The Distracted Mind

Matthew vi.34. "Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Scholars will tell you that the words "take no thought" do not exactly express our Lord's meaning in this text. That they should rather stand, "Be not anxious about to-morrow." And doubtless they are right on the whole. But the truth is, that we have no word in English which exactly expresses the Greek word which St Matthew uses in his gospel, and which we are bound to believe exactly expresses our Lord's meaning, in whatever language He spoke. The nearest English word, I believe, is -- distracted. Be ye not distracted about to-morrow. I do not mean the vulgar sense of the word -- which is losing one's senses. But the old and true sense, which is still used by those who speak good English.

To distract, means literally to pull a thing two different ways -- even to pull it asunder. We speak of distracting a man's attention, when we call him off from looking at one thing to make him look at something else, and we call anything which interrupts us in our business, or puts a thought suddenly out of our heads, a distraction. Now the Greek word which St Matthew uses, means very nearly this -- Be not divided in your thoughts -- do not think of two things at once -- do not distract your attention from to- day's work, by fearing and hoping about to-morrow. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof; and you will have quite trouble enough to get through to-day honestly and well, without troubling yourself with to- morrow -- which may turn out very unlike anything which you can dream. This, I think, is the true meaning of the text; and with it, I think, agrees another word of our Lord's which St Luke gives -- And be ye not of doubtful mind. Literally, Do not be up in the air -- blown helpless hither and thither, by every gust of wind, instead of keeping on the firm ground, and walking straight on about your business, stoutly and patiently, step after step. Have no vain fears or vain hopes about the future; but do your duty here and now. That is our Lord's command, and in it lies the secret of success in life.

For do we not find, do we not find, my friends, in practice, that our Lord's words are true? Who are the people who get through most work in their lives, with the least wear and tear, not merely to their bodily health, but to their tempers and their characters? Are they the anxious people? Those who imagine to themselves possible misfortunes, and ask continually -- What if this happened -- or that? What would become of me then? How should I be able to pull through such a trouble? Where shall I find friends? How shall I make myself safe against the chances and changes of life? Do we not know that those people are the very ones who do little work, and often less than none, by thus distracting their attention and their strength from their daily duty, daily business? That while they are looking anxiously for future opportunities, they are neglecting the opportunities which they have already. While they are making interest with others to help them, they forget to help themselves. That in proportion as they lose faith in God and His goodness, they lose courage and lose cheerfulness; and have too often to find a false courage and a false cheerfulness, by drowning their cares in drink, or in mean cunning and plotting and planning, which usually ends in failure and in shame?

Are those who do most work, either the plotting or intriguing people? I do not mean base false people. Of them I do not speak here. But really good and kind people, honest at heart, who yet are full of distractions of another sort; who are of double mind -- look two ways at once, and are afraid to be quite open, quite straightforward -- who like to COMPASS their ends, as the old saying is, that is to go round about, towards what they want, instead of going boldly up to it; who like to try two or more ways of getting the same thing done; and, as the proverb has it, have many irons in the fire; who love little schemes, and plots, and mysteries, even when there is no need for them. Do such people get most work done? Far, far from it. They take more trouble about getting a little matter done, than simpler and braver men take about getting great matters done. They fret themselves, they weary themselves, they waste their brains and hearts -- and sometimes their honesty besides -- and if they fail, as in the chances and changes of this mortal life they must too often fail, have nothing for all their schemings save vanity and vexation of spirit.

But the man who will get most work done, and done with the least trouble, whether for himself, for his family, or in the calling and duty to which God has called him, will be the man who takes our Lord's advice. Who takes no thought for the morrow, and leaves the morrow to take thought for itself. That man will believe that this world is a well-ordered world, as it needs must be, seeing that God made it, God redeemed it, God governs it; and that God is merciful in this -- that He rewardeth every man according to his works. That man will take thought for to-day, earnestly and diligently, even at times anxiously and in fear and trembling; but he will not distract, and divide, and weaken his mind by taking thought for to-morrow also. Each day he will set about the duty which lies nearest him, with a whole heart and with a single eye, giving himself to it for the time, as if there was nothing else to be done in the world. As for what he is to do next, he will think little of that. Little, even, will he think of whether his work will succeed or not. That must be as God shall will. All that he is bound to do is to do his best; and his best he can only do by throwing his whole soul into his work. As his day, he trusts his strength will be; and he must not waste the strength which God has given him for to-day on vain fears or vain dreams about to-morrow. To-day is quite full enough of anxiety, of care, of toil, of ignorance. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. Yes; and sufficient for the day is the good thereof likewise. To-day, and to-morrow, too, may end very differently from what he hoped. Yes; but they may end, too, very differently from what he feared. Let him throw his whole soul into the thing which he is about, and leave the rest to God.

