Is Anxiety a Sin?

My pastor said something I didn’t like today.

He read Philippians 4:6 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” – and then he offered this interpretation: being anxious is a sin.

To be honest, I stopped listening. I wasn’t angry so much as I was searching my mental database for a theological reason to support my desire for his interpretation of the verse to be wrong, or at least one possible interpretation of many.

Maybe the original Greek wasn’t really a command. Maybe a softer, suggestive tone was lost in translation.

I got home and read the verse in a different translation, “Be anxious for nothing…” Crap. That sounds like a command, too.

I pulled out a commentary, and it said, “This is a command, not an option. Undue care is an intrusion into God’s arena. It makes us the father of the household instead of being a child,” (Guzik). I never liked that commentary anyway.

I pulled out a dictionary and looked up the word anxious, hoping for a semantic reprieve. Google said this:

anx·ious  /ˈaNG(k)SHəs/

Adjective
  1. Experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
  2. (of a period of time or situation) Causing or characterized by worry or nervousness.
Synonyms
uneasy – worried – solicitous – concerned – restless

Really, Internet? The one time I need you to be on my side, and you’re not?

Clearly, Paul is commanding us to not be anxious, and, try as I did, I couldn’t escape that fact. And if we are commanded not to be something, then it stands to follow that when we are that something, we are disobeying the Lord. And what do we call disobeying the Lord? Sin. Geez.

With no wiggle room, I started to wonder why I don’t like the conclusion that anxiety is a sin.

Well, for starters, not being anxious – not worrying or feeling uneasy or feeling nervous – feels impossible. Sure, there are fleeting moments here and there in which I feel peaceful, but, by and large, anxious is my standard emotion. And to say that my baseline feeling is wrong is really saying there is something wrong with me. I don’t hear, “What you’re doing (worrying) is wrong,” I hear, “You are wrong. There is something wrong with you because you worry.”

While that’s a true statement, it hurts to think about. I can’t imagine Jesus having that attacking mentality toward me. Something just still didn’t jive for me about the blanket statement that anxiety is a sin.

After pondering all this, I did what any of us would do when confronted with the ugliness inside of us: I got defensive.

I thought to myself, “It doesn’t feel like I have any control over feeling anxious. I can’t never feel anxious. That is an impossible standard no human could ever uphold.” And in the midst of my rationalizing, I found a loophole that just might be valid.

It’s been said that, because we can’t stop a sinful thought from popping into our minds, we don’t actually sin until we react to that initial thought by choosing to continue to dwell on said thought. This argument is how we explain that Jesus was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Being tempted is not the sin; giving into the temptation is the sin.

So if we apply that to anxiety, we can say the initial anxious feeling about any given situation is not the sin, it’s the temptation to sin. We haven’t actually sinned until we respond to that initial anxious feeling by choosing to stay worried, a la definition 2 above.

I took this idea back to the scripture, and I caught something I didn’t see this morning. The command is, “Do not be anxious…” It doesn’t say, “Do not feel anxious…”

We will all have times we feel an intial jolt of anxiety over something. It’s not until we feed that worry that we move from feeling to being. “Being” anxious has the connotation that we are perpetually worried, not just worried for an instant.

This is a command I find easier to accept. It’s no longer an impossible standard. It allows me to be human and frees me up to experience human emotions without feeling guilty. Then, when I recognize that I am feeling anxious about something, I can choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to not stay anxious.

I’d like to believe that’s the heart behind this verse.

What do you think?

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18 thoughts on “Is Anxiety a Sin?

  1. Excellent Post Kelly. God understands us more than we do; he knew we would be sinful. What most people don’t realize is he expects less of us than we do of ourselves or others. I am keen on the fact he grades me a lot on my effort. Otherwise I would be a total failure.

  2. I felt the same check inside that you did in the service this morning when he said that. And i think your thought process is solid…and well put.

    PS – I’m writing this comment on my phone from the central church play 🙂

  3. Seems to me, Kelly, that God wants us to not be anxious not because it’s a natural human response, but because He wants our trust and faith to be focused on Him in every circumstance. Hebrews 4:16 says, “we will find grace to help us when we need it”. Not before, but in the nick of time…like manna from heaven…just enough for today only!

