How Does the Bible Define Worry?

Anxiety and Scripture

After considering the strengths and limitations of modern diagnoses for anxiety, we need to take a moment to see how Scripture captures the experience of worry and how it pinpoints the problem at the most fundamental level.

In the Old and New Testaments there are a host of words that the writers use to capture the experience of anxiety. Interestingly, the same words can be used to describe something positive and negative; proper concern or problematic obsessive anxiety. The meaning changes based upon the broader context within which the word is used. Let’s take a moment and look at the primary word that is used in the New Testament for worry.

In the New Testament there are 26 occurrences of the word anxiety, and the word merimnao and its various cognate forms are used 22 times. Sometimes it means appropriate concern and care, sometimes it means worry/anxiety. Here are several examples of how the word is used in various contexts:

  • Positive Examples: Merimnao means appropriate care or concern.
    • Philippians 2:19-20: I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive the good news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare.
    • Philippians 2:28: Therefore, I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.
    • 2 Corinthians 11:28: Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
    • I Corinthians 12:25: ...so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
  • Negative Uses: Merimnao means over-concern or anxiousness.
    • Matthew 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-34: These are the 2 places we find Jesus’ teaching on worry. He clearly indicates that this kind of worry is something we should fight against.
    • Philippians 4:4-9: Paul says, Do not be anxious for anything.
    • I Peter 5:6-11: Peter says, Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Merimnao and Merizo

The negative usage raises a fundamental question. What does the word mean? Merimnao shares a connection with a similar word which is the word merizo. This word literally means “to divide,” “to draw in different directions,” “distract,” or  “an anxious care.” Here are some passages where merizo is used:

  • Luke 10:41: In this passage, Martha is distracted about many things.
  • Matthew 13:22: This passage describes the seed that is sown but the distractions of the world choke it out.

If you combine the meaning of the word merizo with the context in which Jesus is using the word merimnao, you begin to understand how the Bible defines worry. Let’s take a look at the broader context of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-6. What is the distraction that causes worry?

Context

In Matthew 5:1-6:34, Jesus is teaching about what it looks like to live in his kingdom as opposed to another kingdom. Are you living your life in the realm of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of this world? The Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount discuss a host of issues that contrast kingdom living or living as if this world is all there is. The Bible calls that “worldliness.”

Worldliness in Scripture often involves making something good in the creation and making it ultimate. Jesus says that when you do that, you are distracted or divided in your loyalty. You then begin to experience worry because this world is not substantial enough to produce stability, confidence and peace. This can happen if you make your health, finances, marriage, children, career or anything else in creation ultimate in your life. If you look at Jesus' teaching, he talks about making food, clothing and shelter what you strive after and make most important. Those are examples of good things morphing into what you live for.

John Stott puts it this way when he explains how we are to understand Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matthew 6:25-34:

It is a pity that this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) is often read on its own in church, isolated from what has gone before. Then the significance of the introductory “Therefore I tell you” is missed. So we must begin by relating this “therefore,” this conclusion of Jesus, to the teaching which has led up to it. He calls us to thought before he calls us to action. He invites us to look clearly and coolly at the alternatives before us and to weigh them up carefully. We want to accumulate treasure? Then which of the two possibilities is the more durable? We wish to be free and purposive in our movements? Then what must our eyes be like to facilitate this? We wish to serve the best master? Then we must consider which is the more worthy of our devotion.
Only when we have grasped with our minds the comparative durability of the two treasures (corruptible and incorruptible), the comparative usefulness of the two eye conditions (light and darkness) and the comparative worth of the two masters (God and mammon), are we ready to make our choice. And only when we have made our choice--for heavenly treasure, for light, for God---”therefore I tell you” this is how you must go on to behave: “do not be anxious about your life...nor about your body...But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (25, 33).
In other words, our basic choice of which of the two masters we intend to serve will radically affect our attitude to both. We shall not be anxious about the one (for we have rejected it), but concentrate our mind and energy on the other (for we have chosen him); we shall refuse to become engrossed in our own concerns, but instead “seek first” the concerns of God.

–John Stott, Christian Counter Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 159-160

Scripture says that there is a fundamental issue of allegiance underneath all of the multi-layered influences that can make anxiety more difficult. This fundamental allegiance is ultimately given to another kingdom. What kingdom are you living in? To whom will you look for security, safety and stability in an unstable world? Where is your treasure? Your answer to these questions will reveal what you are living for and why you are struggling with worry.

According to Scripture, at the heart of worry is an intense struggle to rest upon God’s care and power in the midst of a broken and unstable world. We are to live with godly concern which is dependent upon God and rooted in prayer. When we don’t, we will either “check out” or become “hyper-vigilant,” as illustrated in the diagram below:

Under-concern <------------------------------Godly Concern-------------------------------> Over-concern

What happens when you shift priorities and allegiances from God and his kingdom to your own? You begin to place your hopes and confidence in something unstable. As a result, you become unstable and begin to focus obsessively on that which can be taken away, that which is fleeting.

In Summary

Living without worry
By Timothy Lane

In light of this biblical framework, you can begin to see how nuanced Scripture is when it comes to understanding and appreciating the struggle with worry. Our aim, by God’s grace, is to live in a zone of godly concern. While there may be many shaping influences that cause you to worry more than another person, everyone is called to relate to God in the midst of anxiety. In other words, the Bible is offering a cure for worry. It is not found in skills and techniques but in a person; God himself.

While skills and techniques may be helpful, Scripture offers more. The Bible offers a personal, redeeming, powerful God who enters our struggle and meets us with his grace. This is where we see the beauty of Christ and learn to talk to and depend upon him as the Spirit enables us.

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Comment

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.