Change of any significance has always been hard for me. Every year growing up I dreaded the first day of school, far beyond what felt like the "normal" mourning that summer was over. Going away to college was physically wrenching—I spent the first week unable to eat, convinced that I would never be as content as the hordes of new best friends I was surrounded by. While everyone around me sailed through the first few days, I cried myself to sleep and constantly warred with the nervous feeling in my stomach.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, they called it. GAD. Which, somehow, seems fitting. GAD, which reportedly affects about 3 percent of the U.S. population, is characterized by frequent, constant worry with little or no cause. A GAD sufferer will generally bear a daily burden of anxiety not tied to any specific threat. Through no choice of our own, we live in a state of anxiety that is largely disconnected from the reality of our otherwise normal circumstances. While my daily anxiety is a bit better now thanks to exercise, therapy, and medication, it remains a quiet companion. The National Institute of Mental Health reported on a study that found women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime. Perhaps the higher frequently is due to women's desire to control certain aspects of our lives; perhaps it lives in the same gap we all do, between expectation and reality. Either way, an anxious life is a hard one, and the less we talk about it, the more isolated we feel.
Which is why I was glad to hear about the publication of The Anxious Christian (Moody), by Rhett Smith, a marriage and family therapist based in Texas. The subtitle alone is worth the price of the book: "Can God use your anxiety for good?" Never in my 26 years had I thought about anxiety as a tool that God could use to shape me. On my best days I thought of it as a pesky trial, something that God allowed me to experience; on my worst, I thought it was the absence of God due to my total lack of faith. Many a well-meaning Christian had trotted out Philippians 4:6 when I confessed my struggle: "Do not worry about anything," writes Paul, "but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God." The underlying message here seemed clear to me: Pray more. Give thanks more. Don't focus on your anxiety.
Yet as Smith writes, "When we discourage from safely expressing their anxiety, then we are essentially saying to them that anxiety is a bad emotion …. It communicates to them that perhaps something is wrong with their Christian faith." Smith goes on to talk about how God may be using anxiety to draw us closer to him, allowing us to recognize our need and limitations as anchors to the One who is sufficient. Focusing on the way Jesus set boundaries in community and kept a constant line of communication open with his Father, Smith helpfully and practically reconciles the experience of anxiety with the reality of God's goodness.
Over at the Gospel Coalition's website a couple weeks ago, Justin Taylor wrote a blog post—"Eight Reasons Why My Anxiety is Pointless and Foolish"—that illustrates the difficulty we come up against within the Christian community. I'm sure Taylor wrote with a good desire to help free people from anxiety, but this kind of treatment (a list of reasons with Bible verses posted beneath each one) only ends up alienating those of us who have seriously struggle with it. Telling Christians that our anxiety is pointless and foolish and pointing to a list of verses as evidence doesn't serve to create community; rather, it perpetuates fear: fear that there is something wrong with me, fear of being seen (and rejected) for who I really am, fear that I will never trust God enough. An attitude that says, "The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It" will never get us very far in conversations about anxiety, because it effectively ends that conversation (and usually ends up creating more anxiety for those who already struggle with it). We Christians need to grow our capacity for uncertainty and vulnerability, treasuring those means of connection as we also submit to God's truth.
The other side of the coin here is one I know very well. Left to my own devices, I would wallow in fear and anxiety for most of my days. I know this because I've done it. Anxiety is my default mode. T. S. Eliot famously said that anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity—to which I would respond that the good Mr. Eliot probably never experienced a day of anxiety in his life. The truth is, though, that while healthy anxiety can breed creativity, unhealthy anxiety will kill it. Unhealthy anxiety demands perfection, and creativity can never flourish in an environment where fear of failure is the guiding motive. Living in unhealthy anxiety will paralyze me and draw me into comparison, envy, and fear.
Healthy anxiety, though, can remind me constantly and fruitfully of my joyful dependence on and confidence in God. When I feel fear, I can allow God's good grace to draw me to him and be reminded of his sufficiency in all things. I don't need to draw a direct connection between my spiritual health and my experience of anxiety when I trust God to use my anxiety for good.