Dr. Ruth Eardley, a GP for 25 years, looks at the problem of anxiety
Have you ever heard a sermon on Christ’s words in Matthew 6.25-34, ‘Do not worry’? And did the preacher conclude that worry is a sin?
As a family doctor for over 20 years, I struggle with that. The intention may be to comfort and exhort, but, in concluding that worry is a sin, we may inadvertently exacerbate the sufferings of those we are trying to help.
There are many anxious people out there — lots in the congregation — for whom worry is an unwelcome part of life. It adds to their guilt and grief to be assured that not only are they anxious, they are also sinful, faithless and maybe not even born again. As one preacher said: ‘Worry and faith are incompatible!’
Some try to define worry and distinguish it from fear, concern and anxiety but most people use these words interchangeably. So what exactly do we mean by ‘worry’? A simple working definition might be: ‘Worry is thinking about bad things and feeling anxious’.
Not a sin
This kind of worry is not a sin for a number of reasons.
The Lord Jesus was sinless, but in Gethsemane he experienced agony of mind, a fearful apprehension as he thought about what was soon to happen. He was ‘sorrowful and troubled’.1 The mental agony was proportionate and appropriate. It underlines the true humanity of the Saviour.
Worry is natural. It is normal for human beings to recoil from pain, natural to prepare the mind for an anticipated event, normal to feel anxious if that event may be painful or dangerous. Christ was ‘in anguish’ in the Garden of Gethsemane.2
Worry can be useful. ‘It is important to be able to worry in a way that is useful, for fear and anxiety can have a positive role. Worry is really about being afraid and there are times when it is lifesaving to be afraid. None of us would survive life’s dangers without some anxiety — it is part of a built-in signalling system which alerts body and mind to be thoroughly aroused to meet an emergency.’3
Feelings can be morally neutral. Although emotions like grief, anger and worry are a response to living in a sad and sinful world, they are not sinful in and of themselves. It is possible to be angry and not sin (Christ and the moneychangers).4 It is possible to be very sad and not sin (Christ at the tomb of Lazarus).5 It is possible to think about bad things and feel anxious (worry) and not sin (Christ ‘deeply distressed and troubled’ on the night of his betrayal).6
Gentleness and care
Sin involves intent. Sin means our will is in rebellion against God. Most anxious thoughts arise unbidden. Most anxious Christians would rather not be anxious. There is no intention to defy God, or to mistrust him.
Throughout the Bible, sin inevitably leads to punishment, but there is no suggestion of punishment for worry. On the contrary, there is gentleness and care. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, said the Good Shepherd.7
To punish a believer for worry is inconsistent with God the Father’s character. If your child woke crying in the night because she had been bullied at school, would you go in and punish her for being afraid? No, you would comfort her. And in Gethsemane an angel was sent to strengthen Jesus as he experienced the terrible anticipation of Good Friday.8
To punish a believer for worry is inconsistent with Christ’s character.
A woman ‘subject to bleeding’ for 12 long years crept up secretly behind Jesus and touched his clothes.9 She was afraid. Would she be recognised? She was unclean, a social outcast, planning to approach a man, even to touch him, rendering him also ceremonially unclean. When she was found out, she ‘fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth’.
Jesus comforted her: ‘Take heart (an encouragement), daughter (an address of loving concern), your faith has healed you (worry and faith are not incompatible!). Go in peace (a blessing); and be freed from your suffering’ (and don’t worry, your suffering is gone for good!)10 (parentheses mine).
To punish a believer for worry is inconsistent with the Holy Spirit’s character. Not only did Jesus comfort his anxious disciples when they understood he was going away,11 but he also promised them the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.12
Worry is an essential part of the experience of conversion. Think of our definition of worry: ‘Thinking about bad things and feeling anxious’.
When the Holy Spirit awakens us to our sinfulness, we think about all the bad things we have thought, said and done; we are anxious.13 We fear what may happen to us. We are ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’.14 And this legitimate worry leads us to Christ.
Bad things do happen
Worry is not the same as distrust. When people claim that worry is a sin, they are usually talking about distrust. But anxiety is not necessarily about doubting God’s love, sovereignty or good provision, just an acknowledgement that bad things do sometimes happen. Would it be sinful to worry at midnight if my daughter was supposed to be home at nine?
