on enjoying him and seeking to introduce others to him so that they might enjoy him too instead of being led to an early grave riddled by anxiety. Friends, we have a great opportunity to witness to a worrying world because we believe in a God who rules over every circumstance and every spin of an atom for his own greater glory and his people’s greater good. And you know what? Our greater good is his glory- having a family headed up by his dear Son Jesus to reflect back to him his captivating love into all eternity. That is our future. That is secure. That is not something we are to worry about, not if we know God as Father through his Son, Jesus.
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