I don’t think anxiety is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, but I suspect that it has become particularly pronounced for many people in recent years.
The expanding economy has opened up new paths to employment, many of which our grandparents never could have conceived of. The scripts for marriage and dating have been rewritten, leaving many young folks uncertain about how to navigate their relationships. The only given for many upper-middle class white students is that they will go off to college upon graduation. And that path has led many of them to assume massive amounts of debt.
Previous generations might have met all of these challenges with an inner confidence, a stability that came from being raised in stable (though hardly perfect!) social structures like the family that imbued them with a sense that they could overcome the obstacles before them. But many of us younger folks have a sense of anxiety about the whole thing, a feeling that the lofty expectations which we have for our lives will not come to pass and that we will be diminished for it.
It’s tempting to push down these anxieties, to ignore them or confess them on grounds that they reveal our lack of faith. And maybe sometimes they do.
But Rhett Smith, a friend and someone who has been writing faithfully online for years, won’t have it. The provocative subtitle of his new book The Anxious Christian perfectly expresses his project: “Can God use your anxiety for good?” It’s a question that turns anxiety on its head, forcing us to consider that all the anxieties that we feel are hindering and debilitating us might be God’s subtle call to us to pursue a deeper, more meaningful life. Rather than running from our anxiety, Rhett wants us to embrace it and recognize that God can use it to “lead us into freedom and possibility.”
That’s a counterintuitive and, honestly, countercultural message. Especially within the church, where we love trotting out Paul’s admonition to “not be anxious for anything” as a cure-all for a troubled heart. Rhett’s sensitive to the fact that not all anxieties are productive. But he wants us to open ourselves to them all anyway, rather than compounding our problems by burying and ignoring it
While a trained theologian, Rhett is also a professional therapist. And he writes like one, with a sensitive to the internal dynamics of the heart. It’s an honest book without being overly revelatory. It would be tempting, I imagine, for a therapist to write a book like this and simply deploy the latest insights from the field. Rhett occasionally slips into therapeutic language, which doesn’t do much for me, but does so gracefully, never letting it overwhelm other ways of speaking.
Personally, this has been an important book for me the past few months. As you might know, the wife and I have faced a significant decision that was more than a little taxing for me. I’ve wrestled with anxiety for a long time, and have internalized a healthy amount of the stigma about it. I’m not entirely convinced by Rhett’s approach, but it’s been helpful to momentarily overturn my expectations and consider my anxieties in new ways.
This is an important book on an underdiscussed topic for Christians. Rhett is an extraordinary fellow, someone who I have admired for a long time. And The Anxious Christian is an excellent representation of his concern and care for the people around him.
Disclosure: Rhett sent me a copy of this book. Though he didn’t need to. If they do anything, friends buy each other’s books.