Ask TGC: Is Anxiety a Sin?

Editors’ note: We received the following question from a reader:

Is anxiety a sin? Does anxiety mean a person is doubting God?

You might be wondering why this is even a question worth considering. Some people may be thinking that since we can’t control anxiety there cannot be anything sinful about it. Some other people, though, will point to to Bible passages—such as when Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matt. 6:34) and Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6)—and say it’s obvious that to be anxious is sinful.

So which is it? Here’s my brief answer: Depending on the context, fear and anxiety may be one of four types: (1) a God-given emotional response for our benefit, (2) a disordered physiological response that is not sinful, (3) a natural consequence of sin, or (4) sinful responses to God’s providential care. Let’s consider how we can distinguish between the four types.

Four Types of Anxiety

We first need to start by clarifying what we mean by anxiety, for types #1 and #2 are related to each other, as are types #3 and #4.

To understand type #1 it’s helpful to start by distinguishing it from the related concept of fear. Anxiety and fear are closely related, because they are similar emotions working on different timeframes. Fear is an emotional response to a real or perceived immediate threat; anxiety is an emotional response to a real or perceived future threat. Fear is a physiological and/or emotional warning system that alerts us to danger right now, while anxiety is a warning system of impending danger.

If confronted with an immediate threat to our life—such as encountering a wild, dangerous animal—we should be respectfully fearful enough to flee for our own safety and survival. An immediate feeling of anxiety or fear may trigger a natural, God-given emotional response for survival. That sort of anxiety is rarely what we’d consider sinful.

Next we have type #2, which is what we normally think of as clinical anxiety. For some people, anxiety manifest as a physiological malfunction that has become both disordered and debilitating. Some symptoms include persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for six months, when the anxiety interferes with daily functioning, or when you have anxiety-related symptoms (such as trouble sleeping). These are often symptoms of a medical condition such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety. In such cases a person should seek help from a counselor or physician. This sort of anxiety is also not the type we’d consider sinful.

The third type is a natural consequence of sinful behavior. A prime example is if someone takes recreational drugs and develops an anxiety disorder. Similarly, someone cheating on their spouse may become anxious about their marriage falling apart, and someone who gambles away all their money may become anxious about how they’re going to pay their bills. In these cases the anxiety is the result of sin.

Finally, we have the fourth type, sinful responses to God’s providential care. This is anxiety that results because we lack trust in God. This is the type Jesus and Paul were referring to in the passages I quoted earlier. In Luke 12:22-30 Jesus tells his disciples:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Do we believe this? If so, we should not be anxious. But if we are anxious it might be a sign that we are doubting God, and thus falling into sin.

Which Type Are We Dealing With?

How then do we determine which of the four types of anxiety we’re dealing with? Here’s where we need to be careful, especially when attempting to “diagnose” other people. It could be the case that we see obvious sin in a person’s life and recognize that their anxiety stems from sin. But it could also be the case that the person is engaging in sinful behavior and that their anxiety is a result of type #2—a disordered physiological response.

Because we can’t always know which it is, we must be careful about how we approach it. This doesn’t mean, of course, we can’t call people out for their sin. We can and we should. We should just be cautious about telling them their anxiety is a direct result of the sin we’re aware of, because we may not know the whole situation.

However, we do tend to have more information about our own circumstances. We need to search our hearts and examine our emotions to determine whether our own anxiety is something we can’t control, or if it is connected to sinful behavior.