Is anxiety sin?

Is anxiety sin? Is worry sin? These questions came up in a church context and at the time there was no space for the full answer which I think these questions deserve. After a day or two of reflections, here’s how I would have liked to answer this question:

The quick answer is that “yes”, anxiety and worry are sins. Two texts that support this are Philippians 4:6 (“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”) and Matthew 6:25-34 (“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink…”). I think the Bible is pretty clear that worry and anxiety are fundamentally the product of a lack of trust in God. In that sense, they are a product of the Fall. Therefore, to choose worry over trust is to sin.

However, I think there is a little more to the story. My first thought is that emotions and emotional responses seem, at least to me, to be experienced in two stages. There is a sort of gut response, a knee-jerk reaction, to the circumstances we face. This initial response is usually involuntary. A scary situation arises and we experience fear. We see an injustice and we experience anger. Something tragic happens and we experience sadness. After that reaction we can decide what to do with that emotion. We decide whether or not the emotional reaction is valid and can then either indulge it (dwell on the sadness, anger, fear, anxiety) or try to overcome it with a different emotion or a different set of thoughts. Since emotions are extremely powerful, it can be very hard to overcome that initial reaction. However, it is in this moment that we do have a choice. And, I think, it is here that we can decide to trust God or to worry. In other words, I think that what Philippians 4:6 and Matthew 6:25 are getting at is the place of choice in the emotional response, where we decide to dwell, and not necessarily the initial gut reaction.

We see this progression in many of the psalms. The psalms start from a place of distress (worry, anxiety), but the psalmist inevitably moves from there to a place of trust. He critically examines his emotions, reminds himself of God’s goodness/power/faithfulness, and makes a decision to put his faith in the Creator of the universe.

So, if someone were to say “I have anxiety, is that a sin”? I might ask the follow up question, “What are you doing with that anxiety? Are you trying to turn to God in trust or are you indulging it by continuing to set your mind on whatever is causing you worry? Are you deciding to trust God or not?” I think that it’s in the “what are you doing with it…” choice wherein the sin lies and not necessarily in that initial experience.

This brings me to the second way in which the question gets complicated, and that is in regards to medically diagnosed depression or anxiety. If we say that all anxiety is a sin (even that which doesn’t spring from a willful choice as in the case of depression) then we risk bringing false shame into someone’s life, bringing blame where it isn’t due. This doesn’t excuse all anxious thoughts by any means. Simply having depression doesn’t remove a person’s will – though we should be compassionate and considerate about how brain chemistry may make overcoming emotions far more difficult. Instead, I want to locate the decision to follow Jesus where there really is a decision in play: “You have anxiety (for which you are not responsible) but what you are responsible for what you do with that anxiety.” Do you turn to God? Do you pray? Do you take care of your body in diet and exercise? Are you choosing to trust and obey?

This brings me to the final point, and that is that I think our knee-jerk emotional reactions, especially for those who do not have some sort of clinical anxiety or depression, can be trained over time by regularly deciding to trust and obey Jesus in our circumstances. In other words, a new believer with a lot of anxiety can, through a regular practice of meditating on the many reasons to trust God and then taking actions which demonstrate that trust, become a person of less anxiety in their knee-jerk reactions to stressful circumstances. This has certainly been true in my life.

So my final answer to the question would be this: It is not necessarily a sin to feel an initial burst of worry or anxiety in a stressful situation. But, it is a sin to choose to indulge that worry. Also, if you regularly choose to trust and obey God in stressful situations, you can become, by God’s grace, a less anxious person.