Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow. ~ Swedish proverb
Worry. Anxiety. There are a lot of different words that can describe these types of feelings. I tend to differentiate in that worries are specific—a presentation at work going poorly, a friend being offended by what I said—while I think of anxiety as a more generalized feeling of dread or fear. That’s not necessarily scientific, just how my brain tends to separate them. Personally, I’m more prone to the latter. And while I wouldn’t consider myself a worrier, I do struggle with this on occasion—pretty much everyone does at some point.
There is a famous quote that says, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” Intuitively we know that being anxious all the time isn’t healthy, and yet often it seems like we can’t help ourselves.
I thought it would be worth digging into the topics of worry and anxiety in the bible, to see how we should approach them—are we dealing with a true innate personality trait, or something we can and should overcome? And then we’ll dive into some practical ways to apply this in our lives.
What does the bible say about worry and anxiety?
Actually, quite a lot.
Here are a handful of verses that get right to the heart of the bible’s take on worry and anxiety:
- “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad” (Prov. 12:25)
- “In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul” (Ps. 94:19)
- “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matt. 6:25-34)
- “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27)
- “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7)
- “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved [shaken]” (Ps. 55:22)
- “And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:41-42)
- “I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears” (Ps. 34:4)
- “For what has man for all his labor, and for the anxious striving for which they labor under the sun?” (Eccl. 2:22; NIV)
- “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties” (Ps. 139:23, NIV)
And these don’t even count the 100 or so times that we are commanded to “be not afraid” or “fear not”. God clearly sees these topics as relevant to His people and worth addressing.
Read next: Fear & Love Can’t Coexist (Musings on Faith)
How does worry affect us?
The word typically translated as worry or anxious in the New Testament is merimnao (G3309), and it simply means “to be anxious about”. It’s translated “worry” in the New King James mostly, while the King James tends to prefer “take no thought for” or “do not care for”. This word is what’s used in some of the more well-known verses on this subject, such as Matthew 6 and Philippians 4. Let’s dig into that (lengthy) passage in Matthew for starters:
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble [NIV: “each day has enough trouble of its own”].” (Matt. 6:25-34)
It’s interesting that Jesus spent such a focused passage on the subject of worrying (and God made sure it was recorded for us). He clearly tells us three different times not to worry, and then lays out several reasons why.
First, God knows what you need, and takes care of each part of His creation. Second, it does absolutely no good—worrying doesn’t solve anything. And third, each day has enough challenges on its own and there’s no need to (in the words of George Washington) “borrow trouble” from tomorrow. And He clearly states that worry is a faith issue.
If faith is the evidence of things not seen, but instead hoped for and believed, then worry is faith’s opposite, its dark twin. Worry is the evidence of things not seen, but feared and believed.
That’s an important thing to remember—just like someone’s faith is their reality despite lack of visible evidence, so are their worries. That’s why they can eat away at us even though rationally we know we shouldn’t let them have such an effect.
Worry is, at its heart, fear. And if we let worry and anxiety take up residence in our minds, they become a trickle of water that, over time, erodes and cuts channels into our minds as it continually re-treads the same path. I’m sure you’ve seen that happen yourself, where your mind somehow keeps visiting the same anxieties over and over.
There’s a verse in the book of Job that I came upon recently and found really interesting. God had allowed Satan to take away all of Job’s astounding wealth, his children, even his health. Job’s entire life had been devastated in a very short period of time.
And in a passage where Job is wishing he hadn’t even been born, he says something fascinating. “For the thing I greatly feared has come upon me,” he says, “and what I dreaded has happened to me,” (Job 3:25).
Now…prior to this, Job lived a charmed life. He was prosperous and very powerful, had a big family, and by all account stayed in close relationship with God. God had blessed him immensely. And yet Job talks about this great fear and dread that he had of losing everything. That seems crazy!
It also somehow feels very relatable and human.
Peter exhorts us on this subject and the need to keep God in the picture. He says, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” Now, initially I stopped here. But upon further reflection I realized that the next part is directly connected. He continues, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith” (I Pet. 5:6-9).
Satan takes major advantage when we’re weighed down by worry and doubt, and does everything he can to keep us in that state. Another translation of this verse says, “Be alert and sober of mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a lion looking for someone to devour”.
Alert and sober of mind. We need to be paying attention to our thoughts, examining them and understanding which ones are productive and which may be taking us down a wrong path. Do we control our thoughts, or do our thoughts control us? David prayed that God would search him and know his heart, test him and know his anxieties and thoughts (Ps. 139:23). We should ask God to do the same with us, to highlight where we’re letting anxiety guide us, rather than relying on Him. Jesus very plainly said that we should not have an anxious mind, which means that this isn’t just a personality trait—rather it’s something we can overcome (Luke 12:29). Which raises the question, what can we do when facing this challenge?
