For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
– Matthew 6: 32-34 (verse 33 is underlined)
Om. I have spent the last few years reading many world scriptures and can safely say that Matthew 6: 33 is my favorite scriptural passage. And if I didn’t think that doing so would upset my mother I would probably have gotten it tattooed on my body long ago (how’s that for spiritual courage?). To me, it poetically crystallizes the goal of my life and also is one of the most powerful promises of God ever uttered by a prophet on the Earth.
Part of the reason I like this particular scripture so much is its positive spin on God. Seeking God (who is bliss Itself) is not something we “should” do and not something we will be punished for not doing. Rather, if you truly understood the bliss of God you would naturally seek it first, for you would understand that nothing else in life even compares to it. And, ironically, if we do seek Him first we will not only gain the limitless bliss that He is, but “all else will be added to us.” God’s cherry on top of His ice cream sundae of Love is His unbreakable promise that even our natural desires will eventually be fulfilled if they are temporarily renounced for the infinite joy we have always been seeking.
For me, the “kingdom of God” is not an actual place we go after death. As Jesus himself said, “the kingdom of God is within you,” meaning that this very life is that kingdom if we but realized it. So, to me, the Kingdom of God is the conscious and direct experience of God, a realization that we are eternal beings who are One with the eternal Creator. Jesus used a poetic metaphor pointing to this universal awakening that unfortunately has been interpreted as a literal place. Such literalist thinking empties Christ’s mystic teachings of their experiential power and reduces God to a faith-based abstraction that can only be experienced fully in some far away realm.
What about, “His righteousness?” Since awakening is not separate from us, any so called awakening that does not include a change of behavior is not a real awakening. “His righteousness” simply means the activity of someone who has realized the kingdom of God within. Such a being does not act righteously because they are trying to earn God’s favor; rather, their righteousness is an expression of their own Higher Self. For if it is indeed true that everyone is God, how could an awakened person harm? How could they offer anything but love? So another way to say it would be, “seek first to realize God, and then to express this realization by performing acts of righteousness in the world.”
Christ is a great prophetic example of how this is achieved. Even when Jesus was being physically tormented he refused to feel even anger toward his oppressors! He also showed by washing his disciple’s feet that an awakened person serves God by serving other people who are all God’s Temple. Similarly, the Buddha compassionately taught in the world for 40 years after his awakening, and Krishna performed many righteous acts even though He had long since realized the Changeless. All three of these examples realized the Universal Truth and naturally expressed this realization through their unique personalities, a feat that all of us are called by God to achieve.
Seeking God First: Positive Renunciation
I have recently been fond of comparing a religious, works-based mentality to a plain turkey sandwich. Imagine you are hungry and the only thing to eat is plain turkey and bread. You know its good for you, and you are grateful to have it, but truthfully you are not very exited about eating it. Now compare this to being hungry right before a glorious Thanksgiving dinner. There is a massive and juicy turkey, stuffing, cranberries, steaming mashed potatoes, your grandmother’s home made pie made with pure love, fine coffee after the meal, great company, and, of course, a plump turkey leg all to yourself. Be honest: you WANT to be there! (FYI I am now a vegetarian and use this only a metaphor.)
The same thing is true of God. Many people view God as a plain turkey sandwich, as something they HAVE to seek. They HAVE to go to church, to read the bible, to pay tithes, etc., and if they don’t they may end up in the absurd perversion of spiritual metaphor people call hell. Thinking about God that way is a kindergarten mentality; there is an element of truth to it, but when compared the real Truth is like spiritual college. For if they truly understood the bliss of God that can be found in meditation they would WANT God, and any effort needed to realize Him would not be seen as a burden. As Yogananda said, we shouldn’t pray to be free from temptation, but for God to “tempt us more than temptation” with His gigantic and incomparable feast of pure love!
God is happiness Itself. Thus, any temporary effort expended to realize Him should not be viewed as negative renunciation. Rather, we should think positively that by effortfully seeking Him we are gaining something priceless. Jesus made this clear when he spoke of a person who sold their field to obtain the pearl of great price, a pearl exponentially more valuable than the field. In this sense, it was not renunciation to give up the field (worldly desire), for only a foolish person who did not comprehend the worth of the pearl would have kept it. Similarly, only a foolish person places worldly goals above God. Renunciation is thus synonymous with knowledge, the rational conclusion that God is worth the serious effort it takes to experience Him.
