Not Our God
The First Century Roman world that Jesus lived and ministered in was polytheistic. Recognition and worship of multiple gods and goddesses was not only common, it was seen to be the devout duty of good Roman citizens. This was because the success and good fortunes of the empire was believed to be in the hands of the gods. To fail to ascribe proper reverence and worship to the gods was not merely a social taboo, but was seen as carelessness toward both the state and one’s fellow citizens because offending the gods could prove disastrous for all (1). We can see this in Acts 17 where Paul speaks in the Areopagus in Athens talking about their altar “To an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). The attitude of the Athenians was that if there was possibly a god in existence that they were unfamiliar with, they wanted to be in his good graces rather than bring calamity on themselves through their lack of worship. This polytheistic posture drove their piety.
Paying proper homage to the gods so as to earn their favor required different acts of worship including prayers, offerings, and sacrifices. An example of this would be the food and drink offerings that were poured out on the hearths of homes so that the goddess Hestia would protect their household and preserve order within it (2). Not only were the “right” forms of worship done in just the “right” way required to earn the favor of the god one was trying to appease, It was believed by Greeks and Romans that the larger the offering presented, or the longer the prayer recited, the more attention and favor the worshipper would earn from the gods.
This was because the Greek and Roman gods were not personal gods. They did not have a relationship with their subjects or care about meeting their needs. In fact, they often required things from their worshippers rather than being intent on providing for them. And they were also fickle. “Proper” worship did not guarantee the worshiper received what they thought they should from their god. They could arbitrarily change their mind if they so desired. This belief about the gods naturally led to great anxiety for the Gentiles.
For, if the gods and goddesses they worshipped cared more for what they got from their worshippers rather than what they could give to them, if their will was subject to change, and indeed if they were blind, impotent idols, then it was up to the pagan worshipper to meet their needs on their own. In the off chance that the gods chose to bless them, the worship was a calculated decision (although, one more motivated by bribery and even manipulation). But the fact that they could not trust this from their gods caused great anxiety as it was up to their own efforts to provide for themselves and their family what they needed.
We see this attitude toward deity worship in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that the Gentiles babble on in prayer because “they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). They are anxious about their daily needs and “eagerly seek” after what they will eat, drink, and wear (Matt. 6:31-32). Their obsession with their prayers being answered and daily needs being met, and the fear and anxiety that accompanied this pursuit, was driven by this understanding of their gods’ selfishness, ignorance, capriciousness, and impotence.
Such was the nature and relationship of the first century Gentiles toward their pagan gods. But this is not the case with our God.
Our God is Father
An important theme in the gospel of Matthew and in the Sermon on the Mount is the idea of God as our “heavenly Father.” Claiming to be a child of the most high God was not insignificant, yet it comes from the mouth of Jesus often. The disciples of Jesus who have faith in Him as the Son of God are welcomed into the family of God and get to relate to God uniquely as their Father. They are dependent on Him for everything as they enjoy familial intimacy with Him. The Lord’s Prayer, which is the model prayer Jesus tells His disciples to pray, begins, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew. 6:9)—a startling truth that should move us to awe and worship.
This means that we can ask things of our Father and expect Him to meet our needs in a way that other creatures cannot. God is our heavenly Father, not the Father of the birds of the sky, and yet He provides for them. And we are worth far more to God than these birds (Matthew 6:26) because He has adopted us. He has fatherly love, care, and concern for us as His children. (And it is beautiful to reflect on the reality that He chose us as His kids. He does not "have" to take care of us because He is "stuck" with us). Even the best of earthly fathers who give good gifts to their children are still “evil” because they are sinners. But our heavenly Father is perfectly good. Therefore, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11). While the Gentiles might be anxious because they have no relationship with their gods and cannot trust them to give them what they need, God is our good, loving, gracious heavenly Father. He is inclined toward us as His children and we can trust Him to provide for us.
