But seek God’s Kingdom first, along with His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you.
Matthew 6:33, my translation
Those of us who grew up in the church have heard this snippet of Jesus’ preaching all of our lives. We memorized it when we were children. We sang it when we were adolescents. Some of us have even preached about it as adults. And yet, my experience is that this little sentence is surprisingly weighty and difficult to put into practice.
The Destructive Capacity of Abundance
We know the seductive power of abundance. Jesus himself warns us that even the desire for wealth can choke out the gospel’s life-producing work (Mark 4:1-20; cf. Ecclesiastes 5:10). Actually having an abundance of material possessions can be a spiritual death sentence (Matthew 19:16-26 and parallels).
The Bible itself explains why this is the case. Proverbs 10:15 (NIV) says, “The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor.” We may not want to admit it; the sages of ancient Israel may not have wanted to admit it. But there is no getting around the fact that wealth provides certain advantages to those who possess it. It doesn’t solve all of our problems (cf. Proverbs 11:4), but, more often than not, it insulates us from the uncertainties and insecurities that are the lot of most people. Moreover, it gives us access to pleasures and other “goods” that we could not otherwise obtain. Thus, it creates in us the illusion that we are self-contained, self-sufficient entities. In other words, wealth—and probably other types of abundance, too—does not direct our attention towards the God who provided it. Instead, it replaces God in our hearts and minds with a poor substitute—either itself or us.
The Destructive Capacity of Need
Ironically, though, Matthew 6:33 is not addressed to the rich. Both within the world of the story and within the community to which that story was addressed, these words are meant for people who had real needs. Jesus’ point seems to be that, like abundance, need (material and otherwise) can stand in the way of our devotion to God.
In order to illustrate how this happens, perhaps it will be helpful to tell a bit of my own story. Four and a half years ago, my wife and I received graduate degrees from respected universities. We saw our graduation as the beginning of a bright future. We wanted to use our new skills to build God’s Kingdom and to equip God’s people for ministry. We expressed our hopes and our dreams to God by praying in the terms laid out for us in Matthew 6:33, and we worked hard to trust that God would take care of all the details.
As time went on, however, our focus on God’s Kingdom began to wane. It was a slow and sinister process. Every day that God did not provide a full-time position in our fields of endeavor was another straw on the proverbial camel’s back. God was faithful in that He provided our immediate needs, but it grew increasingly difficult for us to see that faithfulness. The weight of our disappointment grew heavy, and no amount of encouragement from fellow believers (who were as perplexed about our situation as we were) could lighten our burden or restore our faith.
Gradually, our prayers began to change. What had once been hopeful requests on behalf of the people we were going to serve had become urgent demands for God to do for us what He had promised. Prayers that had once been characterized by humility, faith, and optimism were now vehicles for expressing our sadness and our rage.
Restoring Kingdom Focus
God did not heal our hearts and renew our focus by changing our situation. Rather, God pointed us back to His unchanging Word. There is an important reason why. Deprivation is a hard thing; as Proverbs 10:15 notes, it can be the ruin of those who experience it. Nevertheless, we needed to see that Jesus’ command to his followers is in no way nullified by the difficulty of their circumstances. He calls them to passionately seek out God’s Kingdom and to fervently pursue God’s righteousness—whether they find themselves in abundance or in need. Moreover, he calls his disciples to trust that God knows what we really need and is both willing and able to provide those things.
Restoration of our focus does not happen overnight; it is a process that requires openness to the Scriptures and to the experiences that God wants to use to shape us. We have to ask ourselves why Jesus can make such an audacious demand of his disciples. We have to explore the theological foundations upon which Jesus builds his command, and we have to contemplate how his claims should affect the ways in which we interpret our own experiences of abundance and need. Finally, we have to take what we learn and put it into practice. That means that we may experience abundance and/or need again. After all, life is the only laboratory in which we can apply the lessons that we learn from Christ.