Is Worry a Sin?

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I spoke at a church group this weekend on the topic of anxiety and tried to wrestle with this verse in Philippians: “do not worry about anything….”. Guilt isn’t unusual with my clients who come from a Christian background. “If I just trusted God enough, I wouldn’t worry like this. After all, the Bible says DO NOT WORRY!!”

Wonder if the writer of this verse was looking for ways to heap impossible commands on folks so they would feel like turds? That is a possibility. But it is also possible that the writer was addressing an emotional state that he knew was a present reality for his audience. The folks reading this letter were undoubtedly worried and anxious about the writer’s welfare—he was in prison and facing possible execution!—along with all the stress of being in a fledgling religious start-up; worry was most certainly among them!

Following the “do not worry” phrase there are three interesting suggestions:

  • Present your requests to God—the practical reality of doing this would encourage the worried to isolate their spinning thoughts to specific requests. This mirrors anxiety treatment in it asks whether worry is productive or nonproductive. In productive worry, there is an answer to the question, “can I do anything about this?” Taking this suggestion seriously might mean that the answer is “yes, I can ask God about specific concerns”.
  • Practice thanksgiving—The practice of gratitude can be good for ANYONE who is tempted to over-focus on negatives and what ifs.
  • Figure out which thoughts to lock onto (and defuse the others)—Perhaps most fascinating to me is the long list of things that are listed as things to “think about”. “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise…”. This mirrors anxiety treatment in that we teach clients which thoughts to fuse with and with thoughts to defuse. If a thought is helpful towards living one’s values, then, by all means, lock on (fuse) to it! If it is unhelpful, defuse it! This is the work I often do with worriers.

Speaking to this group this weekend helped me ponder the ways this Biblical writer tried to work out what to do with worry, and I appreciate that thoughts are taken seriously in the suggestions. As I find both personally and in doing treatment with many worriers, OUR BRAINS ARE NOT OUR FRIEND……sometimes!

So, is worry a sin? Worry is so varied and textured that I think it is difficult to say. The question I prefer to ask is, “what is the spiritual invitation in the midst of this text?”  If we don’t perceive suggestions like these as invitations to something good, I believe we are missing the point.

Biblical quotations are taken from the NRSV. The Worry Cure by Leahy has taught me about productive and nonproductive worry and The Confidence Gap by Harris has taught me about thought defusion.

4 Comments

  1. “what is the spiritual invitation in the midst of this text?” – I think that’s a great question to be asking while reading the Bible, especially the difficult/confusing/paradoxical portions.

    My favorite song ever is “Add the the Beauty” by Sara Groves. The bridge is “And this is grace: an invitation to be beautiful.”

    Of course, in the song this sounds much more profound and moving. But the question you present in your post reminds me that there are high relational- and action-based components to both mental/emotional health and following Jesus.

  2. This verse is one I have memorized because it not only helps me defuse personal worries, but aids me in offering a choice to others around me who are caught in anxiety/worry (including my children!). It offers the choice to take worries and anxious thoughts, which are often paralyzing, and transform them into an action, prayer, which is likely the most powerful next step to be taken when in an anxious state. Anxiety can lead us to engage in unhelpful and unhealthy behaviors, but prayer leads us to be still. I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s A Holy Experience blog for some time now and she also highlights the value of starting with “thank you”; you can not rest in anxiety and be saying thank you over and over. I also just read Lauren Winner’s “Still”. She wrote in a chapter titled “anxiety, ii” about what’s to be done with anxious thoughts/feelings; name it and then “sidle up alongside it and pray”. She next quoted Francis de Sales from “Introduction to the Devout Life”: “Unresting anxiety is the greatest evil which can happen to the soul, sin only excepted.” She explains that further noting that “the anxious heart loses its hold on whatever graces God has bestowed upon it and is sapped of the strength ‘to resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish…in troubled waters.’ ” This makes sense to me and I have seen this happen. Prayer in thanksgiving is the tool to put the breaks on this unresting anxiety that is stealing away perspective. The next part of the verse declares that God’s peace will guard the heart AND mind in Christ Jesus. That peace will bring rest to the anxiety. I do not think it is meant to be a condemning passage to bring about guilt, I do think that for a person ready to receive the instruction of what to do with anxiety/worry will really experience God’s peace when engaging in the process highlighted by these verses in Philippians. The list of what to replace the thoughts with once they are put to rest is fantastic, because if you don’t put something in the space where the tornado of worry just occupied, the storm will most certainly return. When worry and anxiety are a daily companion, it is a challenge to trust that this pattern, of prayer, thanksgiving and change of focus, is really actually making a difference. I would argue in favor of not abandoning the pattern-even small moments of peace will grow into larger moments of peace through God’s grace! The anxious heart and mind will be transformed.

  3. I love your suggestion that the writer of Philippians may have simply seen that anxiety was a present reality for the reader and was offering an invitation into a better way of living. For a long time, I got stuck on thinking that he was saying if you are anxious, that’s really bad….and so I fell into a futile struggle to try to get rid of anxiety. I may have used some of his suggestions for stopping the worry, but inevitably when the anxiety showed up again I would end up feeling more defeated. Seeing the perspective that the passage is not making a judgment about anxiety, more a recognition that is happens and giving “an invitation to something good” is helpful.

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