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Anxiety appears to be escalating in the world today. According to one health organization, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.” Studies have shown that anxiety has been on the rise even among teenagers over the last several years. Just two years ago, Barnes & Noble, one of the largest book retailers in the world, announced that sales on books dealing with anxiety had surged, increasing by 25 percent. All this was before the outbreak of the recent pandemic. No doubt, anxiety has increased even more over the last year.

I have a childhood memory of someone saying about my father, “Oh, he’s just a worrier.” It was stated in a lighthearted, half-joking way. Yet, it was true. My dad was a worrier. After my grandfather sold the family business, my dad went about building his own business from the ground up. It was difficult, demanding work that consumed his time and attention. His business became very successful, but those years were also very stressful. All this was on top of his concern for his six children. As a pastor with six children of my own, I am my father’s son. I also battle worry—for my children, for my flock, and often for the sheer weight of my responsibilities.

According to Scripture, anxiety is a serious matter. Jesus commanded His disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life” (Matt. 6:25). Similarly, Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6). These verses are not meant to be comforting advice, along the lines of “Everything is going to be all right.” They are biblical commands. To break them, therefore, is sin.

However, Scripture does not present all anxiety as sinful. The Apostle Paul, in his pastoral role, experienced a certain kind of proper anxiety. He wrote to the Corinthians that in addition to the other hardships he faced, “There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). The Greek word translated “anxiety” here is the noun form of the verb “be anxious” that Paul uses in Philippians 4:6, quoted above. Yet, as Paul describes it to the Corinthians, it is not a sinful anxiety that he has but a godly, loving one.

Indeed, throughout Scrip­ture, we see contrasting forms of anxiety—one that is proper and right and another that is contrary to the will of God. In fact, the New Testament uses the same Greek words for both kinds of anxiety. Paul uses the same Greek verb found in Philippians 4:6 (also used in Matt. 6:25) when he writes that the body of Christ should be united in their “care” (or “anxiety,” “concern”) for one another (1 Cor. 12:25). In a similar way, Paul commends Timothy to the Philippian church as one who, more than any of Paul’s coworkers, “will be genuinely concerned” (or “anxious”) for their welfare (Phil. 2:20).

Throughout Scripture, we see contrasting forms of anxiety—one that is proper and right and another that is contrary to the will of God.

Most of our sinful anxieties are tied to proper concerns. It is proper to do your job well, to support your family, to care for your children, to fulfill the duties that God has called you to do. We should be concerned with all of them. The question is, When do these proper concerns turn into sinful ones? When does godly care become godless worry?

At some level, we could say about anxiety what a judge famously said about pornography. He could not define it, he observed, “but I know it when I see it.” We know what sinful worry or anxiety is because we have experienced it. We know its signs—sweaty palms, pounding heart, the inability to relax or stay calm, the feeling of having a big weight on our chest, loss of sleep, and a host of other symptoms. But what makes sinful anxiety sinful?

A good place to start is with the story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha in Luke 10:38–42. Jesus is at the home of Mary and Martha, and Martha is busy serving the guests and most likely preparing a meal. Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to His teaching. Martha gets exasperated and tells Jesus to tell Mary to help her. But Jesus responds: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41–42). Martha became consumed with the good and lost sight of the best. She was hard at work serving Jesus but took her focus off Jesus Himself.

This, in a nutshell, is sinful anxiety. It is being consumed by otherwise legitimate concerns while taking our eyes off Jesus. In other words, sinful anxiety puts worldly cares and responsibilities above Christ. They take first place; Christ takes second place.

Charles Spurgeon wrote of Martha: “Her fault was not that she served. The condition of a servant well becomes every Christian. Her fault was that she grew ‘distracted with much serving,’ so she forgot him and only remembered the service.” The Greek verb translated “distracted” in verse 40 means to be pulled away from someone or something and to have our attention directed to something else. It also means, as one Greek dictionary puts it, “to become . . . quite busy, overburdened.”

Sinful worry is the result of being pulled away from Christ, leading to carrying undue burdens. This is why Paul exhorts the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6–7). When the burdens of your worldly concerns increase, look to God in prayer and supplication, as well as thanksgiving, to overcome anxiety and know God-given peace.

Sinful worry is the result of taking our eyes off Christ by seeking or serving the wrong things. Jesus tells us in the classic biblical passage on worry to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and God in turn will give us all we need (Matt. 6:33). The problem is that we are often more concerned about building our own little kingdoms than God’s. It is impossible, as Jesus says, to serve God and money, or God and any earthly object (v. 24). To try to do so inevitably leads to sinful anxiety. It is no wonder that in our increasingly secular age, which has turned away from God, that anxiety would be on the rise.

Sinful worry is also the result of not trusting God as we should. Jesus refers to worriers as those of “little faith” (Matt. 6:30). We are saved by faith, and we live by faith. Our salvation depends not on the strength of our faith but rather on the object of our faith; even so, we can always grow in our faith. Jesus tells us to look at the birds and how God cares for them while reminding His disciples that they are of much more value than birds (v. 26).

This does not mean that we do nothing else but wait for God to supply our needs. The birds do not sit around with their mouths open waiting for God to drop food into them. We are called in this life to work. We are even told, “If a man will not work, he may not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Working hard is how God created man to function. Worry even often stems from a failure to work as we should.

Neither does living by faith mean that we should not plan for tomorrow. Jesus tells us not to be anxious for tomorrow but rather to focus on the duties of today. Yet, that does not mean we should not plan for tomorrow. God wants us to be planners, especially to make provision for the future. We see an example of this with Joseph’s preparations for the coming famine (Gen. 41; see also Prov. 6:6–8; 16:9; Luke 14:28–32). The call not to be anxious for tomorrow is a call to be faithful in what God has called us to do today, knowing that God holds the future in His sovereign and gracious hands.

“One thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). This is a good reminder in our overly busy, distracted world. God clearly calls His people to different duties and different callings. Yet, one thing is necessary. The psalmist puts it this way: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). Paul describes it in this way: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14). In the busyness of daily life, let us keep our eyes on Christ, seek Christ, seek His kingdom, and He will give us peace.

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From the May 2021 Issue
May 2021 Issue