If we follow Jesus’s advice to fear only God, we come to his intriguing question: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” The Greek actually says “two assaria,” which were Roman coins made of copper and together were worth about one-eighth of a day’s wage for a laborer. It would take, in other words, roughly half an hour’s worth of work to earn enough to buy a sparrow at the market. A day laborer could earn enough to buy a sparrow without breaking a sweat. And yet, Jesus assures his disciples, God remembers each sparrow individually.
If we are to think rightly, we must look up—at the birds. But what do sparrows have to do with the preceding command to fear God, not man? Simply this: if we cast our lot with God, he will not forget us, no matter how insignificant we may appear. In fact, Jesus assures his fearful disciples, God knows the very number of hairs on our heads. That’s intimacy beyond our wildest dreams. He made us. Nothing about us or our disheveled lives surprises him. God has things under control and can be trusted completely in the face of any difficulty.
Even for the disabled, who are often considered to be worth less than birds in today’s culture. Stephanie Hubach is the mother of Timmy, a child with Down syndrome. She has struggled with the anxiety, depression, bewilderment, and brokenness that her son’s chromosomal condition has brought. But she has also seen God bring light to what many consider to be an unremittingly dark path.
“Disability is essentially a more noticeable form of the brokenness that is common to the human experience—a normal part of life in an abnormal world,” Hubach writes. “It is just a difference of degree along a spectrum that contains difficulty all along its length. Due to God’s common grace, no one exists in the extreme of complete brokenness. Due to the fall, no one enjoys the extreme of complete blessing. We all experience some mixture of the two in every aspect of our humanity.”
God has the mixture just right for each of us to seek him and show forth his glory: neither too much blessing to make us forget him; nor too little to make us curse him. (Proverbs 30:8-9)
This question about sparrows, which touches on our inestimable value in God’s eyes, follows his commands not to fear man but God, and it is followed by one more command not to be afraid: “Fear not,” Jesus still says to us, “you are of more value than many sparrows.” Thinking about this fact, straight from the lips of Jesus, gives unshakeable courage.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus again touches on things avian. “Look at the birds of the air,” he says; “they do not sow or reap or stow away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26) The answer is obvious.
Fearing the Future
Sometimes, however, our primary fear isn’t from without but from within. We know God is both powerful and good and can protect us from others, but we are anxious about ourselves. Somehow we think we still have the power to mess things up. We fear that we cannot provide for ourselves, that we can get into messes that even God cannot clean up, knots that even he cannot untie. Ultimately we think our well-being, and that of our families, is up to us, and such thinking paralyzes us.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. (Luke 12:22-31)
Blinded by what passes for reality, we become transfixed with our lives, our bodies, our spans of life—as if we are autonomous, untethered free agents trying to get through a dangerous world as best we can. Or we fear that, no matter what God has promised in his word, we are somehow different, that even if the Lord can keep chaos at bay for other believers, he cannot or will not do so for us. We fear that somehow or other our mistakes are special and beyond the power and reach of God. This is sinful conceit.
We forget to whom we belong. “Once God takes us into covenant with himself,” J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom write, “as he does the moment we put faith in Christ and are born again by the Holy Spirit, our relationship to God is of child to Father and sheep to shepherd, and that means that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit will hold us fast and not let go of us, even if in moments of madness or sadness, or just plain badness, we stray into the wilderness of sin and death.”
After introducing the disciples to sparrows, Jesus moves on to ravens. Just as we are of more worth to God than the sparrows for which he cares, so we are more valuable than the ravens that he feeds. If God feeds them, he will feed us.
God’s care is not theoretical. It is intensely practical. Remember that God used ravens to feed Elijah, his depressed and frightened prophet. (1 Kings 17:6) God is not playing games, promising and not delivering. His care involves real, physical stuff—such as food.
When I was unexpectedly laid off from my job and groping to regather the shards of my shattered career, our church and other Christians came through. Friends across the street picked up low-cost groceries for us at their church. Another bought and installed more memory for our ailing computer. Others prayed, took us to lunch, pointed us to job leads, and helped with faxes and resumes. Some gave us money—frequently and anonymously. I felt carried along by their prayers and practical expressions of concern.
God’s family was our family, too. As Jesus said, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)
Then come the clinching questions. Even if we choose to disregard the truth that God is for us, Jesus points out the utter futility of anxiety, asking, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Luke 12:25) If Jesus’s positive, spiritual encouragement to trust God fails, then Jesus is not afraid to get brutally honest. And the honest truth is this: Anxiety doesn’t work. It never has, and it never will. “Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:26) Anxiety says, “My fate is in my own hands. It is all up to me.” With that kind of thinking, no wonder we remain wide-awake at three in the morning!
