Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Free from Tomorrow

Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6.33-34)

The Discipline of Discipleship

If you’ve followed the Lenten posts here—maybe even tracked them in tandem with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 40-Day Journey, the volume mapping our wilderness course—by now, you’ve got the gist of where it’s taking us. As the editor, Ron Klug, explains, “In Bonhoeffer you will find a bracing, challenging, totally unsentimental invitation to discipleship that makes a difference. The British essayist G.K. Chesterton once wrote: ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ Bonhoeffer invites us to give it a try.” (p10; emphasis added) Lent is, above all else, a sacred summons to reinvigorate the discipline of following Christ. That’s what discipleship means: disciplined obedience to Jesus’s teaching. Without question, what we learn from Him leads to unexpected realizations, revelations, and personal epiphanies. Yet we arrive at transformative moments by hewing to a carefully plotted, not-always exciting, and rarely easy path. If we follow Jesus expecting magic and miracles at every turn, we’re bound for disappointment. If we dash into Lent’s desert looking to be wowed, we’re prime candidates for frustration and fatigue.

The discipline of discipleship has one objective: nurturing faith. Our belief makes impossibilities possible. In the Gospels, Jesus routinely punctuates healings by acknowledging the faith of those who are cured. In Matthew 21.21, He tells us, “If you have faith and don’t doubt, you can move mountains.” In Mark 9, a father brings his troubled boy to Jesus and says, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “’If you can’?” Jesus asks incredulously. “Everything is possible to one who believes.” The father pleads, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” The boy’s mind is freed.

By design, discipleship helps us overcome unbelief. It’s the work that begets wonders, the toolkit that dismantles doubt. Thus it’s most appropriate that we follow Jesus into the desert by revisiting disciplines that build faith. After all, per Matthew’s chronology, The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’s discipleship manifesto—soon follows His wilderness experience, suggesting faith He acquires in the desert directly contributes to the clarity and power of His message.

Precautions and Priorities

With the Sermon fresh in memory from readings prior to Lent, we understand why Bonhoeffer cites it frequently. Nowhere in Scripture do we find a more comprehensive manual of discipleship’s principles and practices. Jesus methodically lays out His topics step-by-step. After stating the concept, He issues precautions and sets priorities by teaching us what not to do, what to do instead, and what to do next. In today’s text—which we recently discussed, but deserves a second look—after telling us not to panic about our material welfare, He says, “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) Setting aside mundane concerns like food and clothing—i.e., anxieties that plague non-believers—creates room to do God’s work and honor God’s purpose. It’s one of many counterintuitive disciplines that identify us as Christ’s followers. In addition to that, it stages opportunities to practice faith.

Having enough food and adequate clothing is important. But it’s not essential, because faith erases all doubt God provides everything we need. Entrusting God with our physical needs frees us to focus on what God needs from us. Belief is the linchpin in our reciprocal arrangement. When we make God’s concerns and desires our daily priority, God sees to our daily concerns and desires. Now, suppose we struck a similar deal with another human. We’d have every cause to worry, as we’d have no guarantee the other party can or will consistently honor his/her pledge. By faith, however, we know God will never fall short. Day in and day out, what we need for that day comes without fail.

“Therefore,” Jesus says in verse 34, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” If He were a contemporary discussing our anxiety about the future, He’d put it like this: “What are you so stressed out about? You’re letting worries about tomorrow ruin your day! Hasn’t God always taken care of you? Why should tomorrow be different? Every day starts with no idea how it will end. Every day brings problems. Yet has one of them ever passed but what God didn’t provide? You’re all worked up over nothing. When tomorrow comes, do what you’re supposed to do and God will take care of you. For now, focus on today.” To which we’d hang our heads and say, “You’re so right.”

Faith for Now

Many of us obsess over the past, in many cases, reasonably so. Traumas and hardships we endure cast long, indelible shadows over our lives. No fewer of us obsess about the future—some to escape painful pasts, others to reach brightest dreams. Yet traveling with eyes glued to the rearview mirror or fixed on glittering horizons undermines our ability to navigate the now. That requires faith, because faith is our only means of knowing what to do and how to go in the absence of clearly marked signs and confirmed direction. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” we’re told in 2 Corinthians 5.7. Walk—present tense. Obsessions with the past require no faith, as what we’ve experienced is fully known. And while one might argue obsessions about the future inspire faith, the nature of said “faith” raises suspicions about its usefulness. At best, we harbor hope for tomorrow, since we can’t predict its blessings and challenges. Anything beyond hope finds us wishing, which feels nice, but offers no help for today.

Jesus instructs us to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first so we’ll find faith for now. Discipleship trains us to surrender the past and overcome concerns about the future. Only then will we be where God wants us: in the moment, that ephemeral place we speak of so often, yet seldom inhabit. God needs us today—and provides for today’s needs—because we have work to do and a purpose to fulfill today, both of which demand faith. That’s why living free from tomorrow is every bit as crucial as leaving yesterday behind.

Now is what matters. Now is when we need faith. That's why we live free from tomorrow, trusting God to provide what we need now.

Postscript: “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow”

I love this old country gospel tune, beautifully performed by Alison Krauss and The Cox Family. Faith that God holds tomorrow frees us to believe we can accomplish what God asks of us today.


Sherry said...

Worry has been my constant companion most of my life. I can cite chapter and verse all the epic scenarios I've concocted in my mind of major catastrophe. Most none of them happened. You would think I would learn. I do better at it, but that may just because age has a way of making an impact on one in terms of experience. I do find that I am a bit better at simply asking God to take this burden upon and let me rest. It seems to work. Perhaps too, there are fewer disasters I can contemplate at my age! lol..

Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, you tap into one of faith's great paradoxes--its tie to experience. It takes a long time for us to learn how to trust and believe without feeling naïve. A big part of that also comes from our culture, I think. We grow up being told if we're not worried about something we don't care. But they're not the same. In fact, I'd counter that believing God will work things out is the only way to prove we truly care.

A very dear friend of mine has a pat answer for people who ask if he's worried about this or that: "I'm praying about it." If pressed, he can sometimes get a little testy and repeat his answer emphatically. When I've seen him do that, I have to look away and smile inside.

Thanks for your thoughts here. I certainly identify with it, as everyone else does, I'm sure.

Blessings for today and faith for tomorrow!