The Infidelity of Anxiety
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., a regular contributor to FOCUS, is a teaching elder at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas.
We are living in the Age of Anxiety, according to some interpreters of modern life. And, surprisingly, this sense of uneasiness and apprehensiveness is not the sole possession of the adult population. Young people, especially students, are afflicted with the feeling. Some time ago a number of them were polled by Gallup, and one of the questions asked was this one, “What is the basic feeling you have toward life?” Sixty per cent of the young people replied in shocking and surprising unanimity, “Fear.” What a strange answer from the youth of our age!
The term anxiety is derived from the Latin word angustia (usually found in the plural form angustiae), which means shortness of breath, or difficulty, distress, perplexity. When used of the mind it means narrowness, or contractedness. It suggests, then, the feeling of constriction which occurs in the greatest experiences of fear. The Latin word, in turn, is derived from the Greek word ancho, which means to press tight, to strangle, or throttle. The Latin word ango can mean to choke. It is from this word group that we have the term angina pectoris, which refers to a heart disease in which there are spasms of pain in the chest, with feelings of suffocation, usually due to anemia of the heart muscle. Characteristic of the feeling of anxiety is the fact that the thing which makes me afraid is subordinate to the fear, and often it does not appear at all. In other words, the nature of the feeling of anxiety is that is possesses or gives an indefinable sense of being threatened.1
It is probably that this fear, or anxiety, is not to be interpreted as fear of death. Our generation is not characterized by an unusual fear of death. There are many in our day who have faced death with no obvious fears and often without any spiritual stays at all. Spiritually indifferent people, in fact, atheistic and nihilistic people, are often quite calm and composed in facing death. The protests of Hindus in Viet Nam have illustrated this, many of them voluntarily giving their bodies to a fiery death.
What appears to be the case, then, is this: The fear of our age is not the fear of death, but the fear of life. “If Luther, the medieval monk,” Helmut Thielecke said, “was filled with the anxiety of guilt in the presence of the divine Judge and this wrung from his lips the question: ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ then people today are shaken by the anxiety of fate, by fear of the appalling and unfathomable contingencies of life. Where once there stood the judging God there is now a vacuum, an empty place.”2 One wishes that the fear of Luther were the fear of our day, but unfortunately it is not. We have lost the sense of a judging God, although we have not lost the judging God! But, instead of this ultimate terror, our generation has substituted a lesser, an almost insignificant fear, the fear of the contingencies, the happenings, of this life. This has been beautifully caught in one wag’s comment, “I’m not so much afraid of the end of the world as I am of the end of the month!”
Man’s attempts to deal with this dread of the future are usually of two kinds. In the first place, the question is ignored. The problem of the meaning of life is briefly discussed and then filed away, and man becomes at this point a machine, an instrument, perfunctorily carrying out the functions of life with no concern over the ultimate questions at all. But, as Thielecke points out, this is “the delusive peace of a technological Nirvana, the peace of self-renunciation, flight into superficiality.”3 The other attempt to deal with this dread comes from science but, due to the fate of the world inexorably set before us by the second law of thermodynamics, this inevitably leads to the nihilism of a Jean Paul Sartre, one of the prevailing philosophies of our time. The universe is simply a transient episode, which has arisen of the eternal nothingness of the past and will disappear again someday into the absolute nothingness of the future, leaving no trace at all.
It is the Christian gospel that specializes in dealing with man’s sin of unbelief and guilt. And Paul’s undying words, “And by him (Jesus Christ) all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39), beautifully express it. And, further, it deals with the problem of anxiety. It is characteristic of the New Testament to address believers with the thrilling words, “Fear not!” This is the answer to the tranquilizers!
The passage before us is one in which the theme of the tranquility of trust is wonderfully and comfortingly expounded. Its connection with the preceding is indicated by the word, “Therefore” (lit., for this reason). The Lord has just said in verse twenty-four, “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” The point, then, is simply this: If we are His slaves, then we have no worries.
It is His responsbility to provide material things for His slaves, His possessions. As surely as birds have no need to worry over feathers, and flowers over their petals, so certainly have we no need to worry over the needs of life.
The Principle Declared
Concerning what we put in (6:25). In the opening verse of the section the general principle is declared. It is this: While we must work, we must not worry.
