Diagnosis matters. When something is wrong with your body and you feel unwell, you need to know what you are dealing with. And that works for spiritual issues, too. For treatment to work, good diagnosis matters.
So what exactly is worry or anxiety? It’s a condition common to virtually every human, in every society. Not many people are truly care-free.
While various factors and components are important, the Bible cuts deeper, because it says that worry is a deeply spiritual issue. This is not to say that the Bible ignores or disputes the mental, physiological, historical, social, or environmental aspects of worry, but that it sees them all as part of a spiritual issue—that worry, ultimately, is a response to life lived in God’s world. Worry, therefore, is a response to God himself.
When, in Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus commands us three times, “Do not worry,” the Greek word used is merimnao. It literally means “a distracted mind” or a “double mind.” In the broader context of the passage, this division, or divided loyalty, is between God’s kingdom and my own. It is to be distracted from the first kingdom by the other. Biblical scholar Dick France has a really helpful insight into what worry therefore is: to be over-concerned about something other than the kingdom of God.
So here’s what worry is: over-concern. This is quite simple, and hugely helpful. It’s also useful in telling us what worry is not.
1. Worry is not the same as concern. If worry is “over-concern,” then it is different from concern. It is appropriate to be concerned about things. The two are not the same, and you can recognize the difference because concern takes wise action and prays dependently. But worry, or over-concern, thinks and acts as though everything is up to you, or completely out of control, and prays desperately if at all.
2. The solution to worry is not becoming laid-back The answer to over-concern is not under-concern. The antidote to over-concern is not just being a lazy or “laid-back” person. Often being disengaged and indifferent can masquerade as godliness when in fact it is not. We all know laid-back people. Maybe you are one yourself. It can seem a wonderful way to live! But it is worth digging below the laid-back surface.
3. Work is not necessarily an expression of worry. Another common error is to think that the way to avoid worry is to become passive, and simply look to God to provide for all of your needs. Jesus’s illustrations about birds and plants might seem to suggest that passivity is next to godliness. Nothing could be further from the truth. God may provide food for the birds, but they have to actively go and get it. Of course, working extremely hard could be a sign we are deeply, chronically over-concerned; but it is not automatically so.
This World or God’s Kingdom?
With these caveats in place, let’s return to what worry is. The broader context of Matthew 6:25–34 brings clarity to the essence of worry. Jesus’s teaching on worry comes in his famous Sermon on the Mount, where the challenge he’s repeatedly posing is: Are you living as if this life is all there is, or are you living your life for the kingdom of God? Which God? The essence of worry is in attempting to find your ultimate hope, comfort, and meaning in something that’s temporal and fleeting. It happens when you treat something in creation as a “god”—so you rely on it, and seek blessing in it. But this world lacks the stability you need to be worry free. If you put your hope in unstable things, you will be unstable. Your loyalty is divided between something in creation (money is just one example) and God. Something in creation (even a good thing) is usurping the rightful place that only God deserves in your life. Whenever you place your ultimate hope in anything in this world, you will struggle with worry.
While we may say God is most important in our lives, and that he is in control, we struggle to live this way practically in light of the circumstances we face on a regular basis. Worry is over-concern that results from over-loving something—loving it more than God.
Worry Is an Opportunity
How can worry be an opportunity? When you worry, you have an opportunity to see what kinds of things tend to get your attention more than God. Your over-concerns reveal your over-loves. And this can be an opportunity to grow. Jesus has a way of cutting to the core of the problem and providing a deeper, more substantial solution: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
Jesus is bringing us back to the right priorities. “What are you living for?” he asks. He’s calling us to re-orient our lives around the living God and his priorities. We need to keep first things first and second things second. And as we do that, we will begin to be liberated from our worries.