Anxiety: Sin, Disorder, or Both?
We get a lot of questions and emails about anxiety disorders and attention deficit disorders — ADD/ADHD. One listener asks if these are merely disorders, or are they sin, either/or, or is it a both/and? Over the years as a pastor, how did you process these questions over panic attacks, anxiety, and ADD?
Well, as I have tried to think about them, and I have over the years, they really are pretty distinct issues. So let me separate them out and maybe we can do ADD in its own podcast, but with regard to anxiety the answer is yes. Paul and Jesus explicitly command us not to be anxious, so to be anxious is a sin. Jesus says: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). And then he gives eight reasons in that paragraph in Matthew 6 why we don’t need to be anxious and shouldn’t be anxious — “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matthew 6:34). Or Matthew 10:19: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say.” And Paul in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
So, yes, worry or anxiety is a sin. God wants us to trust his sovereign, all-wise, all-good, all-providing, all-protecting, ever-assisting care. This is a trust issue. And he wants us to do it so deeply that death itself is not the ultimate threat, that death cannot separate us from the love of God or rob us of our joy. So the godly opposite of anxiety is peace and contentment rooted in trust in God’s promises. It is the experience of Paul’s secret. “I have learned” — this is Philippians 4:11 — “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” That is the opposite of anxiety. “I know how to be brought low” — and not be anxious about being brought low. “I know how to abound” — in any and every circumstance. “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger” — now hunger would mean I don’t know where my next meal might come from — “abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). I don’t know if my needs are going to be met. And he is saying, I have learned a secret: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) so that the great challenge to all of us is to trust God more and more, because, Tony, all of us are anxious.
“God wants us to trust his sovereign, all-wise, all-good, all-providing, all-protecting, ever-assisting care.”
I mean I hope the person who asked this question doesn’t hear me say, “Yes, it is a sin,” and respond, “Well, thank you. That is no help.” Well, it is a help, because I am joining you in it. There is no human being on the planet beside Jesus who doesn’t struggle with anxiety. All of us are flawed in our faith. If we were perfect in our faith we would be anxiety-free. And the more we mature in faith, the more anxiety-free we are.
But I don’t think in this life there has ever been a person who, when faced with some new threat, some new danger, some new difficulty, doesn’t have anxiety pop up in their life and then like the psalm says, Psalm 56:3, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” So there is this transaction that goes on as we deal with the remaining corruption and unbelief in our hearts.
Spiritual and Physical
Now having said that, we are all on the same team of trying to grow into greater and greater faith and less and less anxiety, having said that, it is true that there are psycho-physical conditions that make extreme anxiety and panic attacks, for example — uncontrollable phobias — a real life problem. So there is a continuum for all of us, but I do want to acknowledge for some in these unusual cases, the believer needs very wise counsel from those who know him best and who know those physical and psychological conditions best.
“There will always be physical strategies as well as spiritual strategies for dealing with the conditions of our soul.”
Here is the bigger picture. The physical brain and the spiritual soul are interdependent in ways that we cannot fully see. This means that there are — and there always will be — physical strategies as well as spiritual strategies for dealing with the conditions of our soul. That is a huge statement. We might want to talk more about that later. There will always be physical things you do and spiritual things you pursue and do in dealing with the condition of the soul. What we eat and drink and how we sleep and exercise and how we deal with the weather we live in, like is it dark in February? Will the sun ever come out? Will the temperature ever get, you know, above zero? The lighting that we have at work, the sounds that we are surrounded with — a chirping bird versus a whirring freeway — all of these things affect our psychological and our spiritual condition, which simply means that there may be extreme cases that require special physical efforts, including medication, that provide a kind of equilibrium where the more natural strategies can have their best effects.
In other words, medication may bring a person to the point where they can avail themselves more effectively of God-given natural strategies and maybe later we could talk about how these work. I have ideas about how to sanctify these natural strategies. But for now I just want to emphasize that, Yes, we ought not to be anxious. And, Yes, we are all anxious. And, Yes, God has provided wonderful resources both spiritually in his promises and physically with steps like Get enough sleep in order to have the resources that he provides to be content.