The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety For Good?

I'm honored that Rhett Smith, the author of a very timely and thoughtful new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? agreed to be the subject of a guest interview that was featured on the blog from March 4-11, 2012.

Rhett is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MDiv, MSMFT, LMFT) at Auxano Counseling in Plano, TX and is on staff at The Hideaway Experience, a four-day marriage intensive in Amarillo, TX. He has been working in a variety of ministerial and counseling contexts since 1998 providing pastoral counseling and therapy to individuals, couples, families and groups. He served as the college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles from 2001-2008, and provided all the parenting classes for the parents of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas from 2008-2011. His areas of specialization include marriage and family, anxiety, adolescent & young adult transitions, social media and technology, spiritual direction, and pastors and their families.

In addition to being the author of The Anxious Christian, Rhett is a contributing online journalist to Youth Specialties and Fuller Youth Institute, as well as writing articles for Collide Magazine, Start Marriage Right, etc. He also co-authored Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication and The New Media Frontier where he wrote on the topic of "New Media Ministry to the MySpace-Facebook Generation.

You can read his blog at www.rhettsmith.com.

Rhett earned his Master of Divinity and MS in Marital and Family Therapy degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. He is a member of the The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, The Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, and The Dallas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He lives in Frisco, TX and enjoys traveling and spending time with his wife and two children. He is also an avid distance runner who is always training for the next race. Here's Rhett ...

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.

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.

SG: You served for a number of years as a college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church and more recently, you taught parenting classes at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Do you see anxiety as a significant barrier to church attendance and participation for teens and young adults? What advice do you give parents when their kids struggle to attend worship services, participate in small groups or participate in retreats and special events because of anxiety? How would you help adults when anxiety becomes a barrier to them finding a church or becoming more involved at church?

RS: I'm not sure if I have ever really seen anxiety as a significant barrier for teens and young adults. But as you asked this question and I have thought more on it, I think it has, but in not ways that are always that obvious. I think one can have anxiety, but still comes to church. But anxiety will keep them from maybe doing things like getting baptized for fear of being up front. Or from taking a mission trip because of fear of the unknowns. Or fear on coming to a small group for fear of being asked about their faith and not knowing what to say. So I think that anxiety doesn't necessarily act as an initial barrier to going to church, but will act as a greater barrier as more and more opportunities arise for them in church. Then they are faced with the decision to face their anxiety or not. But I know there are more extreme cases of anxiety, things like panic attacks, where one maybe can't even get to church. Also, I owe a lot to Adam McHugh and his book Introverts in the Church on this topic. Great, great book and a must read for anyone in church….especially leadership. But I wonder how many people are introverted in nature and have a mild anxiety about participating in a very extroverted culture like church. So something like raising hands in worship, doing a crazy high school skit, shaking hands with someone new before church, or being in a small group can raise anxiety and be huge barriers for people in Jr. High, High School…..and really, all ages.

I was asked by a parent last Sunday about what advice I had for a kid who didn't want to go through confirmation. Ultimately I didn't have great advice. But what I told them was this. And this mainly comes from my youth pastors friends who are more seasoned in youth ministry than I am. My friend Neil Gatten in particular from La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church helped me with this. Give your kids some freedom in their choices spiritually. If you don't empower kids to make choices in life, then you haven't set them up for success when they leave the nest. So it might look something like, "We expect/want you to go to church with us on Sunday, but it's up to you if you want to go on Wednesday nights, or attend events?" I think that's real important to give choice and freedom here. Also, I think when it comes to anxiety (and let's assume we don't know if anxiety is at the heart), we need to talk to our kids. Ask them why they don't want to attend? What's going on with them? Get below the surface. Ask them about their fears of being at church, or what they worry about. I told the mom who asked me about confirmation this. I told her that if I was faced with confirmation as a kid, I would have wanted to get confirmed. But I would have had so much anxiety about having to read catechism stuff out loud in my class that I would have done anything…..even rebelled to the point of getting kicked out of the class….to avoid the fear of having to read out loud and being embarrassed when I couldn't, or when I stuttered. So maybe there are anxious reasons under our kids' reasons for not wanting to participate in church. We need to figure out creative ways to explore those. And if we can't, help find someone who can.

Since I believe we ultimately grow by facing our anxieties, I think that I would help an adult by SLOWLY, moving them towards opportunities that they desired to participate in, but had anxiety about. I also think I would find 1-2 people that they could confide in that would be a helpful community for them at church. That connection goes a long way in helping people face anxiety. I also would explore whether or not the community they were in was the right community for them. Putting commentary aside on our church shopping and want driven church culture, not every church is the right "fit" for us. If I'm someone who is anxious a lot, or more introverted per se, I may not feel a sense of belonging in a more charismatic church. I might want to explore faith in an Anglican community for example, or a community that practices more solitude, space and has liturgical practices that are more communal driven than individually driven. This could be a whole other book, but our temperament and the way God wired us may have us exploring a different faith community than the one we are currently in.

Ultimately, adults can better face their anxieties when they know they aren't going to be judged, the shame is removed, and they have a community of people around them who support them and walk through life with them. Maybe as leaders in the church, we as well have to rethink how we approach, work with, and welcome people into our midst who are struggling with anxiety. It's a two-way street.

SG: What recommendations would you make to pastors and church staff members who want to create welcoming and inclusive ministry environments for kids and adults who struggle with anxiety?

RS: I think this begins by first education pastors and church staff members. For example, I knew that I was somewhat introverted, but I didn't realize the exclusion that many introverts feel in a church until I read Adam McHugh's book. So that was an education for me. And I wish I had read that book before I began pastoring because I think I would have made more intentional space introverted type people than I did. So educating people because I thin there needs to be a paradigm shift in our thinking.  As we educate pastors and church staff members we have to help equip them to have hearts, eyes, ears, minds, souls, etc. to see people who are struggling with anxiety. Because we can educate all we want, but if we don't help them see people differently, and get below the surface of what is going on, then all the reading won't help.

