“Stress” is not a biblical word. “Worry” and “anxiety” are. And they are sins.
That’s the thought that started a conversation the other day. Can we actually say that something like anxiety is sin? What makes it a sin? Isn’t it just a weakness to be delivered from? Or, rather, shouldn’t we conceive of it as a mental illness?
There are a few different ways that we could go about answering. Let’s try beginning with the commands of Jesus himself.
It’s a Command
The command “Do not be anxious” is repeated several times by Jesus in Matthew 6 (Matt 6.25, 27, 31, 34) and it is repeated again in Matt 10.19.
While those commands deal with specific situations, the underlying reality at play is that if Jesus commands people to “not be anxious” we know that (1) it’s not just a chemical imbalance or a mental disorder, and, (2) there are at least some ways in which anxiety is a sin, simply because Jesus commands against it.
Jesus’s Theology of Anxiety & Trust
When Jesus commands people to not be anxious in Matthew 6 and 10, he is charging them not to be anxious about specific things: food, clothes, length of life, what happens tomorrow, and giving a defence for yourself when suffering because of the gospel. I think it’s safe to say, those are some of our most basic needs. By arguing from the most basic and elemental things, he is making the case that we ought not to worry in general.
In other words, if you shouldn’t worry about the most elemental things necessary for life, then what should you worry for? Nothing.
Jesus teaches in a metaphor in this passage, saying that we’re slaves of one master: either worldly “stuff” or God. He says we should follow God, because as a just and righteous master, he will provide all we need for us as we serve him. By way of contrast, if we serve ourselves, or labour to ensure that we provide for ourselves, we can guarantee nothing: “Which of you, by being anxious, can add a single hour to his span of life?”
At root in the issue of anxiety is the question of trust. If you say you are a servant of God and then you are being anxious, you’re acting like he’s a pretty wicked master. What kind of master would demand from his servants and not provide for them? If even human masters provide for their servants. then that is a very untrusting view to take of God!
Trusting in yourself is what produces anxiety. And it’s vain: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt 6.34). Trusting in God, on the other hand, frees you from anxiety and enables you to obey the command to “Not be anxious.”
The Apostles Agreed
All this is why the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4 that the believers there should “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4.6). There is one right place for trust. That’s what’s at stake when we battle anxiety.
Peter argues along similar lines:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
Peter, having just reminded his readers that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Pet 5.5), now tells them what humility looks like. Humility looks like a casting of anxieties, off my shoulders and on to God.
To not cast my cares on him is pride. To hold on to my anxieties is to contend for his supremacy.
When I’m anxious, I’m trying to take God’s job. I think that either he doesn’t care enough for me, or he doesn’t have the situation in control. When I’m anxious, when I’m refusing to ‘cast’ my cares on him, I’m thinking that the situation is better handled by me than God.
That is the opposite of humility. It’s the opposite of trust. That’s why it’s sin. And it invites his opposition (in a Romans 1, giving over to more sin sense, which is sometimes why it can manifest in physical and behavioural ways that the world describes in strictly physical terms, attributes to strictly physical causes, and then offers strictly physical approaches to healing).
Is There a Right Kind of Anxiety?
So is all anxiety always sin? I don’t think it can be, in one sense. Paul speaks of the anxiety he has for the churches (2 Cor 11.28) and elsewhere he speaks of the anxieties that a married person will always feel for pleasing their spouse (1 Cor 7.33, 34). And he contrasts that with the anxiety that one should ideally feel for pleasing the Lord (1 Cor 7.32).
So some form of anxiety is not sin. But anxiety that is free from sin is not free from sin because of some mental or physical excuse, but rather because the nature of that anxiety is different. It seems more like eagerness or zeal than worry. It expresses how concerned one is with their need to carry out God’s prescribed will for their life.
How far that is from the anxiety I typically feel!
The only excusable anxiety, it would seem, is that which is actively “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” with a heart of trust already in place, believing that “all these things will be added” in God’s way, by God’s means, in God’s time (Matt 6.33). I wish that I had more.
** UPDATE: Please be sure to read the follow-up post before commenting. Some of your questions or concerns or observations may be addressed there already. Thanks! **