Reframing The Meaning of Anxiety in the Bible
“I am here, in your office to see you because I didn’t feel like there was anyone else I could talk to about my anxiety.”
I hear some form of this statement quite often in my office. And it most frequently comes from someone who is a Christian, who feels like it is emotionally unsafe to talk about their anxiety in the context of their church community. In fact, one does not have to search far and wide to locate someone who has heard this verse thrown back at them when discussing their anxiety:
If you don’t already know, those are the infamous words of the apostle Paul in the Bible, from the book of Philippians 4:6. And I intentionally say infamous because for someone who suffers from anxiety, and belongs to a church community (i.e. probably a more conservative church community), they have had those words repeated to them ad nauseam. In fact, a lot of Christians have gone through their entire life believing that their anxiety indicated that something was wrong with them, and then to try and find someone to talk to about it in the church community, only to have it rebuked in some way.
This verse and the experience that many anxiety sufferers endure because of it, is really the impetus for me writing my book in 2012, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? As someone who considers himself a devout and faithful Christian, pastor, and amateur theologian, I knew from my own personal experience with anxiety that citing that verse to someone struggling with anxiety would not lead to helpful growth, but instead often lead to more shame and feelings of inadequacy around faith and the spiritual life. So I began to think about this verse more in depth, and the entirety of scripture and what it has to say about anxiety, and what I found was quite surprising.
The Greek Word for Anxiety, Merimnao
What’s interesting about the Greek word used by Paul in the New Testament and specifically here in Philippians 4:6 is the word merimnao. The Greek New Testament scholar, Bill Mounce defines this Greek NT word for anxiety, merimnao, in several different ways:
- to worry
- to have anxiety
- to be concerned about
In fact, this word merimnao that the apostle Paul uses in Philippians 4:6, he uses a couple of chapters earlier in Philippians 2:20, but in a different way. In 4:6 where he encourages those in church at Philippi to not be anxious, but instead take their anxiety and present it before God, he instead uses the word in 2:20 to say this about Timothy:
20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.
What Paul is saying is that he has no one like Timothy who shows genuine anxiety for others. Anxiety in this context expresses the concern we have for others. The anxiety is a reflection in some ways of the relationship, which I will discuss in a bit more detail later in this post.
The point is that context is everything when we are talking about anxiety. In an earlier post where I wrote about the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety, discerning the situation and the context was critical to knowing what kind of anxiety you are dealing with and how it is guiding you. So too when it comes to the Bible, the context is everything as anxiety is used in many different ways.
For example, Mounce writes about the different ways anxiety is defined in the New Testament:
to be anxious, or solicitous, Phil. 4:6; to expend careful thought, Mt. 6:27, 28, 31, 34a; 10:19; Lk. 10:41; 12:11, 22, 25, 26; to concern one’s self, Mt. 6:25; 1 Cor. 12:25; to have the thoughts occupied with, 1 Cor. 7:32, 33, 34; to feel an interest in, Phil. 2:20
As you can see anxiety has a breadth of meaning and context determines the meaning. So what is critical is that when someone comes to us struggling with anxiety, that we don’t judge their anxiety as something negative, or communicate the message that something is wrong with their faith. But rather, it’s a time to listen and to explore what the anxiety is about, and what is the possible next steps for a person struggling with anxiety. Paul does not communicate anywhere in Philippians 4:6 that anxiety is wrong, rather he simply is telling someone not to worry, and instead lean into God (my translation). And I think when one looks at how anxiety is used two chapters earlier by Paul, it’s clear that there are times to be anxious. In Chapter 2 it was a time to be anxious, and in Chapter 4 it was a time to not be anxious. Ecclesiastes 3:3 declares “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” And sometimes there is a season to be anxious and learn and grow from it, and sometimes there is a season to not be anxious and to learn and grow from it.
I’m particularly struck by Paul’s usage of merimnao in Philippians 2 as I described above. Timothy’s anxiety is a beautiful reflection of the relationship that he has with the people in Phillip, as it’s a genuine concern for others. This hit home very poignantly to me in September of 2017 when I was driving my wife to the airport to drop her off for her 10 day trip to Rwanda. As I was driving her to the airport on our 30 minute drive I noticed that we were both very quiet in the car. It was an anxious quiet, and I noticed myself becoming more and more anxious as we got closer and closer to the airport. In fact, I could feel my chest starting to get tight, and I noticed my breathing becoming more belabored, and I started to wonder if I would have a panic attack. In that moment I just started praying and taking some deep breaths. For someone like myself who has struggled with anxiety most of my life, this was a common feeling, but one that I had not had in many years, so it was unsettling. But I tried to lean into the anxiety and really listen to what it was saying to me.
