For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. (Matthew 6:25-32)
These words are both comforting and incredibly challenging. Is worry really a sin? (If so, I’m worried that I worry too much!)
If I feel like my job is in danger, and I don’t know how would provide for my family, is it wrong for me to feel a little bit anxious? If there’s something weird going on in my body, and Google says my symptoms are likely signs of something serious, am I supposed to just carry on without giving it a second thought? If a child or a parent is seriously ill, is it even humanly possible not to worry just a little bit now and then? Does Jesus simply expect for us to just pray a little harder, and then walk around with indescribabl peace, as if nothing is wrong? Is that even possible?
Although the idea of walking around with zero anxiety sounds wonderful, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind. It is my understanding that this verse has almost nothing to do with emotions, except to the extent that those emotions result in, or lead us to, a failure to give our full allegiance to God. The continual pursuit of endless bliss and tranquility is probably a lot closer to Buddhism or Stoicism than Christianity. Jesus does not give us an impossible command. Following Jesus can actually lead to decreased anxiety, but it is my understanding that feeling worried is not itself a sin.
This is not to suggest that Jesus didn’t really mean it when He commanded us not to worry. I believe Jesus really meant it. But when Jesus said “do not be worried”, He said this within a larger context, and His command can only be rightly understood when we consider that context.
Jesus Himself Had Anxiety
If by “do not be worried” Jesus was demanding that we continually have calm, serene emotions in the midst of turmoil, then Jesus has some serious explaining to do. If it is wrong to feel physical and emotional stress that comes when faced with problems that our outside of our control, then Jesus failed to keep his own command.
And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:33-34)
Even Jesus was distressed and troubled. Luke 22:44 records that Jesus was in “agony” and that “His sweat became like drops of blood, falling to the ground”. Hebrews 5:7 says Jesus offered up “prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears.”
The last thing Jesus felt at this moment was inner peace. He was suffocating under the weight of anxiety about the suffering He was about to endure – so much so that blood seeped from his face. That just doesn’t happen unless a person is under tremendous anxiety and stress. And yet, this is the same Jesus who commanded us not to worry.
Of course Jesus wasn’t the only character in scripture who suffered from anxiety. Just spend a few minutes flipping through the book of Psalms. In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, his mind was filled with these anxious words of David:
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And my night, but I have no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)
That doesn’t sound like inner peace. Even though he continually cried to God, he found no rest. It was as if his prayers were disappearing into thin air without being heard. He felt as if God had totally forsaken him. He felt as if he was all alone in the crushing chaos of the world.
These are not the words of a man simply carrying on as if life was all sunshine and butterflies. There’s no easy peaceful feeling in these verses. Jesus wrestled with turmoil. He was feeling anxious.
Was Jesus failing to keep his own command? Why didn’t Jesus just meditate on the birds and the flowers a little bit harder? Was Jesus being hypocritical? I don’t think so.
I find it far more likely that we misunderstand Jesus’s teachings about worry if we conclude that Jesus was forbidding us from feeling anxiety.
In What Sense is Worrying a Sin?
Notice carefully how Jesus introduces his teachings on worry.
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life. (Mt. 6.25a)
When Jesus says “for this reason”, this tells us that Jesus’s commands about not worrying are in some way connected to what he has just said.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal…. No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:19-24)
Jesus had just drawn the observation that when we serve the wrong master by laying up treasures on earth, the future is uncertain. When we serve wealth, our future security will always be out of our control. If you feel you have control, your anxiety level goes down. If you don’t have control, your anxiety level goes up. In other words, our level of certainty in the future and our level of anxiety is directly tied to our choice of which master to serve.
In this context, worry is the result of storing up treasures on earth, which will always have a certain level of anxiety. On earth, things happen that are outside of our control, which leads to anxiety. When we lay up treasures in heaven, they are untouchable and incorruptible. Heavenly treasures never cause anxiety.
That’s why Jesus concludes his teaching on worry by commanding us to seek first the Kingdom of God.
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will take care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mt 6.33-34)
Not only is worrying wrong when it results from serving the wrong master, but worrying is also wrong when it distracts us from serving our master. Pay attention to the word “but”. Notice the contrast that is drawn.
Jesus does not say “do not worry, but maintain happy emotions.” Jesus does not say “do not worry, but carry on as if nothing matters.” Jesus says “do not worry, but seek first God’s kingdom.”
The opposite of sinful worry is not maintaining peaceful emotions. Nor is it pushing all thoughts about unmet needs out of your mind. The opposite of sinful worry is recognizing that “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” and seeking first His kingdom. The opposite of sinful worry is generously giving up your earthly treasures, even when anxiety tells you that you can’t afford it.
Jesus is not suggesting that all anxious emotions are sinful, but rather they can be a consequence of investing in temporary earthly treasures rather than in incorruptible heavenly treasures. Anxious emotions can be sinful if they keep us from faithfully serving God. But the point of the text is not to seek first emotional tranquility. The point of the text is to maintain faithful allegiance to God as our only master.
Jesus does not teach us to live as if troubles don’t exist. Jesus actually presupposes that life will be filled with troubles day by day. But we must not let anxiety keep us from serving God and others.
More Than a Feeling
When Jesus was in the garden, sweating drops of blood, he turned to God in prayer. In Jesus we see something far greater than emotional serenity. We see a faithfulness to God that survived death itself. His faith didn’t rise or fall based on his ability to master his emotions. Rather than having a faith founded upon feelings, Jesus had a faith that was founded upon the unshakable character of God.
“Do not be worried” is about more than mere emotions. It is about having a solid faith and confidence that allows you to say, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26.39).