Not only does anxiety fail to produce any positive results for us. It often does the opposite, draining us of life itself. Those who are anxious over debt, for example, are at higher risk of ulcers or digestive tract problems, migraine headaches, severe anxiety, severe depression, heart attacks, muscle tension, losing their temper, and having trouble sleeping or concentrating. Worry kills.
Author and counselor Bob Phillips tells the story of a man who met Death on the way to a far country. Death told the man he was going to kill ten thousand people in a city, and he went on. Later the man met Death going the opposite way and pointed out that he had heard that seventy thousand had perished. “I only killed ten thousand people,” Death responded. “Worry and Fear killed the others.”
We cannot control life, so we should not worry. Of course we are called to plan and work, but we must leave the results to God. This is because the results, no matter what “self-made” Americans may believe, are ultimately out of our hands. The best-laid plans of mice and men can fail, while God’s providence can bring us to unimaginable (and undeserved) heights. We are not in control of our lives—and that’s okay.
In fact, our lack of control means we should worry not more, but less. Children have little to no control, yet few display symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder. They have the least control, and probably the fewest worries. There’s a reason babies sleep like babies. Without the crushing burden of responsibility, they don’t have a care in the world. Children have their problems, of course. They are not immune to bullies, bad parents, or disease. As they get older, the stress of school or relationships can rob them of their sleep and wipe the smiles off their faces. But the norm for most kids, who live at the pure mercy of others, is joy. Perhaps this is one reason Jesus tells us we must “become like little children” to “enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Worry, which is evidence of misplaced self-reliance, has no place in God’s kingdom. We can control nothing. The King will provide. Looking Down
To drive home the point of God’s unimaginable concern for his children, Jesus next tells us to look down, turning from his high-flying avian creations to the humble grass beneath our feet. Jesus points out how our heavenly Father provides wildflowers to decorate the ground more beautifully than Solomon in all his glory. (Matthew 6:28-30) As this simple yet profound act demonstrates, God’s provision is extravagant, promiscuous, sovereign, unasked for, and free. God is not a miser seeking to hoard his goodness. It is in his very nature to share his best, to hold nothing back.
No wonder Jesus exclaims a rhetorical question, “But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28) Such grace, illuminated for us by creation, calls for awe-filled expressions of worship, as when David blurted out in sheer wonder:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:3-5)
Meditating on these facts should bring great assurance. Even if we don’t receive everything we want, we will get everything we truly need—God himself. “What, then, shall we say in response to this?” Paul asked, reflecting on God’s plan of salvation. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
That should be the end of the matter, but it isn’t. Over and over the Bible tells people who should know better not to be anxious.
• “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:2)
• “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.'” (Isaiah 35:4)
• “He [who trusts the Lord] is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:8)
• “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)
• “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” (Matthew 10:19)
• “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
But we naturally turn to worry rather than to God. Why? Yes, there is much to legitimately fear in this sin-scarred world in which the devil is constantly on the prowl. The night we sent one of our sons on his first overnight church camping trip, a late-spring tornado ripped through a Boy Scout camp in the next state and killed four young men and injured dozens more. You can be sure I regularly checked the weather reports. Our son returned home on schedule, but this did not lessen our grief for the parents of the boys who didn’t—or our protective parental instinct.
I must confess that, whether for reasons of history, genetics, or choice, anxiety is my natural default mode. Much as I try to project an image of quiet confidence, a lot of my inner life is characterized by fear. I get anxious about how I will look. I fear heights. I’m afraid I won’t be able to meet a particular challenge. I even get anxious when writing a chapter about anxiety! And I suspect I’m not all that different from most people. Partly, anxiety represents a perfectly natural response to perceived threats. The fight-or-flight response to danger is deeply imprinted on our humanity. And let’s face it: those who live without fear often find themselves without their health or their lives. Living without due concern for the consequences of your actions will buy you a quick ticket to the hospital or cemetery. That’s why so many teens die from alcohol overdoses or reckless driving: they believe (wrongly) that they are invincible. The anxious person, however, sees himself as completely vincible, as it were.
And Jesus, far from denying the frailty and danger of the human condition, affirms it. Not only that, he takes it upon himself, day by day, month by month, year by year. He takes it upon himself and gets mockery, slander, arrest, torture, and death for his trouble. As we saw in the introduction to this book, Jesus has the serenity amid life’s storms that only trust in one’s heavenly Father can bring.
And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)
Jesus’s question remains: why are we afraid, O we of little faith? If he can rebuke the winds and the sea, what is there to fear? The answer: absolutely nothing. Think about it.