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Q.  Jesus told us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” But don’t we have to plan for the future?

When Matthew records Jesus’ teaching about what our attitude toward tomorrow should be, he uses a Greek word that can, in many contexts, mean to give careful consideration to something.

Paul uses the same word, for example, when he tells the Philippians that Timothy is genuinely concerned for their welfare, and when he writes in 1 Corinthians that all parts of Christ’s body should have equal concern for each other.  The King James Version reflects this common meaning of the word in its translation of Jesus’ teaching, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”

This translation, however, can suggest to modern readers that we can and should take a spontaneous, impromptu approach to life, making no provision for the future.   People can even spiritualize such an attitude, as I discuss in this post.  Unfortunately, this can lead to many mistakes and misfortunes that could have been avoided with a little forethought.  Even though these mistakes actually reflect a lack of due diligence, people can excuse them by saying they were following Jesus’ teaching.  They might even judge others who do plan for the future.

This is all really a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Jesus was saying.  The same Greek term can also mean—in fact, it more commonly means—to be unduly anxious or worried about something.  The context in the Sermon on the Mount, where this saying of Jesus appears, shows that that is his intended meaning there.

Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father cares for us and will provide for us, so we don’t need to wonder, “What will we eat?  What will we drink?  What will we wear?”  If we seek his kingdom and righteousness, all these things will be provided as well.  And so, Jesus concludes, “do not worry about tomorrow” (NIV, NRSV) or “do not be anxious about tomorrow” (ESV).

Other passages in Scripture teach positively that we should plan carefully for the future.  Proverbs, for example, teaches:

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family
and to nourish your female servants.

Even though this teaching is offered in an ancient agricultural context, its implications are clear for us today.  We can’t assume that things will always go well, so we need to make careful provisions for the future.  But “careful” shouldn’t mean “full of care.” We shouldn’t be anxious or worried, but trust in our heavenly Father’s love.  That’s what Jesus is telling us in the Sermon on the Mount.