Rhett Smith, author of the new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?, begins his guest interview by discussing strategies and approaches with people who experience anxiety and attribute their symptoms to a lack of faith or a failure to practice their faith with diligence. For more on Rhett, click here for his biography and a video introduction to his new book.
SG: The title of your new book suggests you see ways in which God uses our anxiety for good. How do you address this concept with people who are prone to misinterpret ongoing anxiety symptoms as a reflection of inadequate faith or a lack of diligence in practicing spiritual disciplines, especially prayer?
RS: This is such a great question, and I wish I had one answer for it. But I’ve found that because anxiety seems to be unique to each person (how it manifests itself), I have to pay real close attention to the individual and the context of the situation. But I believe that the most important place to start in cases like this is with the Bible since most people come with preconceived ideas or notions about what the Bible says about anxiety. They’ve been told that the Bible says don’t be anxious (and that is true, but there is more to that), and that they just need to pray more, or have more faith. So I like to begin by looking at stories in the Bible since everyone connects with stories in our narrative driven culture. And in therapy we may unpack the story of Abraham and Isaac for example and explore the anxiety that is implicit in the text. Interestingly enough, it was reading Soren Kierkegaard’s work Fear and Trembling for the first time at 23 that I began to rethink the idea of anxiety and how it plays out in our faith. Kierkegaard’s entire book talks about Abraham and Isaac and the role of anxiety in the the text. Or we might explore the story of Noah and the anxiety that it must have experienced trying to build an ark in faith. Or the anxiety that Jacob felt when he first encountered his brother Esau for the first time after betraying him. Or we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, especially his journey to the cross and the anxiety in those scenes. I believe the Bible is implicit with anxiety and that is part of our condition as not only humans, but especially as followers of Christ. So there is a sense that I first try to help someone normalize their feelings of anxiety.
I also think that one of the things that keeps people mired in anxiety in an unhealthy way, and that keeps them from looking at it as an opportunity for growth is the idea of shame. When we judge people faith or spiritual life because of their anxiety, we ultimately push them into a place of shame. Shame drives people into hiding and not seeking and getting the help they need. I have been most helped by a counselor friend of mine Todd Sandel (www.lifegatecenter.com) when he distinguished between shame and guilt for me. Guilt is the belief that I have done something wrong, but I can be forgiven for it. I can make amends. Shame is the idea that I have done something wrong, therefore something is wrong with me. I’m a bad person. I want to help clients see anxiety as not a shame issue, and not a judgment of their character or identity.
I also like to point out to people that there is no command in the Bible that our spiritual life has to consist of a 45 minute Evangelical quiet time each morning. Or that their prayer life has to look this way and use these exact words. Rather there are lots of examples in the Bible of how people connected with God. It might have been through worship, or prayer, or retreating to quiet space, or using a model of prayer like the Lord’s Prayer. I try to free people up to experiment with options. I like the word experiment because it doesn’t imply a certain formula that needs to be followed and if not done correctly, you are wrong. Experiment implies the idea of trying out different things and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. And then having the freedom to keep experimenting or sticking with something for a while.
This is hard work to help people overcome the shame they have felt over the anxiety they have been carrying for a long time. So it takes time, but I think we can make progress as a Christian community if we can continue to uphold a different model, or way of thinking about anxiety than one has always had. It’s a process in my mind of helping someone re-imagine their anxiety.
Rhett’s new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? is available in paperback and Kindle editions through Amazon.com. You can read his blog at www.rhettsmith.com.
Last Summer’s blog series examining the impact of anxiety upon spiritual development in kids, along with additional resources to better understand the impact of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents may be accessed here.