People are prone to worry. Life is loaded with imponderables. We are vulnerable. The future is unpredictable. When reminded that we are to “be anxious for nothing” (Phil. 1:6), we can hide behind semantics. (“I’m not worried; I’m just concerned. That’s different.”) And you know what? Sometimes it is different. But when are “concerns” justified, and when is it plain old “worry”? The New Testament actually uses exactly the same Greek word to denote both forbidden anxiety and legitimate concern.

Related forms of this word show up almost 30 times in the NT. Paul’s exhortation in Philippians makes a good starting point, because he actually uses the same word both positively and negatively within just a few verses of each other.

“Be careful for nothing” (Phil. 4:6, KJV). Paul is not advising recklessness. Most translations read something like “do not worry” or “be not anxious.” It means we are not to be “full of care”—burdened down with anxiety—but about what? “For nothing” sounds pretty universal. But he goes on to exhort us instead to “make our requests known to God.” That’s a clue; and the rest of the context confirms that clue. Rather than being anxiously focused on our needs or our desires, we are to carry them to God with confident trust in Him to meet those needs. In shorthand it reads this way: anxiety over our own personal needs and desires is prohibited.

But just a few verses earlier, Paul commends Timothy as someone who earnestly cared for the well-being of the Philippian believers (2:20). And it’s the same word he forbids in 4:6! How can he forbid in 4:6 what he commends in 2:20? Because Timothy focused his concern on others and their needs, not himself and his needs. The object of our focus makes all the difference between illegitimate worry and commendable concern.

This is a consistent pattern wherever this word shows up in the NT. When the object is other people’s needs, this word is commended. When the object is myself, my needs, my circumstances, it is prohibited. Legitimate care or concern becomes inappropriate worry and anxiety when it turns inward and focuses on me.

Take Matthew 6:25-34. The word actually occurs six times in these ten verses; and the connotation here is the consistently negative notion of worry, because the objects are consistently self-centered: our food, our drink, our apparel, our future. Jesus is not banning our anxiety over the quality of our cuisine or our clothing, but our anxiety over whether or not we will even have anything adequate to eat or drink or wear in the first place. Such worry is to be expected from the heathen. They are orphans; they know no Father on whose provision and protection they can rely. But believers are not orphans. Fretfulness over our own needs is not only pointless and unproductive (Mt. 6:27); it nullifies one of the most distinctive traits of God’s children—implicit reliance on a loving, knowing, and able heavenly Father.

Other passages add to the list of the kinds of things over which Christians are not to waste energy worrying. When Jesus warned His disciples about future persecution, He told them not even to fret about what they would say in their own defense because the Holy Spirit would give them what they needed in that hour (Mt. 10:19; Lk. 12:11). And He did—read Acts.

Christ gently chided Martha (Lk. 10:41) for her anxious distraction over her own chores and duties—even when the aim of those tasks was to entertain the Lord Himself! She complained that she was laboring all alone and that Mary was not helping her (see Lk. 10:40). Surely this has a striking application to the frame of mind with which we approach even our own service for the Lord.

So what are areas of legitimate “concern”? The unmarried “care” for the things of the Lord and are free to focus their attention on serving the Lord undistractedly, while a married person must, by nature and command, “care” for the needs and pleasure of the spouse (1 Cor. 7:32-34). Paul’s own “care” focused on the welfare of all the churches that were part of his ministry (2 Cor. 11:28). He likewise solemnly charges all Christians to cultivate this kind of mutual caring concern for one another (1 Cor. 12:25).

Christians should divert the time and energy expended in self-centered anxiety over personal needs to focusing on and ministering to the needs of those around us. There really is a NT distinction between “worry” and “concern.” The two-fold remedy for forbidden worry is tucked into two passages: (1) Praying releases my personal anxieties over to my Father and trusts Him to take care of them in my behalf (Phil. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:7). (2) Realigning my priorities allows me to focus my thoughts and energies on doing God’s will, seeking to extend His kingdom, and fulfilling my obligations and ministry opportunities to those around me (Mt. 6:33).