Curtis Chang: Well, it didn’t start as a book. It started first really as a series I created as a way to help the clients of my secular consulting practice at the outbreak of the pandemic, who were all experiencing a lot of anxiety. And so I tried to produce some resources that spoke to how emerging leaders can engage anxiety as an invitation for self development. Initially, I framed these resources purely in secular terms, even though this approach to anxiety grew out of the depths of my own spiritual life.
And then, I adapted these resources for use in my church. It was then that I realized that surfacing the spiritual dimensions of anxiety proved the most helpful. This led to the creation of a video course through Redeeming Babel. So, the material existed first as a video course, but it really was a colleague of mine who had persuaded me that this content needed to exist as a book as well.
Now, the content emerged in the first place because I’m somebody who has actually suffered from anxiety for a long part of my life. I’m one of those people who suffers from what is known as highly functional anxiety, so you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Many people who learned I had written this book actually ended up feeling surprised because they didn’t experience me as an anxious person. And that’s actually part of the reason I wrote “The Anxiety Opportunity.” I actually wrote it from the perspective of a person who has sort of kept their anxiety in the closet for much of their life. And as a result, I’m trying to help people kind of make sense of the anxiety that maybe they aren’t aware of, or they felt like they’ve had to keep hidden in their own lives.
CLB: I wonder if you could expound for readers this idea of the ‘clobber verse’ – Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” You label this passage of scripture a ‘clobber verse.’ What do you mean by that?
CC: So I I’ll save the whole exegesis of Philippines 4:6, which is the clobber verse used to tell people: “Hey, if you’re worrying, you shouldn’t worry.” The conclusion Christians often draw is that anxiety is sin and therefore, if you’re anxious, you’re sinful. Well, Philippines itself pokes holes in that interpretation, because Paul talks about how worried he is a few verses earlier. And so it’d be very odd for Paul to have freely confessed that he is also experiencing worry, and then to simply turn around and say, “Hey, if you’re anxious, you’re doing something wrong.”
But I would argue the most decisive rebuttal to the notion that anxiety is a sin is that the Gospels uniformly go out of their way to depict Jesus as actually experiencing anxiety. This is true as Jesus suffers his impending loss of all losses in the crucifixion.
In John 12, the writer shows that Jesus is troubled, worried, distressed, all of the classic physical symptoms of anxiety. John 12:27 states: “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Jesus is described as experiencing anxiety precisely when we would most expect him to experience anxiety: in the face of loss.
I think it’s important to emphasize that both secular and Christian audiences have really been conditioned to treat anxiety solely as a problem. So for Christians, they can be conditioned to treat it as a spiritual problem, as a sign of lack of faith, as a character flaw, maybe even as a sin, and so in that sense they’re taught to ‘pray it away.’
On the other hand, secular settings (or Christian settings that don’t stigmatize anxiety quite that way) go another equally damaging route. This approach calls for ‘prescribing it away.’ Secular mental health providers can be helpful, but they also treat anxiety primarily as a problem, as something to get rid of either through therapy or medication. And I write in my book that I believe there’s a place for prayer. There’s a place for medication. There’s a place for therapy. I’ve engaged in all three of those things myself.
But if we’re engaging either in the ‘pray it away’ or the ‘prescribe it away’ approach by treating anxiety solely as a problem that we need to eliminate from our lives, we are missing out.
I believe anxiety is one of the most profound spiritual growth opportunities. So we’re missing out on the anxiety opportunity when we only view anxiety as a problem and we try to wholesale oppress it. Anxiety is a part of the human condition, and as a result it is not something we can make go away. It is embedded into human existence and human reality, because we’re all exposed to loss or potential loss.. We are all inevitably going to suffer loss. So we’re all going to inevitably suffer anxiety. So anxiety is natural and normal. When we tell ourselves we cannot handle anxiety – that we cannot tolerate it in our lives – then a natural part of human life does, in fact, become unbearable.
CLB: I want to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about the anxiety formula. The book does give a kind of a framework for engaging anxiety that helps us better understand anxiety in relationship to loss and avoidance. Why did you choose to frame it in terms of a formula? And how can people apply it?
CC: It’s a very simple formula. It’s just anxiety = loss X avoidance. And the reason why I wanted to capture this in a simple formula is, I wanted to really drive home the fundamental nature of anxiety. That it is about loss. The heart of anxiety is some impending loss that we fear. So that’s the first part. The second part is that it is precisely when we try to avoid loss that we get into multiplying higher levels of anxiety. And anxiety invites us to confront a really hard, unavoidable truth. That truth is that we will all face loss in our lives. And we are all destined to face loss. And so, if that is true, then when we are trying to avoid loss, we are trying to avoid the unavoidable.
How do we engage anxiety as an opportunity? One way is to connect to the present. I think there’s almost endless creative ways that Christians can engage with their bodies and with creation to get present. You know, anxiety is hijacking us into the future where we are going to experience loss. The easiest way to manage anxiety is to leave that future and come into the present. I think touch is also very powerful. If you’re really doing that, you cannot live in the future because you’re attentive to the present. So, I think other experiences of touch – whether it be other humans or in nature – can really ease anxiety because it brings us to the present. And this is why I emphasize mindful breathing practices in the book because it is a bodily practice where we are getting in touch with our own body.
So, yes, I think people have room for all sorts of creativity. And I think Jesus, when he was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, was seizing what was at hand. He was like, “Look, there’s the birds! Look, there’s the lilies!” And we can do this in our own lives by simply walking around and saying: “Look, there’s the mountains! There’s a cloud!” And let that be a way that we get present. Present to the moment,but also to creation, and then to God, who is the author of all of that.
CLB: .You mention in the book why it is important to name anxiety and recognize it and be in relationship to it. Why is that? What spiritual importance does naming have in this context?
CC: Yeah, I think people may find it odd that I am recommending that we name our anxiety. I think naming is helpful because it’s a way for us to say: “Oh, here’s this part of me which is anxious. Can I give it a name?”
But interestingly enough, it’s a relationship that also involves distinction, because the other problem with anxiety because the the more we push it away, the more actually we are prone to unconsciously sometimes fusing with it. Actually, that’s the best way to read Philippians 4:6. In that verse, when Paul says do not be anxious, you could read that to say, ‘Do not fuse with your anxiety. Do not become your anxiety.’ We want to actually be in relationship with our anxiety, but not have that relationship be one of fusion. Our relationship with our anxiety ought to be one of differentiation: that we can look at it, think about it, relate to it, respond to it differently, grow through it. When we can do this, it really helps us to engage our anxiety as a chance to deepen our relationship with ourselves, because naming at its essence is a way of of being in relationship, but in a relationship that is not fusion.
CLB: How does this approach to anxiety relate to the creation-fall-redemption arc that many Christians embrace?
CC: That is at the heart of the ‘now and not yet’ that we are all living in. It reflects the fact that we live as Christians in this period where we are promised a future, a not yet, when all of our losses are restored. So we’re promised that. But the now is not yet. We have to wait for that in the future. And precisely because we live in this gap between the now and the not yet, that gap of time is where anxiety can actually come in. Because it makes us fear that we won’t get our losses restored to us. So this is why anxiety is inevitable for any human being, because in the Christian world view all human beings right now are living in the now and not yet. And so all human beings are therefore going to be exposed to anxiety by definition, because we we have this gap between the losses we experience now, and when those losses will be restored to us in the resurrection.