Yet a lot of people take this to the extreme and falsely equate God with a total rejection of the world (the puritans are a great example of this). In this passage Jesus is not recommending that we stop seeking what we all naturally want: good relationships, successful careers, comfortable circumstances, etc. Rather, we should seek God first and prioritize Him above all these things because He is what we really desire! And the great irony of the spiritual path is that we have never not been God! This very life is the manifestation of God, and we have never once been separate from Him. Yet, despite this fact, there are differing degrees of realization that depend on the depth of our spiritual practice. So worldly things in themselves are not evil, and in fact are blessings from the Lord. Yet if they consume our attention inordinately we will never awaken to the Truth beyond them, the “kingdom of God” that alone is the portion of the wise.
The Cherry on Top
Don’t forget the second part of the scripture! If God actually becomes the goal of our life, we will not only gain Him but, in time, even our own worldly desires (“all these things will be given to you as well”). We all have things we need to survive, and this is obvious. Furthermore, we all have dreams and special desires that come from God-some of you may want to be doctors, movie stars, musicians, architects, etc. You also probably want to be in a satisfying romantic relationship, have enough wealth to live comfortably, and enjoy hobbies.
As Jesus said, “Even the pagans seek these things, and your Heavenly Father knows you need them.” With this in mind you shouldn’t waste your time pestering God to give you these worldly things that in the end wont make you happy. Modern “prosperity gospel” preachers unfortunately advocate this type of shameless begging, and sadly portray God as a means to an end instead of the Goal itself. Rather, we should seek God Himself as the goal, sincerely try to discover what His will is for our life, and TRUST that in time God will provide the worldly things He Himself caused us to want. And He will! Any person who seeks Him above their personal desires will not only become established in the Eternal Joy that is like a succulent ice cream Sunday with no caloric consequences- they will, by default, get the cherry on top as well, the desires that most of the world ignorantly seek above God. These desires, however, are fulfilled solely for God’s glory and for the benefit of humanity, not for mere selfish enjoyment.
So it is fine to have worldly goals and try to meet them, but we should do so with an attitude of discernment. As Ramakrishna said, we should take the attitude of a “pilgrim doing work in a foreign city whose mind is perpetually on their home country.” We should perform our duties in the world for the benefit of others but all the while think only of God, knowing all along that He Himself is final goal of our work.
To conclude this post I want to share a parable by Yogananda I mention in my book that perfectly expresses why God should be sought first in our life:
“There once was a man who was very poor and on his deathbed he prayed, “Lord, all my life I have been in poverty. In my next life, I want to be rich!” The Lord granted the man’s prayer. In his next life he attained a great fortune and got married, but shortly into his marriage his wife died a tragic death.
The man was terribly depressed the rest of his life and on his deathbed he asked the Lord, “In my next life, please grant me riches and a good marriage.” In his next life he had both these things. His wife bore him a son, but soon afterwards the son became diseased and died shortly thereafter. Before he died, the man asked the Lord, “In my next life, please grant me a good marriage, health, and good children.” The parable goes on interminably. Each lifetime the Lord gives the man what he asks for, but then, without fail, something unforeseen occurs to ruin his tranquility. After many difficult lives the man finally learns his lesson and says to the Lord, “Oh, Lord, I now see that true happiness can only be found in You! Whatever destiny I obtain, please grant me You Yourself so that I may be eternally satisfied!”
This parable shows that we will eventually get whatever our soul is seeking over the course of many lifetimes. But even when we do get what we think we desire we will be perpetually disappointed because there is always a “catch,” an unexpected stain on white sheet of perfection we did not foresee. For perfection cannot be found in the realm of “maya” (the world of opposites) but only in God! This process of painful incarnations, for those who choose to neglect the gentle wooing of the Lord of Love, will continue for seemingly infinite lifetimes until they learn the difficult lesson that God alone can satisfy them.
So may all beings (including myself!!!) wisen up and choose “the narrow way” to salvation, the difficult yet abundantly rewarding path to God that anyone who wholeheartedly desires will speedily obtain. And may God reveal to you, by His infinite grace, the Truth that you and He have always been, and will always be, inseparably One! Om.
p.s. My advice on how to practically “seek first the Kingdom of God” in the context of a modern life can be found in my new book, “Daily Bliss: Practical Ways to experience God in everyday Life,” which can be found for free on this website.
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief Thoughts on the Kingdom of Heaven
- Ordinary Mind is the Way – Thoughts on Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan
- Spiritual Priorities
- Some Brief Thoughts on Spiritual Peace
- Remembering the Goal of Life
- God’s Forgiveness
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- A Few Thoughts on Spiritual Peace