You might also like: Fear vs. Faith: Lessons from Esther
How can we help combat worry and anxiety?
For some reading this, just the reminder of these scriptures and God’s words on the matter is enough to conquer these feelings when they occur. But I know that some others are thinking, “Yeah, that all sounds good in theory, but how do I actually DO it?”
Fair point, and I personally feel the same. Because worry and anxiety are rooted in fear, simply applying logic and reminding yourself of what the bible says won’t always work for some brains. It certainly doesn’t for mine. I have to find ways to physically override what’s happening in my mind.
So over the years I’ve developed a number of ways to try and break the cycle when I recognize that worry or anxiety is settling in. Different tactics work at different times, so sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what’s best.
1. Thankfulness, which brings perspective.
Paul wrote to the Philippians that they should “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6-7). In other words, “Tell God what you need and thank him for what he’s already done”. When we do this, Paul says that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.
It’s about perspective, putting a situation or my thoughts into proper place and context. I don’t know about you, but one of the first ways I realize that my worries and anxieties are spiraling is that I lose perspective. When I focus, instead, on how blessed I am in so many areas of my life, it helps re-frame what I’m feeling.
It also helps to remind myself that I’m not actually in charge, and that all I can do is…all I can do. Solomon stated, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows” (Ps. 127:1-2). He wasn’t saying that hard work is useless or that we shouldn’t care about our tasks—just that our efforts apart from God don’t really matter.
2. Asking God to put a bubble around my mind.
I realize this kind of sounds cheesy, but for me sometimes it truly works. And the spiritual principle is sound. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), and as such he has a great ability to transmit thoughts and feelings.
Do you ever have something in your mind that all of the sudden you realize is crazy or illogical, or wonder where it came from? We know God had put a spiritual hedge around Job so that Satan and his demons couldn’t affect parts of his life (Job 1:10) and I picture that same principle applying with our minds.
I sometimes tell Him that I’m struggling with an inability to keep negative thoughts out, which send my mind in circles, eventually continuing to spiral into negativity. I know it isn’t healthy but I sometimes can’t help it, and so I ask God to put a bubble around my mind and keep the thoughts out. I actually picture it. Seriously.
3. Conscious control over thoughts.
Stop the cycle. Say it out loud. I often just say “stop” out loud, to make myself pay attention (to myself…). I will often take a deep breath and whisper/mutter to myself, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matt. 6:34). No idea why the old-timey King James version of the verse carved itself into my head, but it has a nice ring and is what works for me.
It’s the shorthand I’ve developed for myself that signals that I need to stop dwelling on this and forcibly move on for now—in other words, stop borrowing trouble from tomorrow. Find a verse or phrase from a verse that works as a strong reminder for you.
4. Distraction, in some cases. Replacing with positive.
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, because it’s all about stopping the thought cycle and focusing on something else. It’s easy to look at that passage above in Philippians where it says “the peace of God will guard your minds”, and have that feel nice, but not terribly real. But Paul gives us the key to implementing it in the very next verse.
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
In other words, you are what you think about. So when your thoughts are full of worry and anxiety, go consciously read something positive and uplifting. Go for a walk and listen to a sermon. Catch up with a positive friend. Do something for someone else. Take some time in prayer and bible study (often these types of issues can indicate we’re not staying as close to God as we should be). Force yourself to focus on something positive, and play defense by mentally “changing the channel” if the worries start to creep back in.
5. Plan and prepare to the extent you can.
Worrying and planning ahead aren’t the same thing, and the latter can be a positive alternative to worry and anxiety. For certain types of worries (particularly things related to work or school), the best thing you can do is prepare to the best of your ability. Think through everything that might come up, consider how to be prepared for different outcomes, and what you might do if something goes wrong.
And then from there, pray about it—tell God that you’re worried about it and how it would impact you if you go wrong, that you’ve done everything in your power and need His help with the rest. I definitely do this sometimes when preparing for a challenging work conversation or an important presentation or interview.
This principle throws back to that passage in Philippians that we already covered, where Paul basically says “Tell God what you need and thank Him for what He’s already done, and He will give your heart and mind peace” (Phil. 4:6-7). Just because God knows what we need doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to ask Him for it.
If God is for us, who can be against us?
Whether your personality is predisposed to worry more, or you’re just going through a more anxious season in your life, hopefully this study helps provide encouragement as well as practical examples of how to work on this with God’s help. God put a lot of good material about worry and anxiety in the bible!
When it comes to encouragement in this area, and when I’m really struggling with a feeling of anxiety, I often go back to one of my all-time favorite bible verses: “For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28). If we do what we can and then we take everything else to Him and ask for His help, then we can feel confident that everything is happening for a reason. God is in control.