Is Worry A Sin?

“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.

3. Suffering

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.

4. Sin

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Living without worry
By Timothy Lane

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)!

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3 Comments

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

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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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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

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.

Previous posts in this series:

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

What Exactly Is Anxiety?

Anxiety and Modern Research

What is worry? In the first blog we discussed the experience of worry and in the second we addressed the multi-layered potential shaping influences that impact the degree to which we may struggle with anxiety. But what exactly is anxiety/worry? How do you begin to define it?

Let’s begin with the advent of modern psychology and psychiatry. A great deal of empirical research has been done over the past century. While these disciplines are quite young in many ways, they have proven to generate a wealth of observable data. When Christians stop and listen to the research, they are able to wisely engage rather than dismiss it out of hand. The following definition is an excerpt taken from the DSM Psychiatry Online Website:

Anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat. Obviously, these two states overlap, but they also differ, with fear more often associated with surges of autonomic arousal necessary for fight or flight, thoughts of immediate danger, and escape behaviors, and anxiety more often associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidant behaviors. Sometimes the level of fear or anxiety is reduced by pervasive avoidance behaviors. Panic attacks feature prominently within the anxiety disorders as a particular type of fear response. Panic attacks are not limited to anxiety disorders but rather can be seen in other mental disorders as well.

Here is a list of classifications of worry that can be found in the most current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V). Where possible, screening questions from Allen Frances’ book, Essentials of Psychiatric Diagnosis, are included in italics:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder: Is your child inordinately scared of separations?
  • Selective Mutism: the voluntary refusal to speak (typically occurring outside the home or immediate family).
  • Specific Phobia: Do you have a particular fear that causes you special trouble, like flying, heights, closed places, animals, seeing blood, or getting an injection?
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia): Do you frequently avoid social situations because you are afraid of doing something stupid or looking silly?
  • Panic Disorder: Have you ever had a panic attack?
  • Panic Attack Specifier: A panic attack associated with a certain trigger (social anxiety, etc.).
  • Agoraphobia: Are there many things you’re afraid to do and many places you’re afraid to go?
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Are you a ‘worry-wart,’ unnecessarily anxious all the time about a lot of different things?
  • Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder: Have you had a lot of anxiety symptoms associated with using drugs, drinking alcohol or coffee, taking medication, or withdrawing from drugs or medication?
  • Anxiety Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition: Have you had symptoms of anxiety in association with a medical condition, like and overactive thyroid?
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Do you ever have weird thoughts that you can’t get out of your mind? Are there rituals you can’t resist doing over and over and over and over again?
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Have you experienced a traumatic event that keeps haunting you in terrible memories, flashbacks, or nightmares?

Below is a helpful chart that compares “normal” anxiety and “abnormal” anxiety.

Everyday anxiety or an anxiety disorder?

What are we to make of this information?

While this is a very brief representation of the data, it still begs the question, "How can we engage this information and learn from it?" Here are some initial thoughts:

  1. We can certainly learn a great deal from this descriptive material. When someone tells you that they are struggling with anxiety, it is not uncommon to assume you know what they mean. You often extrapolate from your own experience of anxiety or others whom you have helped in the past. But that would be a mistake. These various descriptions help you to see how complex each and every person’s struggle with anxiety can be. The data teaches us to be more curious and to ask more questions as we get to know the particular contours of a person's struggle.
     
  2. If you are not careful, it may seem like the person who is high-functioning with “everyday” anxiety is normal and okay. Yet, biblically, every person is in need of God’s help no matter how seemingly small or big the problem. In the chart above, the person in the left column needs to be as vigilant about their low-grade anxiety as the person with a more intense struggle. No matter where you fall on the worry continuum, each and every person should be asking these questions on a daily basis. We will see why this is so important when we begin to see how Scripture defines worry.
  • “How can I love God and neighbor more fully regardless of my level of struggle with anxiety?"
  • “How can I be more and more conformed into the likeness of Jesus?”
Living without worry
By Timothy Lane

3. It might be tempting to think that the person who is high-functioning has a deeper faith than the person who struggles more intensely. But that is not necessarily so. Someone who struggles more intensely with anxiety may actually have a more robust faith than the person whose struggle is less. The Scriptures remind us again and again that the weak know their need of God’s grace while the “strong” may be falsely self-confident and self-reliant.

4. Finally, you may conclude that these diagnoses are similar to a medical diagnosis. You might conclude that the person “has” a psychopathology in the same way a person has a medical pathology or disease. While there may be an organic aspect to the person’s struggle, the DSM V categories are largely, if not only, descriptive. They are describing thoughts and behaviors that are observable. The cause may be largely unknown.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. In the next post, we will begin to see how Scripture defines anxiety.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

2 Comments

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

What Causes Us To Worry?

Everyone worries. Some of us more than others. Reports show that nearly 20% of people living in the US struggle with anxiety. That means that approximately 65 million people experience worry that impacts their daily lives and relationships in profound ways.

In 2008, American physicians wrote more than 50 million prescriptions for specifically anti-anxiety medications and more than 150 million for antidepressants, many of which were used for anxiety-related conditions.

