by Luther E. Smith, Jr.
“Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34, RSV).1 How could Jesus say this to listeners who had so much about which to be anxious? Daily bread was not assured. Roman occupation of their land meant that their lives could be devastated in a moment by a Roman decree or the whims of a Roman soldier. Deadly disease was a constant threat to a body and to the whole community. Knowing how tenuous their lives were, how could they not be anxious?
As I write, a disastrous earthquake that shattered homes, lives, support systems, and dreams for a better tomorrow traumatizes the people of Haiti. My son is serving in the military in an Afghanistan war zone. Friends and family members are waiting for test results that will announce cause for relief or heartache. How is one to avoid anxiety with such realities?
In the days of our lives we not only confront possibilities that threaten our well-being, we experience the very presence of death, terror, and the loss of capacities. Worry is not just a reaction to an imagined future. Worry occurs from clear and present dangers.
We may doubt our ability to heed this instruction on anxiety or we may doubt Jesus’ sensitivity to the realities that merit worry. Either way, our ability to comply with the admonition to “not be anxious about tomorrow” is suspect.
Is it possible that Jesus’ instruction on anxiety was not intended for all those who profess to follow him? Could it be that he was only addressing those who had devoted their lives to him and the work that would require their absolute commitment? When the sermon that speaks of anxiety began, the Gospel of Matthew says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them” (5:1-2). Was the sermon only meant for the disciples and not for the crowd?
The teaching to “not be anxious about tomorrow” is also explicit when Jesus sends the twelve disciples to proclaim, heal, raise the dead, and exorcise demons. He tells the disciples: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff” (Matt. 10:9-10). They are to move into their tomorrows relying upon the hospitality of others. Is this counsel meant for all followers of Jesus or for only those who are set apart for a more intense life of service?
Jesus’ instruction on discipleship often seems to exceed our capacities.
Jesus’ instruction on discipleship often seems to exceed our capacities. Or to be more honest, his instruction often exceeds what we are willing to do. The very thought of being sent on a mission without assurances of accommodations, food, and financial resources seems foolhardy. In addition, we are not to be anxious about such a situation? Perhaps this is a commitment that monks or idealistic youth could make, but this certainly could not be expected of “ordinary Christians” who have significant family, business, and community responsibilities. So the idea of Jesus’ instruction being only for the disciples has appeal. This interpretation exempts us from admonitions that feel too demanding.
The Gospel of Matthew, however, was not written as instruction for the small band of disciples but for all who would read and hear its teaching. As the Gospel narrates Jesus speaking to individuals, small groups, and crowds, we are the intended hearers and doers of this Gospel message. And as uncomfortable as we might be with this message to us, the message is to us. The call to discipleship does not offer us “somewhat committed” as an option for a faithful response.
Discipleship has numerous forms of expression. No single checklist of disciplines (e.g., simple living, dietary habits, relying on others) suffices in identifying all the forms that faithful discipleship might take. Knowing this may bring a sigh of relief as the weight of one discipline after another is lifted. Still, something even more challenging is required of us and is the whole point of any such checklist, and this is to trust fully in God. Jesus teaches his followers that trusting completely in God is essential to their salvation (being made whole). No exemptions. Not being anxious about tomorrow is then understood not only as another discipline to enact. It is also a word of assurance that trusting in God cancels the anxiety that tomorrow is something to be feared.
Many years ago, when I was a seminary student, my theology professor addressed Jesus’ teaching on anxiety. I so clearly remember his commentary because it released me from the seeming contradiction of not being anxious while I am being squeezed by devastating realities. He said: “Jesus is not telling us to reject feelings of anxiety; anxiety is a natural reaction to the human situation. He is warning us to not be anxious about the wrong things. We are often anxious about matters we cannot control and matters that are not of ultimate consequence. What merits our anxiety is whether our lives are fully committed to God and the coming of God’s Realm.” My professor’s interpretation started a process of diminishing the rule of anxiety in my life. It changed my challenge from holding off anxiety to focusing on the sufficiency of my commitment to God. The transference that occurred was not disengagement from immediate matters in order to only be involved in ultimate matters, but it was the transference of emotional energy away from anxiety to an increased focus on commitment.
This distinction is important. Jesus was not speaking against taking immediate troubles seriously. Immediate crises and threats demand immediate attention. In saying, “Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34), the significance of trouble is acknowledged as cause for concern and response. Something ultimate can be at stake in an immediate situation where love is withheld or expressed. Returning to the first examples of this article, offering daily bread to the starving, protecting persons from the abuse of policing powers, and providing care to the sick can be responses to immediate matters that reflect commitment to God’s Realm. Current troubles merit one’s ultimate commitment.
