Word of the Week
October 9, 2021
Merimnaō: The Dilemma of Anxiety
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Philippians 4:6 (NASB)
Worry has been defined as “a small trickle of fear that meanders through the mind until it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained” (Our Daily Bread).
Another writer describes worry as “a circle of inefficient thoughts whirling about a point of fear” (Austen Riggs, M.D., Readers Digest).
Anxiety, however you describe it, is a psychological pandemic in our generation. We worry about the future, the economy, the environment, the political quagmire, the chances of infection. We worry about how all this worry is going to affect our health!
It’s not just a modern problem, however. It was an issue in the first century, and the New Testament gives very specific instructions about dealing with anxiety. To take advantage of this advice, we can begin by focusing on the Greek word for worry.
The Greek word for “to worry” is merimnaō. You can find it in 17 verses of the New Testament, usually translated “to care, to be anxious, to be concerned.”
Most of the time, merimnaō is bad.
Jesus warned His disciples against worry. In the Sermon on the Mount, He clearly told them not to worry about what they would eat or drink, or about what they would wear (Matthew 6:25, 28, 31). He repeated the same command in Luke 12:22. He scolded Martha for allowing her anxiety to control her (Luke 10:41). He even told His followers that they need not burden themselves with worry about their response if they were hauled into court (Matthew 10:19; Luke 12:11).
However, merimnaō can sometimes be good.
- Paul told the Philippians that he was sending Timothy to encourage them, because “I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned [merimnaō] for your welfare.” Timothy cared enough about this church to have them constantly on his mind.
- Paul explained that every member of the church should exercise the same level of concern [merimnaō] for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25). It’s normal to care about the needs of fellow believers.
- According to Paul, one advantage of being single is the fact that you can be concerned [merimnaō] exclusively about the things of God, rather than being concerned [merimnaō] with the needs of your spouse (1 Corinthians 7:32-34). Nothing is wrong with either form of preoccupation; It’s healthy to spend our time pondering the interests of someone other than ourselves.
Obviously, it takes discernment to tell when a healthy concern has soured into a harmful anxiety. Based on these passages, here are a few questions to ask:
- Am I worried about physical needs or spiritual needs? Jesus specifically told His disciples not to worry about food or clothing, because the Father had already promised to meet our needs. Instead, He urged them to seek God’s kingdom (see Luke 12:31). When I’m worried about where my next meal is coming from, it’s hard to think about spreading Christ’s kingdom.
- Am I worried about my needs or the needs of others?
Jesus warned against worry about our own needs. On the other hand, Paul commended Timothy because he was concerned about others, just as all of us should care about our fellow-believers.
- Is my anxiety producing inner turmoil or conflicts with others?
There was nothing wrong with Martha wanting to prepare a good meal for the Master, but she allowed her anxiety to push her to the point of panic which spilled over into an exasperated complaint to Jesus about her sister.
- Am I so worried about tomorrow that I am paralyzed today?
Even secular wisdom recognizes that we can only act in the present. It makes no sense to add tomorrow’s troubles to today’s load.
- Am I worried about something I cannot control.
Healthy concern leads to action. We care about a person, so we do whatever is necessary to serve their needs. But worry simply spins its wheels, accomplishing nothing. Our emotions shout, “It all depends on me!” But the fact that we keep stewing about it shows that we cannot control it.
The truth is that it all depends on God, not me. That’s why Philippians 4:6 tells us to transform each anxiety into a prayer.
As 1 Peter 5:6-7 tells us, we must humble ourselves, recognizing that God runs the universe. We don’t. Because of that, we can roll every cause of concern onto His broad shoulders, knowing that each item is a matter of concern to Him.
As Corrie ten Boom once said, “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.”
Anxiety is more than an academic topic. It is a deep, personal concern for many, and this brief word study is only a small contribution. It would be profitable to devote time to meditating on each of the verses mentioned in this article, moving into the context of each verse.
You can broaden this study by looking at other Greek words for anxiety. The matching noun merimna occurs in Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14; 21:34; 2 Cor 11:28; and 1 Peter 5:7.
Q – What can you tell me about the word “fainthearted” in 1 Thessalonians 5:14? I heard a pastor long ago explain that it refers to a person with an extremely difficult burden, a lengthy, ongoing challenge that cannot be shared with others because of the sensitive nature of the problem. Does the word have that meaning?
A – The Greek word used in this verse is oligopsuchoi, a rare word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It comes from two Greek words that mean “little/few” and “soul/life.” The King James Version translates it “feeble-minded,” but English has changed so that meaning no longer makes sense. It definitely means a person who is discouraged or despondent, perhaps exhausted. In this verse, Paul uses a verb that suggests that rather than warning or exhorting this kind of person, you should come alongside them and deal with then tenderly. They don’t need a kick in the pants; they need an arm around the shoulder.
I can’t find a source that gives all the detail that the pastor described. I suspect that he studied the word and then used his years of experience working with people to describe one situation that would fit this description. I think the Greek word leaves room for this but there are many other scenarios that would fit the same description.
Sometimes you can tell what is important to a writer by noting what he mentions most often. Next week, we are going to take a look at the five nouns used most often in the New Testament. Can you guess what they are? Join us next week to find out.
©Ezra Project 2021
Thank you again John. These are always so interesting and helpful.