I should have written this post a long time ago, since the question is so frequent, and the answers to it can be so harmful or helpful. I’ve battled an anxiety disorder for over 12 years, and I’m a Christian. Knowing those two facts, you can probably guess the #1 question I’m asked by people in my circles: Is anxiety a sin?
To outsiders, that sounds like a stupid question. “Who cares what it is? Just find a way to get help!” But it’s not a stupid question at all. It’s good to be mindful of your soul and not just your body. That means there’s a moral dimension to anxiety (just as there’s a moral dimension to everything). And because many Christians get squeamish about mental health diagnoses and their relationship to biblical teaching, I think it’s good to take the question head on. My hope is that this post faithfully represents the teaching of Scripture along with my own experience in its light. The short answer to the question is “sometimes.”
Scripture on Anxiety: Command or Encouragement
Let’s start with Scripture. The Bible, of course, overflows with references to fear and anxiety. How could it not? Scripture meets us in our human experience, and anxiety is part of that experience. Most people are quick to spot the texts that tell us to not be afraid. Joshua 1:9 is a common one. On the border of Canaan, God tells a fresh, young ruler, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Moses had given the whole nation of Israel a similar command in Deuteronomy 31:6. The spiritual equation in texts like these seems obvious: God is with you and will care for you. Therefore, don’t be afraid. On first glance, fear and anxiety seem to be treated as responses that lack faith and trust. But we need to go deeper.
Though it might seem strange to go about it this way, I’d like to go deeper by looking at how we speak Scripture. Did you know that when we pronounce Scripture, we’re already involved in interpretation? We’re using our own voice to echo the voice of God. That’s not on most people’s radar when they’re reading and applying Scripture. But it’s actually a powerful truth.
Let me give you an example. Passages that call us not to fear can be pronounced in at least two different ways, with drastically different results. We’ll deal with the most abused passage (in my opinion) shortly. For now, here are two common options.
- Do not fear or be anxious = “Stop it! Stop feeling afraid! Just Stop!”
- Do not fear or be anxious = “Don’t be afraid, little one. It’s okay. I’m with you. I know you’ll still feel afraid, but I’m encouraging and comforting you with my presence. It will be okay because I’m here.”
Do you see the difference? In the first, we speak Scripture as an authoritative command coming from a domineering general. In the second, we speak Scripture as a loving reassurance from the God of love. There’s an ocean between scolding and encouraging.
We can complement this with an evident truth about human behavior: You can’t tell a human being not to feel. Anyone who has kids knows this immediately. “Don’t be afraid” doesn’t work as a mechanism to quell the feeling of fear in your five-year-old. At best, “don’t be afraid” can only be an encouragement. It’s a loving call to faith and trust. It’s a call to act in trust in the midst of the feelings, not a call to eliminate the feelings themselves. There is no passage in Scripture that tells people not to feel. But there are plenty of passages that tell us how to act in the midst of feelings, including fear and anxiety.
Further Complications: Two Kinds of Fear
There is still more to say about fear and anxiety in Scripture. The biblical call to not be afraid in the midst of adversity is more complex than meets the eye. There are actually two kinds of fear in Scripture, and I develop this in chapter 6 of Struck Down but Not Destroyed. First, there is the fear of pain and punishment, the fear of adversity. This is what most of us have in mind when we think of fear and anxiety. It’s a fear of “bad things.” With this sort of fear, we’re called to act in faith and trust. But a second type of fear is what we might call a fear of reverence. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). This latter type plays a healthy, soul-shaping role in our spiritual life. It can help us submit to the Lordship of an all-powerful God. And yet, so can the former type of fear, since God calls us to walk through it in faith, not around it in distrust. When God tells Joshua not to be afraid to enter Canaan, he’s not talking about the second type of fear. He’s talking about the first type. He’s calling Joshua to act in faith in the midst of his fears.
In my experience, many Christians are really only aware of the first type of fear. But to make things worse, they have an unhealthy approach to it. They believe in their hearts that God is yelling at us when a passage in Scripture says, “Don’t be afraid” or “Don’t be anxious.” They read these passages as calls to eliminate the feelings. But in reality, because God is all-powerful and sovereign, there’s always a purpose to our fear, a divine use for it. We’re shaped far more effectively when we walk through it than when we walk around it. Either it calls us into trustful action, or it tempers our thoughts and behaviors before an all-powerful God. In both cases, the primary purpose of fear is not the elimination of a feeling; it’s the growth of a human soul. God’s not saying, “Delete this feeling! Stop it right now!!” Do you see how void of grace that response would be, how utterly un-Christlike it is?
