The recovery of biblical counselling has been a great blessing to the evangelical church. Men such as Jay Adams (who recently died at the age of 94) and William Goode were used by God to help pastors and congregations to return to a practical confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. Biblical counselling is just that: It confronts our challenges with the truth of Scripture and finds solutions in those same Scriptures. Where sin is at the root of one’s troubles, it is lovingly confronted and then practically helped through the application of Scripture. We should all be thankful for what has been a healthy reformation in this area.
But as with any movement in the church, we have to guard against extremes. Martin Luther famously observed that often church history is like a drunk who falls off one side of his horse then remounts only to fall off the other side! Not a very attractive illustration, but it does make a good point. One area where Christians often “fall off” is by describing all anxiety as sin. Philippians 4:6 is often appealed to in this regard: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” The assumption is often made that, since we are commanded not to be anxious, therefore all feelings of anxiety are sinful.
Another passage interpreted this way is Matthew 6:25–34 where Jesus exhorted his followers to avoid anxiety as we face the issues of life, such as provision of food and drink. Jesus used the word “anxious” five times in these verses. The question is, if a woman finds herself feeling anxious as she faces an empty cupboard, or a dry cough and a loss of taste and smell, is it sinful? When a man receives word that he has lost his job, is it sinful to feel anxious?
The short answer is, no.
Now, some will take issue with this. But consider the following. First, many times in Scripture the word “anxious” is used in a godly context. For instance: “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:25), and, “For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (Philippians 2:20). The words (“care” and “concern” translate the same Greek word for “anxious.” In the first example, Paul says that church members use their gifts to help others because they are “anxious” for their welfare. The same idea is behind Paul’s commendation of Timothy in the second example. There are other similar examples in the New Testament.
The point is that feelings of anxiety and concern are not necessarily sinful. This brings us to the second important observation: The reality of feeling anxious is not sinful, but our response to those feelings can be.
For example, the reality of feeling anxious about facing a difficult confrontation is one thing; using cocaine to calm yourself is sinfully another thing. Feeling anxious about one’s financial hardship is understandable; stealing money is sinful and unacceptable. Do you see the difference? It can be legitimate to feel anxious, it is not okay to respond sinfully.
In these days, we are frequently confronted with various concerns. Let us learn to “be anxious, and sin not.” For many, anxiety is related to their personality, or even to their physiology. To exhort them to just “stop it!” is akin to commanding them to change the colour of their eyes. The reality cannot always be overcome, but one has control over their response. So, respond righteously (see Philippians 4:6–7).
Brothers and sisters, are you feeling anxious? Then do what Jesus exhorted in the Sermon on the Mount, and which he exemplified in Gethsemane. That is, respond righteously to the reality of anxiety by seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Because Jesus did, his people—you and I—were added unto him.
Working on my response, with you,