What Does the Bible Really Say about Anxiety?
If you call yourself a Christian and follow Jesus, you have likely heard a misleading or incomplete teaching around the subject of anxiety. Many of the teachings I have heard on anxiety lack context and broader biblical research. Moreover, these teachings are often overly simplistic in nature. Anxiety is not a simplistic subject. When we oversimplify complex subjects, we tend to mislead people into simple catch-all solutions that don’t actually work. This inevitably leads to discouragement and disillusionment.
Here is my hope as I discuss anxiety for followers of Jesus:
- I hope this lifts some of your discouragement.
- I hope this normalizes the feelings you feel when you are anxious.
- I hope this brings you clarity.
- I hope this eliminates some of the confusion about anxiety in the Bible.
ANXIETY & PHILIPPIANS 4:6-7
The most popular teaching on anxiety in Christianity comes from a section of 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.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
This verse contains beautiful truths about anxiety, prayer, and God’s nature. When we understand this verse within it’s historical and broader biblical context, it is incredibly helpful. However, teachings on this verse are often incomplete.
Here are some of the conclusions and clichés from Philippians 4:6-7 that commonly appear in teachings on this subject:
- All anxiety is bad.
- All anxiety is sin.
- We should not be anxious about anything.
- We solve the problem of anxiety by praying more.
- The peace of God will guard our hearts and minds from anxiety when we pray.
At surface level, these seems like valid statements. Yet, I have so many questions when I begin to think about these conclusions and clichés.
- Is every feeling of anxiety bad?
- Is the emotion of anxiety a sin?
- Should I never feel concerned or scared?
- What should I do in situations when anxiety suddenly arises in me beyond my control?
- Is prayer the cure-all for all forms of anxiety?
- If I pray more, will God really erase all of the feelings of anxiety in me?
Because these conclusions and clichés about anxiety appeared to me to have flaws, I decided to re-examine what the Bible really says about anxiety.
So what does the Bible teach about anxiety?
ANXIETY IS A NORMAL HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Anxiety is a human emotion. All humans encounter normal anxiety (normal anxiety is different than an anxiety condition, which I will discuss in a later post). Normal anxiety means that we experience temporary anxiety as a result of stressors, dangers, impending deadlines, traumatic events, and major life changes.
We are not immune to situations that cause temporary anxiety because we follow Jesus. We are emotional beings. God created emotions, and God created each emotion with purpose. Therefore, we should value emotions, emotional awareness, and emotional health.
The people in biblical history also experienced human emotions, including normal anxiety. These people faced the same types of anxiety-inducing situations that we do—stressors, dangers, deadlines, traumatic events, and major life changes.
(for a more detailed explanation of this, see my previous post)
ANXIETY CAN REFER TO NORMAL HUMAN CONCERNS
Sometimes anxiety in the Bible refers to normal human concerns. Every human has healthy concerns. These concerns are natural, and reveal that we care about the life God has given us and the people around us. We would be abnormal and inhuman if we lived life with zero concerns.
The New Testament has many examples of normal and healthy concerns in a broken world. Here are a few:
- “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34)
- “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.” (Philippians 2:28)
- “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28)
It is clear from these verses that human concern is normal in the world we live in. Jesus talked about this reality of troubles and concerns, and Paul illustrates his own normal and healthy concerns.
ANXIETY CAN REFER TO OBSESSIVE HUMAN CONCERNS
Sometimes anxiety in the Bible refers to obsessive human concerns. There are times that our concerns become obsessive and begin to dominate our thinking. These concerns can be worries, fears, potential scenarios, etc. The process of obsessing and ruminating on our concerns can cause us to live in a state of anxiety. It is in this context that the Bible says, “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.” (Phillipians 4:8) The followers of Jesus who lived in Philippi had crossed the line from a normal concern to obsessing over their concerns. God reaches out to them because He cares about their mental and emotional state. He does not want them to be paralyzed by their concerns, but rather to trust Him.
The author of Proverbs paints a picture of how we feel when we are living in a state of anxiety: “Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down.” (Proverbs 12:25) We feel overtaken, weighed down, or paralyzed by living in a state of perpetual anxiety. Anxiety in this sense correlates with certain anxiety conditions in our modern world that are rooted in thought patterns.
