As someone who struggles with anxiety and has written much on the topic, I get this question a lot. It’s a good one, and I want to set out an answer to it that I believe is biblical and sensitive to sufferers. The difficulty is in giving such a personal question a general response. So, leave yourself some room to apply this to your own situation, or to the situations of those you love, especially when it comes to discerning what God’s will is for you in a given situation.
Anxiety and Spiritual Formation
Before I get to an answer, let me remind readers of my own approach to anxiety. While “anxiety” is a word with clear negative connotations and a unique history modern mental health, anxiety fits within the broader biblical category of suffering. And throughout Scripture, suffering is not treated as something to be avoided at all costs, but as an opportunity for dependence on God and conformity to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). If that idea is fairly new to you and you’d like the biblical backing, you can read “Finding New Life in Your Anxiety.” That article condenses and applies what I’ve learned from Scripture about suffering, especially from the Apostle Paul, and it adds some popular and very helpful content from Paul Miller’s excellent book J-Curve.
The short form of my perspective is that anxiety can be a tool in the hands of God, something he uses to draw us into dependence on him. As a form of suffering, anxiety is something that the Spirit can use to conform us to the image of Christ. That doesn’t mean we’ll grow to like anxiety, or that anxiety is good in itself. It just means that we know suffering has an important place in the Christian life. The hard things we encounter change us in ways that easy things can’t. My goal has always been to figure out how the Lord wants to use my anxiety, not how I can get rid of it. But that still leaves the question of when anxiety moves from an experience or set of feelings to a sin.
When Anxiety Becomes a Sin
Let me reiterate, the feeling of anxiety itself is not a sin, just as having the feeling of fear is not a sin. Throughout Scripture, God is not concerned that we never have certain feelings. Rather, he’s concerned with how we respond to those feelings. This doesn’t mean that feelings such as fear and anxiety are benevolent or even neutral. Anxiety is a reminder that we inhabit a broken, sinful world. But encountering it doesn’t mean we’re committing sin. It just means that we live in a world darkened by shadows of rebellion. One day those shadows will be gone.
However, anxiety becomes a sin whenever it keeps us from doing the will of God in a given situation. It’s at this point that anxiety moves from being something we encounter or battle to something that changes how we live faithfully in God’s world, how we respond to the words of God. To use a simple example, it would not be a moral problem for David to have felt fear in the presence of Goliath. In fact, I’d be confused if he didn’t. What would have been a sin would have been David choosing not to fight Goliath because of that fear.
Likewise, it’s not a sin for anyone to have the feelings that accompany a panic attack, but it would be a problem if our response to those feelings was to do something against God‘s will. For instance, God asks us to be an encouragement to others and a light in the world (Matt. 5:14). Yet, I used to refuse to go places and do things with other people because of my anxiety, even if those other people really wanted or even needed me in some way. I locked myself in a comfort zone and shut myself off from others. That was my response to the feelings of panic. From where I see it, that’s when I chose not to do the will of God, and my anxiety had a small victory. That’s when anxiety becomes a sin.
Feelings vs. Faithfulness
It’s really a matter of encountering feelings, and then choosing to be faithful. There’s a whole generation of Christians who believe that feeling certain things is already sinful. I don’t believe that there’s Scriptural precedent for that belief system, at least not across all cases. What Scripture constantly calls us to do is to act in a certain way amidst the feelings that we have. When we encounter the feelings, we choose faithfulness; we do our best to follow God‘s will, in that moment, based on what we know about who God is as the compassionate, loving, patient, and ever listening, Lord.
Will we fail? Yes. Many, many times. I would be the first to admit my guilt and shortcomings in this area. But after living for over 14 years with an anxiety disorder, and after studying theology and writing it for many years, this is my position. Anxiety only becomes a sin when we allow it to keep us from doing God’s will.
Like this post? Check out the related resources below!
- Abiding in Peace through Anxiety
- Making the Anxiety Cycle Work for You
- Why I Love My Anxiety Disorder
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