The transference I experienced was release from being entangled in anxiety about matters current and future. As my professor said, feeling anxious is a natural reaction to situations of insecurity. We do not want to deny an emotion that emerges as a reaction to deprivation, threat, and uncertainty. However, being tied-up in anxiety is a whole other reality that consumes emotional energy and constrains one’s availability to God.
Anxiety can be a proper response to the severity of conditions. It is an indication that our hearts are sensitive and aware of factors that threaten us and those we love. Anxiety must have its moment, or day, or perhaps even its week. But when it lingers beyond a time of acknowledging how deeply concerned we are about devastating possibilities, then it imperils our responsiveness to the danger and to God. Anxiety then becomes the coping technique that is sometimes the answer to whatever troubles us, or the cause for choosing unfaithful options to our troubles.
Anxiety as “the answer” can begin as a normal feeling of concern. Over time it persists as a declaration of our impotence to change the situations we fear. The day soon arrives when anxiety has been such a constant and familiar feeling that it becomes difficult to imagine facing tomorrow’s realities without anxiety. What started as a normal feeling of anxiety has then turned into being possessed by anxiety. Even being aware of how destructive anxiety is to ourselves does not necessarily free us from being anxious persons—many testify to being anxious about being so anxious all the time.
Choosing unfaithful options to our troubles also results from anxiety. This occurs when persons worry about having enough food, and then justify their stealing or hoarding of food. Or when persons who worry about the shortage of healthcare professionals decide to resist efforts to extend access to healthcare to increasing numbers of persons. Or when individuals who worry about their unemployed status then resent and are hostile to immigrants who they perceive as competitors. For individuals and society, anxiety can lead to crafting disastrous solutions that are implemented as remedies for anxiety.
Jesus’ teaching to “not be anxious about tomorrow” is not an admonition to be indifferent about tomorrow. The future is important to Jesus; it is a time of fulfillment. Jesus even emphasizes the importance of preparation for the future in his parable about the wise bridesmaids who had prepared for an anticipated event and the foolish bridesmaids who were in panic because they were unprepared for it (Matt. 25:1-13). Tomorrow is not the problem. Being unprepared for tomorrow is a crisis for the present and for the time to come.
The future is important to Jesus; it is a time of fulfillment.
Anxiety is not the same as preparation. Anxiety is the consequence of fear about what can or will occur tomorrow, but it is not active readiness for the future. Fear of known and unknown factors that await us in our future rules our emotions to the extent that it functions as a god who inspires anxiety, obsessive self-preservation, and cowardice.
Returning to my professor’s insight, the problem is not with the emotion of fear, but that we have excessive amounts of energy given to fearing the less significant matters of existence. We fear and become anxious about matters of tomorrow that we cannot change, while we do not fear that our lives, now and in the future, are failing God. Our fear is misplaced to the extent that it has moved God to the periphery of awareness and moved anxiety to the center.
Jesus could tell his listeners to not be anxious about tomorrow because his own life was lived trusting God to be present and active in his tomorrows. He taught from his own experience of surrender to God. His surrender had enabled him to prevail through his trials in the wilderness after his baptism—a daunting time of challenge to his body and spirit. He knew that God’s future called for him to be resolute in his trust in God even with alternatives that falsely promised to relieve his immediate stress and anxiety (Matt. 4:1-11). The future, about which God is so passionate, is a time where God also abides. Thus, we need not be anxious about tomorrow because God will be there for us.
This is not a declaration that our tomorrows will be free of travail and suffering. The people of Haiti who struggle today with the aftermath of an earthquake may continue to have one heartbreaking experience after another. My son may not return alive from his military duty in Afghanistan. Those I love may get medical test results that indicate their last days are near. The matters about which we are anxious may have outcomes that traumatize us to our very core. Still, God is with us in these tomorrows we do not welcome. God does not keep us from suffering, but God does keep us. We can rest in the assurance that as our world and we come unhinged, God remains steadfast in love and in sustaining possibilities for renewing the work of hope in the world and in our hearts.
We are not to surrender our tomorrows to anxiety because God will be in all our tomorrows. Our endeavor to labor on behalf of God’s dream for all creation is vital to resisting anxiety, but just as significant, it is vital to our embracing tomorrow. May our praying, caring, attention to daily routines, study, worship, and all that we do be expressions of our commitment to trust God with the current and coming situations of our lives. In due season, our testimony regarding our tomorrows will not just be about rejecting anxiety; it will about embracing hope.
From “Getting to Tomorrow” by Luther E. Smith, Jr. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, August/September/October 2010, Vol. 25, No. 4. Copyright © 2010 The Upper Room.
1All Scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version Bible unless otherwise indicated.