“Is worry a sin?” This is one of the most asked questions I hear whenever I am speaking or teaching on the subject of worry and anxiety. I would like to begin my answer to that question by sharing a simple example from my own experience.
My Own Experience with Anxiety
When I completed my most recent book on worry in 2015, I was invited by the publisher to do a book tour in the UK. As I prepared for the trip, I found myself getting more anxious. In fact, the day that I was to fly from Atlanta to London, my lower back muscles contracted as I was bending over to put on my socks! I immediately knew what was happening – my low-grade anxiety about the trip was creating physiological symptoms. I was experiencing muscular tension, and one little move caused my lower back to seize up. How ironic that my preparation to travel to speak about my new book on anxiety was creating an occasion to become anxious!
Thankfully, my wife was able to get me to a doctor that day. When we arrived, the doctor said that he could help provide immediate relief but it meant giving me several shots into my lower back muscles to stop the spasms. I became even more anxious because I hate the thought and the sight of needles, even when they are going to be used on someone else! As he began his procedure he spoke very calming words. “Tim, this will not hurt much. You will only feel an initial prick of the needle. When I am finished, you will be able to move about freely.” While he was speaking these words, my wife had her hand on my shoulder and was comforting me as she knew I was in great pain and had a flight to catch in just a few hours. Her words and actions of comfort, along with the doctor’s, helped me tremendously as he gave me the shot. I did not know it at the time, but he actually gave me about 5-6 shots in about 15 seconds!
I know that this illustration may seem rather trivial, but it does illustrate my point and helps to answer the question, “Is worry a sin?” I want to address this question by highlighting 4 things:
1. The Tone of the Command
First, when Jesus, Peter and Paul admonish us to “not worry,” it is important to capture the tone of the command. None of these writers are seeking to shame or guilt us in the midst of our worry. Each speaks in ways that are comforting and encouraging. They all know very well the brokenness of this world and our personal frailty as broken human beings. Their command to not worry is captured in a context of encouragement. Listen to just two examples. First, Jesus says this in Luke 12:32:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom.
The added words, “little flock,” connote tenderness, not guilt or shame. When Paul gives instruction about caring for fearful people, he says this in I Thessalonians 5:14:
Encourage the fearful.
Paul is following in the very incarnate footsteps of Jesus as he counsels us on how to help fearful, anxious people. He calls us to encourage them. Once again, there is no hint of shame or guilt in either Jesus’ or Paul’s words.
2. The Reason for the Command
Second, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus, Peter and Paul do command us not to be afraid or anxious. There is something at stake in our tendency to worry. For Jesus, he knows that our tendency to worry strikes at the very heart of what we worship, treasure and adore. When we are worrying, it is due to the fact that we are seeking to find stability, strength and encouragement in someone or something other than him. This is no simple matter, and it grieves him that we would seek to find refuge in anything besides himself. It grieves him because he knows that he alone can truly meet us in the midst of our struggles.
His command is addressing a serious pivot away from him, but it is done in a way that calls us back to himself. The fact that he commands us is an indication that our tendency to stray is deeply problematic and destructive. That is why Jesus calls us to “seek first, his kingdom” when he calls us to move away from worry (Matthew 6:33). When we worry, we are becoming distracted in our loyalty to him alone and that can only lead to instability and fear on our part. He is never content for you to share your affection with someone or something else besides him. And he loves you too much to let you! His command is one of deep compassion for you, his child.
Third, If you remember my own illustration, above, you can see that worry is often a combination of sin and suffering.
Let’s start with suffering. As I prepared for my flight and thought about the long travel, constant speaking and the unknown people and places I would be, I began to experience suffering in my body. The muscle tension was a form of suffering for which I needed wise and compassionate care. In this instance, I actually needed something to address the physiological symptoms of my anxiety right away. Often times, symptom relief is wholly appropriate and good. On many occasions, Jesus met the physical needs of those he cared for before he addressed their deeper needs. Christian compassion leads us to listen for the suffering in another person’s life. It calls us to take heed of the suffering in our own life. When we do, we are more patient, helpful and hopeful.
Fourth, let’s talk about sin. After the symptoms were relieved, I had to face some honest and helpful questions. “Why was I so anxious?” “What was I placing my trust in that caused me to feel so vulnerable?” “What mattered most to me that was causing me to feel fearful and worried?” In the context of being cared for by others, I was able to ask those questions and get below the surface of my anxiety and physiological symptoms.
As I thought about it, I discovered that a good bit of my anxiety was driven by my fear of what others might think of me as I presented my material on worry. Kind of ironic, huh?! I was worried about whether I would appear successful or whether I would fail. I also wondered if I had the strength to endure the rigorous speaking schedule and if I might say something stupid along the way. I found that I was also anxious about all of the details of my travel. Would I miss a train? Would I forget my notes? Would I arrive late to an event and not be as prepared as I would like?
In other words, I was revolving my life around another kingdom, not God’s. I was more enamored with my fame and less with God’s. This may sound harsh but in reality, it is! To seek my fame over God’s is a serious thing.
Worry is often a combination of sin and suffering. It is important to understand what we mean by each. When you hear the word “sin,” it probably evokes images of high-handed disobedience. But sin is much more subtle than that. Sin is often a quiet, micro-moment when we shift our loyalty from God to something even good in creation. While it may be subtle, the destruction will become more apparent and visible as time goes by. That is why it can be so helpful to see it early on rather than later.
So you can see where my anxiety was a subtle shift from God’s fame to mine. It happened slowly but certainly. As I worried more, I found that my shift from God’s fame to mine moved me into an experience of physically suffering. This physical suffering then increased my anxiety! The vicious spiral had begun. In the midst of seeing these dynamics, I could begin to face my anxiety, not with guilt or shame, but rather with confidence that Jesus really was with me and for me. He was tenderly calling me back to life in his kingdom and out of my own because he loved me. His command was one of compassion and wisdom. My hope and trust increased as I saw him in that way. Hopefully, as you struggle with worry, that will be true for you as well.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for you Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32)!