(8 minute read)
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33, NIV).”
When my daughter was two years old, I buckled her in the car for what I thought would be a fun adventure. Emily had never been through a car wash — the kind where you put the car in neutral as it’s guided through soap, brushing, and rinsing. I watched her eyes in the rearview mirror as we moved through the machine.
Her wide-eyed gaze started with wonder, shifted to worry, devolved into panic, and finally burst into tears. She was terrified.
“Emily, don’t be afraid,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’re safe. It’s almost over.”
She calmed, but I know that she was glad when it was done. I was as well. Who wants their child to be filled with anxiety and fear?
God doesn’t want us to be worried and fearful all the time. It’s just really, really hard not to be these days.
This has been called the age of anxiety. We’re worried about the future. We’re worried about our country. We’re worried about what church will be like after the pandemic. We’re worried that we’re worried too much.
It’s constant. Imagine a single mom waking up at 2 am. She can’t sleep because her mind can’t let go of the daily responsibilities of raising children, keeping up with schoolwork, doing the housework, and somehow holding onto her job.
Imagine the small business owner struggling to rebound from a hard economic year under the shadow of COVID-19.
As much as we may think of the needs of others, we can’t help but think about our own futures. We mostly worry about ourselves — canceled vacations, or changes in school, or what if we get sick. We worry about what the new normal will look like. We are afraid of the anger we see in our country. Somehow we feel responsible, or at least complacent. We feel helpless. God knows we worry.
But let’s look at the good news. The gospel says, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36, NIV).” He wasn’t like other religious leaders, always at the Temple, never mixing it up with the common people.
He is in the middle of it all, not aloof, but in the streets. He went to the sickbed. He went the long way to meet a scandalized woman at a well. He saw the people, and he knew that they were harassed and helpless. His presence gave hope, and something about him brought peace. Wherever he went, things got better.
You may have never considered this, but has it ever struck you how basically happy and calm Jesus was? We know that he was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” We know that he went through darkness and suffered the worst kind of humiliation and death on a cross. We know he wept at the tomb of Lazarus. We know that once, he got a little out of hand and turned over the money tables because he was frustrated.
These are exceptions, however, to the way that he lived with such confidence and calm. There was trouble all around, but he lived with such peace. He took time to watch the birds, and he figured out that they never seemed to work or worry like people do, but they mostly stayed alive and well. He said, “Look at the birds. They don’t plant seeds or harvest, but your heavenly father feeds them.” Jesus had seen thousands of flowers, and he knew that they could be gone tomorrow, consumed by fire or trampled by an animal, but they were so elegant and lovely. They didn’t spend time putting on makeup or going shopping for new clothes. They were beautiful by nature. They were so different from the people who were worried, anxious, running around after things, or concerned for what they had or didn’t have.
His compassion was so great that he wanted people to know a kind of first principle to living with peace. This is the principle: seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. That was extraordinary. Seek first the kingdom of God. We argue the exact opposite: well, I must live, I must make a certain amount of money, I must be clothed, I must be fed. The great concern of our lives is not the kingdom of God, but how we will take care of ourselves.
Jesus reversed the order and said to get the right relationship with God first, pursuing God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, looking to the needs of others, and you’ll get everything else you need thrown in.
George Müller commented on Matthew 6:33 in his Narrative. He spoke of the need to pray for external prosperity so that the kingdom of God would advance and that people would turn their souls toward Christ. He also said that we need to pray for internal prosperity so that God’s children will have the resources they need.
But then he poses some challenging questions. I’ll admit, they stirred my soul and caused some conviction. He says, “I now ask you, my dear reader, a few questions in all love, because I do seek your welfare, and I do not wish to put these questions to you without putting them first to my own heart.”
“Do you make it your primary business, your first great concern, to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness? Are the things of God, the honor of His name, the welfare of His church, the conversion of sinners, and the profit of your own soul, your chief aim? Or does your business, or your family, or your own temporal concerns, in some shape or other, primarily occupy your attention?”
Referring to Jesus’ words, Müller states, “I never knew a child of God, who acted according to the above passage, in whose experience the Lord did not fulfill his Word of promise, ‘All these things shall be added unto you.’”
Seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness first is not just a nice saying.
It is a strategy that leads to peace.
When you pray, do your prayers focus on God’s kingdom, God’s way, God’s provision for others, or are they mostly concerned with your kingdom, your way, your provisions?
How can we apply this passage to our lives?
Seek first God’s kingdom. This means finding out what matters most in your life and building your life around it. Every day we face distractions and competition for where we will give our devotion. It can feel almost impossible to push back against a me-first, consumeristic system. But Jesus said that there’s only one thing that can change everything. Seek first the kingdom of God.
The kingdom is a vision of God’s loving reign to reconcile everyone and everything to God and to renew creation, even the systems that are unjust. It’s the manifest peace of God.
The problem is that we spend most of our lives trying to build kingdoms of our own.
Have you ever seen a child on the beach near the water’s edge who builds a sandcastle, then does all she can to protect it against the waves coming in? That’s a picture of modern American life. Jesus says that the point of life is not found in money or things — you cannot serve both. Don’t seek after those things; God knows you need them. Seek first the kingdom of God. Seek first to please the king. Instead of chasing all of those other things, seek his presence first. Seek to spread his way of forgiveness and welcoming strangers and noticing the little ones and the elderly and giving generously what you have been given.
Seek first God’s righteousness. The word righteousness means God’s right ways — God’s holiness in your mind and body, a holy, set apart life — but it can also be translated as God’s justice. When Jesus says “seek first his righteousness,” it means seek first his justice. Seek fairness and equity — righteous deeds on behalf of others. God is urging us to choose the compassion and justice that manifest the kingdom of God in the middle of the trouble we see.’
We may think, “God wants me to be a good person, to show up for worship, to give my money.” These things are important. But God says through the prophet Amos that what God wants most is justice and right living rather than religious ceremonies. “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) If we simply “do church” and ignore injustices in our society, it is too weak to say that we disappoint God. Amos says that God finds a church like that disgusting.
Jesus walked into the middle of the tragedy of humanity and gave a revolutionary teaching. When you seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, everything else will be added to you as well. God knows you need things to live. Those things matter. If you seek God’s kingdom, however, and work so that others will have what they need, seeing that everyone is treated fairly, you won’t have to worry about your life. You’ll be living justly, trusting in God to take care of you.
You’ll have peace.
Today, ask God to help you reorient your prayers. Ask God to help you to know what it means to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness. Ask God to give you courage to live differently.
Can you imagine what the world will be like when we all do that? Can you imagine every child’s stomach full, every child having access to a good education, every child loved and safe in their school and home, every old person living into old age, honored and cared for, every person receiving justice equally, every person, whether black or brown or white, valued the same, able to stand with dignity?
Can you imagine the anxiety of our age dissipating, every man and woman and child at peace?
"In this world, you will have trouble," Jesus said, "but take heart. I have overcome the world." He has shown us the way to peace: seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and everything will be added unto you. My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.
Prayer Principle #27: Seek first God’s kingdom — in prayer and practice — and you’ll have peace.