ANXIETY IN THE BIBLE IS LIMITED IN SCOPE
When we compare anxiety in our modern times (both as an emotion and a clinical condition) with anxiety in the biblical world, we realize that there are similarities and differences. Anxiety by today’s definition is a much broader topic than anxiety in the biblical world. Anxiety in the biblical world is limited in scope—focusing on our thought life and our relationship with God. Anxiety today includes our thought life, but is much broader in scope.
Here are some examples of what the Bible does not cover when speaking about anxiety:
- Anxiety caused by digital overload.
- Anxiety as a result of a medical condition.
- Anxiety as a result of trauma.
- Anxiety rooted in PTSD.
- Anxiety rooted in negative conditioning from parents during childhood.
- Anxiety as a clinical term.
The Bible does not cover every facet of every topic—anxiety would fall under this limited scope. Why does the Bible not cover every facet about every topic? The answer to that question is quite simple: that is not the intent of the Bible. The Bible is a story about a gracious and loving God pursuing a relationship with imperfect human beings. The Bible is not an exhaustive encyclopedia of every topic in human history. It has a clear focus and storyline, and does not get involved in every topic. For example, the Bible does not give us insight into the flu, but all of us would agree that the flu is a real health condition. The Bible’s limited scope on anxiety does not invalidate other aspects of anxiety in our modern sense of the term. When it comes to anxiety, the Bible deals with it in a scope and time that was relevant for people in that historical context. And, yes, it is still relevant and applicable to our lives today! We just need to make sure to explain this subject correctly so that we do not say something that the Bible is not saying.
It would be unwise to quote Philippians 4:6-7 to people struggling with anxiety in cases outside of the Bible’s discussion. It is spiritually harmful to tell someone experiencing anxiety as the result of a medical condition or trauma to not be anxious about anything since their anxiety has nothing to do with obsessive concern. In these cases, prayer is important and helpful, but it is not a cure. The person dealing with a medical condition needs a doctor to help with their medical condition, and even with a doctor they may not be healed and thus will continue to experience anxiety. The person who experienced trauma needs a counselor or psychologist to help them work through their trauma and toward a place of healing. We need to be thoughtful of each persons context with anxiety, and not simply sling a Bible verse that may not be the correct application for their underlying issue.
GOD CARES ABOUT YOU
God is portrayed as a loving Father in scripture. He is a loving Father who understand the burdens and stressors we carry. He is a loving Father who has great compassion toward us and desires to help us with our anxieties. He is a loving Father who cares about us so much that He wants to carry our burdens instead of leaving us to carry them ourselves. Because of the nature of God as our loving Father, we are able to lean into Him and trust Him with the burdens and anxieties of life. Peter wrote about this saying, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
We have the privilege of talking to God in prayer about our anxieties. He wants to hear about our burdens and anxieties. Not only does God want to hear about these, He wants to help us. When we lean into God, He helps us by granting us strength and peace. These spiritual resources calm our hearts and give us the fuel to continue to take steps forward as we follow Jesus in a broken world.
GOD IS WITH YOU
No matter what type of anxiety we are facing, God is with us. God is not a distant God scared off by our struggles with anxiety. He is a God that desires to be near to people who are suffering and struggling with life’s challenges. God has promised that He will never leave us nor forsake us.
Your struggle with anxiety is not an indication of the nearness of God or the love of God—He loves you exactly where you are in your struggle.
As followers of Jesus, it is important to think about topics from a complete biblical perspective. The Bible teaches a number of truths about anxiety: all people have normal anxiety, sometimes anxiety is simply normal human concern, and sometimes anxiety is obsessive concern. The Bible’s discussion on anxiety deals with a specific context, and is limited in scope. There are aspects of anxiety in our current definition and scope that are not addressed in the Bible. However, whatever aspect of anxiety that we struggle with, there are important truths about God that transcend time and context: God is a loving Father who cares about us, and He with us in our struggle. In Him we find hope; hope for help and peace as we walk down the path of healing to find rest for our anxious souls.
Finally, the human condition is complex. It is imperative that we look at each person with fresh eyes and a fresh heart. People do not need a simplified solution to a complex problem. Rather, people need to be loved, listened to, and understood. It is through this type of relationship that we can be an encouragement to a person struggling with an anxiety condition.