A large percentage of the United States population suffers from some sort of anxiety disorder. Yet, the church hardly addresses this issue seriously. We’ve gotten better at destigmatizing depression and other mental illnesses, thankfully. But our approach to anxiety needs some work. I once read in a faith-based book that anxiety was a sin that requires repentance. That didn’t sit too well with me. I took some time and deeply pondered the issue. Is anxiety a sin? I’ll be honest, those words cut deep. I’ve dealt with some sort of anxiety my entire life. Have I been unknowingly sinning all this time?
Maybe you’ve heard the same statement and it’s left you feeling ashamed, afraid, and more anxious. This is why I feel compelled to write this article. I want to present the facts and then allow you to draw your own conclusion based on truth. So, first of all, what is anxiety? How does it compare to worry? Is anxiety always a sin? Or is it sometimes a result of a fallen and sinful world?
My Personal Struggle with Anxiety
Before we dive in, I want to share a little bit of my experience with anxiety – this may be especially helpful if you are reading this and don’t personally relate to a struggle with anxiety. I suffered from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism as a child. The research covering this disorder is very new and when I was a child, most people didn’t know it was even a thing. I remember feeling trapped and stuck every day of my life.
If you don’t know what Selective Mutism is, it is essentially a form of anxiety that prevents children from being able to speak in certain places and contexts. This may include school, church, among peers, and adults. However, children with Selective Mutism do not have any issues communicating with family and close friends.
Well, that’s the dictionary definition. My experience is that I wanted to connect with other people but it felt impossible. I wanted to speak but it felt like there was a muzzle on my mouth. People thought I was prideful or mean. I often felt like an outcast. Worst of all, I didn’t think things could change for me. Thankfully, it did. I’m grateful to God for that.
But I still struggle with social anxiety and anxiety in general. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, other times it isn’t. I know and trust in God’s truth, and he helps me through this struggle. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. While on the outside, I tend to seem just like everyone else, on the inside, I’m pretty different. While it can be easy at times to hide my anxiety from others, it’s almost always present with me and it’s a battle I constantly have to fight. Don’t get me wrong, Christ who lives in me is greater than anxiety. He gives me strength. But, while I know that he is with me, dealing with anxiety isn’t always easy.
What is anxiety?
According to the American Psychology Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Anxiety is a normal and often healthy emotion. However, when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, it might become a medical disorder. We all experience anxiety and it can be a good thing. For example, it’s good to feel anxious when in the face of impending danger. Anxiety triggers our bodies to respond correctly and can often save our lives.
Dr. Caroline Leaf explains that feelings of anxiety are often warning signs telling us that something is going on in our lives that needs our attention.
So, if anxiety is a mechanism in our bodies to help keep us from danger, how can anxiety be a sin? Is it a sin to sleep? Or eat? To get hungry? Of course not, right?
Is there a difference between anxiety and worry?
There is! We tend to experience worry in our heads and anxiety in our bodies. When we worry, we think about specific things that could go wrong. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more vague. For example, one may experience worry over passing their final exams. But someone with anxiety feels anxious just about going to the store. There is no specific concern tied in.
Worry can often lead to problem solving while anxiety does not. If I’m worried about passing my final exams, I can do better to prepare. However, if I’m anxious about going to the store, no amount of preparation can help me.
Worry involves mild emotional distress while anxiety is severe. Worry also tends to be more rational while anxiety is often irrational. If a loved one is sick, I may worry about their health and well-being. On the other hand, I may become anxious about a loved one’s well-being simply because I haven’t heard from them in a few days. Anxiety leads you to think of the worst possible scenario while worry can typically be put in perspective.
Ultimately, real events cause worry while the mind creates anxiety.
What is the difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder?
Now that we have a good understanding of what anxiety is, let’s talk about anxiety disorder. These two things are connected but are very different from each other. Anxiety disorder is a mental illness that many of us suffer from. It is often characterized by a severe and out of proportion reaction to a stressor. The APA describes a person with anxiety disorder as “having recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns.” Once anxiety reaches the stage of a disorder, it can interfere with daily function.
The point is, this is not something an individual can simply turn on and off at will. They don’t control their body’s reaction to these outside stressors. Anxiety disorder is often uncontrollable.
Symptoms of anxiety disorder
- restlessness, and a feeling of being “on-edge”
- uncontrollable feelings of worry
- increased irritability
- concentration difficulties
- sleep difficulties, such as problems in falling or staying asleep
These symptoms are more persistent and extreme than a normal occurrence of anxiety.
Types of anxiety disorder
There are various types of anxiety disorder. I mentioned a few of them in the beginning of this article but let’s go over them again.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – this is a chronic disorder that is characterized by excessive, long-lasting anxiety about nonspecific life events, objects, and situations. People with this disorder are not always able to identify the cause of their anxiety.
- Panic Disorder – Brief or sudden attacks of intense terror and apprehension characterize panic disorder.
- Specific Phobia – irrational fear and avoidance of a particular object or situation
- Selective Mutism – This is a form of anxiety that some children experience, in which they are not able to speak in certain places or contexts, such as school, even though they may have excellent verbal communication skills around familiar people. It may be an extreme form of social phobia.
- Social Anxiety Disorder – This is a fear of negative judgment from others in social situations or of public embarrassment. Social anxiety disorder includes a range of feelings, such as stage fright, a fear of intimacy, and anxiety around humiliation and rejection.
Interesting statistics about anxiety disorder
First of all, it’s important to understand that anxiety disorder does not only affect a small group of people. It’s actually the most common mental disorder and affects nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. Considering that this disorder affects so many people, why does the church often brush it under a rug and stamp a “sin” sticker on it instead of gracefully addressing it in light of the gospel?
