Is Anxiety a Sin? Yes and No

by Derek Brown

“Be anxious for nothing,” the apostle Paul once wrote to the church in Philippi (Phil 4:6). 

Anxious for nothing? Say what? 

Paul wasn’t kidding, nor was he giving his readers an unreasonable command. In Christ, these Christians had the resources they needed to effectively combat all anxiety, which is why Paul continued by offering them the specific tools with which could fulfill this instruction. Don’t be anxious about anything, Paul tells the church, “but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). 

According to the apostle Paul, an effective weapon against nettlesome anxieties is thankful prayer consistently offered to God. When we are thankful for what we have, we are guarded against worrying about what we don’t have (or might lose). When we are asking for God’s help in a difficult circumstances, we are entrusting our problems to the one who cares for us and the only one with the ability to help us (1 Pet 5:7). As a result, we experience the supernatural peace of God.

Don’t Worry: That’s a Command
God, through the apostle Paul, commands us to not worry. Jesus also instructs us to not become consumed with anxiety over the basic issues of life (Matt 6:25-33). To neglect or disobey this command, therefore, is sin. How can anxiety be a sin, you ask? Because it is the fruit of not trusting an infinitely wise and loving Creator who has endless resources at his disposal and who has promised to work everything together for your good. Unchecked anxiety dishonors God.   

For some of us who really struggle with anxiety, the observation that anxiety is a sin may feel cruel. “Anxiety itself is a burden that saps my spiritual and physical energy,” you might protest, “why load more misery upon my shoulders by telling me its a sin?” Because it’s true, and truth by its very nature sets us free (John 8:32). Ultimately, it is helpful for us to know that anxiety is a sin because God has provided us the remedy for our sin in the gospel. Through the forgiveness of the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can wage effective warfare against this enemy that robs us of joy, peace, and fruitfulness. 

Paul’s Anxiety
“But hold on,” you protest once more. “Didn’t Paul confess that he had anxiety?” Yes, he did, which brings us to another important point about anxiety. In order to truly put this sin (or any other sin) to death, we must be precise about it, otherwise we will likely apply the wrong antidote. 

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul confesses that alongside all of his physical suffering (shipwrecks, beatings, nakedness, various dangers, sleeplessness, etc.), he also suffered inwardly. 

And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak when I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant (2 Cor 11:28-29)?

Was Paul in sin as he felt the burden of anxiety over the churches? No, he wasn’t. But why not? John Calvin is particularly helpful at this point as he describes three kinds of anxiety. 

Three Kinds of Anxiety
The first kind of anxiety flows from unbelief and is therefore sin. This is the kind of anxiety of which Jesus and Paul speak. But there’s a second kind of anxiety that grows out of love and concern for the welfare of others that can actually be the Spirit-wrought response of a mature Christian. But the third category is anxiety that may have started in category #2 but, due to excessive worry and unbelief, has morphed into sinful anxiety. 

When we are filled with worry because we are failing to believe in God’s goodness and love for us, then our anxiety is sinful. When we are anxious over the welfare of those we love, this is not sinful in itself, but it may become sinful if we begin to worry too much or begin to distrust God’s good providence. 

The answer to all anxiety, as Jesus and Paul teach us, is to fix our eyes upon our gracious God and his lavish, trustworthy promises, and to pray with thanksgiving for all he has given us in Christ. Even the good kind anxiety should lead us to prayer as we entrust those whom he love to our heavenly Father. 

O what peace we often forfeit,
  O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
  Everything to God in prayer!
  

What a Friend We Have In Jesus

Photo by niklas_hamann on Unsplash

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