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The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn


Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 10: Trust and Anxiety


From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 6:25-34; For the parallel passages see Luke 12:22-31; 11:9-13. To follow up the theme look at 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Philippians 4:6-7.

Here is the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus confronts life's deepest personal problem.

We start with a scripture passage that seems unbelievable. The language is familiar and beautiful. It was originally poetry, and something of the poetic quality lingers in our tran~ations. The words are often set to music and sung. People love to hear them. All this helps to make the language so ethereal that most people never bother to ask what it means. If they do investigate the meaning, they may take one startled look, then run away. It's beautiful, they think, but oh, how impractical!

Yet if we can get beneath the surface and penetrate the real depths of the message, we will not dismiss it so lightly. We will find it catching us at a sensitively sore spot. The chances are that we have found all kinds of fluff and padding to protect the soreness. This message will rip off these futile coverings. But then, if by the grace of God we do respond, it will heal the wound so that the old protections are unnecessary.

 This Age of Anxiety

This is the age when fantastic science fiction turns into fact overnight. Astronauts, satellites, and space exploration are part of the daily news. To have some fun and to educate the public at the same time, the Hayden Planetarium in New York once offered to take reservations for space trips. Forms were prepared and prospective travelers checked the tour they wished.

The applications rolled in by the thousands. Some, of course, were just keeping up the joke. But someone started asking why so many people replied. The most realistic answer seemed to be that worried and weary people wanted a chance, though it was only an imaginary one, to escape from the troubles and worries of life. One applicant wrote: "It would be heaven to get away from this busy earth, I honestly wish God would let me go somewhere where it's nice and peaceful, good, safe and secure."

That's one of the signs of the times. There are many more. A book by one of our most famous poets is called Age of Anxiety. That title reflects the judgment of many. A book called Peace of Mind sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the 1940's. Then came a wave of other best sellers with titles like Peace of Soul, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, A Guide to Confident Living, Identity and Anxiety. The books in this field range from profound helpfulness to slick absurdities. But they are evidence of the pathetic eagerness of the mid-twentieth century to get away from its fears and anxieties.

Even young people -- supposedly the eager, venturesome group in society -- show the same signs. Many a survey claims to show that, whether in business or politics or a choice of a career, youth is more eager for security than for adventure. The "hot rodders" are a minority. The beatniks, despite some notorious antics, are a far more troubled group than the "flaming youth" of the "flapper age." In one eastern college the students, far above average in wealth and brains, spent a year deciding the subject for a week's religious program and came up with the title, "Anxiety, Despair and Faith: the Search for Meaning in Life."

This is no occasion for the old pastime of bemoaning "the younger generation." Its lack of confidence is part of its realism and may be the gateway to wisdom.

Of course, there are plenty of noisy, cocksure people to tell us that these "signs of the times" are exaggerated. But the blustering is pretty clearly a cover-up for the emptiness underneath. A European artist, visiting America, said that he liked this country, but found some difficulty getting adjusted. "Naturally one needs constant practice," he reported. "It is not a simple matter to keep repeating daily: 'Yes, everything is fine.'"

The artist is not the only one who has seen through some of our typical false bravado. Wise news analysts have referred to the "emotional binges" that America has gone through in connection with certain military and political crises. Level-headed people have shown how our reactions to national and international dangers have often been hysterically unintelligent. Al Capp, the famous cartoonist, has observed that we are so insecure that we dare not laugh at ourselves. Yes, America knows anxiety.

Can Christ Help Us?

No doubt Jesus is talking about our problems when he tells not to be anxious. But is his advice good? Take a long look that passage in Matthew. Try to see exactly what it means. Can anybody really believe this? Is there anything harder to believe?

There the words used are mostly words of only one or two syllables -- such words as life, food, body, clothing, birds, lilies, grass. And that word anxious, five times in one paragraph. And promises, beautiful but incredible: God will look after you; your prayers will he answered.

Some of the sentences are so easy to refute that we wonder how anyone could make them. "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." Who cannot demolish that promise from his own experience? Who has not had prayers unanswered and yearnings frustrated? Or look at the words, "Consider the lilies of the field.. . ." Their idyllic beauty charms people. But then reality takes hold. Marx and Engels, the fathers of modern communism, write with bitter sarcasm: "Yes, consider the lilies of the field, how they are eaten by goats, transplanted by man into his button-hole" Against our will, we grant that they have made a point.

So we become realistic. We count on our own achievements. Maybe God can feed and clothe us, but look how much better modern agriculture and industry do the job. This is a modern world and a hard world, and if you don't take care of yourself, no one will do it for you.

But the haunting words of Jesus will not quite leave us. As we think further, we realize that he knew something about life. He met disappointments. He told parables of injustices. He yearned to escape a cruel death, and did not have his way. And his words were preserved for us by disciples who knew the hard side of life. They must have seen something in his promises that we don't see.

