Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34
It is often said that there are two types of people. People who see the glass as half full and people who see the glass as half empty. The concept tries to divide people into camps of optimists and pessimists. The funny thing is, while I have heard people describe themselves as glass half full people I have never heard someone describe themselves as a glass half empty person. Usually the people that others might describe as viewing the world through the lens of the glass being half empty insist that they are not pessimists they are realists. When it comes to if the glass is half empty or half full, I like a viewpoint that I picked up somewhere along the way. If the glass is being poured into, then it is half full. If it is being poured out then it is half empty. The state of the glass is not neutral it is contextual, and I think that viewpoint is a lot more true to life than a simple half full or half empty choice.
I think it is fair to say that over the past twenty months or so we collectively have experienced a lot of pouring out. Between 750,000 dead from Covid in the United States, more severe political discord and polarization than any of us have ever experienced, and a volatile economy plagued by supply chain issues it is fair to say that every single person has been impacted by what all that is going on in some way. We likely all feel a little poured out. Despite that there is a push from some areas to insist the glass is still half full. This has caused a lot of psychologists to look at this trend and they have labeled it toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is defined as “the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human experience. Perhaps we could call this the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” syndrome. It has long been our knee jerk reaction to always look on the sunny side of life, especially when it comes to what other people ae going through. In the age of social media this is even easier. When someone is going through something toxic positivity can look like telling them to “cheer up”, “stay positive”, “it could be worse”, and yes “don’t worry, be happy.” When someone is mourning a loss, overly anxious, or facing uncertainty these pithy positive affirmations are often less than helpful. This unhelpful positivity can make people feel guilty for not always feeling positive, it can minimize other people’s experiences, and it can make people feel like something is wrong with them for not always being so positive.
Unfortunately in Christianity we can sometimes engage in toxic positivity as well. After all, as any Christian radio station will tell you it’s all about being “positive and encouraging”. In Christian parlance we have our own positivity statements that can be toxic, and ours might be worse because we spiritualize it. When someone is suffering they can hear unhelpful messages likes “at least you can still give thanks for what you have” or “Well, everything happens for a reason.” The problem with this is it creates an aura that in church it is not ok to be not ok. We come to worship God and tell everyone else that we are so blessed when the truth is we feel the opposite.
Church should be a space where it is ok to be not ok. Church should be a space where we are seen and our feelings our valid not swept under the rug. Church should be a place where do not feel pressured to always be positive and encouraging but instead can be honest and vulnerable. I think this morning’s scripture gives us some pointers on how to do that. Jesus’ statements are undeniably positive, but I do not think they are toxic. Jesus does not say, “Don’t worry, be happy.” He says “Don’t worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Jesus is honest, wise, and yet still encouraging. In our interactions with others we can strive to do the same.
This morning’s scripture comes from the section of the gospel of Matthew we typically call “The sermon on the mount.” When it comes to the general teachings of Jesus, the gospel of Matthew packs them all together in to three different teaching sections. This is different than the gospels of Mark and Luke where they are spread out throughout the ministry of Jesus. What is found in Matthew tends to be a little bit more down to earth and less spiritual sounding than what is in Luke. In this morning’s scripture in the urging not to worry there is not some high minded philosophical reason or mystical spirituality, but rather a rustic appeal to nature. By pointing to the birds and the flowers, Jesus gives instantly relatable examples to make his point. This morning’s scripture is full of practical wisdom. I especially like the question asked in verse 27: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
One of the things I really appreciate about this morning’s scripture is how relatable it is. The cultural context that the bible was originally written in is world’s different than our own. However, there are sometimes where despite all of the centuries of time, an assortment of cultural differences, and radically different language contexts we get glimpses that we may not be so different after all. There are some experiences of the human condition that seem to transcend time, and this morning’s scripture is one of them. Because it does not seem to matter if someone lived in 1st century rural Galilee or 21st century rural Indiana, we are all prone to worrying. Clearly the specifics of our worries are different, but I bet in general there are a lot of similarities. Like us the people Jesus were addressing probably worried about sickness, they worried about their loved ones, and they worried about tomorrow. Just like them, we also cannot add a single hour to our life by worrying.
