Anxiety is a problem that has plagued our society for many years. Two years of pandemic, political division, racial unrest, and economic uncertainty have not helped. Anxiety rates have continued to rise, especially among younger generations.
Not even pastors are immune. Recent research indicates that 43% of pastors have seriously considered leaving the ministry in the last year, up from 29% in 2021. 56% percent of those pastors cite “immense stress” as a contributing factor, with 43% also citing loneliness and isolation. By and large, pastors are anxious and burnt out.
I could cite study after study that indicates that anxiety is a major problem in American society and in the American church. It’s a truth that’s almost self-evident at this point.
But is anxiety a sin issue? Are Christians who are anxious committing a sin by virtue of being anxious?
It has often been said that the bible features some version of the command “fear not” 365 times. That’s one for every day of the year. (Unless it’s a leap year, that is.) But is God’s imperative for his people not to fear or be anxious the same as his imperative that they not be unjust, duplicitous, or promiscuous?
Is the bible’s call to not be anxious a call of repentance, or is there another way this conversation should be framed?
Most often, pastors and theologians frame anxiety in terms of unbelief or a lack of faith. Pastor and author John Mark Comer has written, “Anxiety is temporary atheism.” Similarly, Randy Alcorn wrote, “Worry is momentary atheism crying out for correction by trust in a good, sovereign God. Suffering breaks self-reliance.”
For as beatific as these sentiments sound, and with all due respect to their authors who have contributed a great deal to the souls of others, ultimately “anxiety as atheism” is an idea that is as unnecessarily wooden as it is potentially harmful to faithful followers of Jesus who are currently experiencing anxiety.
While pastors and authors like the above are most often speaking more to a garden variety sense of worry than they are clinical anxiety, the lack of clarity surrounding those terms can contribute to rhetoric and suggested courses of action that are less than helpful to someone experiencing anxiety.
Furthermore, some strands of the evangelical movement have taken their belief that anxiety is sinful unbelief to a point of extremity, as illustrated by the “biblical counseling” movement.
The Insufficiency of Biblical Counseling
When I was a seminary student, one professor who was both a clinician and theologian remarked, “Biblical counseling is neither biblical nor counseling.” While perhaps a bit harsh, his evaluation is not without warrant.
Biblical counseling has been defined as “the process where the Bible…is related individually to a person or persons who are struggling under the weight of personal sin and/or the difficulties with suffering, so that he or she might genuinely change in the inner person to be pleasing to God.”
Such a practice might seem reasonable enough. In fact, it sounds a whole lot like Christian discipleship. Nevertheless, in its application, this type of “counseling” is intended by its practitioners to be a wholesale replacement of clinical psychological care and psychiatry.
In fact, the theological ideology that underpins the biblical counseling movement is an ethic of the sufficiency of scripture, so narrowly defined that it rejects humanities studies, including but not limited to sociology and psychology, as “worldly ideologies.”
As a result of this not only lack of clinical training but outright rejection of its moral validity, biblical counseling is often wielded against individuals suffering legitimate psychological conditions in a way that worsens their condition rather than improving it.
Among biblical counseling’s ill-formed ideas about the human condition is the notion that anxiety is not a vast umbrella term that includes conditions with mild to severe symptoms, of which life circumstances, family history and hereditary factors, and even diet and physical activity are all contributing factors. Rather, anxiety is simply a sin that can and must be immediately repented of.
The point of contention here is not only whether clinical psychology can be leveraged in a way that is congruent with the message and morals of scripture, which I believe it can be. But the point of contention is also whether scripture itself paints anxiety as starkly as many conservative theologians and biblical counselors do.
A closer look at the bible’s commands against anxiety may shed more light on this question.
Jesus on Anxiety
Perhaps Jesus’ most famous words about anxiety come in his Sermon on the Mount.
25 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
In Jesus’ famous words here, he uses two metaphors to explain why his followers ought not to be anxious. First, birds do not endlessly toil in fields and worry about being fed, yet they are always cared for. Second, flowers do not fret over what they will wear or whether they’ll be able to pay for it, yet they are adorned in beauty.
The implication is that God’s people are clearly more important to him than crows and daffodils, so much so that the comparison is laughable. Therefore, how much more will God care for our needs than theirs? In this way, worry is needless. Jesus even refers to worriers as people “of little faith,” suggesting that, at least at some level, anxiety is an issue of faith. Existential dread finds its ultimate solution in faith in a good God.
Nevertheless, as I read Jesus’ words here, tone stands out to me (in as much as we can derive tone from the written word). Jesus’ words here do not strike me as the commands of an angry God threatening punishment on those who don’t “believe hard enough.”
Instead, Jesus’ words here are incredibly pastoral. Reassuring. Comforting. Laden with imagery that calms the anxious soul and consoles the worried heart. Less of a command accompanied with the threat of punishment, his words are an invitation into a faith whose burden is light.
In Mark 9, Jesus encountered a man struggling to take him up on that invitation to faith. He came to Jesus with his son who was deeply ill, asking Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If I can? All things are possible to the one who believes,” Jesus said, to which the man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
In this moment, Jesus did not rebuke or condemn the man’s lack of belief or his outright admission of it. Instead, he compassionately demonstrated to the man exactly why he could believe. He healed the man’s son.
If Jesus did not condemn or threaten divine disapproval on people who struggled to believe or who were anxious about the future, what would give us the right to do so?
Mental Health is Not a Sin Issue.
Insofar as it relates to the pains and imperfections of living in a fallen world, everything is a “sin” issue. After all, original sin is the reason our world has fallen and brokenness, suffering, and death exist. Were it not for sin having entered the world, anxiety would not exist.
However, not every negative effect finds its specific cause in a specific sin on the part of the person experiencing it. That is to say, mental health is not a sin issue. And while there may be individual sins that contribute to the relative health or malady of a person, the level of health itself is not ipso facto a moral issue.
Furthermore, Christians must learn that there is a time and place to challenge someone, and there is a time and place to comfort them. It has often been said that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sometimes, you need to read the room.
Moreover, Christian leaders need to also understand when they are out of their depth when it comes to matters of mental health and defer to mental health professionals, encouraging fellow Christians to consult trained clinicians and counselors.
Removing the stigma of mental health issues is a vital step in addressing them and promoting remedies. And vital to removing stigmas is realizing that Jesus was never the one who put them there.