  4. If we have to modulate the commands of God to make them more possible for us to obey we are perilously close to creating a religion instead of resting in a rescue. The commands of God are not possible for us to obey. If we worry that God sees us as sinners and that hurts us, we have missed His intent altogether. We are sinners and He calls us such, not to make us feel shame but to make us marvel at His grace and love.

    • Agreed. His commands are impossible to uphold, hence the need for Christ, and we can’t fudge on scripture because it isn’t convenient or comfortable

      At the same time, however, I think we must understand His commands for what they truly are. In this case, the command is to not BE anxious. If we take that to mean we are wrong for ever FEELING anxious, even for a brief moment, I think we could be taking this command farther than it was meant to go.

      Jesus, of all people, knows humans will FEEL emotions that aren’t always pretty. He Himself exhibited some anxiety in the Garden (sweating blood, petitioning God). But where He prevailed was He didn’t STAY worried. He talked it out with our Father and was filled with peace and a quiet confidence in the Father’s will.

      We are to follow Jesus’ example with our own anxiety. And, honestly, even THAT – taking our cares to God and exchanging them for His peace – is impossible without the Holy Spirit.

      • Kelly, I love how you wrestled with the idea you disliked and pursued it instead of just saying, “that’s wrong…moving on.” In the end, you came to change your view in a big way, even if you wouldn’t convey it the same was as in that sermon.

        I’m not sure how you would expand on your definition of the command, though. This proposed interpretation poses an interesting problem for us. How long do we have to “feel anxious” before we are considered as “staying anxious”. At what point does it become sin? Who gets to decide since God never tells us? Is it different for each person? How do we avoid living in the baseline emotion of sin? How do we “take every thought captive” and avoid dwelling in anxiety?

        I certainly have my own ideas, but I’m curious about how you would respond.

        • Thanks for the encouragement, Stephen.

          I did consider your questions while writing this. The line between “feeling anxious” and “staying anxious” certainly isn’t clear.

          One idea is the moment we become aware that we are feeling anxious is the moment we should cast that care upon the Lord, and, should we tarry, we cross over from being tempted to actually sinning.

          Admittedly, it’s very difficult to switch gears emotionally on a dime. It takes time for our feelings of anxiety to give way to peace. But, if we become aware of our anxiety, start praying immediately, and we find peace doesn’t happen instantaneously, I think God gives us some grace there. We are TRYING to take our anxiety to Him, and He knows our hearts in the matter.

          Another idea is perhaps “feeling” and “staying” are in fact subjective. Maybe the line is different for each person, and maybe for each individual concern a person has. In that case, we have to trust the Holy Spirit to nudge us (and to nudge others) when we’re getting close to the line and respond to that warning. When we don’t respond to that nudge by turning from anxiety toward God for peace, we sin.

  5. I see your point. I recently wrote elsewhere in response to a post on the bombing in Boston and the hope Christ calls us to: I suppose that the fearlessness that Jesus is proposing is relative fearlessness. He himself seemed fearful of facing the cross. But he did not fear ultimate loss because he knew the Father. It is impossible, I believe, not to respond in fear to danger (after all our bodies are built to respond in fear to danger and possibly save us with an appropriate reaction). So in one sense living in a fearful world will take its toll on us. But knowing our relationship to the Father is good is a huge relief, granting a peace even in the midst of danger.

    I’m not sure what to make of the argument from Philippians 4. The command not to “be” anxious could be taken as a command not to continue in anxiety, but anxiety in and of itself is a feeling more than an action. Perhaps it is best to understand Paul’s intent there to be as you described, that is, a proscription against “staying” anxious, or living in anxiety. This is certainly what the Philippians were doing, some anxious about Paul and the gospel because of his imprisonment and possible death, and others anxious about their financial poverty.

  6. Pastor was absolutely correct in his overview of worry and anxiety. However, he also mentioned STRESS as a sin. I had a hard time understanding this observation. Stress is the mental tension one gets from factors in our environment that we can or cannot control. For example over whelmed with work that has to be done in a certain period of time. Having to be at different places at the same time. Having the stress of dealing with day to day matters. Does stress result in anxiety or worry? Well it can, thus sin happens. However, I do not feel our emotions of stress is sinful. After all being tempted by sin is not sin. It is our reaction to and actions of that result in sin. I do not believe the pastor had any scripture that states STRESS is sin. Just an observation!!

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Yeah, I guess he wasn’t really distinguishing between worry, anxiety, and stress. He seemed to use the words pretty interchangeably. I can’t say I’d nitpick him for doing so, they are all pretty related in my mind.