Anyway, here are some more statistics:
- Women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than men
- Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States
- Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
- Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
- SAD affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the U.S. population.
What causes anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorder can be caused by a number of factors. It’s not just about worrying too much or even about a lack of submission to God.
Anxiety disorders can be caused by environmental stressors, genetics, medical factors (it can be a symptom of another disease), brain chemistry, and at times, one can experience anxiety disorder when withdrawing from an illicit substance.
Related: 5 Good Reasons to Trust God’s Timing
What does the Bible Say About Anxiety?
There are three passages that come to mind when I think of anxiety and the Bible. Philippians 4:5-7, 1 Peter 5:7, and finally, Matthew 6:25-34. Let’s look at these three and discover what the Bible says about anxiety.
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 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.Philippians 4:5-7 esv
Philippians was written by the Apostle Paul from prison. He was in the middle of severe trials, suffering, and persecution when he penned this letter. His audience may have been experiencing persecution as well. Paul writes an encouraging letter to the believers in Philippi and in chapter 4:5-7, he comforts them as they experience worries and anxieties.
In the New American Commentary on Philippians, Charles B. Cousar explains that the phrase “the Lord is near” is the theological underpinning for Paul’s instructions in this section. Paul reminds the Philippians that Jesus’ return is near and in light of this, they do not need to worry. They don’t need to fear persecution and can instead have hope that one day God will make all things right. Rather than seeing this passage as a command, I believe it is a promise. It is a promise that because of the hope we have in Christ, we can lay all our anxieties down.
I want to point you back to the distinction we made earlier between anxiety and worry. While some translations use the word “anxiety,” it is more likely that Paul is speaking of worry. Worry can look very similar to anxiety and often worry is involved in anxiety. However, worry points to a specific situation while anxiety can be more vague.
Is worry sinful? It absolutely can be. Worry can often indicate a lack of trust in God. Sometimes worry is warranted, though. It makes perfect sense to be concerned about a friend or loved one if they aren’t doing well physically or emotionally. Likewise, it makes sense to worry when you are in a dangerous situation. We experience worries daily. But, instead of holding on to our worries, we can present them before the Lord knowing that he will take care of every concern.
1 Peter 5:7
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.1 Peter 5:7 ESV
Like Paul, Peter is writing to an audience that is walking through suffering and pain. He writes to the scattered and exiled church. He encourages the Church to cast all of their anxieties on Christ. Why? Because Christ cares for them. Christ not only cares, but he is also able to sustain them through the trials they face. Again, Peter is speaking of anxiety (or worry) concerning a specific issue. Yes, their situation was difficult but they also had the privilege of casting their anxieties on the Lord. I love the wording here. Jesus can carry our worries and we are invited to literally throw every last one of them on him. That is good news.
But, as Will Van Der Hart from the Mind and Soul Foundation writes, there is a difference between specific concerns and the “instinctual anxiety” that often plagues anxiety sufferers. There is no need to be ashamed if you suffer from an anxiety disorder. The scriptures do not refer to your condition as sinful.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.Matthew 6:25, 34 ESV
Here Jesus is speaking about worry. He is speaking about concerns surrounding specific issues. For example, he reminds listeners to avoid worrying about what they will wear, eat or drink. Why? Their heavenly Father cares for them. Just as God provides for the birds of the air, he also provides for us. Sometimes provision does not look like how we would expect. However, God always provides.
Context is important in all of these cases. Anxiety is complex. I mentioned earlier that anxiety is often a normal and healthy emotion. Anxiety is, in fact, a gift from God and is necessary in certain circumstances. But there are circumstances in which anxiety can be problematic. Sometimes it spirals out of control and becomes a disorder. There are many factors involved that cause anxiety to become a disorder. The issue is not as black and white as we think it is.
Is anxiety a sin?
The question you came to have answered. No, anxiety is not a sin. Not always, at least. Sometimes anxiety can be a sinful refusal to trust God. This relates more to worry than anxiety according to the psychological definition.
A large percentage of our population experience anxiety disorder. This is not sinful. Adam Ford, a writer and illustrator, explained his life before Generalized Anxiety Disorder. He was outgoing and a type-A extrovert. Then, he developed an anxiety disorder and it changed him completely. Now he is extremely introverted and struggles in social situations. Did Adam do anything wrong to cause this? No. It’s an illness that he unfortunately developed.
If a friend of mine develops an illness, I wouldn’t blame them for it or call them a sinner, would I? Anxiety disorder is the same. It is an unfortunate psychological condition that can often negatively impact an individual’s life.
What should a Christian suffering from Anxiety Disorder do?
If you are a Christian suffering from an anxiety disorder, I hope that you feel seen and loved. Your anxiety is not a sin. God loves you and he is with you.
He calls you to submit to him and trust him. If you are not already doing this, use the resources available to you to help you. See a counselor and get medical help if you need to. Take care of your physical health and well-being. Talk to a trusted friend and allow your community to be there for you.
Remember that you are not alone. Other Christians suffer from anxiety disorder too. You are not less of a Christian because of your struggle. We all have a cross to carry, and maybe anxiety happens to be yours.
Many people in the Bible suffered from anxiety. David, Elijah, and Jeremiah are a few. I love that these men were influential men of God who transformed the world. They were able to do their God-given tasks and fulfill their mission. Granted, I cannot say whether or not these men had an anxiety disorder but I do know that they walked through seasons of anxiety. My point is, your anxiety does not have to limit you from serving the Lord.
Finally, remember that Jesus has overcome. Since he has overcome, you have as well. We experience the effects of the Fall on a daily basis but Jesus has triumphed over all of it. You will not suffer from anxiety disorder forever. Yes, I believe it is possible to be healed in this life. However, it is certain that you will be healed in the next. God is with you always.