Don’t worry, be happy? Is this at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6: 24-34, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount? Did Bobby McFerrin sum it all up in his 1988 hit? It seems to me that McFerrin’s feel good song shares some of the joy and delight in daily life that Jesus is aiming at (the song says “in every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double”), but locates it in ignoring real trouble or turning a blind eye to genuine problems (“ain’t got no place to lay your head, somebody came and took your bed? Don’t worry, be happy. The landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate. Don’t worry, be happy”). Jesus, interestingly, points us away from unnecessary and unproductive anxiety and worry, but not in its entirety. He says, “so do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today” (v. 34). This does suggest that some worry or concern about one’s state on a day to day basis might be reasonable or normal. It is the anxiety about the future of which he warns because it can consume one’s very life and turn us into ourselves and away from God.
I think this inner "consuming" can occur in two ways. In the first way, one becomes so focused on the future and worries about the future that one forgets to live for the day, here and now, to glory in the fact of our existence, to take joy from the little things, and instead to imagine what must be done, or should be done, or could occur, or possibly might happen…and the day and its comforts are gone. In the second way, one becomes consumed with oneself as the author of life, the one whose decisions makes the world turn and the only one on whom one can rely and we forget that God cares for us, loves us and is looking out for us.
In these two ways we turn from God and the present moment and look to rely only on ourselves. Jesus therefore warns us,
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. 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 can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry 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 clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?' or "What will we drink?' or "What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (vv.25-33).
Yet, there is this nagging…oh, what’s the word for it?...oh, yes…worry that if I do not plan for the future, all will be lost. Is God adding anything to my 401K? What about gas prices? Libya? What is Jesus telling us to do? Has Jesus come out here against “prudence” and “planning” on the grounds that it is completely futile? And should we live a beggar’s hand to mouth day-to-day existence? Or should we stop saving money for retirement, or our children’s college educations and go lie on a beach in Mexico (or Hawaii!)? In what sense precisely do wild birds and lilies tell us how to live?
The spiritual heart of the teaching seems to be found in v. 33, and it is located in what we should seek: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The basic teaching seems to be that we should cut our entanglements to material possessions, for reliance on material goods alone leads us to seek security in them and not in God. Possessions can be lost, destroyed and stolen. They do not last forever. If you focus on how much more you need, you will never be satisfied.
Yet, still, how do birds and lilies teach us how to live? So God gives them food and sends rain on the lilies, but what does that mean for human beings. Nothing, really, for my question is misleading. The birds and flowers are not models to imitate, but we are to see and grasp that the care which God lavishes on them is an indication of how he cares for us! These teachings are not about being indifferent to the practicalities of life. The argument which Jesus employs is called in Hebrew a qal v’homer argument: if God cares so much for birds and flowers, how much more will he care for you? It is this faith in God’s care that allows us to live free of anxiety, but it does not mean we should not act prudently or have concern for those we love. Don’t worry, be happy, but pay your rent!
John W. Martens
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