Worry can be a positive attribute. Kind, caring and thoughtful people are often worriers. Timothy is a man in need of encouragement,15 but Paul writes, in Philippians 2.20: ‘I have no one like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare’. And it is interesting because the Greek word, merimnao, here translated ‘interest’, is morally neutral and has both negative (‘worry, be anxious’) and positive (‘be concerned’) renderings elsewhere in the New Testament. Think of Paul’s burden in 2 Corinthians 11.28: ‘Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches’.
We cannot choose our personality type. It is possible for people to have precisely the same thoughts and yet one feels anxious while the other does not.
For example, two people have an early morning meeting and are thinking about what time to set the alarm for. ‘Now that meeting is at 9 o’clock, but there are road works on the main route and last time I went the other way I met a flock of sheep.’ Here the extrovert chuckles at the reminiscence, sets the alarm and sleeps like a top. The introspective person may have precisely the same thoughts, but with feelings (unwelcome, unbidden) of rising panic. Result: set the alarm, toss and turn half the night and try counting sheep only to dream they are blocking the road again!
Can we say to the extrovert: ‘Good for you! No sinful worrying disturbed your sleep! Well done!’, but to the anxious soul: ‘We know your thoughts were identical to the other person’s, but those anxious feelings made your thoughts sinful’?
No! Personalities differ and it is not your ‘fault’ if you have a predisposition to anxiety. Jesus made it absolutely clear that the man born blind was not being punished for sin in his life.16 Blindness is not due to personal sin, nor is cancer, nor clinical depression, nor an anxious disposition.
Worry as an illness
Worry, of course, can also be an illness (we call it anxiety) and it often goes hand in hand with depression. It may be caused by medication or stress or physical illness such as heart disease or cancer.17 It saddens me that Christians can suffer these agonies and feel even greater guilt and grief thinking that their worries are displeasing to God. As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: ‘We must not forget the existence of the devil, nor allow him to trap us into regarding as spiritual that which is fundamentally physical’.18
So the pastoral exhortation of our Saviour, ‘Do not worry’, is to me a reassuring arm around the shoulder, a reminder of God’s care for me, an appeal to my common sense: ‘Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?’19 It is also a warning that it is possible to distrust God, to worry as if he did not care.
So worry can be sinful then?
We can turn hunger into greed and thirst into drunkenness and it is easy to turn natural, normal worry into a sinful dependence on ourselves alone. It’s all a matter of emphasis: In whom do I put my trust? What do I do with my worry? To think about bad things, feel anxious and then chew them over as if God did not exist is a sort of practical atheism. ‘Seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness.’20
Jairus fell at Jesus’s feet and pleaded earnestly with him: ‘My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live’.21 Was Jairus worried? Of course he was! And he took his worries to Jesus.
So take heart, anxious Christian. ‘Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.’22 And when you’ve done what is right and good to help your situation and prayed your hardest,23 yet find you are still fretting, remember this: God loves you — warts, worries and all.
1 Matthew 26.37. See also Matthew 26.38-39; Mark 14.33-36.
2 Luke 22.44.
3 Stress: The challenge to Christian caring, Gaius Davies, p.48, Kingsway Publications Ltd., 1988.
4 John 2.13-16. See also Ephesians 4.26, ‘in your anger do not sin’; Psalm 4.4.
5 John 11.35.
6 Mark 14.33.
7 Luke 12.32.
8 Luke 22.43.
9 Mark 5.24-34.
10 Matthew 9.22, Mark 5.34. See also Luke 8.48.
11 John 14.1-4.
12 John 14.26, KJV.
13 Psalm 38.18: ’I am troubled by my sin’.
14 Title of Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, 1741, Connecticut.
15 1 Timothy 4.12.
16 John 9.2-3.
17 Royal College of Psychiatrists 2010 website, ’Physical illness and mental health’.
18 Spiritual Depression, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, p.19, Marshall Pickering, 1998.
19 Matthew 6.27.
20 Matthew 6.33.
21 Mark 5.23.
22 1 Peter 5.7.
23 Philippians 4.6.