Last week, we discussed the need to focus our lives on building God’s kingdom and pursuing God’s righteousness. We noted that both abundance and need can distract us from this focus, and I shared some of my own struggles to maintain focus in the midst of the exigencies of life.
This week, I would like for us to look more closely at the intellectual and spiritual process that produces a life focused on the things of God. Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:33 is built upon three presuppositions. They summarize Jesus’ perspective on God, on humanity, and on life (cf. Matthew 6:19-34).
Coming to terms with these presuppositions will help us orient our lives around the Kingdom and righteousness of God in three ways. First, it will expose what we really believe about God, about ourselves, and about life. Second, it will draw our beliefs into critical dialogue with the message of the gospel. Third, it will give God the opportunity to become fully and thoroughly real to us even in the midst of our delusions and our disillusionment.
God Is Good
So let us begin where Jesus almost certainly did—and where every faithful person must. God is good. It isn’t stated explicitly in the section of Matthew’s gospel that we are examining. Nevertheless, it is the bedrock upon which any biblical understanding of God must be built.
How do we know that this is true? The assertion that God is good stands at the heart of God’s revelation of himself to Moses (Exodus 33:19); indeed, 1 Peter 2:2-3 implies that to know God is to know that He is good. Goodness is the criterion that God uses to evaluate His work in creation (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31: 2:18; cf. 1 Timothy 4:4), and God’s goodness was a primary motivation for Israel’s individual and corporate worship (Psalm 13:6; 23:6; 25:7-8; 34:8; 69:16; 86:5; 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 109:21; 116:12; 118:1, 29; 135:3; 136:1; 145:9; cf. Jeremiah 33:10-11). Moreover, the Bible insists that God gives good things to those who come to Him in faith and obedience (Joshua 21:45; 23:14-16; Psalm 84:11; 85:12; Isaiah 63:7; Jeremiah 33:14; Lamentations 3:25-26; Micah 2:7; Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13).
A natural corollary to this fundamental tenet of biblical theology functions as a key element of Jesus’ argument for Kingdom focus. Because God is good, He values every creature that populates His creation. In fact, He values the people that He has made in His own image most of all (Matthew 6:26, 30). And since God cares so much about people, it stands to reason that He will provide what they need.
When we are in need, it is all too tempting to at least question God’s concern for us. After all, as my wife sometimes reminds me, Christians starve to death, too. We may even question whether God is good.
The spiritual and emotional danger of this kind of doubt can be quite obvious. Deciding that God is not good may be the first step in the direction of denying that God exists. But the danger of our doubt can also be quite subtle. We may believe that God exists; we may even give lip-service to His goodness. But our actions may demonstrate that we do not trust God to be good to us. When that happens, we cannot concentrate on building God’s Kingdom and obtaining God’s righteousness because we have decided that it is up to us to meet our daily needs.
Either way, the danger we face is real. Hebrews 11:6 (my translation) says, “And it is impossible to please God without faith. For those who come to God must believe that He exists and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” It is awfully hard to believe that God is good if we do not believe that He exists, and our belief that He exists will not do us a lot of good if we are not convinced that His existence has any practical benefit.
God Knows What We Need
It is one thing to claim that God is good and that He cares about the creatures that He has made. It is quite another to say that God actually knows what they need. That is precisely what Jesus claims in Matthew 6:32. God made us, and God knows that we cannot live productive lives in the long run if our needs are not met.
It seems to me that this is a particular danger for those who have an abundance. One would think that the gratification of desires for food, shelter, sex, security, etc. would make those desires less acute. But not everyone makes the ascent up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Sometimes, eating only increases our desire for food. Sometimes having sex only instills in us a desire for new experiences with new partners. Sometimes achieving personal security implants within us the desire to exercise control not only over our own lives but also over the lives of other people and institutions.
The Bible calls this kind of unrestrained desire “greed,” and the writers of Scripture condemn it at every opportunity (cf., e.g., Psalm 10:3; Proverbs 15:27; Isaiah 57:17; Jeremiah 8:10; Matthew 23:25; Mark 7:21-23; Luke 12:15; Romans 1:28-32; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 5:3). The reason is that greed is the mechanism by which anxiety turns to idolatry. God has hard-wired us to enjoy the processes involved in meeting biological needs, but when that enjoyment becomes the chief aim of our lives, it replaces God as the guiding principle of our lives. We may not be bowing down before an image of Aphrodite or toasting Bacchus, but we might as well be.
Fortunately, Jesus gives us a way to side-step the trop of greed. Like the conviction that God is good, the conviction that God knows what we need carries with it an important corollary. Life is about more than just meeting our biological needs (Matthew 6:25).
The logic of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs cannot be denied; it is hard for a person to think about things of an intellectual or spiritual nature if he or she does not have enough to eat or cannot rest because the environment is unsafe. Still, we are not really living if all we are doing is existing.
When we recognize that our needs extend far beyond the satisfaction of our most basic appetites, we take a significant step towards refocusing our lives. God knows what we need, and we can trust Him to provide what we need. Sometimes that means that God will decide not to meet a physical or financial need in order to draw our attention to social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual deficiencies. He does this, not to deprive us, but to give us the abundant life that Jesus promised to those who follow him (John 10:9).
We Will Become What We Focus Our Lives Upon
There is one more really important point in Jesus’ argument. What we focus our lives upon will determine what we become (Matthew 6:21-24). If we focus on God, then our hearts will become more like His heart and our purposes will become more like his purposes. As a result, we will become less anxious about our own needs and more attuned to the needs of others.
If, however, we focus on our needs, the best we can hope for is anxiety. More likely, greed and idolatry will eat us from the inside out. As our view of the worth of possessions and pleasures rises, our view of humanity will fall. People will become little more than pawns in the schemes we devise to achieve our goals.
A Difficult Choice
Following Jesus requires us to make a choice. Will we devote ourselves to pursuing God or to meeting our needs (Matthew 6:24)? Jesus did not say that the choice would be easy. It is important to remember that Jesus said these words to peasants who lived under the authority of a foreign power, and Matthew recounts them to a community that lived under the hegemony of that same oppressive power. Rome had little incentive to ensure that peasants on the back side of the empire had what they needed for daily life, and it certainly had no inclination to ensure the economic well-being of a hated minority religion. Still, Jesus called his disciples to keep righteous living and Kingdom purpose at the center of their lives. He did so because he did not want to see them become like the wealth-obsessed pagans that were oppressing them.
If Jesus’ words were important for life in the first century, they are certainly important for life in the twenty-first century. Even when we do not have the self-assurance that comes from abundance, we can still fail to trust God and still fall prey to greed. And the longer deprivation (of any type) continues to characterize our existence, the harder it is to avoid the trap of idolatry.
The only thing that we can do is the very thing we may not want to do when we are disappointed with God and uncertain of His provision. We have to keep telling ourselves over and over again that God is good and that God does know what He is doing. Yes, we may have to take practical steps to provide ourselves with the things that we need (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15), and God will guide us in that process. Nevertheless, we cannot allow our needs to become our obsession.