  7. Dear Kelly,

    I am writing a book which includes this very topic. I found your discussion and the contributed comments helpful, especially because of your honesty. For the record, I think I would be in complete agreement with your Pastor about anxiety AND stress being sin. As difficult as it is to accept, I concur based upon scripture. But, the mere fact that we as mortals struggle to find an acceptable or appeasing answer makes it clear that when I address this issue I cannot leave any doubt or wiggle room.

    About stress I would say this: we are not stressed by the things we think we have control over. Think about it. If I have enough money to meet my every desire, I am not stressed about any particular financial event. But, let’s say, I entertain the idea that I might not have enough to cover my desires — loss of job, inflation, possible sickness…, then I am anxious or stressed. The same goes for deadlines. If I fear the consequences of not being able to meet certain deadlines, I will have stress. We develop a fear when we think we do not have control of a situation. Its amazing how when our perception alone changes, we can easily be moved to either stress or no stress. All the facts in a certain situation may remain exactly the same, but the way we see it and understand it determines whether we are stressed or not.

    As to whether this is sin, let me state one of the “catchall” phrasings of scripture that covers this area as well — Romans 14:23 “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin”. To this I would add 1 John 4:18:
    There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. And finally, beside your reference to Phil. 4:6, I would sum up the seriousness with which God views fearfulness with Revelation 21:8 :
    But the FEARFUL, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

    The brief answer to your question is that when we are walking in the flesh then we will be stressed and fearful and anxious. However, when we are walking in the Spirit, for however many moments that is, there is no possibility of sinning. Likewise, there is no anxiety. It is, therefore, a spiritual question. But I assure you it is one that the Bible answers definitively.

    But I digress. I am writing the book to help edify the believers who want a deeper walk with the Lord. Thanks again for your contribution.

  8. so somebody who has a medically diagnosed anxiety disorder is a sinner? someone who cant control there anxiety is sinning? someone who has a panic/anxiety attack is sinning? someone who avoids certain things because it brings on an anxiety attack is choosing to sin? and by somebody i mean me! i have been a christian my entire life i have gotten lots of prayer and pray all the time for and about my anxiety i take steps to help calm me down, i listen to worship music when i feel anxious i do everything that is “christianly right” and i still get panic attacks and anxious and it has such a bad effect on my body that i do try to avoid situations that will cause great anxiety because i believe i shouldn’t put my body and my mind through that.

    I do not believe anxiety is a sin, i do not believe jesus would want another reason for an anxious person to have more anxiety. i think anxiety is from the enemy and i believe that the enemy can make it worse. but its not a sin! and anyone who thinks it is, i pray you dont come across people with anxiety because that would be horrible and terrible advise!

    • Hi, Ash,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I hear you and am so sorry you struggle with such intense physical anxiety and panic attacks. I, too, have experienced the bizarre and frightening symptoms you’re describing – feeling/being completely out of control of my body’s reactions. You are not alone and are not any less of a Christian because you experience this.

      To be honest with you, it would be my guess the anxiety to which Paul is referring in Philippians was not to the physical and psychological level of which you are speaking. I think he was more referring to more “average” anxiety that EVERYONE experiences from time to time. He was writing to a large group of people – the entire church at Philippi – and I don’t think they ALL had anxiety or panic disorders. All that to say, my commentary above is regarding “normal” anxiousness everyone experiences.

      That said, I agree with you that a psychological disorder we did not choose is not anything Jesus would hold against us. I believe He is compassionate and empathetic and wants to lead us through “abnormal” anxiety like you’re describing. I invite you to read my thoughts on how He specifically does that here: https://kellylevatino.com/2014/03/04/thoughts-for-the-anxious-christian/

      Again, thank you for commenting. I pray the Lord will deliver you from the terrifying symptoms and experiences you are going through. There is hope. HE is hope.

      Blessings,
      Kelly

      • I also had that very question. One of my dear friends thinks that anxiety is because of living in sin. I disagree, my son had anxiety and panic attacks due to a custody battle between his father and I. I suffer from anxiety and PTSD after being in a emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive relationship. We do not have control over what others choose to do to us. It’s psychological and no matter how much you stay true to your Faith and God, mentally, emotional, and psychological abuse is very evil and powerful. We are humans not robots with no thoughts, feelings, or emotions.

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