Anxiety and Fear Are NOT Sinful

by John Ellis

Psalm 4:4 can be a difficult verse to navigate, especially in terms of application. Understanding a little something about Hebrew poetry goes a long way towards making the navigation less tricky. To that end, one of the primary literary (and rhetorical) devices of ancient Hebrew poetry is parallelism. So, in Psalm 4:4 the second half of the verse – “ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent” – parallels the first half – “Be angry, and do not sin”; the second half is a type of restatement of the first half. Pondering internally and being silent is being angry and yet not sinning. That’s how the parallelism of ancient Hebrew poetry works.

Does this mean that whenever we become angry, if we express that anger, we’re sinning? I mean, that’s what Psalm 4:4 seems to say.[1]

Now, and this is important because it applies not just to Psalm 4:4 but the topic of this article, appropriate biblical interpretation can’t – can NOT – be found in decontextualized proof texting. We’d do well to listen to Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who explains, “The canon [whole Bible] is the primary context that enables us to discern and to describe what God is doing as author with the biblical texts.”[2] The entire story of the Bible reveals that there are not only biblically justified reasons to express anger but also a biblically informed Kingdom ethic that calls us to express our anger in those Kingdom ethically justified instances. The previous sentence (and these opening paragraphs) deserves its own article. I believe, though, that most readers, if they’re being honest, grasp the basic idea/argument. No doubt, thinking through the overall story of the Bible uncovers that there is indeed a righteous way and an appropriate way to express anger. Proof texting Psalm 4:4 to squash all instances of expressions of anger is exegetical malfeasance. I say all this, because I’m angry.

(For a correct, I believe, exegesis of Psalm 4:4, please read footnote #1.)

While not new, over the last couple of years an especially harmful eisegesis (reading your own presuppositions and desires into the text) has reared its oppressive head. Some well-known pastors and authors have been forcefully trumpeting the claim that anxiety and fear are sinful. Many pastors, Bible teachers, and lay-Christians have succumbed to this teaching and have brought it into our churches. Doing so, they are heaping guilt, judgment, and further suffering on brothers and sisters in Christ who are already suffering. I’m personally angry because it’s not uncommon to hear from dear friends and family members whose confusion, guilt, and suffering have been added to because of the teaching that anxiety and fear are sinful. It’s not unusual for me be to asked, “Is anxiety/fear a sin?”

No, fear and anxiety are not sinful. If they are, our salvation is empty because Jesus experienced both anxiety and fear. He was so anxious and fearful in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood.

That should be enough to refute the false teaching, but sadly it’s not. Hence, an article and not a social media post.

First off, this biblically aberrant teaching demonstrates an utter ignorance (or disregard) of the science of anxiety and fear.[3] Both anxiety and fear are evidence being given us by our body, including our mind, that something is going on, that something is wrong. The range of underlying conditions that lead to anxiety or fear are vast, and many of those conditions are physical, meaning that often anxiety or fear can’t be willed away. To be clear, even if the underlying conditions aren’t physical, that doesn’t mean that anxiety and fear can be simply willed away, because they can’t be. In fact, the underlying conditions and causes are often woven together and simply telling someone to “let it go” or “get over it” is far beyond simplistic; it’s harmful and adds to the underlying causes and conditions. The science is clear, you don’t just “get over” anxiety and fear and you can’t will those things away.

However, my audience with this article is not those who ignore the science (and the theology I explain below) and sinfully heap further shame, guilt, and judgment on suffering brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not writing to them; I’m writing to their victims. I’m writing to my dear friends and family members who have asked me, “Is anxiety/fear a sin?” I’m also writing to my brothers and sisters in Christ whom I either don’t know or am unaware of their struggles but who have had their struggles added to by the noxious, unbiblical teaching that anxiety and fear are sinful.[4]

Some of the main verses ripped out of context as “proof” that anxiety and fear are sinful are Philippians 4:6, Isaiah 41:10, 2 Timothy 1:7, and Matthew 6:25-34. There are other verses and passages, of course, especially in the Psalms, but these verses are the ones I’ve encountered the most frequently in this discussion.

The use of these verses to prove that anxiety and fear are sinful demonstrates a lack of understanding of how language works (not to mention a dismissal of the overall context of the Bible). The aberrant teaching is dependent on the equally aberrant belief that facts speak for themselves, that understanding is reducible to synonyms. In other words, within this belief, when Paul writes, “do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6), that’s exactly what he means. The application is found in the synonyms of “do not”, “be anxious”, and “about anything”. So, if you find yourself anxious about fill-in-the-blank, you are disobeying Paul. It’s a reductionist view of language that chooses to ignore context.

In a bit, I’m going to wander just a little into the weeds of philosophy of language (not far and not much, but some interaction with it is necessary). I’m going to do so to demonstrate how that perspective on language serves as a barrier to legitimate interpretation and application. But first, this perspective on language can be unmasked and somewhat disarmed with an anecdote.

