Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
– Proverbs 12:25
I’ve dealt with anxiety longer than I’ve been a Christian (about 8 years at this point) and I realized today that I’ve never really done a study of any significance on how the subject of anxiety intersects with my faith, beyond the most superficial (God is in control). As I outlined in my previous post I have an underlying assumption that seeking professional help is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether it’s delving deep into root causes or learning coping techniques from a therapist or trying medication monitored and prescribed by a physician, none of these are inherently bad so long as the Christian takes responsibility a) for their treatment and b) doesn’t eject their faith or see their treatment as somehow separate from their faith. We need to submit all thing to Christ and not see any particular thing as separate from Him.
So, having set that base parameter, I wanted to use this post to start looking at what the meaning of anxiety is in Scripture. It won’t all fit in a single post, so this will spill over, but I’ll make a beginning.
First, let’s define what anxiety is in a Scriptural context: The Encyclopaedia of Christianity rightly notes that anxiety “is an emotion that functions on different levels. Any adequate definition must therefore take account of these levels, explaining and distinguishing them, and finally weaving them philosophically or theologically into an anthropological whole. (1) Looking at the use of the term “anxiety” in Scripture, the Eerdmans Bible Dictionary notes that “various degrees of anxiety, ranging from concern to fear and dread, are depicted in both the Old and New Testaments.” (2)
Anxiety is not just one “thing” in scripture, or more accurately, it does not manifest for one reason and in one way alone. There’s no “sola anxietus” (ok, I totally made that up). Eerdmans notes that in scripture anxiety may manifest for reasons of the natural parental concern towards a child, (1 Sam 9:5), reasons of personal distress (1 Sam 1:16), loving concern (2 Cor 11:28), natural disaster (Jer 17:8), and of course, the Psalms and Proverbs are replete with tales and warnings of an anxious life (Psalm 127:2, Proverbs 12:25). Finally, Jesus and the epistle writers have much to say on the subject, but we’ll get to that in subsequent posts.
This multitude of interpretations is represented in the secular psychiatric community as well. The bible of mental health professionals, the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM), lists at least 12 different anxiety disorder categories. From “Acute Stress Disorder” to “Agoraphobia” to the very large pool of “specific phobias” to “panic attacks”. While these categories may not match up well with the use of the term in Scripture, it does help us to understand that regardless of what angle you look at the problem, it is not just a single “thing”, but an expression that can have a variety of meanings.
Anxiety operates on a spectrum as most of us well know. There is a certain amount of anxiety that is normal, even I would argue, among Christians. At so-called normal levels it can be a trigger or a warning and it only really becomes a problem when it leads us to act stupid or to engage in unhealthy coping strategies. There is also a distinction to be made between individual and group anxiety. In Scripture we can see possible examples in the stories of Judas who betrayed our Lord and the masses of Jews standing before Pilate demanding the murder of Jesus.
Anxiety affects not just out psychology but our physiology; in other words, it affects our thoughts, the way we interpret the world around us, and that manifests through our actions or inactions. My natural tendency is to withdraw and hide from the world, but I know this is far from the best thing for me. It is in these instances where a small group of trusted friends are an invaluable resource, as is a loving spouse if are so lucky to have one.
The Greek word that is most often translated anxiety can also mean “worry, care or free from care” and the Hebrew word comes from a root meaning “care or anxiety”, so the emotion or experience that we call anxiety is not all bad. In fact, it may only be bad in certain doses or circumstances. On a quick glance it may be that anxiety at its root reflects that we care about something or someone and we fear being able to aid the person or situation. This is certainly true for me. Financial stress is a big deal for me because I have a wife and a baby on the way in December, so being able to provide for them is very important and hits me on a number of levels. I might also experience anxiety because I fear not living up to some self-imposed standard of how I should be.
Another dimension to anxiety is its use as a tool of spiritual abuse. That is, church leaders, bible teachers, etc, who will guilt you into thinking that your anxiety is inappropriate, foolish or even sinful because the Bible “clearly” teaches that we should not feel that way. Is this true? We’ll examine that question later on as well.
Anxiety is a multidimensional thing and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that, even in Scripture, it always means the same thing. We’ll delve deeper into specific Scripture passages in the next post.
(1) Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, vol. 1, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 87 (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003).
(2) Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 62 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).