Worry: The Acceptable Sin?
“Stop sinning.” My friend, a lawyer who follows Jesus, shocked me with his response when I shared about my worries. I was changing jobs, stepping out in faith, and starting a new organization from scratch. I shared that I was concerned about our family’s finances through this transition and a litany of other very understandable stressors, all things considered. “Worry is a sin,” he said and then repeated, “stop sinning.” Now, I know this man. I know his love for Jesus and love for me, but I was not expecting this. I was expecting what we all do when someone is worried—a pat on the back, a “there, there,” an “it’s going to be okay.”
“Uh . . . a sin?” was my eloquent response.
He continued, “Well, Jesus says ‘don’t worry.’ We are told elsewhere in the Bible not to worry. Do you think it is part of God’s plan for you?”
I have been chewing on that thought for over two years now. While I am still not sure about calling all worry a sin, I have come to realize that our culture is obsessed with worry and stress. We seem to seek out things that twist our stomach into knots.
We are busy. We have lots of responsibilities. We are stressed out. We worry about our kids. We worry about our job. We worry about our health. We worry about worrying too much. We worry about what to wear. We are worried about our financial security, our country, our privacy, our safety. We worry about what is being posted on social media. We are worried about our world. The list goes on and, when we are feeling especially spiritual, we are worried about all of the lost of the world.
Worry, worry, worry. Even believers seem to wear it as a badge of honor.
This is not a new thing. Jesus addresses this while teaching on the mountain. He had been talking about what we value and treasure and whether you can serve God as well as devote yourself to money. (You can’t, by the way.) He then says quite clearly, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life.”
Wait. If you cannot worry about your very life, what else is there to worry about? See what Jesus says:
“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? 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? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 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. 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? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Mt. 6:25-34)
Good word, Jesus! But you don’t really mean it, do you? A life without worry is impossible, right?
Yes, it is impossible—just like a life without anger toward a brother who wrongs you (Mt. 5:22) or a life where you stay away from lust (5:28). It is impossible like turning the other cheek (5:39), loving your enemy (5:44) or simply letting your “yes” be “yes” and your “no, no” (5:37). Not to mention being “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48).
These and many more things are impossible for us. Jesus knows this, and yet he does not lower the bar.
This is why His teaching was so radically different, like someone with “real authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mt. 7:29). The teachers in Jesus’ day spent their time dealing with external superficial things that could be controlled. They knew their own hearts were full of anger, lust, bitterness and anxiety, so why would they preach against themselves? They knew they had no power to overcome these things as well. So they deflected. They hem-hawed. They white-washed.
Jesus was different. So different. He came with incomparable love yet laid seemingly impossible expectations before us. How is that loving? Isn’t that a recipe for disappointment and frustration and, yes, more worry?
No, not with Jesus. He knew quite clearly that these things are impossible for us. That not sinning is a standard we are unable to live out in our own strength. That is why He came! That is why He made such a radical sacrifice of Himself. He not only taught with authority; He bought it with His blood. He overcame death and gained back all authority in heaven and earth. This is what He offers us through His Spirit: authority over sin, even the impossible ones like anger and lust.
And over even the “acceptable ones,” like worry.
Jesus is not being flippant when he says “do not worry.” He does say such things and then leave us to flounder and flap in the wind like an untethered sail. He gives us anchor points. With these anchor points, that same wind can fill our sails and move us forward in a beautiful, fearless, and, yes, worry-free kingdom life.
Anchor Point #1: Truly understand and believe that God cares for everything and especially every one. That includes you.
This is no passive oversight. This is proactive passionate love. He absolutely wants what is best for you and He will care for you. Believe it, and even when our sight and senses tell us life is spinning out of control, have faith.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Pet. 5:7)
In Jesus’ sermon, He uses the example of the Father’s care for His creation—the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He was speaking to people who were very literally worried about whether they would have food to feed their families or material to clothe them with. These are things most of us seldom worry about. We may worry about picking the right clothes out of a closet full of choices. We may worry about eating too much food and gaining weight. These are lightweight concerns compared to those Jesus spoke to. But He told them, “Do not worry.”
It is not that God cares for us like He cares for plants and animals. Oh, no. “How much more will He care for you”—created in His image, adopted as His dear child. “Oh, you of little faith,” Jesus says. There was another time He said that. It was a time that His disciples were filled with deep worry and great anxiety. They feared for their lives as the storms raged and the waves pounded their boat on the Sea of Galilee. They woke Jesus crying “Save us!” Jesus woke up and said “You of little faith!”
Come on, Jesus! Surely it is okay to be a bit worried when you’re about to drown and your life is at stake! But Jesus rebuked his disciples.
Can the One who calmed literal storms calm the storms in our life too?
Even our very life should be entrusted to God. Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life.” This is what the pagans do, according to Him. But we are different; we have a heavenly Father who knows our needs and cares for us deeply.
When my wife leaves our children for any significant period of time, she always says, “See you soon or in heaven.” In this, she consistently communicates that, because we are in God’s hands and His care, no matter what happens, we are okay. We need not worry even about our life. We will be together again one way or the other.
God has recently called us, once again, to move our family to an area of the world that is considered dangerous for Christ-followers in order to share God’s love there. When we go, I know that my wife will repeat this statement again to our family and friends we are leaving behind. We want them to pray but we don’t want them to worry or be fearful for us. “See you soon or in heaven.”
