Why we worry, why we judge.
Matthew 6:19 – 7:12
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Wise parents soon learn what makes their children cranky: not getting enough sleep, too much sugar, being hungry, not getting time alone, too much time alone, lack of stimulation, too much stimulation. Have you ever wondered what makes grown-ups cranky?
In the next section of Jesus’ core teaching, he strips away layer after layer until he exposes three core problems that turn us into dismal grouches and keep us from enjoying life to the full.
Our first core problem is anxiety. Driven by anxiety, we act out scripts of destruction and cruelty rather than life and creativity. We worry about things beyond our control – and in so doing we often miss things within our control. For example, you may fear losing someone you love. As a result, driven by your anxiety, you grasp, cling and smother, and in that way you drive away the person you love. Do you catch the irony? If you’re anxious about your life, you won’t enjoy or experience your life – you’ll only experience your anxiety! So to be alive is to be on guard against anxiety.
Jesus names some of the things we tend to be anxious about. First, we obsess about our bodies. Are we too fat or thin, too tall or short, or too young or old, and how is our hair? Then we obsess about our food, our drink and our clothing. Are we eating at the best restaurants, drinking the finest wines, wearing the most enviable styles? Our anxieties show us how little we trust God: God must be either so incompetent or uncaring that we might end up miserable or starving or naked or dead! So we worry and worry, as if anxiety will somehow make us taller, thinner, better looking, better dressed or more healthy!
Not only are our anxieties ridiculous and counterproductive, Jesus explains, they’re also unnecessary. He points to the flowers that surround his hearers on the hillside. See how beautiful they are? Then he gestures to the flock of birds flying across the sky above them. See how alive and free they are? God knows what they need, Jesus says. God cares for them. God sustains them through the natural order of things. And God does the same for us, but we are too anxious to appreciate it.
Anxiety doesn’t stop its dirty work at the individual level. It makes whole communities tense and toxic. Anxiety-driven systems produce a pecking order as anxious people compete and use each other in their pursuit of more stuff to stave off their anxiety. Soon, participants in such a system feel they can’t trust anybody, because everyone’s out for himself or herself, driven by fear. Eventually, anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy. No doubt many of Jesus’ original hearers would have thought, He’s describing the Romans! But to some degree, the diagnosis applies to us all.
Jesus advocates the opposite of an anxiety-driven system. He describes a faithsustained system that he calls God’s kingdom and justice. He makes this staggering promise: if we seek God’s kingdom and justice first, everything that we truly need – financially, physically or socially – will be given to us. His promise makes sense. When we each focus anxiously on our own individual well-being without concern for our neighbour, we enter into rivalry and everyone is worse off. But when we learn from the songbirds and wildflowers to live by faith in God’s abundance, we collaborate and share. We watch out for each other rather than compete with each other. We bless each other rather than oppress each other. We desire what God’s desires – for all to be safe, for all to be truly alive – so we work for the common good. When that happens, it’s easy to see how everyone will be better off. Contagious aliveness will spread across the land!
After anxiety, Jesus moves to a second core problem we all face. Anxious people are judgemental people. Worried that someone is judging them, they constantly judge others, which, of course, intensifies the environment of judgement for everyone. Just as anxiety quickly becomes contagious and creates an anxiety-driven system, judgement easily creates accusatory systems in which no one can rest, no one can be himself or herself, no one can feel free.
We can’t help but remember the story from Genesis – the choice between two trees, the tree of life that nourishes us to see the goodness in everything, and the tree whose fruit we grasp to know and judge everything and everyone around us as good or evil. When we see in these dualistic terms, we constantly judge us as good and condemn them as evil. In response, others do the same to us. In the shade of that tempting tree, soon nobody is safe. Nobody is free. Nobody is truly and fully alive.
So Jesus calls us back to the tree of life where we stop creating a them to condemn as evil people and an us to privilege as good people. If Jesus’ antidote to anxiety is to seek God’s kingdom and justice first, his antidote to judging is self-examination. Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.
It’s interesting that Jesus refers again to eyes: so much about being truly alive is about seeing in a new way.
To refrain from judging does not mean we stop discerning, as Jesus’ tough words about not throwing pearls before swine make clear. Put simply, if we want to experience non-judgemental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions – we will do unto all others – with no exceptions – as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realisation that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgement-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.
Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realise how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his mum or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call out for help?
So next time you’re grouchy, angry, anxious and uptight, here is some wisdom to help you come back from being ‘out of your mind’ to being ‘in your right mind’ again.
Try telling yourself: My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about. My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others. My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved.
From that wisdom, unworried, unhurried, unpressured aliveness will flow again.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you felt anxious, judgemental, or both.
3. How do you respond to the idea that our deepest problem is that we don’t know we are loved? In what ways does it help you to think of God’s love as fatherly, and in what ways does it help to think of God’s love as motherly? Are there ways that imagining God as a loving friend helps you in ways that parental images for God don’t?
4. For children: Why do you think little children are often afraid to be left with a babysitter? What is so special about having your parents around?
5. Activate: This week, monitor yourself for anxiety and judgement. Whenever you see them arising in you, bring to mind Jesus’ teaching in this lesson.
6. Meditate: In silence, ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. Savour that feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.