Five Ways Worry Can Be Helpful

We typically think that worry is a bad habit. But there is a good worry and a bad worry. Bad worry leads you to check out or become hyper-vigilant. Your “fight or flight” instincts are in overdrive when you are doing bad worry. That is usually what we mean when we use the word “worry.” We tend to see it as negative. Good worry, though, allows you to remain engaged, dependent upon God and prayerful. We have come to use other words to describe this kind of worry, like “concern.” It is important to know the difference. So, how do you know when you are engaging in “good” worry? Here are five things you should “worry” about in a good way.

1. Worry is not the same as concern.

If worry is “over-concern,” then it is different from “concern”. It is appropriate to be concerned about things. What Jesus is forbidding is “over-concern,” and not concern, itself.

When my oldest child was beginning to drive, I had legitimate concerns, because I was well aware of how dangerous driving could be if not properly prepared. So I acted as any responsible parent would; I made sure she received appropriate driver training. (I was wise enough to get a professional and not take on the task myself!). And I prayed for her (and for the other road users!).

That was godly concern. It leads to wise action and dependent prayer. Similarly, this is why I lock my doors to our house and pray that God will keep the place safe. There are many other examples from our daily lives which can flow from proper, godly concern: regular doctor checkups, balancing your finances, preparing for a child’s college education, getting your car serviced regularly. Jesus is not telling us not to be concerned about things. He is telling us not to be over-concerned. The two are not the same, and you can recognize the difference because concern takes wise action and prays dependently. Worry, or over-concern, thinks and acts as though everything is either up to you or completely out of control, and prays desperately, if at all.

2. The solution to worry is not becoming laid-back.

The answer to “over-concern” is not “under-concern.” The antidote to “over-concern” is not just being a lazy or “laid-back” person. Often times, being disengaged and indifferent can masquerade as godliness when in fact it is not. We all know laid-back people. Maybe you are one yourself. It can seem a wonderful way to live! But it is worth digging below the laid-back surface. Consider these three very different “laid back” people:

First, a person who is laid-back on the outside can still be a deeply worried person on the inside. They mask their anxiety by acting cool and collected. People like this tend to be driven, prickly and overly sensitive.

Second, a laid-back person can also be a deep worrier and one who has chosen to disengage and become indifferent. These kinds of worriers tend to be procrastinators. They avoid life.

Finally, someone can seem very calm and laid-back, but in fact they are deeply engaged with and invested in others’ lives and situations. They care deeply and passionately; and they are taking their worries to God and depending upon him as they face life’s challenges.

Those are three very different ways to be “laid-back.” The first two are not the answer to worry; and the third is not laid-back so much as God-dependent. The Christian life is one of complete engagement, not disengagement. In the same book where Paul talks about not being anxious for anything (Philippians 4:6), he also says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13), and “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).

3. Work is not necessarily an expression of worry.

Another common error is to think that the way to avoid worry is to become passive, and simply look to God to provide for all of your needs. Jesus’ illustrations about birds and plants might seem to suggest that passivity is next to godliness! Nothing could be further from the truth. God may provide food for the birds, but they have to actively go and get it. Plants do not automatically grow; they must draw on the nutrients in the soil and sun. So working hard is not necessarily (or even often) an expression of worry. In fact, it is a virtue. The fourth commandment says, Six days you shall labor and on the seventh you shall rest. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul says:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

And he warns in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat. You can’t get more straightforward than that! So clearly, Jesus is not saying that we are to stop all activities and sit idly by while life happens around us. (Of course, overworking could be a sign that we are deeply, chronically over-concerned; but it is not automatically so). See also, Proverbs 6:6-11 and I Timothy 5:8.

4. Protecting yourself is not the same as worry.

It is important to understand that godly fear and concern for your safety and the safety of others is not the same as the “worry” that Jesus is commanding us to avoid. Suppose that you are driving on a highway at night and you see another car heading toward you. A godly response would be to do whatever you can to steer your car to avoid an accident. Or suppose you are currently fearful for your own safety, or the safety of another person, because you have reason to believe that someone is going to harm you or them. You would be completely justified in doing whatever you can to protect yourself and others from harm. We read in the Gospels of how Jesus himself avoided the crowds who wanted to harm him because he knew he had more work and ministry to do (Luke 4:28-30).

If you are reading this and you are in a situation where you might be abused or harmed, then take action now to protect yourself. Call a friend or a pastor. If you are being threatened by your spouse, a parent, or anyone else, it would be wise and loving to contact an abuse center or the police. That is an expression of godly concern. I want to say as strongly as I can: it is not wrong to take action and seek help if you’re suffering or fearing abuse of any kind.

5. Saving and planning for the future is not necessarily an expression of worry.

Another common mistake that people have made when thinking about worry is to neglect or even frown upon putting money away for savings. Having a strong portfolio and significant savings may be an expression of worry and placing one’s confidence in finances and wealth, but it does not have to be. Consider Proverbs 6:6-11:

Living without worry
By Timothy Lane
Go the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in the summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest---and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.

If you consider the context of Jesus’ teaching on worry in Luke 12:22-34 and Matthew 6:25-34, the obvious issue that Jesus is addressing is: which treasure are you looking to for strength and stability? The parable of the Rich Fool precedes Jesus’ teaching on worry in Luke 12:13-21. The idea of ultimate treasure precedes Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matthew 6:19-24.

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.