What does the Bible say about anxiety?
I was at an urgent care center in middle Tennessee with my husband sitting in the corner while a doctor listened to my lungs and watched me cough and sniffle. While he was busy diagnosing my illness, we started in on the usual small talk.
"What do you do?" he asked.
I never felt like I had a good answer to this question, but I started to answer it with "I'm a writer," and then there was the follow up, "what do you write?" In this case I fumbled over an answer that included something about a blog and Bible related content.
This usually gets me a positive response in Tennessee. He asked what kind of Bible content, and I coughed while trying to explain what "scripture engagement" means. The doctor was typing into the computer while saying,
"So do you think you can be a Christian and have anxiety?"
Luckily, he wasn't looking directly at me when he said that because I'm not sure I had much control over my expression of frustration, sadness, and confusion.
He turned back to me reciting multiple verses on anxiety, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God..." Philippians 4:6
I started to share my thoughts through coughs and sniffles, until he passed me my prescription and told me he knew what the Bible had to say about this and showed me the door.
I felt extremely misunderstood, and my heart ached as I wondered how many people struggling with anxiety had been dismissed with a Bible verse saying not to be anxious.
So, what does the Bible have to say about anxiety?
This topic is extremely nuanced, so much so that I'd love to avoid it. But, admittedly I'm a Christian and I experience anxiety.
It's helpful to start with an important distinction: there are different types of anxiety. The Gospel Coalition identifies four types of anxiety, "(1) a God-given emotional response for our benefit, (2) a disordered physiological response that is not sinful, (3) a natural consequence of sin, or (4) sinful responses to God’s providential care."
The first type of anxiety is actually a good thing.
It's the same thing that tells us when we are about to give a speech in front of a full classroom to be nervous because we care about our grade. It's simply a response God created for us to help us survive.
This anxiety shows us how much attention and care God put into creating us, and preparing us to be equipped in a world that can often be scary and anxiety inducing. It allows us to listen to the Spirit, and to spend time with people and in situations that are safe.
The second is where the essential distinction comes in.
If you or a friend struggles with this type of anxiety, a reassuring Bible verse on a Pinterest graphic isn't going to be the solution. Instead, it's an invitation in our fallen world to draw near to a God who calls Himself "Jehovah Rapha" or "the God who heals." (Exodus 15:26).
This is not sin, but it is suffering. The Bible is clear that we all will experience suffering in this life, but God is always available to meet us in our suffering. He even sent His Spirit, also known as "comforter" to be with us in our suffering (John 14:26).
The third type of anxiety is brought on by our own sin.
If you cheat on a test, you'll feel anxiety. If you lie to your friend, you'll experience anxiety. If you're trying to avoid paying your taxes, you'll feel anxiety. The fear and anxiety of being "found out" for your own sin is this type of anxiety.
Again–there is an invitation to be encountered by God. With any sin, Jesus has made a way for repentance and forgiveness. When experiencing this anxiety, the invitation is the same as it was with the early church, "Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
And finally, the fourth type of anxiety is "a sinful response to God's providential care."
This is where I think the confusion comes from. Anxiety can be a sin when it is anxiety caused by lack of trust in God.
This anxiety is the anxiety that causes me to respond to it with, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God..." Philippians 4:6
God cares about every little detail of our lives, and He wants us to confess our anxieties to Him and entrust our lives to Him. This anxiety invites us to turn to God and see Him as capable, powerful, and in control.
With all types of anxiety, we are invited to go deeper in our relationship with God.
If you're experiencing anxiety, discern where it is coming from and seek God appropriately depending on what type of anxiety it is.
If you're anxious because of a legitimate concern or fear, praise God for giving you a warning.
If you're experiencing physiological anxiety, praise God for being a Healer and a Comforter.
If you're experiencing anxiety resulting from your own sin, praise God for His Son Jesus who made a way for you to come to Him despite any past, present or future sin.
If you're anxious because you're struggling to trust God, praise God that He always hears every prayer, and is in control in every circumstance, ready to care for you as you surrender to Him.