I would train leaders to create spaces and groups and communities in churches where anxious people are welcome. To do this I might eliminate things that might make a person anxious. Like getting up front to give a testimony. I might not require small group participation. But here is the catch…..lots of people face their anxiety by getting up front at some point and sharing their testimony (perhaps about anxiety), and small group connection is a good source of help for people who are anxious. But I think we eliminate immediate barriers and as anxious people become more comfortable in a setting, we implement stuff that helps them grow and face their anxiousness.

I think it's probably a lot to ask a church to change a lot of stuff to make an anxious person feel welcomed. So I think we have to rely on individuals and ministries to come alongside people and minister to them. I also think, as I said above, some faith communities probably lend themselves better to people who are anxious. And so we might have to help direct people to places and churches that aren't ones we participate in and help them find a place where they can be all that God has created them to be.

One time when I was in grade school at VBS I was called upon to read. And I couldn't read…I stuttered my way through it. Clearly the teacher knew this. Why didn't they pull me aside to see what was going on? Why didn't they ask if I wanted to read at all? I think there are some things we can do better like noticing a kid who is anxious, and coming alongside of them and just asking them how we can better help them navigate life, church community, etc.?

And as I ramble on this question I'm faced with the fact that this is a hard question to answer. I would start with just dealing with the stigma of anxiety in the faith community. The stigma that allows many people to judge other's faith because they are anxious. So we as a Church have to eradicate the stigma of anxiety, and if we can make progress there, than perhaps we will find people in the faith communities we participate in, helping those with anxiety in ways that we could not imagine. If we can even have an open discussion about anxiety…and if we can even get a few people at a time to rethink their view of anxiety….that is a win in my opinion. It's slow, tedious work, but I believe it will make an impact.

SG: You've written extensively about the use of new media in ministry. How do you foresee churches using electronic ministry to better serve the needs of youth and adults with anxiety?

RS: This is a real interesting question because I haven't really thought much of it from that perspective. I've done some ministry with LifeChurch.tv (www.lifechurch.tv) in the past, and they are essentially the leaders in the online space. My friend Tony Steward was their first online pastor, and the first person I know of to hold that position. Now lots of churches are starting to do that. I'm wrestling with how we live as an embodied community in the flesh, but also take advantage of all the online tools that are out there. I think that a person could perpetuate their anxiety in unhealthy ways by relying on online tools, or by only watching services online from their home. But again, that could be a great entry point to get connected to a faith community when a person may never step foot in a church. So maybe the new media tools are a good way to lower the initial carries and as we do that, we need to think of creative ways to use the tools that allow people to come out of hiding or the shame they feel, and enter not only to online community, but in person, face-to-face community. I see the tools helping aid people with anxiety, but not as the ends in and of themselves. They are rather the means to help us come alongside people with anxiety. This is a huge issue in the church, and I am at the point where I can be swayed in several different directions. I use tons of tools online and they are amazing. I met some of my best friends in Dallas on Twitter and FB and my blog when we moved here. But I desired to move offline and meet up with them for coffee and lunch. So the tools were the catalyst that helped me connect and face my anxiety and move towards a face to face in person connection. But they weren't the ends in themselves. I still use the tools to connect with my friends online, but I also meet with them in person. They aid and benefit each other.

I could envision a scenario where a kid might be socially anxious and have a hard time coming to church or attending a more intimate setting like youth group. As the pastor, rather than trying to just get them to show up to events. I might begin a journey of chatting on FB with them because that is a much easier medium for people who are anxious to communicate on. The more and more I chat with that kid, the more and more they hopefully feel safe, and trusting of me. As we build that trust and relationship I may ask to meet him for lunch. And as we meet more regularly for lunch, I may ask him to meet me up at church one day, etc. etc. It's a slow progression and we have to be patient. Discipleship doesn't happen overnight, and neither does this.

On the flip side, I think it's important that I also state that social media and technology use is also a great source of anxiety for many people. There is lots of research being done on the rewiring of our brains through the use of technology, and how our open lives on Facebook have created a sense of anxiety in kids as they look at their friend's lives online, and wonder why their lives aren't like that. I have worked with kids in counseling who become anxious because they aren't invited to all the parties that their friends are invited to, and they see all the photos on Facebook. I know of girls who struggle with anxiety and eating disorders because they feel like their body image doesn't match up with the ones they see online. So technology can create anxiety, and we can feel it when we aren't constantly plugged in as well. So as we use technology to help people who are anxious, I think we have to ask the right questions regarding how we use it and why we use it.

I think that social media can be a great platform for people to talk about anxiety, and to have a more open discussion on the issue. My own hope is that my book, and the discussions that occur online can help open the topic, and help eliminate some of the stigmas we have about anxiety. So technology could be a great front line tool for us to look at the issue and discuss it.

SG: What's the most important takeaway for church leaders seeking to minister more effectively with persons who struggle with anxiety?

The most important takeaway I believe is this. We are all anxious. We all will and do experience anxiety. Anxiety is part of our human condition. With that being said, I believe that God uses our anxiety as a tool to help us grow. It's a catalyst that keeps us from getting stuck, as it propels us to continually follow God. I think church leaders could best help others by reframing anxiety as a positive aspect in our lives when we pay attention to it and respond properly to it. 'What is God saying to you in your anxiety' is a great question in my mind. As church leaders we just have to do a better job of pastorally caring for people…that takes time…that takes relationship. Something many church leaders don't have or don't make time for.

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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.

Key Ministry'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.