For so only will he come to the day's end in that wholesome and manful temper, contented if not cheerful, satisfied with the work he has had to do, if not satisfied with the way in which he has done it, which will leave his mind free to remember all his comforts, all his blessings, even to those commonest of all blessings, which we are all too apt to forget, just because they are as necessary as the air we breathe; which will show him how much light there is, even on the darkest day.

He has not got this or that fine thing, it may be, for which he longed: but he has at least his life, at least his reason, at least his conscience, at least his God. Are not they enough to possess? Are not they enough wherewith to lie down at night in peace, and rise to-morrow to take what comes to-morrow, even as he took what came to-day? And will he not be most fit to take what comes to-morrow like a Christian man, whether it be good or evil, with his spirit braced and yet chastened, by honest and patient labour, instead of being weakened and irritated by idling over to-day, while he dreamed and fretted about to-morrow?

Ah! I fancy that I hear some one say -- perhaps a woman -- "So easy to preach, but so difficult to practise. So difficult to think of one thing at a time. So difficult not to plot, not to fret, with a whole family of children dependent on you! What does the preacher know of a woman's troubles? How many things she has to think of, day by day, not one of which she dares forget -- and yet can seldom or never, for all her recollecting, contrive to get them all done? How can she help being distracted by the thought of to-morrow? Can he feel for frail me? Does he know what I go through?" Yes. I do know; and I wonder, and admire. To me the sight of any poor woman managing her family respectably and thriftily, is one of the most surprising sights on earth, as it is one of the most beautiful sights on earth. How she finds time for it, wit for it, patience for it, courage for it, I cannot conceive. I have wondered often why many a woman does not lie down and die, for sheer weariness of body and soul. I have fancied often that God must give some special grace to all good mothers, to enable them to do all that they do, and bear all they bear. But still, the women who do most, who bring up their families best, are surely those who obey their Lord's command, who give their whole souls to each day's work, and think as little as they can of to-morrow. With them, surely, the true wisdom is, not to fret, not to plot, to do the duty which lies nearest them, and leave the rest to God; to get each week's bill paid, trusting to God to send money for the week to come; to get their children every day to school; to correct in them each fault as it shews itself, without looking forward too much to how the child will turn out at last. For them, and for parents of all ranks, the wisest plan, I believe, is to make no far-fetched plans for their children's future, certainly no ambitious intrigues for their marriage: but simply to educate them -- that is, to bring out in them, day by day, all that is purest and best, wisest and ablest, and leave the rest to God; sure that if they are worth anything, their Father in heaven will find them work to do, and a place at His table, in this life and in the life to come.

Yes, my dear friends, this is the true philosophy, the philosophy which Christ preaches to us all -- to old and young, rich and poor, ploughman and scholar, maid, wife, and widow, all alike.

Fret not. Plot not. Look not too far ahead.

Fret not -- lest you lose temper, and be moved to do evil. Plot not -- lest you lose faith in God, and be moved to be dishonest. Look not too far ahead -- So far only, as to keep yourselves out of open and certain danger- -lest you see what is coming before you are ready for the sight. If we foresaw the troubles which may be coming, perhaps it would break our hearts; and if we foresaw the happiness which is coming, perhaps it would turn our heads. Let us not meddle with the future, and matters which are too high for us, but refrain our souls, and keep them low, like little children, content with the day's food, and the day's schooling, and the day's play-hours, sure that the Divine Master knows that all is right, and how to train us, and whither to lead us, though we know not, and need not know, save this -- that the path by which He is leading each of us -- if we will but obey and follow, step by step -- leads up to Everlasting Life.

sermon xxxviii the lords prayer
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