Have you ever asked what Jesus meant by “seek first the kingdom of God”? (Matthew 6:33) We hear his verse quoted fairly often; we may even sing it out on occasion. Jesus heralds the inbreaking of God’s kingdom and calls us to turn into it, to allow the kingdom to permeate every corner of our lives. We seek the kingdom, not because it is hidden, but because it is available. This verse holds out new life for all who would take up Christ’s invitation.
When Jesus calls us to seek the kingdom, he is directly contrasting this with a life set upon worldly gain. A kingdom-oriented life is different than a world-oriented life. Jesus tucks this scriptural gem after speaking about the impossibility of serving two masters (Matthew 6:24). We cannot seek the kingdom while seeking the world. Seeking the world, Jesus says, produces an endless cycle of anxious striving. We rush about aimlessly, chasing after whatever will garner earthly security for our lives. In a verse that cuts far too close to home, Jesus describes people vainly attempting to “add hours” to their lives (Matthew 6:27). Have you ever heard anyone lament that “there are only so many hours in the day”? Such striving does little for our spiritual lives.
I used to think that seeking the kingdom meant “work tirelessly for the kingdom.” I would jump head on into a multitude of services, disciplines, and activities. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything you know. Seeking the kingdom meant refusing to be idle, refusing to stop, always being on the go. The only thing that differentiated this from worldly strivings was the spiritual nature of my goal. It wasn’t worldly striving; it was sanctified striving. If this is seeking the kingdom, then seeking the kingdom is exhausting.
When we live our spiritual lives this way, we become so busy doing the work of God, that we forget to be with God, or more importantly, let God work in us. Our fast-paced world is conducive to such a problem. Every year myriads of pastors, priests, and churchgoers get burnt out under the pressure of self-created spiritual demands. Have you experienced this in your life?
What if Jesus is not calling us to such frenetic activity? What if seeking the kingdom is directly opposed to the frantic fliting about of worldly fussing? What if “seeking” means something completely different than “striving”?
Seeking after the kingdom is not the same as anxiously striving over the things of the world. Whereas Jesus defines the latter as “chasing after these things” (Matthew 6:32), seeking the kingdom demands that we be still in God’s presence. Instead of chasing that which we do not have, Jesus calls us to stop and recognize the kingdom available to us. In his book, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster writes:
Are we present where we are? Sadly, we have to admit that often we are far removed from where we are. Perhaps our mind is stewing over a problem at the office when we should be attentive to our kids. Or we are mentally and emotionally off on a fishing trip when we should be attending to the people around us. Or when we start to pray, we are anywhere but in the presence of God. Recollection is that aspect of meditative prayer that can help draw us more fully into the place where we are. As this becomes a pattern of life, we will find ourselves more alive, more united and whole. (pg. 68)
Seeking after God, and God’s kingdom, demands that we be present. We are called to be nowhere other than where God has placed us at this moment. This is the place where God is. Jean-Pierre de Caussade once wrote “the divine will is a deep abyss of which the present moment is the entrance” (Abandonment to Divine Providence). God calls us to enter the kingdom around us, not chase after something hidden and elusive. Striving, often rooted in our own insecurities, can get in the way of this. As much as we long for the will of God in our lives, our focus can easily be turned back upon ourselves. We long for others to approve of us, to define our worth and our status. We may even equate our Christian service as something that earns God’s love and grace. Instead of resting in the kingdom, we search after that which will build us up.
When striving characterizes our Christian life, peacefully receiving the kingdom becomes twisted into the frantic chasing after spiritual benchmarks. We search out the popular disciplines, believing them to be the key to spiritual success. The problem is, there is always something else to chase! Twenty minutes in prayer speaks to the ten extra minutes we could not sustain. Bible study takes us away from service, but fellowship takes us away from prayerful meditation. Our spiritual activities become testimonies to what we have not done, rather than moments of intimacy with God. This circle of self-condemnation is exhausting and debilitating.
There is nothing worse than the “Fear of Missing Out” when it is attached to our spiritual lives. Anxious strivings create competition for our internal and spiritual energy – energy that should be directed toward the joyful reception of God’s kingdom. Jesus calls us to rest upon God’s presence, confident that God is at work. In the lead up to his call to seek the kingdom, Jesus reminds us,
If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Matthew 6:20-24, The Message)
Peterson’s paraphrase is helpful in speaking about “fussing over” the things of the world, as opposed to “steeping” our lives in the reality of God. Fussing invokes images of needless bustle, the type of frenetic movement that only creates more stress. Steeping, however, invokes an image of stillness. We soak ourselves in the kingdom, allowing the kingdom to grow stronger and stronger with every passing moment.
Have you been spiritually fussing about? Fussing, even when it is over spiritual things, is defined by busyness, franticness, and exhaustion. Steeping ourselves in the kingdom, however, is restorative. It calls us to breathe in the Spirit deeply.
The kingdom is not produced by us. It erupts all around us. Jesus presents the Kingdom as a gift and invites us to participate in it. Participating in God’s Kingdom doesn’t necessarily mean more work, more activity, more stress. Could it be God is calling you to stop, to take a breath, to relax. Can you trust that God is at work behind the scenes, and under the surface? Can you trust that the fruit of the spiritual life will be produced by God’s hand, and not from our own mastery or perfection? Can we live our lives in the atmosphere of grace and not expectation? Jesus promises that God is doing God’s best work in you, and for you. Relax, and let it come to be.
Caussade, Jean-Pierre de. Abandonment to Divine Providence. Kobo Edition. Translated by E. J. Strickland. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.
Foster, Richard J. Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into meditative prayer. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.