Former pastor Curtis Chang knows about anxiety, but he also knows Jesus, and his journey with both is the subject of his new book, “The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry is the Doorway to Your Best Self.”
Chang, an author, podcaster and seminary faculty member, has battled anxiety since he was a latchkey kid in the 1970s. He describes how disconcerting it was to come home to an empty house after school, which was the beginning of his battles with anxiety. Chang called his mother’s office to make sure she had left for the day, and then he watched the clock, knowing exactly how long it should take for her to arrive at home.
As Chang grew, his ability to hide or cope with anxiety became so sophisticated that even he was surprised years later when a debilitating bout of anxiety led to a personal breakdown, the loss of his pastorate and months of depression.
“For a Christian, anxiety is one of the most powerful opportunities for transformation we’ll ever encounter,” Chang writes. He goes on to say that he has grown more in Christlikeness because of his anxiety.
But doesn’t the Bible tell us to “be anxious about nothing” in Philippians 4:6? Yes, it does; however, Chang says this can become a “clobber verse” some use to make anxious people feel they are either doing something wrong or that they are sinning when they feel anxious.
Chang points out that Paul talks about his own anxiety in Philippians 2:28. He also notes that in the Gospel of Mark, 29 people approached Jesus with a variety of requests. Of those people, 15 showed obvious states of anxiety through fear or emotional distress.
Anxiety is the fear of loss — of a person, position, place or thing.
“Anxiety is about tomorrow, the future,” Chang writes. “Anxiety tries to make us fear something that could happen later. It is not about something happening right now.”
Shift the focus
Chang asserts that instead of fixating on what may or may not be in our future, we should shift our focus to who is in our present. As we see in Matthew 6, Jesus knows what we need — to eat, to drink, to have clothes. But Jesus redirects our focus to Himself. Anxiety is an opportunity to turn our eyes from our lack (or fear of it) to the One who makes us whole.
Chang uses a conversational style of writing along with many personal, relatable examples to guide the reader through simple practices for discovering opportunity in anxiety. Breathing exercises, prayer, community and an accurate perspective of eternity challenge a reader’s preconceived ideas about anxiety.
Chang reminds us that we don’t practice spiritual disciplines for one day to master them. It takes the repeated practice of what Chang calls “holding” exercises based in prayer, grieving and community.
When we contend with anxiety through the holding practices described in this book, we give anxiety the opportunity to transform us into our best selves.
Curtis Chang is a theologian and senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the host of “Good Faith,” a leading podcast that helps Christians make sense of the world.