This is because not only is He our Father, but He “knows the things you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). He is not ignorant of our needs, nor impotent to meet them. He created our bodies, He can absolutely clothe our bodies (Matthew 6:28-30). He gathered the sea together and separated it from dry land (Genesis 1:9-10), and created plants and animals and gave them to humanity as food (Genesis 1:29-30). If God did these things, He can provide food and drink for His kids (Matthew 6:31-33). We don’t have to bribe or manipulate our Father through ultra-specific, lengthy, pious-sounding prayers. We can make simple requests to God about our daily needs (Matthew 6:11) and trust that He knows all of the details and nuances of our needs, is powerful enough to meet them, and is loving enough as our Father to want to provide for us. Indeed, He delights to provide for His kids.
Trusting Our Father Alleviates Anxiety
Recognition of, and trust in, God as our heavenly Father is more than enough to alleviate us of the anxieties that we are plagued with everyday. While this last year has brought a huge increase in anxiety for all of us surrounding health, finances, loved ones, careers, education, relationships, and the future, we don’t need to relate to God the way the Gentiles related to their gods because our God is different. He is the one true God who is loving, gracious, good, merciful, compassionate, all-knowing, sovereign, powerful, and generous. Though our anxiety may try to convince us otherwise, there is no such thing as a future without God. He will be there, just as He was there in the past, and is here with us now in the present.
For first century Gentiles, Artemis, the goddess of hunting, wild places, and fertility, whose great temple in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, might have been worshipped to provide fertility or to protect a woman in childbirth. Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, was also worshipped as goddess of war. Zeus, the king of all the gods who presided over Mt. Olympus, could be honored for his ability to control the weather. Yet, for all their acts of worship, the Gentiles ultimately did not trust their gods to give them the things they requested in worship. Protection, fertility, victory in battle, ideal weather, and everything else were left to hard work and chance. It was up to Gentiles to provide for themselves. Thus, their anxiety increased as their trust in their gods decreased.
But we need not be anxious for our God is always trustworthy, and provides for us. He does not need to be bribed, but is eager to meet our needs. He is not impotent, but created and sustains all things in power. He does not need anything from us, but is wholly self-sufficient. He is not reluctant or stingy, but is quick to bless us from His infinite storehouse. He does not change, but is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is not ignorant, but knows our needs and possesses all wisdom on how to order the world and our lives. He does not require perfect obedience or worship from us, but recognizes our sinfulness and neediness and moves toward us in love and grace. We don’t need to present sacrifices or offerings in worship, for Jesus offered Himself on the cross as the perfect once-for-all sacrifice to perfect those who place their faith in Him (Hebrews 10:12-14). We do not have to earn God’s favor through our piety, for His favor is already upon us because of Christ and “His favor lasts a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5).
Therefore, the anxieties that arise from our assessment of our circumstances can be calmed in light of His love, grace, goodness, and power. Our prayers can be humble, simple, and sincere as we worship God for His Fatherly goodness, rather than trying to prayerfully strong-arm Him into giving us what we fear He is withholding. He knows what you need better than you do and is powerful enough to give you more than you can ask or imagine. And He is also loving enough to give you what you truly need and what is best for you, not merely what you think you want in this moment.
The gods of the nations might relate to people in anxiety-provoking ways. But not our God. His loving kindness does nothing but remove anxiety, and bring peace and rest.
For all the uncertainty in our world that can evoke fear and anxiety, both for ourselves and those we love, trust in your heavenly Father. He is with you at all times, is the source of true rest from the things that make us weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28-30), and is working in and through all things for His glory and our ultimate good in Christ (Romans 8:28). He has not left us to fend for ourselves in a harsh world, but is eager to meet all our needs in His love and grace. This does not mean that we will get everything we ask for from God in prayer or that we won’t experience trials and suffering. Rather, it means that we know our Father loves us, cares for us, knows our needs, and will provide for us in all the ways we need to bring Him praise and glory.
This is our God.
(2) Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 31.
-By Kevin Tapscott