Definitions are important. We expect people to use words according to their proper use so that we can understand what they say. Generally speaking, this is not a problem. However, in the counseling room there are certain words that could be understood in more than one way.
Let’s use, as our illustration, the concepts of fear, worry, and anxiety. Today, we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are ________ (fill in the blank) with their futures. Before the virus hit, there were fears, worries, and anxieties; and, after we all stop talking about it, there will still be things to fear, to worry about, or to be anxious over. Thus, this issue is part of life in a fallen world.
Danger – the possibility of assumption
We are well aware that we cannot make assumptions based on where a person grew up, where they work, their physical features, and things of that sort. But it is possible to make assumptions about the words they use. For example, what if I say, “I am living in fear.” Have I just confessed my sin to you? Does your mind immediately run to the reality that the Lord says “Do not fear” 365 times in the Bible? Maybe this gives you pause, thinking about a homework assignment like reading one of the “do not fear” passages each day for the next year.
Or, are you still pondering on what I said? Does your mind wander to the different possible directions that “I am living in fear” might lead?
Is it possible that my fears are appropriate? Is it possible that what I confessed to you was not sinful, but instead a reflection of a godly evaluation of my current circumstances?
I want to encourage you to listen longer. I want to encourage you to consider that you might be jumping to conclusions too quickly. Sometimes we need to ask clarifying questions about our counselees’ word choices.
To make matters a bit more challenging, we know that there are …
Variation of word meanings
Since this post is not about fear, worry, or anxiety, per se, let’s switch the subject from fear to worry/anxiety. What if I say that I am anxious and worried? Have I just confessed my sin to you? Have you already diagnosed my condition because I used the words “anxious” and “worried”? Again, I want to encourage you to consider that even our Bible translations struggle with word choice.
In 2 Corinthians 11:29. It says, “Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (NASB). The word “concern” is very interesting. The NET Bible translates “without my intense concern” as “I do not burn with indignation”, as does HCSB. The ESV says “I am not indignant.” Louw-Nida, in their seminal Greek-English dictionary, translate the word “I am worried and distressed.”
How can all this be? The NET, HCSB, and ESV give an impression that Paul is angry in this text while the NASB and Louw-Nida emphasize Paul’s heartfelt concern/worry/distress (dare I say “anxiety”) for them.
What about 2 Corinthians 11:28, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.” (NASB)
Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (NASB, but HCSB uses “worry” instead).
1 Peter 5:7 says, “casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” (NASB, but HCSB uses “cares”).
The same Greek word is used in these three most recent passages, but it is a different Greek word than is used in 2 Cor 11:29. However, 2 Corinthians 11:29 used the same English word (“concern”) as we saw in v. 28.
In addition, if we look at these three passages it would seem that anxiety is the core issue of Phil 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:7, but in HCSB 1 Peter 5 seems to indicate a broader meaning of “cares.” If I argue that Phil 4:6 is about the sin of worry, then I might be saying that 1 Peter 5:7 is the same thing. However, if the subject of 1 Peter 5:7 is all the normal “cares” of life, then that seems a broader concept than “anxiety.”
I realize that your eyes might be glazing over at this point. I am not wanting to drag you into the complexities of translation theory.
However, I am asking you to consider one thing – remember that, to counsel wisely, you have to let your counselees explain what they mean.
I am asking you to consider one thing – remember that, to counsel wisely, you have to let your counselees explain what they mean.
Your counselees will not have the right to change the Oxford Dictionary, but that is not your purpose. When a counselee uses a word like “fear,” “worry,” “concern,” or “anxiety,” he is using them from his life context. He or she might use words interchangeably when we desire to keep them separate.
We might, in our minds, make a distinction between concern and worry. It allows us to say that one is sinful and the other is not. However, our counselees might not make the same distinction. It is incumbent upon us to let, even ask, them to explain their terms.
The reason why these definitions are important is that it will influence how a counselor might respond.
Language is wonderfully complex and incredibly flexible. As those dedicated to helping people, let’s remember to be quick to hear and slow to speak – something that we have often encouraged our counselees to do.
 Recently, Ed Welch wrote “Fear is Not Sin,” Journal of Biblical Counseling Vol 34:1 (2020), 7-19.