Causes for Worry

So why do so many of us struggle with anxiety? That question has been at the center of much debate. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other throughout history. Some have thought that worry is purely a physiological issue while others have concluded that it is purely spiritual. Alan Horwitz states this in his book, Anxiety: A Short History:

Between the fourth and sixteenth centuries, religious, magical, and folkloric views of anxiety and other mental conditions largely displaced empirically-based Hippocratic and Galenic conceptions in Western societies. While the latter beliefs persisted within medicine through the medieval period, medical knowledge itself was overridden by ecclesiastical structures. Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, anxiety was once again increasingly likely to be viewed within a medical, as opposed to spiritual, framework. Within medicine, the influences of humoral pathology, which had dominated medical thinking since Hippocratic times, gradually waned. By the end of the eighteenth century, while humoral conceptions remained popular theories of temperaments in the general culture, medicine preferred physiological accounts to explain how mental disturbances resulted from malfunctioning nervous systems (p. 54).

While Horowitz’s view of the church may be oversimplified, we still must ask: what causes anxiety? Does the Bible provide categories that enable us to avoid the swinging pendulum between faith and science? I believe it does.

The historic Christian categories of World, Flesh and Devil are entirely capable of providing a robust understanding of people and their problems, allowing us to avoid simplistic reductionism on either end of the spectrum. We don’t have to engage in either/or thinking and conclude that anxiety is either purely physiological or only spiritual. This means that we can learn from the best insights that modern science has to offer along with the rich truths of Scripture which remind us that God is able to meet us in our struggles with worry.

Below is a simple diagram that captures the many shaping influences that may be relevant to any particular person’s struggle with worry.

World

The category of “world” is everything outside of the heart. These are the external shaping influences that we experience as human beings made in God’s image. It is the person’s situation; their context. To minimize the impact someone’s circumstances has on a person is to be sub-biblical. The God of Scripture takes our situation seriously. This is a place where we can learn most from modern scientific research:

  • Brain: we all have brains that determine our personalities and pre-dispose us to a host of struggles. All of us are constitutionally wired differently. Our brains are also impacted by the fall of humanity. We are all broken at some level and exhibit various mental strengths and frailties.
  • Body: we have bodies that have strengths and weaknesses. They too are broken in different ways and impact how we respond to difficulty.
  • Event and Relational History: we have good and bad things that have happened to us along with people who have blessed us or hurt us.
  • Political/Cultural/Socio-economic Context: we exist in a context that impacts the degree to which we may struggle with worry.
  • Gender: our gender plays a role in how we struggle with worry.
  • Religious Upbringing: the beliefs that shaped us growing up influence our struggle with worry.
  • Age: the longer we live, the more grief and loss we experience. This can make us wiser or more prone to anxiety.
  • Race/Ethnicity: whether we are the majority or minority culture in a given context will also shape the way we experience anxiety.

This list is not exhaustive. You may be able to think of other external shaping influences. Each one can be nuanced to fit every person who has ever lived. No two people are alike.

While we take all of this seriously, it is important to note something interesting about the struggle with anxiety. While appreciating one’s context, changing one’s context does not guarantee that you will live a worry free life.

Once again, Alan Horwitz states this in his book, Anxiety: A Short History:

Modern developed societies are the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous that have ever existed so we might expect that their citizens would have low levels of anxiousness….
Nevertheless, surveys inform us that the public reports more anxiety disorders now than in the past. These studies indicate that anxiety is the single most common class of mental illness; almost one in five people has had an anxiety disorder during the past year and more than a quarter of the population experienced one at some point in their lives (p. 143).

Certainly there is nothing wrong with changing your circumstances if you are in danger, but situational change does not mean you will be anxiety free. There is a need for more.

Flesh/Heart

This category factors in the reality that we were created by God to worship and trust in him in the midst of our circumstances, no matter what they are. This is where the Bible focuses most of its attention. It does so, not because it is simplistic, but because it offers something that no other theory of change offers; a personal, loving, redeeming God who becomes a human being, lives, dies and is raised from the dead to give us new life, wisdom and power to live in relationship with him! The Bible does not minimize the category of “world” at all. Yet it does call us to depend upon and trust in God in the midst of our joys and sorrows.

Devil

This category is factored into the Biblical worldview because it recognizes that evil is real and personal. While most attention is focused on the other two categories, the Bible does clearly state that we have one who is opposed to God’s people and he seeks to tempt and accuse those who follow Christ. In Ephesians 6:10-20, the apostle Paul gives clear instruction on how to fight the schemes of the Evil One. When this category is improperly over-emphasized, it can lead people to look for demons in every pathology. When it is improperly under-emphasized, it can lead people to miss the real battle that is part and parcel of the Christian life.

Modern psychology and psychiatry attempt to capture the multi-layeredness of people and their problems by talking about the bio/psycho/socio/cultural aspects of causation. The Biblical worldview allows us to take those categories seriously along with painting an even fuller, more nuanced picture. Whether the church has always represented this level of nuance is something to debate, but the Scriptures are clear.

Patience and Compassion

One of the most relevant aspects of understanding these three categories is to fully appreciate the multi-layered nature of anxiety. When we do this, we can understand why some people may struggle more than others. The more layers that are involved, the greater the struggle and the harder it may be to change.

If you struggle with severe anxiety, this can help you calibrate your expectations and not live under a cloud of shame because of your struggle.

If you are someone who is helping someone who struggles deeply, these categories can move you to greater empathy and compassion. They can also help you see that, even in the midst of a struggle with anxiety, the living, redeeming God wants to meet you in your troubles and comfort you and walk with you.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

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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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.