One Last Webster Sermon: On Anxiety

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. Matthew 6:25–34 

HONESTY SURELY COMPELS US to begin by saying that as we hear this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, we find it simply absurd. How can this be considered a remotely serious recommendation about how we’re to conduct ourselves? Are we not to take care of ourselves? Are we not to take responsibility for our lives? Surely, we want to say to this teacher, no sound and solid economy, and no good order of human society and individual life, can be rooted in this dangerous injunction: “Do not be anxious.” And so, shaking our heads, we may walk away dismayed. 

Of course, good pious Christians that we are, we may be tempted to suppress our feelings of dismay—to think that it’s rather unworthy of us to react negatively to the good Lord’s teaching. Perhaps what we ought to do is to try and knock off some of its rough edges, so that it becomes a bit less offensive. Maybe Jesus is just indulging in hyperbole, to keep us from over-investing in material things and letting them preoccupy us to the point of worry. 

For my part, however, it seems more honest and in the end much more fruitful to face up to the offense of Jesus’ saying. Indeed, it’s only when we do that—when we look head-on at the fact that this material makes us want to just turn away—that we actually run up against what’s really basic to Jesus’ teaching here. Only when we realize how disturbing it is to our conventional ways of thinking about reality can we see that what is set before us is nothing short of the sheer miracle of God and God’s kingdom. For it’s this miracle, and the upheaval which this miracle generates in our day-to-day life, which Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount sets before us. And, as always in trying to let Jesus’ teaching sink into our minds and spirits, we first have to feel that it’s a rock of offense, a stone over which we stumble and fall. Only then can we know that what we hear is a word of grace and mercy. 

“Do not be anxious,” Jesus tells us. What’s the anxiety in mind here? The anxiety which Jesus here exposes to the light of his judgment has two elements: It’s a state of the soul, and it’s a form of activity. 

The anxiety of which the gospel speaks here is more than simply feeling worried; it’s more than the passing apprehension which all of us feel about going to the dentist or facing a difficult interview. Those kinds of apprehensions are a matter of fear; we know what troubles us, and with the right sort of determined effort to screw up our courage, we resolve to face them. But anxiety is a sickness. Anxiety is that sickness of the soul in which what might happen to us fills us with dread. When we’re anxious, our future as a whole, the possibilities which stretch out ahead of us, becomes a matter not of hope but of terror. 

Anxiety is a terrifying shadow of our uniquely human capacity to hope. When we hope, we project ourselves into the future, imagining what it may be and stretching out toward it with longing. But when we’re anxious, our imaginations busy themselves with images of the threats which the future has in store for us. We fill in the gap between now and the future with all sorts of disturbing possibilities, and they eat us up. Anxiety makes us feel that the world has somehow slipped through our fingers and that we have no control over our own destiny. 

It’s this fear which drives anxiety into activity. Fear properly issues in resolution and courage; anxiety produces a sort of helpless, unfocused busyness. Courage is a gathering of myself and my resources so that I can face what makes me afraid with a kind of single-minded clarity of purpose. Courage, that is, clarifies and concentrates the soul. But anxiety does the opposite; it dissipates our energies. Above all, it makes us think that we can survive only if we take charge. We have to be omni-competent if we are to shed our anxieties, and so we climb onto the merciless treadmill of working harder and harder, somehow to keep everything together. Above all, anxiety is bound up with our desperate need for security—the need to know that we will be OK, that we will survive intact, that at the end of the day we will be. 

This sickness of the soul is, of course, not only a private grief. It takes cultural and political form, too: Societies and institutions can be anxious in their way, driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. Institutional rigidity, the demarcation of the world into friends and enemies, competitiveness, and the elaboration of forms of social control, all express the same deep-seated worry that we may not have a future unless we make one for ourselves. And to those terrors, too, as well as to our personal nightmares, Jesus says: “Do not be anxious.”

How on earth can he say that? How on earth can he expect us to take him seriously? To answer these questions, we need to listen very carefully to what’s being said to us here in the gospel. Jesus isn’t reinforcing some bit of conventional human wisdom. He’s not, as it were, coming into the midst of the human situation and lending the weight of his authority to a truism which has been known all down the ages—that fussing and fretting damages the equilibrium of human life, that anxiety distracts and hurts us. No: He is telling us, his hearers, that what rules out anxiety is the sheer fact of himself. He himself, Jesus Christ, the presence of God’s kingdom, the rule of God in creation—that’s what finally shows the truth of our anxiety. In him, it’s finally shown to be the sickness which it is. 

