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).