Anxiety,  Rhett Smith,  Worry

Anxiety: A Good Thing?

In a recent post I wrote about worry and prayer. Many Christians struggle with worry and they might wonder why God allows such an affliction to occur. Rhett Smith recently wrote about being an anxious Christian in The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? Smith answers in the affirmative to his own question. Smith has encountered many Christians who are overwhelmed with anxiety and no matter how hard they pray it never goes away. He suggests that God can use anxiety for a greater good – to draw people to himself in a closer relationship.

Smith writes, in part, to highlight that many Christians who struggle with anxiety are not helped by the repetition of Paul’s exhortation to stop worrying. Instead they hide their worry and pretend that everything is okay. Such pretense is harmful, says Smith, because it forces people to wear a mask. Smith’s solution is to point to the positive outcomes of anxiety and to see anxiety as God’s instrument for spiritual growth.

There are very different opinions about how we should care for those who struggle with anxiety. Justin Taylor argues that worry is pointless and foolish (read it here). Laura Ortberg Turner, who struggles with anxiety, argues that this is pastorally insensitive and that we should see anxiety as a positive instrument for God to use in shaping people. You can read her remarks here.

Smith recognizes the pastoral/counselling issue and seeks to help those, like Turner, who find the message “do not worry” to fall short. The trick is, according to Smith, to see worry in a different, and more positive, light. Anxiety may actually be a good thing. Anxiety, says Smith, might be a gift from God (p. 30), hardwired into human beings for the purposes of spiritual growth. For Smith, anxiety should be seen a necessary condition for the flourishing of the Christian: “Without anxiety we do not become who God desires us to be” (p.38). It is with this idea that I wish to quibble.

The first thing to say is that God can and does use worry for good. God can use all things for good (Rom 8:28). God even uses evil for his glory and for our good. However, that can never make evil into good. Likewise, I know we all worry and that God can use our worry to work out his purposes in our lives, but none of that makes worry good.

Secondly, worry or anxiety might be of two different kinds. It can be a specific worry, related to the future, a specific angst about what will happen tomorrow. But it might also be a more general feeling of dread with no specific worry in mind. 

Of the former kind the Bible clearly teaches that to worry about tomorrow in that way is to fail to trust. Jesus firmly taught people not to worry and that worry about life is an outcome of unbelief: “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33).

Paul taught that the answer to this kind of worry is prayer: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). You can read my comments on the latter verse here.

Worry, of any kind, is something to work against: “Worry weighs a person down; an encouraging word cheers a person up” (Proverbs 12:25).

Even with the more general kind of worry it is difficult to imagine regarding it as a good thing. In fact the Christian narrative of creation, fall, redemption would lump anxiety, of any kind, in with the fall. Anxiety is surely a result of the fall if not a specific personal sin. One might trust God, pray, live right and yet still be full of anxiety. Although this would not be worry of the personal sin kind, it would be a result of being a fallen creature living in a fallen environment. The same is true for other kinds of suffering. It may not be related to a particular sin done by the sufferer, but the result of being a fallen person living in a fallen world. But, just because God uses suffering to produce a certain good outcome that does not make suffering good. Anxiety is not good because it produces the right results, but is a result of sin (personal and humanity-wide).

Even if Smith might grant that worry is not intrinsically good (he uses the word “perhaps” when suggesting this) his main idea would remain – anxiety is necessary for God to produce spiritual growth in the worrier. The important point is that I don’t think that to regard worry as a necessary condition for a good is quite right either. Even though God might use anxiety for good, anxiety is not justified by the resulting good. Nor is it strictly necessary to human flourishing or to human beings becoming close to God. It seems strange to say that God needs human beings to be anxious in order to draw them closer to him. Surely God could have chosen some other method, like joy.

Perhaps what Smith is saying is that God designed us in a certain way such that worry is a natural condition that is set up to produce intimacy with God. Like an actor’s pre-performance nerves. However, to say that God created us in such a way is to clearly put that capacity in with the pre-lapsarian part of the Christian story. If that is the case, then worry would have been a possibility prior to the edenic rebellion. Again, it is difficult to reconcile this with the text. Worry seems to creep in only after the first couple disobeyed God. They appear worried enough to hide from God in their shame. Furthermore, it is clear that Adam and Eve were as intimate with God as one could get before they disobeyed God. It was after they disobeyed God that they were alienated from him. And the idea that an actor must  have pre-performance nerves in order to perform well is a stretch.

Finally, it is strange to say that anxiety is necessary for spiritual growth if many Christians are not beset by worry. It appears many non-worried Christians have intimate thriving spiritual lives without the worry. Perhaps Smith thinks that worry is the ingredient that creates depth, that those who aren’t worried never see what the anxious see, but this doesn’t seem to be the point since Smith says that anxiety is humanity wide. Even the non-worrier is actually a worrier even if they cope well. Ironically, if a non-worrier reads Smith’s book it is possible that they will begin to worry that they do not worry enough to have a good spiritual life!

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.