In fact we can do the opposite. The negative effects on health that excessive worrying cause have been well documented. Anxiety from constant worrying can cause havoc with our nervous system, are digestive system, and our cardiovascular system. While worrying can be bad for our physical heart it is also bad for our spiritual heart. While I could not track down who originally said it, I resonate with one way that I have seen worry defined: “Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s trouble. It takes away today’s peace.” We only have so much time in a day and when we worry, we give that time to “what ifs” that have no answer. When we start with worry, or allow our worries to become our focus for too long then those fears of what could be shades everything else that we focus on. This is why Jesus said in this morning’s scripture, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Often our worries stem from serious issues in our lives. There is conflict, there is uncertainty, and there are pressures we feel completely unequipped to deal with. While our worries can get the best of us, often worries stem from extremely valid reasons. Often we worry because we are not OK. When we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness it does not magically fix our problems, it does not remove the reasons why we worry. It does though change our focus. It can help us from being consumed by the “what-ifs” because we remind ourselves of what is. God is still God. Jesus is still Lord. The Creator of the Universe knows us by name and is on our side. The grace that saves never runs and never gives up. We can believe and claim these eternal truths and still not be OK, still have problems, and still struggle with anxious thoughts. However, where our heart and soul focused will greatly influence how we perceive what is happening in our lives, and when we seek first the kingdom of God then we find that no matter what we going through in life, best of all God is still with us.
Putting our focus on the God who is instead of the worries that might be is a great start to how to handle worry, but there is additional wisdom for us in verse 34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” This is a reminder to be present in the moment. God has proven God’s self to us time and time again, so we can trust God to get us through today. It is also a reminder that we have permission to take each day at a time, and we can do what we need to do to make it each day. I think one of the sources of toxic positivity in Christian circles is this inaccurate notion that seeking professional help for anxiety and worry is somehow a lack of faith. It absolutely is not. Sometimes we need professional help. Roughly 1 out of 5 adults in the United States struggle with an anxiety disorder, and that number has only gone up in the past twenty months. You can seek first the kingdom of God and still then make it to a therapy appointment. You can trust in Jesus and take medicine in the morning. Faith and outside help are not mutually exclusive and to suggest otherwise is absurd and harmful. Certainly we should seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, we should allow our grounding in God’s eternal truth to focus our day. But each day has enough trouble of its own, so if the best way to make it through trouble is with therapeutic help then there is nothing wrong with that.
Finally, I think the notion of being present in the moment can help us in interacting with other people who are stressed, anxious, and going through troubles. Often toxic positivity results from trying to quickly fix other people’s problems. We know we cannot fix the root of their issues, so instead we unhelpfully offer they cheer up or focus on the positive as a way to fix their reaction to the problems. Yet, that never fixes anything. Instead it runs the risk of making things worse by minimizing or invalidating the experience of the other person. Instead of trying to fix something, we should seek to be present in the moment. Sometimes this means we just listen and sometimes it means we just sit in silence. Sometimes the way that we can best represent Jesus to someone else is to be the non-anxious presence in their life, not trying to fix anything, not trying to be positive- but just being present. Our presence can communicate more than any pithy positive and encouraging statement can. Because if we care enough to be present, then that means God certainly cares enough to be present and that is a great reason not to worry.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus talks to an audience for first century Jews, but he could just as easily be talking to us. Three times in this morning’s scripture, Jesus states “Do not worry” and then gives valid reasons why worrying is not what is best for us. We should not worry, but we are still allowed to feel stressed, troubled, and hurt. If that is you on this day, then may you know how you feel is valid. You do not have to deny your feelings in a vain effort to stay positive, because doing so is toxic. May you seek first God’s kingdom and allow the righteousness of God to be what grounds you on this day. With the help of God, may you take the words of Jesus to heart and resist the urge to worry. On this day, if you are not stressed, troubled, or hurt then that is wonderful. May you resist the urge to try and fix those who are with unhelpful statement. Instead may you seek to be a non-anxious presence in their lives. Each day has enough trouble of its own, so may you seek to alleviate that trouble and be there for someone else in the moment. May your presence in their lives wordlessly communicate, Don’t worry. God loves you.”