The words of the Authorized Version, “Take no thought,” might create the wrong impression. It is possible that one might get the impression that the Lord Jesus is advocating “a reckless improvidence.”4 The words of the Greek text, from which the Authorized Version’s rendering is derived, mean simply, be not anxious, or perhaps do not worry about. While we must work, we must not worry. The Apostle Paul expresses the need to work when he writes, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10). And the thought is in this passage also, for, while the Lord speaks of the Father feeding the birds of the air, it is doubtful if any being works harder than the little sparrow for sustenance.
Concerning what we put on (6:25). He continues by noting not only that God supplies His saints with food and drink, but also with clothing. The point of this is that, since He has in wonderful grace given us life through Christ’s saving work, He surely will do that which is lesser, meet the daily needs of his family.
One might be tempted to think that life in Palestine must have been very easy in those pristine days before the coming of modern problems. Surely the simplicity of life then contributed to an easy trust in God. But such was not the case. “To begin with,” Hunter points out, “life in the Galilee of Jesus’ day was no economic idyll. With taxation totalling around 8s. in the £ the men of Galilee had economic worries hardly less than our.”5 That means that the rate of taxation in Jesus’ day in Palestine was 40%. Not many of us fall into that bracket, at least in the United States, although, if inflation continues, many will come to know the experience soon.
The principle, then, is not that we must abandon wise foresight in the planning of our lives, but we must abandon worrying foresight.
The Principle Argued
Argument from the logic of creation (6:25). There now follow seven arguments and defences against Christian worry. The first we have already alluded to; it is an argument derived from the logic of creation itself. The point is that God would not have created human life, with its specific needs, had He not seen to the provision of the accompanying needs for its maintenance. Having made life, He will provide for its support.
There is a sense in which this applies to all of human life, although we are doing everything in our power to make it difficult for Him to meet human needs, as the environmentalists are trying to point out in their limited way. I think, however, that the real force of the text points towards the meeting of the needs of the saints, who have been brought by Him into the possession of eternal life. Having saved us, He will surely meet the lesser, the material, needs that we have. Put in Paul’s words it is, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things” (Rom. 8:32)?
The argument from nature (6:26). The skies above Palestine were full of birds, and it is no wonder that the Lord should turn to them for illustration. This he did more than once. In fact, this is one of the many evidences that our Lord was “country-bred.” Palestine has been called “the cross-roads of bird-migrations.”6
The argument of our Lord here is again the very simple one of from the less to the greater. If birds who cannot plan ahead, have no cause to worry, then certainly we, endowed with intelligence, who can plan for the future, have no need to feel any apprehension over our needs. If He cares for the lower creatures, then surely, He will care for those who are created in His own image and are now being re-formed into that likeness.
The passage, of course, is no incentive to idleness, as anyone who has seen birds in operation knows. It has been said that no one works harder than the average bird for a living. I can attest to that from personal observation, as well as from struggles with sparrows! Birds are the nearest thing to perpetual motion that I know. They do not sit upon branches or twigs and wait for heaven to drop a worm or an insect into their mouth. They are constantly gathering insects, preparing their nests, caring for their young, teaching them bird culture, although they do it instinctively. They even exercise a certain degree of care, for they may move from one climate to another in anticipation of the changes of weather. Yet, they do not overdo their work of providing for their young, like the Rich Fool of our Lord’s parable (Luke 12:16-21). They work, but they do not worry.
The argument from human inability (6:27). “Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto his stature,” so the Authorized Version reads. But the word translated, “stature,” may mean two things. It may refer either to age or to height (stature). Zachaeus was small in stature (cf. Luke 19:3). Sarah was long past the age of conceiving (cf. Heb. 11:11). The same Greek word is used in these passages. Now a cubit was eighteen inches, and it is ridiculous to think that anyone would ever be thinking of adding eighteen inches to his height by worrying, especially before the days of our modern basketball giants! Therefore, the much more likely meaning is that no man can add the shortest space to his life by worrying. Worry is pointless in helping man. Even if one could add a cubit, what would that mean to the life of a man? We often speak of our birthdays as mile-posts. On our seventieth birthday we are able to speak of our “seventieth mile-post.” What would a cubit add to that? Practically nothing, Hendrikson concludes, “A man may ‘worry himself to death’; he cannot worry himself into a longer span of life.”7 Our times are in God’s hands; they are best left there.