As we pulled into the airport and stopped along the curb in front of her gate number the anxiety really started to hit me. I walked around the back and got her luggage and helped her carry it to the curbside check in. And as she was talking to the man helping her out I noticed a lot of emotions coming up for me besides anxiety. Some was sadness. Some was fear of loss. And as we turned towards each other to embrace in one last hug and kiss goodbye I almost couldn’t hold the tears back. I even said something to the effect, “I need to let you go before I totally lose it here at the airport.” And then we said goodbye and I left.
On my drive home from the airport I reflected a lot on my anxiety in that last hour and what struck me was that I was experiencing the anxiety that Paul described Timothy having in Philippians 2:20 for the people in Philippi. It’s an anxiety that reflects concern for others, and is determinative of the close relationship between people. My anxiety for my wife was not a negative anxiety that I shouldn’t have, but it was an anxiety that let me know just how much I cared for her and loved her. In that moment, my anxiety was actually a gift and reminder of the kind of relationship that we have with one another.
You see, context is everything, and the only way to get to context is to be able to sit with someone long enough to hear about their anxiety. But when we judge someone’s anxiety at the outset, and label it in some negative way, then we further the opportunity not only to understand it better, but to grow and be transformed by it in a positive way.
Following After God is an Anxious Journey
As we move from the context of the Greek language in the New Testament about anxiety, it’s important to take a step back and just look at the flow of the text. There are lots of things that are explicit in the text, and I would argue that being anxious is not described in the Biblical text as negative, or an indictment on one’s faith. And there are also lots of things that are implicit in the text, and I would argue that the Bible is full of anxiety.
For example, do you mean to tell me that when a 13 day journey out of exile into the promised land turns into 40 years, there isn’t anxiety all throughout that story? The story of Exodus is an anxious pursuit of God through the desert, and one in which people didn’t know if their food and water would show up daily, or if they would be free from attack by enemies, or that they wouldn’t find themselves back in exile. This is a story full of anxiety.
Or the story of meeting your brother for the first time after many years on the run from him because you stole his birthright and blessing. I am positive Jacob had some anxiety before he met Esau. That anxiety was worked out in the wrestling match with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).
Or how about the story of laying down your nets, which was your livelihood, and daily following after Jesus. That would provoke some anxiety. The story doesn’t say, but we can imagine it.
There are lots of stories of people in the bible who experienced anxious times. The bible may not speak of merimnao, but I think we can safely say that part of our human condition is to struggle with anxiety at some point in our lives.
How to Speak of Anxiety in a Christian Community
Begin by communicating that it’s okay to have anxiety. I encourage you to literally say to an adolescent, “I am creating a safe space for you, and giving you permission to talk about your anxiety.” This kind of permission can be a key to unlocking a lot of the negative assumptions and fears teenagers hold around anxiety.
In December of 2017 I wrote these words for the Fuller Youth Institute in the article, Helping Adolescents Navigate the Rising Tide of Anxiety. I believe that these two things are some of the most important things to communicate to not only an audience, but specifically to a Christian audience. People need to know that when they talk about anxiety it’s going to be safe for them to do so. They have to know that the environment they share their anxiety in has to feel emotionally and spiritually safe. This is one of the reasons that so many Christians come to see me in my therapy practice to talk about anxiety. Many of them have tried to talk about their anxiety to their pastor, or bible study leader, or small group, only to feel like it wasn’t safe for them to do so, based on the comments or looks the received in return. And ultimately, people need to be given permission to talk about their anxiety, otherwise, they may not feel like there is an invitation to share something so personal.
So if you want to make anxiety a topic you can explore in your community, then I would make that publicly known by saying you are creating a safe space, and then giving permission. You may be surprised what stories of anxiety emerge from your community.
I would also encourage you to invite people into the anxiety of the biblical narrative. This can be done in several ways. For example, you can share or preach stories from the bible where anxiety is either implicit or explicit in the text, and by doing so, you are communicating to them that their struggle is not alone. You could also preach on the topic of anxiety itself, and help people understand that there are other ways to view anxiety, rather than the negative view that they may have already had from previous teachings in the church. And I think you could encourage people to ultimately listen for God in the midst of their anxiety. A great question to ask is just that. “God, where are you in my anxiety?” Or, “God, what are you up to? What are you wanting me to learn?”
There is a larger and more complex narrative about anxiety and the bible, and it is a huge disservice to others, and I believe to God when we simply quote Philippians 4:6 back to people who are struggling with anxiety. Now is the time…more than ever…to help people lean into their anxiety and allow God to use it as an agent of transformation.
Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Plano, TX. He specializes in helping people struggling with anxiety find new opportunities for growth, as well as spending a majority of his week with couples as they navigate relational issues. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and What It Means to Be a Man: God’s Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. Rhett lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two children. You can discover more about Rhett’s work through his writing and podcast at rhettsmith.com