What is wrong with worry? Of course, we need to distinguish between acceptable concern and illegitimate worry. Paul, for example, had many concerns about the churches to which he wrote, and these concerns were right (we can read some of his legitimate concerns in 2 Corinthians 11). Of course, we know that Paul prayed about the causes of care and responded to them appropriately. Yet we also know that we can respond to worries in wrong ways.
First, anxiety can lead us to doubt whether or not God cares for us. Such anxiety is our opinion on divine providence and it reveals that we do not think God has the wisdom or the power or the commitment to deal with it in the best way. So when something seems to go wrong, instead of taking the matter to God, we start to fret over it and suspect that somehow nothing good can come out of the circumstances. We can easily see how Peter’s readers could have reacted in this way as they faced the prospect of persecution and its effects.
Second, anxiety can lead us to take matters into our own hands in a wrong way. Peter has already warned his readers about the danger of certain sins that were liable to appear in their difficult circumstances (1 Pet. 4:14-15). Because they were deprived of goods, there was the danger of stealing; because they were physically abused, there was the danger of responding with violence. Such responses could appear among Christians at all times of difficulty.
Another possible wrong response is to trust in the advice of humans rather than in God’s promises. If we go into a bookshop, we often find that the self-help section is beside the spirituality section. A similar proximity can occur in our lives when we place the opinions of humans above the promises of God. Of course, good advice is to be welcomed. But if the human advice is valued more than the counsel of God, then we are sinning.
Third, anxiety can delude us into thinking that we are not in a world affected by sin. Previous generations were perhaps less likely to have this problem because they lived in circumstances where problems were expected. It was normal to live with poverty, ill health and danger. They realised that humans were liable to all the miseries of this life, as our catechism puts it. And we are liable to them as well. If an earthquake occurs, the houses of Christians and non-Christians will be affected; if an economic downturn happens, Christians may lose their employment or their financial securities may suffer in other ways. Adverse circumstances are inevitable as long as we are in this world. We should be thankful for the many benefits we have, but we should not forget that we can lose them.
Fourth, anxiety can lead to a distorted perspective of events. It has been observed that in the past, when something went wrong, Christians would ask, ‘What is God teaching me in this circumstance?’ Today, even Christians respond by saying, ‘How could God allow this to happen to me?’ or even with, ‘What right has God to allow this to happen to me?’ When we respond with such questions, it is a sign that we have lost a true perspective on life.
Fifth, anxiety can cripple our souls because the concerns we have become the all-consuming focus of our thoughts and we are unable to do anything else. They are with us when we waken in the morning, and they have prevented us from getting to sleep at night. Physically we end up exhausted, and spiritually we are of no help to others because we are pre-occupied with our own concerns. And yet all our worrying does nothing to help the situation. The problems remain.
Sixth, such excessive worry is a very bad Christian witness. Can we sing Psalm 46 truthfully if we are convinced that our troubles will destroy us? The words of Psalm 23, about knowing the presence of the Shepherd in dangerous locations (the valley of the shadow of death where wild animals lurked to attack the sheep), are expressions of confidence in God. What would an onlooker say if he saw a fretting sheep walking beside its shepherd? That may happen with physical sheep, but it should not be the case with spiritual sheep. What should concern the physical sheep is how close it should keep to the shepherd, and that should be our concern as well.