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All of us have concerns about things that happen in our world. The apostle Paul had them in his day. His ministry included numerous hazards. He also expressed deep concerns about the churches under his care (2 Corinthians 11:28). But later he says, “be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6). Is Paul contradicting himself? And was disobeying Jesus, who said, “do not be anxious about your life” (Matthew 6:25) and “do not be anxious about tomorrow (v. 34)?

We can express concern without being anxious. But how do we tell the difference between the two? Legitimate concerns—which we all have—are generally realistic, temporary, involve other people, and are often motivated by love. Anxiety is usually unrealistic, long-lasting, selfish, and driven by fear. Here’s how they differ.

Legitimate Concerns Unhealthy Anxiety
Motivational; promotes action and prompts us to create and accomplish goals and resolve conflicts. Paralyzing; has no purpose and locks us into a cycle of worrying, often about things beyond our control.
Healthy concerns about important life events such as paying bills in a timely fashion, finding and maintaining employment, or being affected by sudden changes in relationships. Frequent or constant worries about life events that impact our professional and personal functioning from day to day; may result in difficulty sleeping.
Natural uncertainty in new situations, possible embarrassment or discomfort in a moment of social awkwardness. Overly self-conscious in social situations, and may cause us to avoid them so as not to be judged, embarrassed, or humiliated.
Nervousness before stressful events such as exams, presentations, performances, or a situation where we may reasonably anticipate bad news or an adverse outcome. Excessive worry before significant events that could affect our health or lead to a panic attack; may manifest itself as a fear of not being perfect.
Appropriate fear when facing a serious threat to self or someone else. Irrational fear of a situation, place, person, object, or circumstance that poses little or no actual danger.
Sadness, or difficulty sleeping for an appropriate amount of time after having experienced a traumatic event. Nightmares, traumatic flashbacks, or paranoia stemming from a traumatic event occurring years before.

Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” This is often the case. We tend to worry about things better classified as possibilities than realities.

Christians are called to have hope and be able to tell others why (1 Peter 3:15). Biblically speaking, hope is not a desire for a future possibility; it is the joyful expectation of a future certainty. Biblical hope is the very antithesis of anxiety. Both of them look to the future, but while hope delights in the future; anxiety dreads it. Hope is filled with certainty; anxiety is filled with uncertainty. Hope is focused on God; anxiety is focused on self.

It is a good thing to be concerned with daily needs, challenges, troubles, and uncertainties. But to be overwhelmed by them or live in dread of such things goes far beyond a reasonable concern. This is the kind of anxiety Jesus forbids because it is not only irrational; it is beneath us. God designed us for much more than fretting over things that might never happen.