Years ago, when I was a theatre teacher, I would begin my acting classes for children with a simple demonstration of how subtext is what determines meaning and not the words/synonyms. I would have a student ask me, “How are you doing?” To which I would respond, “I’m doing good”, but with a tone, intonation, and body language that actually said, “I’m not doing good.” I would then ask the students if I was, indeed, “good”, to which they would respond in the negative. Pushing back, I would insist, “but I said I was doing good.”  

Obviously, the point of the exercise was to help the young acting students realize that acting truthfully requires much more than just knowing what words mean. It requires understanding and then communicating what the character wants and is feeling. Humans communicate with far more than words, and often we deliberately use words to achieve an objective in ways that don’t reflect the meaning/synonym of the word. Affective, truthful communication cannot be reduced to simply grasping meaning/synonyms. Attempting to do so results in a failure to communicate.

However, while I believe the above anecdote is a helpful entrance into the conversation and reveals truth about the topic, when it comes to statements/sentences, synonymy isn’t really the issue; analyticity is. In philosophy of language, “Synonymy is defined as: two words are synonymous if and only if they have the same meaning; and analyticity is defined as: a statement is analytic if and only if it is true in virtue of its meaning or by definition.”[5] Obviously, synonymy and analyticity are related; analyticity depends on synonymy within the statement. If I say “If you touch that wire, it will shock you” while pointing to an exposed, hot wire, we understand the statement to be a warning. And that specific warning is analytic. However, if I were to say, “If you touch that wire, it will make your hair stand up on end”, while still a warning, it is not analytic. While the warning is still true, it’s not “true in virtue of its meaning or by definition.” The first statement is analytic because of the synonymy of the words used, leading to it being “true in virtue of its meaning or by definition.”

Formalist objectivity is the name of the game for those who insist that the prooftexts demonstrate that anxiety and fear are sinful. They assume analyticity in those verses, and in doing so, they assert that the verses are commands. By that, I mean that their analyticity requires interacting with the statements as commands controlled by synonymy. This is a failure to grasp the complexities of what are referred to as speech acts.

I love Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer’s explanation, “Speech-acts are both propositional (because all communication has content) and personal (because speakers do things with propositional content). Language is not simply a tool for information processing but a rich medium of communicative action and personal interaction.”[6]

So, to help break all this down, in speech acts there is an act of illocution and an act of perlocution (there’s more than that, but for our purposes we’re only going to briefly define these two). Illocution is what the speaker is trying to do/accomplish. Perlocution is the effect on the hearer the speaker intends – “the consequences of effects such acts have on actions, thoughts, or beliefs, etc. of hearers.”[7]

By way of illustration, when I say “I love you” to my wife, I’m not simply imparting information – a fact – to her. A propositional statement – a fact/piece of information – is embedded in my words, to be sure, but my intent is usually deeper and richer than that. That intent is called illocution in philosophy of language. And with my part of the speech act – my illocution – I want something from my wife, I want her to respond in certain ways – the perlocution. That’s a speech act – the illocution and perlocution combined. Furthermore, and this is important, depending on the context, both the illocution and perlocution will differ at times from previous utterances of the words “I love you” even thought the words themselves remain the same. When I say “I love you” during a romantic evening, I mean (and want) something different than when I say “I love you” when she catches me teaching our son how to start a fire with a magnifying glass. There is shared propositional content, to be sure, but the speech acts are vastly different.

The Bible is a speech-act from God. It has illocutions from God and expected perlocutions for/from us. Furthermore, “If God is the ultimate communicative agent, and if the divine illocutions have been canonically inscribed, then it is incumbent on the Christian interpreter to read for the divinely appropriated prophetic and apostolic discourse.”[8]

Here’s the crux of my argument: those who believe that anxiety and fear are sinful are failing to account for God’s divine illocution. In turn, this creates applications that fall short of God’s expected perlocutions and, in fact, often rebel against God.

Understanding illocution and perlocution renders it unnecessary to delve into exegetical looks at each and every passage that says something like “don’t be anxious” and “don’t be afraid.” Briefly, though, since I quoted and interacted with it above, the word translated “anxious” in Phil. 4:6 is used in context of persecution for faith in Jesus in the New Testament. Leaning on the speech act concepts of illocution and perlocution, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wasn’t issuing a blanket-one-size-fits-all command, to begin with. The negative phrase “do not be anxious about anything” is contrasted with the positive phrase “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Theologian Frank Thielman points out, “The ‘and’ at the beginning of verse 7 is more important than it looks. It does not simply attach another statement to verses 4-6 but gives the result of the thankful prayer that Paul has described in verse 6.”[9] With verse 7, Paul communicates, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The command isn’t about feelings; it’s about actions and results. And this brings me back to how the overall context of the Bible helps us to “read for the divinely appropriated prophetic and apostolic discourse”, to requote Dr. Vanhoozer from above.

As stated already, Jesus suffered anxiety and fear. Again, he sweat drops of blood because he was profoundly anxious and fearful in the Garden of Gethsemane as he approached the time when he would suffer and die. Jesus was fully human, and as a human he experienced the normal range of human emotions and existential and emotional responses. Even without the example in the Garden of Gethsemane, it would be Christologically irresponsible, to the point of heretical, to deny that Jesus experienced the normal range of human emotions and existential and emotional responses.

Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? That we have to choose between Jesus’ sinlessness or the verses that seemingly command us not to be anxious or be afraid? Of course, not.

One of the main motifs in the Bible is the metaphor of family. For those who are in Christ, God is our Father.[10] That relationship informs how we understand God’s illocution – that “appropriate prophetic and apostolic discourse” Vanhoozer wrote about.

Think of it this way, when my kids were younger and severe thunderstorms would roll through, the thunder, lightning, and wind scared them. During those times, I would say some version of, “Don’t be scared.”

With an overly synonymy perspective, my words can be viewed as a command, similar to when I tell them, “Unload the dishwasher.” Accept that’s not taking into consideration the context, including the relational context. There was never a moment when I even remotely considered punishing my kids because they failed to stop being afraid during a thunderstorm. In those moments, they hadn’t disobeyed me because I hadn’t issued a command, regardless of the words used and the construction of the sentence. However, during those moments when they fail to unload the dishwasher, they have disobeyed a command, and consequences are forthcoming.

For sure, in my illocution the propositional content of the “don’t be afraid” is included. But not in a way that’s in the form of a command or even expectation. It’s a relational call to their heart to draw them closer to me, to help them see that even in their fear, I was there. Relational calls like that challenge fear and aid in the healing. This is similar to God’s illocution in the Bible passages that tell us to not be anxious and to not fear. He’s not issuing a command like when He said, “Don’t eat the fruit off the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” If He is issuing commands, then Jesus sinned. The overall context of the Bible, including the relational motif of God as our Father helps us see the illocution and perlocution wrapped up in the prooftexts of those who claim that anxiety and fear are sinful. They’re guilty of taking those prooftexts and their desired interpretations and forcing the Story to submit to them and not the other way around.

As our Father, God is calling us to Him. And He’s not commanding us to let go of our anxieties and fears before we do so. He embraces us in our anxieties and fears; He greatly desires to embrace us in our anxieties and fears. I love how Dr. Vanhoozer puts it when he writes, “Theology must come to grips with the Bible as performative rather than simply informative discourse.”[11] When the Bible tells us to not be anxious, we’re not being informed of an ethic – we’re not being given a command. We’re being called into a relationship that brings hope and healing in our anxiety. God’s illocutive speech act reveals His love for us. The desired perlocution is to run to that love in recognition that our anxiety and fear do not separate us from Him and do not cause Him to be disappointed in us. For sure, in that speech act the wonderful truth that God heals is included. But our full healing may never come until King Jesus returns. But our full healing will come, that’s part of the promise of God’s illocutionary act. Turning those illocutionary acts into commands gives us the ability to heal ourselves. If that’s true, we don’t need God. Which, to be blunt, is exactly the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Moralism is simply the Christianized name for Serpent-Satan’s continued lies that we don’t need God.

Anxiety and fear are not sinful. Those who say otherwise do not deserve your time nor attention. They’re not your Father, and they do not have your Father’s loving concern for you.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] I’m putting this in a footnote because my purpose with looking at Psalm 4:4 is not really about Psalm 4:4 but to help illustrate how allowing the overall context of the Bible inform our understanding is important. And I chose Psalm 4:4 because I’ve heard it used many times to back up statements about how it’s a sin to express anger. But, because I don’t want to leave it hanging, I offer this: since the overall context of the Bible tells us that an interpretation of Psalm 4:4 that concludes that expressing anger is (always) sinful is an incorrect interpretation, I want to offer a short exegesis of the verse. Verse 2 lets us know that the audience of verse 4 are those who are opposed to God and God’s people – specifically the Psalmist, in this case. Verse 4 is part of a larger warning to those currently in rebellion against God. God is saying, “Don’t give voice/action to your rebellion. Quietly reflect on your rebellion instead.” Verse 5 then gives the conclusion/response that should come from that silent reflection – “Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.” Psalm 4:4 is not about Christians expressing anger. For further explanation, I recommend The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, vol. 1 by Gerald H. Wilson.

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 178.

[3] Many of those declaring this false teaching aren’t/wouldn’t be swayed by the science anyway. They’ve accepted a story that centers themselves as autonomous knowers (think Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden). Anything that challenges their epistemic autonomy is dismissed offhand. Whatever science they accept is required to submit to their story, not the other way around.

[4] I only delete comments that are racist, that are abusive or insulting towards other commenters, and comments that are too long (write an article on your own blog, not mine). You can insult and abuse me all you want in the comment section, I will not delete those comments because I do not care nor do your words bother me. However, I will not be responding to any commenters who believe that anxiety and fear are sinful. If that’s you, as stated above, you are not my audience. I will not delete your comment, unless it violates one the three things in the first sentence of this footnote, but I also will not pay it any attention.

[5] John Searle, Speech Acts, An Essay In the Philosophy of Language (New York: Cambridge University Press, 31st printing, 2009) 6.

[6] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 47.

[7] Searle, Speech Acts, 25.

[8] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 180.

[9] Frank Thielman The NIV Application Commentary: Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 219.

[10] I actually prefer to think of my role as father to my kids as the metaphor that points to God the Father.

[11] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 64.

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