Is Worry a Choice?

“And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” – Matthew 6:27

In the pilot episode of ABC’s TV show, Lost, the hero, Jack, tells a story to his new friend, Kate. He recalls his first surgical procedure where a boy was brought to his operating table. During the procedure, Jack accidentally sliced open the boy’s dural sac, a bundle of nerves at the base of the spine. They started spilling out and if he didn’t do something quickly, the boy would die. “The terror was so crazy. It was so real.”

So, Jack decided that he would “let the fear in, let it take over, let it do its thing…but only for five seconds.” He sat there frozen and terrified at the operating table as he counted slowly, “One…two…three…four…five.” He then pulled himself together, sewed the boy back up, and saved his life.

If only TV was real life.

The truth is, we don’t want to worry, but we don’t feel we have much choice in the matter. Sure, sometimes we can talk ourselves out of it, resist the urge to panic. But most of the time, something happens that we did not plan on or expect, and we become worried about the outcome.

Dr. John Forsyth wrote an article for Psychology Today. In it, he says, “Nobody that I have ever know or heard about has ever made a choice to feel anxious, afraid, stressed, depressed, or any one of the countless emotions that we are all capable of feeling. And this includes the pleasant ones too. No one has that kind of emotional "on or off" switch. Emotions happen.”

But he does go on to say that there is a difference between experiencing worry and being controlled by it. “We have the power to disarm anxiety and fear and reclaim the power to create the space we need to keep moving forward in our lives, regardless of our emotional weather.”

So, Jack’s decision to let fear in but only for a short time has a thread of truth to it, at least according to modern psychology.

But what do we do with Jesus’ teachings on worry? In Matthew 5, He says, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself” (Matt. 6:34). Paul similarly teaches, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Scripture seems to tell us not to do it, period. It implies that worry is a choice we must resist.

But you might be interested in knowing that the Greek word for worry or anxiety in these verses is merimnao. It means to have anxiety in an unwarranted way. The context of this word used elsewhere in Scripture has to do with losing control and becoming a slave to one’s fears. In other words, when Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” what He means is, “Do not let worry about tomorrow take control of you.”

That seems to get back to what Dr. Forsyth was saying. Momentary worry is normal and to be expected. Enslaving worry is unhealthy but can be prevented.

All that’s left is to figure out how that prevention is done. Continual, heartfelt prayer—the kind that is a part of your daily routine—would be a great place to start. Seeking out healthy connections and relationships—also daily—will have a lasting impact. Reading and memorizing the words of Jesus can have a massive impact on your ability to disarm worry.

On the more practical end of the strategies, physical activity, sunshine (or lots of Vitamin D), and balanced eating can put more firepower in your arsenal. Seeking professional help (both medical and psychological) often provides a greater resilience over the long term.

The point of this article is not to provide a detailed list of strategies, only to affirm the truth about worry which is this: worry will happen and is totally normal response to events in life. But we have been given the ability to prevent worry from seizing control of our lives. We can resist such slavery and take back the lives that God has given us.

Pastor Scott