"Merimnao" — The Difference Between "Fear" and "Anxiety" in Bible Translations

When it comes to discussing fear, the passage we often reference is Philippians 4:6. "Do not be anxious about anything," Paul writes, "but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."

But think a moment about the distinction between anxiety and fear.

A Look at Anxiety, or Merimnao
The book of Philippians portrays how multi-faceted the idea of anxiety can be. We see Paul use the word for anxiety, merimnao, in Philippians 2:20.

When speaking of Timothy, Paul writes: "I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare." Literally what Paul is saying is "I have no one else like Timothy who will show genuine anxiety for your welfare."

Anxiety in this context is indicative of the relational care that one person has for another. Their anxiety is something that conveys a real care and concern.

Anxiety vs. Fear in the New Testament
A couple of chapters later, we get to the famous text of Philippians 4:6. Here we see that Paul simply encourages us not to be anxious about anything, but if we are, here is the prescription to help ease the anxiety: to go be in prayer, thankful, and present our requests to God.

There is no indication that being anxious is a sin, or that something is wrong with our faith.

What's interesting about the use of the word merimnao in both of these instances in Philippians is that one could make a case they are both about specific situations and circumstances — fear. They are also about issues of personhood and ultimate concerns in life, which is anxiety.

For example, Paul being in prison, in chains, is a very fearful situation easily located in time and space. It's not an existential exercise, but one grounded in a very specific reality. The same can be said of the early church who Paul is writing to; there is genuine fear for their lives and what will become of them if they follow the person of Jesus Christ.

But there is also the anxiety of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and what does it mean to find one's identity in Jesus. On top of that there are ultimate concerns about death and dying and meaning in this context.
One could make a case that fear is about specific situations and circumstances, while anxiety speaks to issues of personhood and ultimate concerns in life.

The Depths of Merimnao
Often the Bible translates the word merimnao as fear AND worry. But when that is done, one can miss out on the deeper meaning in the text. As we dive in to unfurl fear and anxiety, one would do well to seek understanding on their distinctions, and their effect on the Church today.

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