Sunday’s guest interview with Rhett Smith, author of the new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?, set a new daily record for page views. In Part Two, he shares how his personal experience of anxiety following his mother’s untimely death ultimately became a tool God used to help him mature spiritually. For more on Rhett, click here for his biography and a video introduction to his new book.
SG: In the book, you openly discussed your own personal struggles with anxiety as a child, following the loss of your mother. Looking back, how do you think your experience of anxiety hindered your spiritual development as an adolescent and as a young adult? How did your anxiety help you mature spiritually?
RS: Yes, I’m very open about the loss of my mom from breast cancer when I was 11 years old. She was diagnosed when I was six years old, so it was quite a long and anxious journey before she died. Her death was proceeded by the death of her mom (my grandmother) to breast cancer, and was followed by the death of her sister (my aunt) to breast cancer. Breast cancer runs in our family and has created a lot of anxiety, and continues to cause a lot of anxiety for newer generations.
I think that the anxiety hindered my spiritual development in several ways. One way is that I set up God as this God who punished people for something they did wrong. And so the way to appease God was to make bets with him and make him happy. My mom didn’t do anything wrong, but I thought that perhaps I did, and so maybe she died because I didn’t do something right. So I kept God at arm’s length, fearful of him, but I also needed him so I could make bets with him and try to appease him. It was very confusing, and I didn’t feel safe with God in the way that I think He desired for me.
I think that it also hindered my spiritual development in terms of my identity. If God really created me for a purpose, than I thought he must have really screwed up with me since I was now stuttering and unable to read after my mom’s death. I didn’t learn this till later, but death can create such trauma that it can lead to issues like stuttering. So I felt less than. I felt like God really couldn’t use me to do great things for him. So spiritually speaking, I just really wondered if God could use my life and that hindered my ability to really open myself up to be used by him.
Anxiety also hindered my spiritual development in that I was so anxious a lot, and fearful to stutter around others, that I tended to withdraw at times. That withdrawing left me feeling isolated, alone and abandoned. I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. I had lots of friends and played sports and participated at church, but inside I felt alone and was in a withdrawn place mentally. So at a time in my life when I really needed to feel connected and invite people into that lonely space, I tended to keep people at a safe distance. That’s hard in adolescence, because that’s such an important time in life for connection and community.
Now here come the paradoxical shift for me. Anxiety helped me mature spiritually at some point because as I opened myself up to God I kept hearing him calling me to do things and participate in things that required me to face my own anxiety. So ultimately, the very anxiety that hindered me spiritually early in life, would later be the siren that beckoned me to follow hard after Him and face my fears. It came to me in several stages, but the real first moment was when I made a promise to God in prayer. I told him that if he gave me the opportunity to speak (face my greatest fear of stuttering in front of others), I would take it. And like two days later I got a call from my college chaplain’s office to preach at the Easter sunrise service. I immediately said no, but upon hanging up the phone, I realized that I had prayed for that opportunity earlier in the week. So on April 7, 1996, almost 20 years to the date after my mother’s death (April 20, 1986), I stood up in front of my college classmates and preached on resurrection. That was the day that God resurrected my anxiety. And that would continue after that and continues on today.
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.