The brokenness of our world and the brokenness of our own souls means that all men are, at one and the same time, both sufferers and sinners. This plays out in a number of different struggles, including anxiety. We often reduce the struggle with anxiety to either one or the other dimensions. So, anxiety is either all sin or all sorrow. The Bible, however, presents us with a more robust teaching on anxiety. The Bible, is big enough to encompass both a suffering and a sin approach to anxiety.
Fear itself is a normal emotion. Because of the brokenness of our world there are moments and occasions where we should feel afraid. Fear is a normal response to threatening situations. It’s an emotion that God created in us from the very beginning. In the Garden Adam is called to “watch over” the creation (Gen. 2:15). He is to be its guardian and to keep vigil. There is an element of constructive concern hardwired into this commission. The brokenness of the world ratchets up the intensity of this vigilance, but God put it there in the beginning.
The naturalness, indeed the God-given nature, of fear means that it is not always sinful. In a wonderful article in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, Ed Welch articulates this point. He demonstrates from the Scriptures that God “expects us to be afraid.” He writes:
Scripture assumes that we live with fear and anxiety. We are weak people who can control very little. Our reputation, finances, loved ones, and even our lives are at risk every day. The psalms are filled with human fears and anxieties – and these are words that the Lord asks us to speak to Him. He actually wants to hear about our fears. (“Fear is Not Sin”, JBC 34:1, 10)
The Psalms describe the “terrors of death” (Ps. 55:4) and personal “distress” (Ps. 18:6), and the heart melting “like wax” (Ps. 22:14). The Apostle Paul too expresses his own fears. He speaks of affliction saying he has “fighting without and fear within” (2 Cor. 7:5). The experience of threat cultivates a natural, normal, and even healthy amount of fear. This fear is normal because we are weak and frail creatures. Welch writes:
Fear and anxiety express our weakness amid the threats of daily life. We are merely human. We are not the creator. Weak people are also sinners, but weakness is not sin. Weakness means that we need help from God and other people. (11)
This weakness does not anger God, he does not condemn us for it. Rather, as Welch says, “Our fears arouse his compassion – not his rebuke” (12). Often fear draws God closer to the anxious. So, when Jacob fears an encounter with the brother he betrayed and tricked, the Lord reassures him:
Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will brink you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. (Gen. 28:15)
Psalm 72 tells us that God “has pity on the weak and the needy” (v. 13). Likewise, in the New Testament, when Jesus addresses the disciples’ anxieties about life he does say, “Do not be anxious about your life” (Luke 12:22), adding the words, “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (v. 32). He provides reassurance and care.
Perhaps the greatest reassurance of God’s care for our fears is that Jesus himself expresses something like anxiety, and yet he was without sin. In the Garden of Gethsamane, in the hours before his arrest and eventual crucifixion, Jesus cries out to the Father with such intensity that he sweats drops of blood. Luke describes our Lord as “being in agony” (Luke 22:44). In his own words, Jesus says he is “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus is describing an intense emotion that compares to physical death, and all this before his cross. Jesus pleads with the Father that if there is some other way to accomplish this plan that the Father would reveal it. By all appearances Jesus is experiencing what looks like anxiety, fear, and stress. If our Lord had such responses, and yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15), then it should be obvious that fear itself is not necessarily sinful.
The Bible encourages us, then, not to automatically assume sin is the root of anxiety. Far too often Christians reduce all trouble to sinful choices. We make every issue a moral issue. But not all anxiety stems simply from inappropriate desires and willful choices. Fear is often natural and normal and even healthy. As we seek to counsel, care for, and encourage others we need to be sensitive to this reality and Biblical truth.
That is not to say, however, that how we respond to fear is always appropriate. Jesus does speak of the response of fear in the disciples as a demonstration of “little faith”. When the disciples are in a boat about to be overtaken by a storm Jesus even dares to ask them, “Why are you so afraid?” (Matt. 8:26). Sometimes anxiety arises from a focus on wrong things, or from a desire to control things. In Matthew 8 Jesus is emphasizing the disciple’s misplaced fears. “Why are you afraid?” The answer seems obvious to us: there’s a massive storm attempting to sink their ship! But when Jesus, the one who is able to still storms, is in the boat with you then fear is misplaced. Jesus demonstrates this. It’s the same principle that God emphasizes with the children of Israel in the wilderness. When God provides manna from heaven, he tells them to gather only what is sufficient for the day and to trust him to provide for tomorrow. The point is to emphasize God’s trustworthiness and to encourage their confidence in Him. Anxiety can sometimes be an issue of sin, a failure to trust God, an attempt to seize control instead of trust. So, anxiety is always worth evaluating.
Scripture does present us with a bigger picture on anxiety than many of us are accustomed to recognizing. Not all anxiety and fear are rooted in sin. If we are quick to rebuke those who express fear we will do more harm than good. If we are quick to condemn ourselves for every anxious thought, we will do more harm than good. Often fear is understandable, and even when the battle with fear requires a response of greater faith this should be handled with compassion. As Welch encourages us to think: the task of little-faiths is to grow more than repent (13). God’s instruction on fear and anxiety highlights more than just sin, our counseling should do the same.