What Jesus means by, “Do not be anxious.”

May 13, 2019

Anxiety is a real problem in our society. Working in ministry, I regularly talk to Christians who are struggling with anxiety, and I also spend a lot of time working with leaders trying to help others deal with anxiety in a biblical and healthy way. It seems the problem is ubiquitous. From college campuses and local churches, to marriages and friendships, to coffee shops and businesses, anxiety is everywhere.

In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to be anxious about our lives (6:25). Describing those words as challenging is a significant understatement. Jesus delivers them in part of his famous Sermon on the Mount. In many ways, his sermon is designed to help us look forward, to help us see what life will be like in the Kingdom of God. There will be a time when our lives and our world are no longer marked by anxiety, as well as anger, unruly sexual desires, deceit, poverty, and other signs of brokenness. Jesus confronts us with those things here. But we would miss much of what Jesus is saying if we simply assume that the things he sets forth in his sermon merely apply to the future.

So how what does he even mean by, “Do not be anxious”?

What Jesus didn’t say

As a general rule, it isn’t a good idea to try to make sense of a passage by starting with what it doesn’t mean. But I do think it is important to say that Jesus is not telling us to forget about anxiety, as if it isn’t really a problem. Jesus is also not saying that the things that cause us anxiety don’t matter.

For some people, anxiety, and many of the things often associated with it, can be so debilitating that it requires professional counseling or medical intervention. I am sure that Jesus would do nothing to discourage those people from availing themselves of such help. In the first century, and today, Jesus knew his words were for broken people. He also knew that because of the curse, even our best, Spirit-empowered efforts cannot fully liberate us from sin’s reach. This means that sometimes our besetting sins and struggles will remain with us throughout our lives. Each of us needs help to battle against the effects of sin, and if anything, this should encourage Christians to seek out the appropriate care for anxiety and other issues.

What Jesus did say

Jesus was a master teacher, and the amazing thing about these words is that they apply to all of us in the same way. The reason why Jesus tells us not to be anxious is because the Father cares for us. Notice that Jesus tells us not to worry things that are actually really important—our food and drink and clothing. All of us would be tempted to panic if we didn’t know where our next few meals were coming from, or if we woke up without clothes to wear. Jesus isn’t saying these things don’t matter. Instead, he’s saying that God loves us and cares about those things, so we don’t need to worry. Most of us would do well to think more about how the Father loves us.

All of that is easier said than done, though. So, Jesus presses the point further. He shows us the futility of our anxiety by drawing our attention to something we cannot change. He asks, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (6:27). Obviously, the answer is none of us. But we shouldn’t miss Jesus’ point. Jesus’ point is that, although we can’t control the number of days we will have in this life, God can. And that is what he wants us to see: God can do what is impossible for us.

What Jesus says to us

Here, Jesus gives us a spiritual answer to a very practical question. We are anxious because we have real needs and concerns. Jesus tells us not to be anxious because God knows what we need. Despite how hard it is to do, we are supposed to have faith. On the surface, this can look like a cop-out, but this is what faith is all about: learning to trust God when we would rather trust ourselves.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Instead, he says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (6:33). In my darkest moments, when life has pressed in with the most difficult of circumstances, these words have been far from memory. My inclination in the midst of a trial is not to seek first the kingdom, but to shelter in place, try to solve my own problems, or just pretend it isn’t happening. I think that is exactly what Jesus is speaking to.

None of us will live a life that is free from sin. Most of us will struggle with some measure of anxiety throughout our lives. But in the midst of our brokenness, Jesus is calling us to fix our gaze on the Father and his Kingdom that is to come. He wants us to be free from anxiety because of our confidence in our Creator. God loves us deeply and has the power to answer our prayers and provide for our needs. And when anxiety is bearing down, God wants us to reach for him.

I think the striving is more important than success. Do not be anxious about your life might seem like an impossible burden, but what I think Jesus would say is: Let your desperation become your prayer. Because God knows, God sees, and he cares.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author