Recently, a young Christian leader sat in my study expressing his anxiety about the work he leads. He wondered if that anxiety came from his perfectionism and the expectation it brought with it. As he talked it seemed to me that he was expressing a godly anxiety not a psychological flaw. I shared with him that I see two kinds of anxiety in Scripture: one blameworthy and one not.
I see two kinds of anxiety in Scripture: one blameworthy and one not.
The first anxiety, Jesus criticised in his celebrated Sermon on the Mount. It was anxiety over food, drink and clothing. He taught (Matt. 6:25-31):
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious [Gk. merimnaō, verb] 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: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious [Gk. merimnaō] can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious [Gk. merimnaō], saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
There is an anxiety that is all about the self and is blameworthy because of its self-preoccupation.
Jesus taught that the remedy to that kind of anxiety is found in the doctrine of God. God in his providence provides for his creatures. Jesus directs his hearers to his heavenly Father who feeds and clothes his creature whether birds or lilies or the grass of the field. The Father knows our needs: “For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matt. 6:32). The way forward out of anxiety is to adjust our priorities: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Mat. 6:33).”
The second form of anxiety is apostolic and praiseworthy. Paul wrote of it in his second letter to the Corinthians. In this letter among other matters he defends his apostleship against the accusations of the superlative apostles who were influencing the Corinthians for ill. As part of his apology, Paul listed his sufferings in the cause of Christ. The list is impressive in its variety (2 Cor. 11:21-28):
But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety [Gk. merimna, noun] for all the churches.
The godly anxiety of a pastor who cares about the flock and its health is other-person-centred concern.
The last in the list is striking. Paul is not writing about episodes in his experience (e.g. a beating) but a daily reality: namely, his anxiety about the churches. This is the godly anxiety of a pastor who cares about the flock and its health. This is not a self-centred anxiety. Instead, it is other-person-centred concern.
Being anxious about the churches is a healthy anxiety because it shows a godly interest in the progress of the gospel. The young leader left my study with a new way to understand what Christian leadership brings with it.