Scriptures: Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:4-20
But God … will supply all our needs
As we move through our Lenten series on “But God,” if you can't tell the theme for today, it's about not being anxious, and trusting in God to supply our needs. And as we look at the passage in Philippians, Paul starts with something that seems very confusing to most people. He says, “Rejoice. Again, I say, rejoice!”
You have to remember, Philippians wasn't written to or by a person living on “easy street.” It was written by a man who had been stripped of everything in this world that we human beings naturally want. Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians while living in a Roman prison. He was to appear in court soon to face the charges against him. And the verdict not only could, but probably would (we can look back and say it did) lead to his execution.
The church he was writing to was undergoing a lot of persecution and having all kinds of problems. It was not a wealthy church. It was not a big church. It was written to a handful of people defending a new faith against hostile ruling elites.
But Paul reminds us that the promise of this Scripture is the same in all times, when we're finally stripped of everything, there comes to us from God a life that is a joy to live. It carries with it a satisfaction and a peace that are out of this world.
But it is the tendency for most of us – myself included, big time – to stress and worry. The dictionary says stress can be best described as a state of mind that causes tension and feelings of anxiety and worry that works itself out in our physical bodies and exhibits signs like hypertension, headaches, aches and pains, along with difficulty in sleeping.
Stress isn't necessarily bad, just like fear, we discovered last week, wasn't necessarily bad. There's a difference between living fearfully and being afraid because of something that comes up. That's a natural response made to protect you. In the same way, stress is a natural response the body has to various situations.
Stress can be positive for you. It can help build your character. It can help you build yourself up. You know, when you lift weights in sports, like when I was in football and wrestling, we would lift weights, and you stress out your muscles intentionally. You break them down. Why? Because when they rebuild, they rebuild even stronger.
Not only that, but you have to continually make an effort to give at least minor stress to your muscles or guess what happens? They atrophy. That causes problems when you get older because – you know, I still think it's like I'm 19 years old, and I'm not, so then I can't do something that I expect to be able to do because I could do it when I was 19 or 20 years old, and I can't. Instead I hurt myself.
But stress can be unhealthy, especially when there's too much of it. And it can produce, as noted, a myriad of physical symptoms, like headaches, muscle tension, restlessness, high blood pressure, upset stomach, nausea, etc. Stress leading to anxiety has also been linked to six of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and even suicide.
I know it for a fact, because I live with one. There's an ulcer you can get in your stomach sometimes that that's caused by somebody who stressing out too much, who's too anxious. I know that people with a type A personality tend to be I forget how many times more likely to get stomach or intestinal cancer than somebody who has a type B personality. And besides physical symptoms, emotional problems can surface such as fear, anger, irritation, along with sadness, depression, being overwhelmed, and even panic attacks.
So stress is nothing to mess around with. Stress is something that is an integral part of our lives, as much as we'd like it not to be. So we need to understand some things about stress, I believe, and then move on to how we can help with it.
I'm going to differentiate here between concern and anxiety or anxiousness. Jesus says don't be anxious. Concern usually deals with a care for someone or something that leads to a positive action. Sometimes you can't do that positive action, but you think about it. You know, when Jesus talked to the rich young ruler, when the man left Jesus looked at him with compassion. But he let him go. I'm sure that Jesus was concerned for him. You get concerned for things, and you do some about it.
Anxiousness or anxiety, on the other hand, tends to be non-productive, in terms of results. It accomplishes and solves nothing. One person said it's like pushing a gas pedal in a car while it remains in park. It revs up the engine and makes a lot of noise, but goes nowhere.
Anxiety isn't reasonable. It exaggerates problems, making mountains out of molehills, and expands the problem, making it bigger than it really is. Finally, anxiety can strangle the life right out of us. By the way, the word for worry comes from an old English word which means to strangle. In Latin also, the root word that's used for worry means to strangle. If you think about, for instance, bulls, or other predators, when they take down prey, they “worry” at the neck.
The word in Greek for “anxious” is a combination of two words. It means to “divide your mind.” That's what anxiety does. It pulls your mind in multiple directions. It gives you a bad case, as somebody once said, of the “what-ifs.”
What if this happens? What if that happens? Where it gets really bad is with somebody like me, where I think back on something that already happened and say, what if I had done this? Or what if I had done that? That's really not productive beyond a limited scope.
Yes, it can be good to think about it so you know how to respond better the next time. But if you continually think about what if, what if, and develop scenarios and things like that thing, you're being anxious, and you are simply over-stressing yourself. And it becomes impossible to rejoice. It becomes impossible to know joy, whatsoever.