Anchor Point #2: Understand and believe that God is strong enough to take care of you.
Believe it! He is not impotent and He has not given us an impotent gospel. This abundant life in Him is a power-filled life! Yes, worry is impossible to stay away from in our own strength, but we no longer operate in our own strength. We operate in the power of Christ’s own Spirit! He expects us to operate in that strength (read Romans 8).
What did Jesus do after rebuking His disciples for being afraid of the storm? He calmed the storm! “Peace, be still.” He took care of it and He took care of his own. He wants to speak to the storms in your life. “Peace, be still” He told His disciples in John 14.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
The prophet Isaiah says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Is. 41:10).
Anchor Point #3: Remember your identity as a child of God the Father.
After telling us not to worry as the pagans do, Jesus reminds us that our Heavenly Father knows what we need. He is our Father and He knows.
Look at what Paul says about this in Romans 8:
The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. (Rom. 8:11-16)
Paul says that we are no longer slaves, present tense. This is the freedom Christ offers. His sacrifice was not just for us to know we would eventually be unchained once we died or He returned. His freedom is here for us now. Freedom, in this case, from fear. Here and now, we are no longer slaves to fear.
Fear is the foundation of worry, and we have no use for a spirit of fear. God’s perfect love, made manifest through the power of His Spirit in us, drives out all fear and that should take worry with it (1 John 4:18). The father of lies, the devil, will always try to make the things of this life seem bigger than anything we can handle. In fact, they often are bigger than we can handle.
A common lie that masquerades as gospel truth
You have probably heard good churchgoers say something like this, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Wrong. This is a twisted version of a Scripture teaching specifically about temptation. The reality is that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13) This has nothing to do with the life situations that we are called upon to “handle.” We are often faced with more than we can handle in our own strength, wisdom, or emotional stability. That is why we need the Spirit of God living is us.
These situations are never bigger than God can handle. That is why we must turn our thoughts toward the truth of our identity in Him. We must “take captive every thought to make it submit to Jesus” (2 Cor. 10:5). When we do, the thought processes that lead us to worry are stopped short and we are, instead, reminded of the goodness and grace and power and love of our Father.
Understand your place in God’s family and His love for you, and everything that might induce worry or stress pales in comparison, like a small pebble tossed in the ocean. Worry is swallowed up and gone. Kerr-plunk!
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:6-9)
Prayer can fill the vacancy left by the absence of worry. Prayer opens us to this great peace beyond understanding. Through prayer, God takes our thoughts and envelops them within all things good and right, which is exactly what Jesus says at the end of His mountainside lesson on worry.
Anchor Point #4: Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.
This is, according to Jesus, the antidote to worry: to place God’s rule and reign—His kingdom—first and to live the right way (i.e., righteousness). Placing our focus on the righteous King and His kingdom affirms our identity in Him alone, not in ourselves or anything lesser that might cause us worry. If we, instead, prioritize the things of this world above the kingdom and the righteousness of Jesus, worry is the end result. We cannot depend on anything in this world. We can depend on the King. He is the right way.
If fear is the foundation of worry, then pride is worry’s building block. We pridefully desire to be in control. Every aspect of life that we grasp “control” of brings with it a block of worry. These blocks build up until we have walled ourselves off from the very source of freedom that is given us, the Spirit of love and power and freedom in Christ Jesus.
We tear down these walls and strongholds of anxiety by handing control to the One who can handle the storms. “Peace, be still.”
This is why this past pandemic-filled year has shaken our society to the core. Our culture had built a false fortress out of an errant belief that we are in control of our own safety, security, and well-being. COVID-19 blew that fortress up and left us flailing in the wind. Normally rational people became irrational and, often, common sense fell victim to anxiety at best and outright panic at worst.
If fear is the foundation of worry, then pride is worry’s building block.
Does the thought of being “out of control” worry you? Go back to the anchor points:
- Anchor Point #1: Truly understand and believe that God cares for every thing and especially every one. That includes you.
- Anchor Point #2: Understand and believe that God is strong enough to take care of you.
- Anchor Point #3: Remember your identity as a child of God the Father.
- Anchor Point #4: Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.
Work through them all again, and again, and again until your sails are securely fastened to God’s truth of who He is, who we are in Him, and the freedom His love gives us. Then the wind of the Spirit will fill the sails and you will venture into life fearlessly! The waves will still be there and the storms will still come, but we will be with the One who made the waves and calms the storms.
Is worry a sin? I don’t know for sure. Certainly not if it is a fly-by thought that we give to God for Him to take care of. Like most temptations, it becomes a sin when we welcome it into our heart, live in it, and obsess over it. Like any sin, of course, the grace of God through Jesus will cover us when we give it to Him. Worry is certainly not part of God’s will for your life. Do not follow an impotent gospel and just decide worry is something you have to live with.
Don’t listen to the following lies…
- “It is impossible not to worry!” Actually, with God, all things are possible (Mark 10:27).
- “I cannot imagine life void of stress.” Actually, God can do more than we could ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
- “I am powerless against it.” Actually, while we were still powerless, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6).
Instead of listening to the lies, remember that His power is made perfect in your weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus has all authority and we can move forward in that authority, in His name and His Spirit, to leave worry behind and sail off, carried by the wind of His unending love.
For more from Ken, see www.lumenations.org.