And our proud modern answers have not always been so good. Anxiety does shake us to the depths. We haven't solved all our problems. The last president of the League of Nations Assembly, Norwegian Carl Hambro, said in 1935: "Here in Geneva we have every fear but the fear of God." He had a point. In declaring our independence of God we ran into some real troubles. With all that modern nutrition and medicine can do there comes the time when no one can add an inch to his stature or a day to his span of life.

The Basis of It All

Several things Jesus clearly does not mean. He is not patting us on the hack and saying, "Don't worry. Everything will come out all right." He knew things do not always turn out "all right." He is not saying that God will step in to correct all our follies and omissions. Sometimes he assumes a place for prudent foresight (Luke 14:28-30). He is not saying that those who trust God will never be injured or persecuted. He has already told men to expect, and rejoice in, persecution. He is not saying we should ignore food. He has bidden us pray for daily bread and he has never criticized honest work. He is not saying that the lilies and the grass will live happily ever after. As he spoke those words, he probably thought of one of his favorite Old Testament hooks, which said: "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever" (Isa. 40:8).

Now we can see what Jesus does say. He tells us that our destinies are controlled by the God who stands forever. That we, who determine neither our births nor our deaths, are helpless; but that if we trust God, we tie our feebleness to an eternal power and purpose. That if the goal of life is to keep the heart beating and the stomach expanding, we all fail before long. But if we seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, will be given all else that we need -- not immunity to hunger and pain and death, but confidence in spite of them.

Put this in terms of our modern psychology. Dr. Rollo May, in his widely-read book, Man's Search for Himself, that the clinical practice of psychologists today shows that the chief problem people is emptiness. By emptiness he means lack of purpose, lack of power, lack of direction. And he finds more anxiety than in any period of history since the breakdown of the Middle Ages.

Now see how the Christian gospel fits this problem. When we are detached from God, trying to be self-sufficient, everything threatens our existence. We are finite, mortal. War or an invisible virus can wipe us out. In our nakedness and peril there is nothing to hold on to. But, says Jesus, trust your Father. Your life gets its power, its vitality, its meaning from him. Neither war nor virus nor any other thing threatens God. You are secure because your security is in him.

This is not the Stoic fatalism which many people adopt these days. It does not say, "Since you cannot do anything about it, you may as well face it with a minimum of emotion." No, Jesus' word is positive. Trust overcomes anxiety.

Are you approaching pain or death? Countless men have met both. Empty men have been overwhelmed with anxiety, trusting men have been confident.

Some Examples

This Christian faith is not just something "up in the air." It makes a difference in life.

H. G. Wells rejected the Christian faith. For years he was an optimist, confident that the human race could lick its problems and move on to ever greater triumphs without any help from an obsolete God. But events chipped away at his confidence. The emptiness of his faithlessness left him helpless before the anxiety of the twentieth century. So at the end of the trail he was helpless. Man, he wrote, is played out. He goes to his doom. Perhaps some other animal will come along "better adapted to face the fate that closes in more and more swiftly upon mankind."

Martin Luther heard and believed Christ's answer to anxiety. Though he had his days of terrible doubts, faith rose up in him to conquer despair. He was challenged once by a Cardinal

who threatened him with all the power of the pope, whose little finger was stronger than all of Germany. "Where then," thundered the Cardinal, "will a wretched worm like you be?" "Then as now," said Luther, "in the hands of Almighty God."

It happens today too. Out of Soviet-occupied Germany once came a letter worth quoting, from a Christian student. "The greatness of the power of God had never been more clearly revealed to us, and could hardly be better expressed, than in the following somewhat desperate statement made in a meeting of the Communist youth: 'We cannot get a hold on them; they always hide behind their God,' or in a remark made in a discussion as to whether convinced materialists should be sent into the Studentengemeinde in order to try to win over its members and thus create division among them: 'It is dangerous; they come back as Christians.'"

Answers to Prayer

Now we can see clearly why Jesus is so confident that prayers will be answered. "Ask, and it will be given you." If we evil folk give good gifts to our children, the heavenly Father will do far more for us. But what will God give us? Not any old thing we happen to want. The answer is the theme of the whole Sermon on the Mount. God grants us his kingdom. So when Jesus prayed at Gethsemane, he was granted, not release from the pain ahead, but the power of God "strengthening him" (Luke) 22:43). So when Paul prayed for release from his "thorn in the flesh," he got the divine answer, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor. 12:7-10). No wonder Paul could write his friends that the answer to their "anxiety" was "the peace of God, which all understanding" (Phil. 4:6-7). It was no easy peace of mind, free of trouble; it was God's peace, known best in struggle. And that is the only peace that satisfies the soul.

Now perhaps we are ready to understand a great liturgical prayer of the church, which we may have heard and wondered about often:

"O Lord our God, who art always more ready to bestow thy good gifts upon us than we are to seek them, and art willing to give more than we desire or deserve: help us so to seek that we may truly find, so to ask that we may joyfully receive, so to knock that the door of thy mercy may be opened unto through Jesus Christ Our Lord."

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