This joy is something that theologian Karl Barth once called “a continually defiant nevertheless,”
which suggests that the kind of joy Paul is talking about, when he says to rejoice, is not based on circumstances. (Nevertheless, by the way, is another word for “but.”) Your circumstances may not be the best right now. Nevertheless, God will provide.
When Jesus was talking about the provision that God gives, he wasn't suggesting that you do nothing, sit back, relax, and just let God take care of it all. Later on, Paul says to one of the churches, I think it's Thessalonians, if someone doesn't work, they don't eat. Because the people at that time were just staying in the church, praising God, saying, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and then expecting everybody to take care of them while they were doing that.
Life doesn't work that way. God made us to work. The first thing He did in the garden was He had Adam and Eve and He made them stewards – managers – of the garden. He said, “Take care of it. Tend it.” We've talked about working before, and how God made us for work.
So it's not like you sit back and do nothing, but you also don't over-think things. Boy, that's hard for Presbyterians. We're very intellectual, always have been. It's kind of in our genes, almost, as a denomination.
So how do we not over-think, but still think enough? How do we have concern, but not of anxiety? Billy Graham once said, “Anxiety is the natural result when our hopes are centered on anything short of God and His will for us.” Let me say that one again. “Anxiety is the natural result when our hopes are centered on anything short of God and His will for us.”
So the way we maintain the balance is by not thinking about us, but by thinking about God. It's what Paul said in the passage that was read today, that we think about whatever is right, whatever is noble, etc. Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.” We can see that our path in life will be a whole lot safer and clearer if we learn to trust and lean on God.
Matthew 6:33 says “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” That comes right after the passage we read today. So he's speaking about provision of food, clothing, etc. All the provision we ever need in life will be supplied if we learn to focus on the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
It's a matter of focus. It's a matter of perspective. It's a matter of priority. If God is first, if His kingdom is first, then these other things will be added. And guess what? Even in times of trial, even in times of struggle, even in times of persecution, you will be able to rejoice.
There's an illustration I found, an old legend about three men and their sacks. Each man had two sacks, one tied on the front of his neck and the other tied on his back. Now when the first man was asked what was in his sacks, he said, “In the sack of my back are all the good things friends and family have done, so that I carry it with me always. In the front sack are all the bad things that have happened to me, and every now and then I stop, open the front sack, take things out, examine them, and think about it.” Because he stopped so much to concentrate on all the bad stuff, he really didn't make much progress in life.
The second man was asked about his sacks, and he replied, “In the front sack are all the good things I've done. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The sack in the back? Oh, I keep all my mistakes in there and carry them all the time. Sure they're heavy. They slow me down. But you know, for some reason I can't put them down.”
I know that that's something that people who are anxious tend to struggle with, something that people who are perfectionists seem to struggle with. I once did a time of meditation as part of spiritual direction, and the image that came to my mind, while I was meditating about what was in my heart, was that of a trophy room.
There were lights on the stands, and there were trophies on each stand, and that seemed kind of cool – until you walked closer and realized that every trophy was upside down. It wasn't a trophy of the things I succeeded at. It was a trophy of what I had failed at. And there I had them, put on a pedestal, with light shining on them. That's not the best way to live. I know that. It's something that I worked on for years, to let go of mistakes, so that you can continue to move forward.
Now the third man was asked about his sacks, and he answered, “The sack in front is great. There I keep all the positive thoughts I have about people, all the blessings I've experienced, all the great things other people have done for me. The weight isn't a problem. The sack is like the sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward. The sack of my back? That's empty. There's nothing in it. You see, I cut a big hole in its bottom. And in there I put all the bad things that I think about myself and hear about others. And they go in one end and out the other. So I'm not carrying around any extra weight at all.”
That's quite the illustration of how to manage your stress and to not be anxious.
So to summarize the verses that we read, Paul reveals four principles for overcoming anxiety. He told us, we must focus on God instead of ourselves. We must stop the wrong behavior of worry – switch those sacks around. We must have an attitude of dependence on the Lord – we need to focus on Him, we need to prioritize Him. And then finally, we need to focus or meditate on the right subjects.
I've often said, you can't not think about something. If I say, don't think about a pink elephant, how many of you were able to not do that? Instead, what you need to do is fill your mind with something else, and that will allow you to move forward.
There's a lot of stress in this world, a lot of anxiety today. A lot of things that you can be anxious about, a lot of scary things in the world. But God will provide for our needs. And it's not just any god. I want to note, in the conclusion Paul says, “my God will supply all your needs, according to the riches of Christ.”
My God. That God is your God. It's not just a god. If you have a relationship with Him, you can depend on Him, and He will provide all you need. So people, rejoice. Again, I say, rejoice. For the Lord is good, and loves you all.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.