Is anxiety a sin?
I had just finished a talk at one of the summer festivals and three young women came to chat with me together. “We have never heard a talk like that on this stage before,” they said. “Our pastor recently told us that anxiety was a sin because it was a sign of our lack of trust in God!”
“Wow, do people really still say that sort of thing?”
I thought that maybe I would write a bit more about this from a slightly different perspective. I know that up to now we have majored on the pastoral ramifications of that statement, but maybe that is just insufficient for some leaders.
The question that I often find unlocks the ‘anxiety/sin’ matrix is one around categories. 1 John 3:4 offers us a model of categorising sin: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” For anxiety to be a sin, according to the scripture, it would have to be a demonstration of ‘lawlessness’. To put that into context, it would have to be an activity that actively opposes the biblical or spiritual essence of God’s laws.
Can you live without anxiety?
There is a common misunderstanding that humans can live without anxiety all together; this is not true. Anxiety is not a dysfunction of our bodies, but a protective mechanism that is necessary for living. To have an inactive Limbic System would cause a person significant suffering, more than that, the Limbic System is not ‘lawless’.
Everything that is common in nature and our bodies, exists because God is creator. This is Biogenesis; the laws governing life that God has ordained (Jer 33:25 ‘(He)…established the laws of heaven and earth.’) When we experience anxiety in our bodies, we are not practising lawlessness but experiencing Natural Law and a functional aspect of God’s created nature.
Why then, does the bible condemn anxiety?
Jesus does not actually mention anxiety (he talks only about worry) but both Peter and Paul refer to anxiety pastorally.
1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
Phi 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
The intention of these verses is not for the sake of condemnation or even prohibition, but for comfort. Most importantly, Peter and Paul are using anxiety as a synonym for worry, treating it in the same way that Jesus treats worry in Matthew 6. The sort of anxiety that they are describing is one that relates to concrete concerns; i.e. things you are actually anxious about. What they are not addressing here is the sort of diffuse instinctual anxiety that plagues most anxiety suffers.
Is anxiety all about wilful thoughts?
Let’s go back to the original assumption: ‘anxiety is a sin because it is a sign of our lack of trust in God.’ We have already established that anxiety not ‘lawless’, so it cannot be easily categorised as a sin in line with scripture. We have also identified some differences between anxious/worry (concern around specific things) and anxiety as a physiological/psychological reaction of the Limbic System.
A common misunderstanding about anxiety is that those anxious untrusting thoughts come first: As anyone with an anxiety disorder knows, diffuse anxiety often impacts a person before they latch onto concrete concerns which give meaning to their feelings. Overtime this link can become interchangeable as feelings trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger feelings. People say, ‘Stop worrying, you are making yourself sick.” When the truth is that they are already sick, worry is just a symptom of that sickness.
What if anxiety problems were a sickness?
This matrix of worried thoughts and instinctual responses further distances anxiety from the category of ‘sin’ according to scripture, because it further erodes the agency of the individual. It becomes a bit like blaming someone for a visible rash when they are subject to an invisible virus.
Is anxiety a sin? If we can accept that an overactive anxiety system is a sickness (GAD), Jesus responds directly to this sort of assumption in John 9: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus.
Is the presence of anxiety evidence of a lack of trust?
In my mind, the clinching category argument in this discussion is not about sin but trust. People who designate anxiety as a sin always assume its presence indicates a lack of trust, but is that true? Does it follow that having faith in God is always demonstrated by the absence of anxiety?
Biblically it seems that there is absolutely no case to suggest that you cannot both be anxious and faithful to God. In fact, these two tracks of what is happening in the physical and the spiritual seem to be prerequisite to demonstrations of faith. Take Psalm 56:3 as an example. It doesn’t say, “When I was afraid,” but “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Anxiety and trust co-exist. Equally, Paul attests to this duality when he says, “For we live by faith, not by sight.”(2 Corinthians 5:7)
Any Christian GAD sufferer will tell you about the category difference between our faith and our physicality. It is entirely normal to be experiencing significant levels of anxiety on a ‘sight’ level whilst living a life of faith; trusting wholeheartedly in the promises of God. This has been my own experience, but it has also been evident in the lives of thousands of other anxious Christians who by virtue of their struggles largely reflect a deeper level of trust and commitment to God than those untouched by diffuse anxiety.
Are trust and anxiety mutually exclusive? Absolutely not. Is anxiety a reliable measure of a person's trust? Absolutely not. Does the absence of anxiety demonstrate the depth a person’s trust in God? Absolutely not. Is anxiety a sin? Absolutely not.
Does God care about your anxiety and want you to know that you can trust him despite what your anxious mind is telling you? Yes he does.