Worry is “Practical Atheism”
There is an important distinction we need to make between good worry and bad worry. There are matters that ought to concern us, things that deserve our immediate attention and action. Being carefree is not the same as being careless.
Good Worry, Bad Worry
The Greek word for “worry” in Matthew 6 is sometimes used elsewhere to convey legitimate concern for something or someone. In fact, this word is used by the apostle Paul to describe the mental and pastoral weight he carried daily, his “deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). He also used the word to describe Timothy’s sincere “care” for the spiritual growth of believers in the city of Philippi (Philippians 2:20). We should, therefore, sometimes express intense care and concern for the advancement of the Lord’s work and the welfare of his people. There is such a thing as good worry and appropriate anxiety. We should be concerned about the welfare of our nation, the state of our own souls, the health of the church, the peril of the lost, the future of our children, and the care of our aged parents. The Christian is not a happy-go-lucky kind of character who breezes through life with a thoughtless attitude and naïve approach to living for God. So what does Jesus prohibit?
Jesus gives the command abruptly to his followers: “Therefore I say to you, do not worry.” There are no “ifs” or “buts”: this is a command to immediately refrain from worrying. The construction of the Greek here carries the idea that those listening to the sermon had already given themselves over to worry and that Jesus is therefore telling them to immediately stop being anxious. This is a blanket ban on “bad worry.” Bad worry is inappropriate in light of God’s promises, providence, and power. The apostle Paul repeats this imperative in Philippians 4:6: Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Anxious care, or illegitimate concern, is out of place in the company of Christians and certainly in the presence of God. Anxiety is not a personality trait or culturally accepted norm, but a violation of God’s will for which we need forgiveness. However, too often we treat worry as a “respectable sin.” When you and I worry, we are being disobedient. We are sinning. I believe it was John Wesley who said, “I can no more worry than I can curse or swear.”
Anxiety takes God out of the picture, causing us to respond to a situation as if he were not present. That’s what I mean by practical atheism: we are thinking and living as if God has vacated the throne of heaven. Clearly, then, anxiety is no small sin. But not only that, it is not a solitary sin; it spawns others. Worry is a sin that gives birth to ugly offspring.
Let me give one example. Let’s say you worry about your financial security. If you’re not careful, worrying about your finances will trigger other sins, such as covetousness of others and discontentment regarding God’s providence in your life. But Jesus wants us to be worry-free. He tells us to stop worrying about whatever is worrying us.
Remember, with Jesus’ commands comes his enablement to grow in grace. He doesn’t command us to do something that he is not willing to strengthen us to do. You see that principle at work in the story of the man with the withered hand being asked by Jesus to stretch it forth (Mark 3:1–6). Humanly speaking, that would have been impossible, but with any divine commandment comes divine enablement. Therefore, don’t say, “I can’t stop worrying.” You can, and you must. And by God’s grace, you will.