The argument from the flowers (6:28-30). The lillies of the field were the scarlet poppies and anemones. They bloomed for one day on the hillsides in Palestine, and yet their brief life possessed a beauty and glory that outshone that of Solomon, clothed in his royal raiment. His garments, put under the microscope, would be found out to be like sackcloth, but the red anemone, the closer it is observed, the more beautiful and exquisite it becomes. “These pass in a night,” King notes, “you persist through eternity — do you suppose that God is any less concerned with your necessary clothing?”8
The lesson is stated in verse thirty, and it contains a double argument, as Hendriksen points out, “a. from the less to the greater: If God provides for the short-lived grass, he will surely provide for his children, destined for eternal glory. b. from the greater to less: If God decks the wild flowers with such very beautiful garments, then he will certainly clothe his children with the ordinary garments which they need.”9
The argument from the custom of the Gentiles (6:31-32a). Worry is characteristic of the Gentiles, the Lord says. Since it is esentially distrust of God, it is understandable in Gentiles who have jealous, capricious, unpredictable gods, who lust like humans, lie, cheat, and even murder. But Messiah’s followers are different (cf. Eph. 2:11-12; 4:17-24), and they must walk a different path.
The argument from the family tie (6:32b). The believer has a Heavenly Father, and He has foreknowledge of all his needs. And, further, His knowledge is present to Him before the believer asks that they be met (cf. 6:8). And this knowledge makes it certain that He will meet the needs He is aware of (cf. Eph. 3:20-21). Would not an earthly father, possessing the necessary resources, meet the needs of his children? How much more our Heavenly Father. As the Scriptures say, “No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psa. 84:11).
The argument from the day’s sufficiency (6:34). Worry may be defeated by the art of living one day at a time. Leave tomorrow’s burdens for tomorrow. We only double them by anticipating them.
All of this raises the question of prayer and its relation to peace and freedom from worry. It is to be noticed that the Lord does not say, “Stop worrying, pull yourself together.” That is useless for the spiritually helpless, and it is also bad psychology. It is what is called repression. And He does not say, “Stop worrying, it may never happen.” This piece of popular psychology is thought to be very wonderful by the simple-minded, but the facts are that it may happen! Job said, “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me” (3:25)! Our problem is that it may happen. The Christian method of dealing with problems is to take them to the Lord, and Philippians 4:6-7 expresses it beautifully and meaningfully, “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And THE PEACE OF GOD, which passeth all understanding, SHALL KEEP your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” That remedy solves the mighty turmoil of heart and mind within us. Cf. Isa. 26:3. As the psalmist, amid his trials and troubles, said, “I laid down and slept; I awaked: for THE LORD sustained me” (3:5), so may we find the solution to life’s trials in Him.
One of the greatest of baseball’s pitchers was Satchel Paige, who still lives and promotes the game he played so well. He is famous for his six rules for a happy life, and they humorously portray the best of the provisions of the natural man.
1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on vices such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”
How much more satisfying is the Lord’s recipe!
III The Principle Restated
The principle is restated in different words in verse thirty-three, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” After all, if we are His slaves, then attention to His affairs brings the assurance that He, our great Slaveholder and Master, will care for all the material needs of His own. Cf. vv. 19-21.
(1) First, in summing up what our Lord is saying, we must point out that worry is needless, useless, and injurious. The past is past, and the future has not come. Further, it is blind, for it refuses the lessons of history and life. And finally, it is sinful. It is not weakness; it is wickedness.
(2) Second, the secret of tranquility is trust. With His cause as our concern we may rest in His care. There is an old cliche, which is nevertheless true, “If you’re worrying, you’re not trusting, and if you’re trusting, you’re not worrying.” One of the greatest of all worriers was Peter. He worried about sinking when he was walking on the water. He worried about Jesus’ payment of taxes. He worried about Jesus betrayer. He worried about His sufferering. But, when he came to a fuller knowledge of the grace of God, he wrote, “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). The word “care” is from the same root that the verb translated, “take no thought” (Matt. 6:25), comes from. That’s it. The solution does not lie in, “stop worrying.” That I cannot do of myself. It lies in letting Him take my cares from me. And that He promises to do. Let your requests be made known unto God!
1 Helmut Theilecke, Christ and the Meaning of Life: A Book of Sermons and Meditations, ed. and trans. by John W. Doberstein (New York, 1962), p. 134.
2 Ibid., p.p. 133-34.
3 Ibid., pp. 135-36.
4 King, p. 89.
5 Hunter, p. 80.
6 A. Parmelee, All the Birds of the Bible (New York, 1959), p. 183.
7 Hendriksen, p. 351.
8 King, p. 92.
9 Hendriksen, pp. 352-53.