This isn’t a call to “feel your feelings to the fullest” or to ignore what God is telling us. Rather, it’s a call to think more deeply about the purpose of our suffering. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the primary purpose of suffering isn’t that we eliminate it; it’s that we learn and grow through it. That basic truth seems lost on so many Christians. It honestly breaks my heart. Why? Because people are missing out on the most beautiful, soul-shaping experiences and heap guilt on other Christians in the process.
The Most Abused Text: Matthew 6
Let me apply this to what is, in my opinion, the most abused text regarding anxiety: Matthew 6:25. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” This passage is subjected to the most common and destructive interpretive error in the Christian world: proof-texting. Proof-texting is when you take a passage of Scripture out of context and try to get it to mean what you want it to mean in the moment, not what it actually means in context. For instance, in Matthew 6, Jesus is focused on the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God like? How do you live in that kingdom? What are your priorities in that kingdom? The passage on anxiety is a call to make God’s kingdom our highest priority, not the things of the world (food, drink, clothing, pleasant experiences). In other words, this passage has little to do with the feeling of anxiety. It’s not a belting command, “Stop feeling anxious!” It’s a call to prioritize. It’s a passage about trust and faith in the context of God’s loving care within his kingdom.
Even well-meaning Christians get this completely wrong, and they actually make their brothers and sisters feel guilty for feeling anxious. That’s a terrible combination. As Jim Carrey once put it, “Perfect! I’ll have the worst day in my life . . . with a side-order of guilt, please!!” Anxiety compounded by guilt leads to . . . you guessed it: more anxiety!
While anxiety can stem from worries about material possessions and experiences, it can also be the result of a broken body and mind. In other words, you can carry around feelings of anxiety all the time because your body and mind has been shattered. That’s what I was told concerning my own anxiety disorder. I was likely suffering from PTSD after watching my father die of cancer in our living room. Something in my mind broke. My brain was releasing adrenaline all the time. I wasn’t anxious about anything. I just walked around with the constant feeling of anxiety. When people asked me, “What are you anxious about?” I felt even more anxious because I didn’t have an answer. “Nothing! I have everything I need. I just feel anxious all the time!”
Back to the Question
Let’s go back to the question we started with: Is anxiety a sin? Sometimes. If you are feeling anxious because you lack possessions or favorable circumstances, God is calling you to trustful action. And if you decide not to act, to freeze up and isolate yourself, then that can be a sin-response. But I want to be cautious even here. Some people’s bodies are so broken that they’ve been hospitalized for anxiety. They’re truly crippled. Telling such persons not to feel anxious is tantamount to telling an amputee not to limp. It’s just not going to happen. Yet, there are times when I can honestly say that I was dealing with a lot of anxiety, and I let that feeling stomp out any trustful action on my part. Instead of trusting that God would care for me, I trusted in myself and my own coping mechanisms, which usually meant that I stayed at home instead of traveling somewhere. Looking back, I interpret that as a sin-response. I was capable of trustful action, but I chose something else.
We all need to study ourselves and be candid. Is part of our trustful action staying at home sometimes and reading the Bible to commune with the God we love? Sure. Sometimes we need rest. Sometimes our bodies or minds really are broken and need time to mend. But are there other times when our trustful action is going to mean coming out of our comfort zones? You bet. There’s a balance here.
In the midst of that balance, what Christians suffering with anxiety truly need is sympathy, compassion, grace, and prayer. They don’t need people to bark commands at them. They don’t need a proof text. They don’t need to feel guilt on top of anxiety. They need people to help them see how God might be using this fear, this feeling to make them more like himself, more like Christ. Anxiety, when it comes down to it, is a form of suffering. And God tells us all throughout Scripture that the purpose of our suffering is to be shaped to the silhouette of his Son. That’s the point of all suffering. In our anxiety, we need to be constantly chasing those opportunities for shaping. That, my friends, is far more important than merely trying to eliminate anxious feelings.
If you know a Christian who’s struggling with anxiety, please pass this along. The body of Christ needs people to understand this issue more deeply so that we can respond to brothers and sisters in a truly Christlike manner. That will mean walking beside them as God shapes them to his Son, which is a long and painful process. Anxiety sufferers need encouragement more than judgment. Give them the former, with no small amount of prayerful sympathy. They’re walking a long and hard road. Walk with them, not ahead of them.
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