As a self-identified anxious Christian, I was deeply comforted by the title of this book and had already decided to buy it before I took a gander at the positive reviews on Amazon. In the end, I’m glad that I did if only because it provides a perspective on anxiety that I’ve never actually considered before.
Any anxious Christian will share, if they’re honest, that their anxiety is far more than mere “worry” or nervousness: rather, anxiety occurs when those worries slip free of their shackles and roam freely and repeatedly, circling your brain in spite of all efforts to put them down. Anxiety can wreak havoc on your state of mind and on your physical health; it can decimate your sense of well-being.
What makes anxiety worse, and what Smith identifies in the first chapter of his book, is the sense that it’s uncontrollable, and that being unable to control it makes you, somehow, a bad Christian. Tormented by anxiety himself, Smith found himself guilty and bewildered when attempts by other believers to “help” him – often by repeating the Philippians 4:6-7 “do not be anxious” verse at him and encouraging him to obey it – failed over and over again. Despite his repeated prayers for strength and peace, he confesses, and despite his honest and genuine belief that the Word is true and to be depended upon in faith, his anxiety remained. Over time, and as a result, he came to feel that his faith was somehow broken – as if a “better” Christian would have no anxiety about anything at all.
Smith’s poignant description of his own struggle resonates with me because I’ve experienced it myself. Once my anxiety gets going, it feels impossible to put down, and my inability to do so – even when I am doing my best to take the Lord on faith and even when I know that everything is going to be all right in the end – frustrates me and makes me feel inadequate. I admire, and am sometimes bewildered by, the Christians who offer up a breezy “God said don’t be anxious, so I’m not” about every circumstance of struggle they might face. I can’t remotely imagine what that might be like.
What makes Smith’s book unique, however, is his insistence that Christians struggling with anxiety can choose to view that anxiety as a gift from God, or as a tool to be used for God’s purposes, rather than as a sign of “bad faith” that needs to be abolished. Pointing out that anxiety is a natural psychological response to stimuli and does serve useful purposes, Smith leans heavily on Soren Kierkegaard to discuss how we might also consider anxiety to be a natural result of the free lives that God has given to us: the product of a world in which we are allowed so much choice, and in which we must face the consequences of such choices.
By discussing his own fears and experiences with anxiety, including a painful experience with stuttering, Smith demonstrates how it is possible for believers to lean into their anxiety: to acknowledge it, to feel it, and then to work through it. By claiming anxiety as something that can be used by God to move us to action, as something that might accompany us but does not have to master us, and as a potential part of God’s work in our lives, Smith essentially defangs what can be a devastating experience.
It was deeply encouraging to read a book that was not focused on banishing my anxiety or on condemning its presence, but that rather asked, “How might this be transformed for God?” And in the process of helping readers view anxiety as part of a transformative and natural spiritual process, Smith also addresses multiple components of the anxiety experience: how to draw boundaries, how to depend on God alone for comfort, how to work through anxiety to accomplish something that you fear.
I was also pleased that, at the end of the book in an appendix, Smith offers a series of tools for Christians who struggle with anxiety and who need more help than the book offers, including therapists and, if necessary, medication. Along with how to choose a proper counselor and how to get the most out of a therapy visit, Smith also acknowledges that some forms of anxiety are a matter of biology and brain chemistry, and that there is no shame in treating them as such. As a Christian who’s borne witness to the stigma in some parts of the church regarding psychology and medication, and who has watched believers struggle and fall without it, I’m comforted to see calm common sense present here.
The book is a fairly simple read, though not what I would call terribly jokey or conversational. Smith offers stories from his own personal life and those are interesting, but he also leans a lot on thinkers like Kierkegaard and meditations on Scripture, so the tone of the book leans toward the somber and thoughtful. Still, if you are or if you know an “anxious Christian,” it might be worth picking up a copy. If you’re anxious believer, you’ll find that you’re not alone – and that something which we tend to view as harmful, God can use for good. And if you’re simply acquainted with someone who has a tendency to anxiety, this book can help you understand a new way of ministering to them – one that might be much less frustrating for the both of you.