Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011. See here to buy the book.
Rhett Smith is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (M.Div., MSMFT) and a licensed marriage and family therapist. This book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?, is about Smith’s own struggle with anxiety, and Smith’s advice to others with anxiety.
Let’s start with the positives:
A. Smith’s personal anecdotes made the book relatable. Smith has had plenty of things to be anxious about. He lost his mother at an early age, as part of a family that often lost people to terminal illness. He had a stuttering problem, which hindered his social interactions and discouraged him from public speaking. Smith also was afraid of relationships because he feared that he would lose himself and his own identity within them. As a person with Asperger’s, I could identify with Smith’s social anxiety and fear of relationships. Smith’s anecdotes helped Smith come across as someone who sympathizes and empathizes with those who cope with anxiety.
B. Smith did well to criticize common Christian responses to anxiety that are not particularly helpful. For example, there are Christians who quote Philippians 4:6 (“be anxious for nothing,” NKJV) to argue that Christians should never have anxiety. As Smith notes, this does not make people’s anxiety magically go away! Smith asks if God can use anxiety: to help us to identify and deal with our fears with constructive action, to shake us out of complacency into what God desires for us, or to encourage us to rely on God. Smith also is critical of what he considers to be an others-oriented emphasis within Christianity, which states that people should focus on others more than themselves. For Smith, people need to practice self-care in order to help others. Moreover, Smith supports the use of medication to alleviate anxiety, when it is appropriate, and he recognizes the value of even non-Christian therapy. As Smith astutely states on page 188, “Whether a therapist is a Christian or not a Christian, there are certain truths about relationships, anxiety, and other aspects of human behavior that are just true.” Smith is different from Christians who believe that more prayer and Bible study is the sole answer to anxiety, or who oppose secular psychotherapy.
C. When Smith provides practical advice, he does so rather well. He talks about the possible value of exercise in reducing anxiety and offers helpful tips on what to seek when looking for a therapist.
D. The book interacted with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and not just its treatment of the Genesis 22 story. That added an intellectual component to this book.
Now for the critiques:
A. Smith tells stories about how he was afraid, he faced his fears, and things turned out well. But how should one respond when things do not turn out well? Smith did not really explore that territory. And such territory is relevant to anxiety, since anxiety involves fear that things will go wrong, sometimes due to past experiences of things going wrong. Overall, the resolution to many of Smith’s problems seemed rather fast or overly simple, when many people’s struggles with anxiety entail significant wrestling.
B. Some of Smith’s advice is easier said than done. Smith talks about how he moved towards resolving challenges and insecurities within his marriage by focusing on God’s love for him. When he does so, he is less likely to look to others to fulfill his every need. That is easier said than done, though. Perhaps that insight can provide a repertoire from which a person can draw when dealing with anxiety. But, unless a person truly believes it and it sinks deeply into that person’s soul, it will not necessarily eliminate a person’s insecurity.
C. The book could be rather scattered and elliptical, in places. For example, in his chapter on boundaries, Smith told an interesting anecdote about how he had to set boundaries when he kicked the soccer ball into his neighbor’s yard: his neighbors did not want to keep returning the soccer ball every time Smith kicked it into their yard, but they also did not want Smith going into their yard without their permission to retrieve the soccer ball. An agreement had to be made, and boundaries had to be set. While Smith offered decent advice on boundaries, such as keeping a Sabbath and taking care of oneself, he did not clearly explain why his chapter on boundaries was important and how that related to the topic of the book, anxiety.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!