What is, then, the anxiety from which Jesus seeks to detach us? Very simply, it’s our failure to grasp and live out of the significance of Jesus Christ. Anxiety is our failure—sometimes from fear, sometimes from pride—to allow that, in and as the man Jesus, God rules all things in heaven and earth, and therefore that our lives are in God’s good hands. When Jesus summons us from anxiety, he injects into the world of our responsibilities something utterly new, utterly different. He breaks the world of anxiety apart by saying that this world—the world of daily life and care, the world of work and responsibility—isn’t a world in which we and we alone have to bear the burden of ensuring that we survive. This world is the place of God’s kingdom; here, God’s rule in Jesus Christ is the great new factor. 

Because this is true, Jesus tells us, we may come to learn that daily life is not a place where we’re devoured by the need to shore ourselves up against disaster. Daily life is the place where we encounter God as the one whom he calls our “heavenly Father.” Who is this Father? He’s the one who knows our needs, because we are not hidden from him; and he’s the one who provides for our needs, because he loves what he has made in all its fragility and impermanence—because he desires that we should flourish. And if God is like that—if God isn’t a threat hanging over us but the astonishing Father of lavish grace—then anxiety is a kind of illusion: It doesn’t match up to what reality is truly like. 

What does match up to reality, Jesus tells us, is faith. Faith sees the truth about God and God’s merciful, gracious kingdom which is embodied for us in Jesus Christ. Faith is not just some crazy hope against evidence (indeed, when it becomes that it is itself a kind of sickness). Quite the opposite: Faith is that deeply healthy state of the soul in which we let God be God. It’s that free, unhesitating, joyful assent to the one in the midst of whose kingdom we stand secure. 

This contrast between anxiety and faith is the force of the little comparison with the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. The non-human creation offers a picture of immediate, unself-conscious, unreflective trust. It’s the antithesis of fretful anxiety, the opposite of all those efforts devoted to filling in the gap between now and the future. And so it offers us a parable of faith. Not to heed that parable, Jesus tells his hearers, is to act like what he calls “the nations” or “the Gentiles.” Anxiety properly speaking is only fitting for those who think of themselves as outside the circle of God’s covenant, beyond the edges of the promises of God and the kingdom of his Son. For the disciples of Jesus to be anxious is for them to act as if, somehow, God’s covenant were not true; as if his kingdom were not among us; as if we may not trust the word of grace which is spoken in Jesus. 

What instruction may we take from this passage for ourselves? I don’t think we’ll get too far in making sense of what’s said to us here unless we let ourselves be pulled up short by its revolutionary force. What’s identified here is not an occasional or partial disease which may or may not afflict human life; what’s identified is a whole world of human living and acting. Anxiety is not a private disorder of the personality which some of us have to struggle with, but an entire way of being human in the world. And so the call that we shouldn’t be anxious isn’t an invitation to personal religious therapy. It’s a call to take very seriously the great imperative of the gospel: “seek first the kingdom of God” (6:33). What does it mean to seek God’s kingdom? 

When Jesus talks of seeking God’s kingdom, he isn’t telling us that the kingdom is some hidden reality which we have to struggle to lay bare. God’s kingdom doesn’t lie at the end of some great quest, and seeking it isn’t to be an occasion for spiritual athleticism. To seek God’s kingdom is simply to acknowledge that it is already among us, supremely potent and effective in the ministry of the man Jesus. To seek God’s kingdom thus means in public and in private, politically and domestically, to order our affections in such a way that God in Christ is the supreme reality. It means to govern our thinking and acting by the sheer truth that Jesus Christ is the one in whom God renews the face of the earth; it means to acknowledge that all other ways of thinking and acting fail, because they don’t read the world as it truly is: the place of God’s kingly rule. To “seek” that rule is, we might say, to strive after and hasten toward God’s rule as the most real reality and truest truth that may be found. 

Such is the imperative. Jesus doesn’t spell out in detail what that imperative will involve for each of us. We’re left to work out what it means for our possessions and our insurance policies. But, as always in the gospel, the imperative isn’t the last word. The last word is grace. God’s grace is nothing other than the name of Jesus Christ, for it’s in him that our anxieties are finally set aside as utterly pointless. We must not be anxious because we need not be anxious. Our present experience of life may be very dark, undoubtedly. We may face fearful prospects. But even at its most burdensome, our lives now are not perilously poised over some great chasm into which we may fall at any time. No, our lives are hidden with Christ in God. And our future isn’t some dark possibility lying over the horizon waiting to devour us. No, it’s the place where we will encounter the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re told that all things will be added to us. 

Let me end with some words of a Christian martyr who discovered even in death the freedom from anxiety which is here commended to us:

Jesus does not tell us what we ought to do but cannot; he tells us what God has given us and promises still to give. If Christ has been given us, if we are called to his discipleship, we are given all things.… He will see to it that they are added unto us. If we follow Jesus and look only unto his righteousness, we are in his hands and under the protection of him and his Father. And if we are in communion with the Father, nothing can harm us. We shall always be assured that he will feed his children and will not suffer them to hunger. God will help us in the hour of need, and he knows our needs. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship”]

Webster, John. Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian . Lexham Press.

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