Help Me Understand Your Anxiety Disorder: Terminology

This is the second post in a series that I am writing to help people in the church better understand mental health, and particularly anxiety disorders. To read the first post in the series, click here.

There is a significant amount of confusion and misinformation about anxiety disorders in the world at large, and especially in the church. Part of the confusion stems from the terminology. “Anxiety” is not by definition a clinical term. So a person can say that they are anxious, or struggling with anxiety, and simply mean that they are worrying about something.

Indisputably, the Bible has much to say about worry. Take, for example, Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying? And why do you worry about clothes? Observe how the wildflowers of the field grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you—you of little faith? So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-34 CSB

The word that the CSB translates in this passage as “worry” is translated in other versions (like the ESV) as “be anxious”. This is not an incorrect translation, as worry and anxiety can be synonymous. However, many people do not understand that, while you can use worry to mean anxiety, and vice versa, use of the term “anxious” or “anxiety” does not necessarily signify worry.

We all experience worry and fear. If you are a Christian, you also believe that we all sometimes experience sinful worry, where we fail to trust God with ourselves, our lives, or our circumstances.

I am not saying, however, that all fear is sinful. If you believe that a human being experiencing fear is inherently sinful, you are falling into the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. In brief, Gnosticism denies the goodness of material creation, including the goodness of the human body, believing instead that the spiritual is superior to the physical and that salvation comes through freeing the “self” from the material world. This, of course, is directly contrary to the Christian conception of the world, which is that God created all things and called them good, and in the case of humans, very good. Christians believe that humans are embodied souls that bear the divine image.

Because God created us as embodied beings, our bodies are integral to our selves. So, for example, if you were attacked by a mountain lion, you would experience fear as a physical response to the danger. In fact, it would be bizarre in this situation for you not to be fearful, because that is how God created you. (There’s a separate discussion to be had about situations causing fear being a result of the fall; I won’t delve into that here, except to note that situations causing fear, and the fear response itself, are two different things.)

There is a lot more to be said about this, so in my next post, I will continue to explore these ideas and unpack the difference between worry and clinical anxiety.