A couple years ago, I read a post on a blog called Pursuing Titus 2 that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a post called “Fear and Grace,” and after telling the story of a time when she almost died from pneumonia, the author says this:
When we are simply imagining chilling scenarios, we are facing the horrible emotions without any of God’s sustaining grace. Every time we imagine something, we put ourselves through agony of a kind we will never have to go through in real life. Because when awful things are actually happening, God walks with us through them and gives us His grace and strength. The peace of God’s presence through a trial is something I can never conjure up in my imagination, and something that only comes with real trials, not the pretend ones I make up while driving. Now I know the difference.
This is why anxiety is spiritually lethal, and why Jesus commands against it: it pitches us out of the present, and out of dependence on God in the present, into a future of our own imagining—which is to say, a future that does not actually exist. God is present in every place and time that exists; if something does not exist, God is not there. If we project ourselves into a future that does not exist, we go alone—and this is what we do when we worry, when we let anxiety rule in our hearts. When we do that, we are refusing to trust God, we are refusing to live by faith in him; by our actions, we are denying that he can be trusted, asserting that we will only make it through the trials and troubles of the future if we’ve solved them ahead of time by our own wits, and prepared ourselves for them by our own strength, out of our own resources.
Like last week, Jesus is talking about money here, but not for its own sake. In the previous passage, he’s talking about money as treasure, inviting us to treasure God rather than our earthly possessions; here, his concern is with money as security, teaching us to trust God rather than our earthly possessions. This fits with the parallel passage at the end of chapter 5, where Jesus asks us to trust that if we give up our claim to punish our enemies ourselves, but instead show them grace and give them over to God, we will not end up victimized, but vindicated; here, he asks us to trust that if we give up our claim to use our wealth for ourselves, and instead live by faith and give it over to God, that we will not end up bereft, but blessed.
This is alien to our culture. I think most of us were taught as kids that we needed to do well in school so that when we grew up, we could get a good enough job to “earn a living,” or to “make a living.” Not everyone has that sense of responsibility, of course; what do we say about those who don’t? “They think the world owes them a living.” (The apostle Paul would say, “If they refuse to work, let them not eat,” but that’s another discussion.) In discussions about the economy, we talk about the “standard of living.” In all of this, what’s a “living”? It’s whatever amount of money is enough to “provide for our needs,” however we choose to define them. The essential assumption is that we keep ourselves alive and provide for ourselves by our own efforts; and it’s an assumption which most of us in the church share. Sure, we would affirm that God assists us and his help is important, but at bottom, we still believe it’s basically up to us.
Jesus tells us something very different: this is God’s work. He gave you your job, your income, and all the things you possess, and he didn’t do it so that you can provide for yourself. He didn’t give you the ability to have pension plans and savings so that you can store up to provide for yourself in the future. God gave you all those things so that you could use them to his glory. Full stop. God provides for us because he loves us, and to show his faithfulness. Yes, he does so mainly through our own work—but he is the one who gave us our abilities and our skills, he is the one who gave us our opportunities and our connections, and he is the one who put the circumstances together so that we could succeed. Our hands, God’s provision.
Now, I’m not naïve; I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night. I’ve been preaching regularly for over a decade now, I’ve preached in a lot of churches, and I know what some of you are thinking: this is fine as far as it goes, but I can’t possibly mean—. Yes, I do. One of the great problems with the rich church in the First World is that most of us are nowhere near radical enough about this; we’re like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, we want to keep something back for ourselves. So let’s up the ante here: God didn’t give you money and possessions so that you could keep yourself alive. Keeping you alive is his job, and he’s better at it than you are. Our job is to lay down our lives for him, as Jesus says in Mark 8: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.”
Just look at the parallel to this section, verses 38-48 of chapter 5. As we saw some weeks ago, it isn’t about rolling over, being a doormat, or letting yourself be abused—far from it; it’s about trusting God in the face of human evil and fighting it his way. But to do that, we have to reject our instinct to protect ourselves or defend ourselves and go out on a limb—we have to trust that if we take the radical step of leaving ourselves apparently unprotected and defenseless in the face of evil, that opens up a conduit for the power of God to attack evil through us. We have to trust that by not protecting ourselves, we will be better protected, and by not defending ourselves, we will be better defended, because God will do what we cannot. Jesus teaches us to leave our vindication and even our safety completely in God’s hands.
In the same way, this passage doesn’t justify irresponsibility, or never bothering to plan, or freeloading on other people and contributing nothing in return; it’s about trusting God in the face of evil circumstances and dealing with them his way. Again, we have to reject our instinct to protect ourselves and go out on a limb: we have to trust that if we take the radical step of putting God first with our money and our assets, using them to seek his kingdom and his righteousness, that he will in fact add all these things to us that we need.
I can illustrate this from the life of this congregation. As I think most of you know, our budget is much larger than our congregational giving. Our mission giving, our office wing, the founding of our preschool, and most of our staff have been made possible by large financial bequests to the church, most notably that of Harriet Gawthrop; interest from our investments and the sale of investment principal each cover something like a third of our spending. The elders of this congregation have recognized this as God’s money which he has provided to us to advance the work of his kingdom, and so that’s how they and we have striven to use it.
From a worldly point of view, from a purely business point of view, this is foolish; from a spiritual point of view, it’s profoundly wise, and I commend them for it. They have sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and God has continued to give us our bread that doesn’t run out. Should God stop providing, it would, and so we’re compelled to acknowledge our dependence on him. Because we’re human, sometimes we’re anxious, saying, “How long shall we have enough money?” and “How long shall we be able to keep going?”; and yet, God continues to show himself faithful, and by and large, we remember that today has enough troubles of its own. We keep our focus on the challenges God has given us right now, and leave the troubles and challenges to come in his hands.
And why shouldn’t we? And why shouldn’t you? We don’t; we get anxious because we don’t fully understand what’s happening and we don’t know what’s going to happen, we worry because we think we have to figure out what to do and how to do it or else everything’s going to come apart, and when we get that way, we may talk like Christians but we walk like atheists. Why do we do that? Do we really believe that God values us so little that he’d just let us fall, that he’d let us go smash like a carton of eggs on the sidewalk? Do you really believe he values you less than you value yourself?
You have all your self-doubts, all your fears, and all your regrets, and you have the Devil perched on your shoulder speaking through all of them to pour his poison into your soul. God knows about all those things—indeed, he sees your darkness far better than you do—but he also sees the light he has made to shine in your heart. He knows, not just who you are now, but who you will be by his love and his grace and his power, and he’s heaven-bent on healing and purifying and perfecting you; he made you and he loves you, no matter what you’ve done and no matter what you’re going to do. And so, consider the corn of the field: yes, there are tough years, when it’s hot and it’s dry and there isn’t much of a harvest, but the farmer doesn’t just pave it over and set up a fireworks shop; he keeps planting, and next time, it grows tall and green and golden. So it is with God: he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. He cares for you, and he will provide for your needs, if you trust him to.
You may say this is impractical, that I’m being unrealistic, that I don’t know what I’m asking; from a worldly point of view, this is impractical. But we are in Christ, we no longer live according to the flesh, we’ve been given a better point of view and a deeper understanding.