“There may be greater sins than worry, but very certainly there is no more disabling sin.” (William Barclay)
In his book Running Scared, Ed Welch pointed out how many psychiatric conditions have to do with fear. There was a time, he said, when you were either psychotic or neurotic. “Psychotic meant that your were out of touch with reality and afraid; neurotic meant that you were in touch with reality and afraid.” Today there are many more shades of fear and anxiety. Within the DSM-5, there are 22 distinctly coded conditions just within the section on Anxiety Disorders.
Welch observed how various medications or psychological treatments, such as systematic desensitization, focus on thinking or bodily responses to fear and anxiety. But he suspected there was a deeper reality to our fears and worries. “Listen to your fears and you hear them speak about things that have personal meaning to you. They appear to be attached to things we value.” So to understand fear and anxiety, we have to look at ourselves, and the way we interpret our situations.
Within the short space of nine verses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), there are three commands for us to not be anxious. We are encouraged to not be anxious about our life or about our future. Jesus underlines the pointlessness of anxiety here, while providing good reasons for trusting God. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament put it this way: “Worry is unnecessary. God has lifted it from man.”
There are also three “therefores” that initiated those commands, whose purpose was to connect the paragraph or passage to what was just said. So the command to not be anxious about our life in verse 25 connects back to what Jesus said in verse 24: “You cannot serve two masters”—God and money. Verse 31’s “therefore”—don’t be anxious about what to eat, drink or wear—proceeds from the discussion in verses 26 through 30 about how God provides for the birds, flowers and grasses.
Look at how God provides for the insignificant things of his creation. The birds never go hungry or thirsty—yet they cannot sow, reap or gather into barns. The wild flowers, which cannot clothe themselves in finery, are more beautiful than King Solomon in all his glory. If God is careful to provide for them, will He not do much more for you? “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’”
These worries are what drive the “Gentiles,” those who don’t know or trust in God. When you are anxious, you are forgetting the one whom you serve. Robert Mounce said in his commentary on Matthew: “Worry is practical atheism and an affront to God.” Verse 33 is then the climax of the passage: our first priority should be to seek out the kingdom of God and his righteousness. As Craig Blomberg said: “When priorities regarding treasures in heaven and on earth are right, God will provide for fundamental human needs.”
Worry does not accomplish anything. Anxiety is futile. It cannot add a single hour to your life. The future we try to provide for is not in our hands. “Whatever happens will be under God’s control.”
The final “therefore” then leads us to the logical inference from previous ones. If we aren’t to be anxious about our life, what we are to eat, wear or drink, then we aren’t to be anxious about the future. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” In other words, live one day at a time.
This advice is heavily steeped within the culture and life of recovery. An early AA Grapevine article (“Yesterday … Today and Tomorrow,” July 1942, vol.2, no. 2) commented that it was not the experience of today that drove people mad. Rather, it was remorse for something that happened yesterday and the dread of what will come tomorrow. “Let us, therefore live but one day at a time.” In “Garden Variety” Sara S. said she was a garden-variety alcoholic. “I know that one day at a time my life is becoming all that God intended it to be.” J. S. R. of Philadelphia commented in “Sidebar,” published in the October 1954 (vol. 11, no. 5) issue:
When I decided to stay sober one day at a time, I had no idea what an impact this would have on my life. As time progresses it becomes obvious that I live one day at a time. This is a very great consolation. No longer do I project bridges into the future, nor am I particularly concerned about yesterday. I do concern myself about today’s effort and sometimes it isn’t a very pretty picture; however, with proper training along simple lines as advocated in the very essence of AA, I have no fear.
Leon Morris observed that when an individual lives one day at a time, they defeat anxiety. A shallow thinker might conclude from Matthew 6:33 (But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.) that a believer will have a smooth path through life. But that is not what Jesus is saying. All people have trouble. But there is “all the difference in the world between facing the problems we meet with firm faith in our heavenly Father and facing them with anxiety.”
This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”