Instead of battling anxiety, what if you saw worries as a doorway to spiritual transformation? What if you had a different framework for approaching fears and no longer considered anxiety as an enemy to defeat or a sin to overcome? What if you no longer tried to rid yourself of anxiety through sheer faith or willpower, which leads to feelings of shame and frustration?
These are questions with which I’ve wrangled after losing my job as a pastor due to debilitating anxiety, when I began the process of trying to find a Biblical, effective response to this sensation. Combining years of personal experience, spiritual practice, and biblical study, I’ve discovered an alternative approach—one that sees anxiety as the path to our best selves in Christ.
In this special live podcast event, hosted by Pinkston in their Washington, D.C. headquarters, my Good Faith co-host David French and I talk about personal anxiety spilling over into our culture at large, particularly in the political arena.
Drawing upon my upcoming book “The Anxiety Opportunity,” we specifically discuss:
- The current anxiety epidemic;
- What truly underlies all feelings of anxiety;
- The ways in which the church mishandles anxiety;
- The ways the world mishandles anxiety;
- What best selling books often get wrong about anxiety;
- How parental anxiety radiates to children;
- Why teens are so anxious;
- How to avoid election anxiety;
- Why being human necessarily includes loss;
- How Jesus had anxiety;
- “Cross avoidance” and whether it is inherently bad; and
- How pastors should normalize and not stigmatize anxiety.
DAVID FRENCH: Today we are talking about a book that Curtis has written called “The Anxiety Opportunity.” (Zondervan; May 2023) I’m going to interview Curtis today about anxiety – not just as a highly personal phenomenon but how anxiety is radiating out from us as individuals and impacting the world around us in incredibly tangible ways.
Let’s get started. Curtis, why did you write a book on anxiety?
CURTIS CHANG: Well, I’m not a mental health expert, and I don’t have a degree in mental health. But, I do have a lifelong experience with anxiety.
Growing up, I would be what many psychologists call somebody that has “highly functional anxiety.” A highly functional anxious person is somebody who has learned to deal with their anxiety by channeling it into all sorts of practices, like staying on top of things, making constant contingency plans, and scanning for possible issues.
Anxiety is a great motivator for being productive in a certain way. But undealt with, untreated anxiety – even the highly functional kind – can only get you so far. Many people will reach a breaking point where those coping mechanisms no longer function well. That happened for me in my late 30s.
I’m actually much older than that. I know I don’t look it. I have the ‘Asians Don’t Raisin’ thing going on, so people always think I’m younger than I actually am. I’m actually 53-years-old. But in my late thirties, I was a senior pastor of an Evangelical Covenant Church in California, which was going through a lot of challenges, a lot of stresses.
This is all during the dot com bust, which afflicted Silicon Valley. Plus, I was replacing the founding pastor, which is never an easy task. All of my mechanisms for being a highly functional, anxious person broke down. I was overwhelmed.
I went through a three week period where I did not sleep at all. I must have slept in terms of microsleep, because the human body can’t function that long without any sleep. But my anxiety was so high I don’t remember consciously falling asleep for three weeks straight.
I had a breakdown; I went on disability for nine months; it ended my pastoral career. It was catastrophic on a variety of fronts – in terms of my relationships, certainly my career, and my spiritual life.
You don’t go through something like that without a dark night of the soul.
I know anxiety first hand. I also know the treatments for anxiety. I’ve taken medication over the years. I’m not currently on it, but I have been in the past. I’ve been in years of therapy – all sorts of therapy, including cognitive behavioral treatment. And I have a ton of friends who are in the mental health professions as psychiatrists, researchers, therapists themselves. I’m fascinated with the profession of mental health, I’ve read a ton, and I’ve reflected deeply. You don’t go through a devastating experience like that and not reflect about its meaning.
How should I think about what I went through spiritually, especially?
I’ve thought about my own experience, on the way the church and our wider culture deals with anxiety. I’ve also considered how Christians ought to understand anxiety.
In some fundamental ways, we as a church are quite mistaken and misguided in how we are treating and responding to anxiety. This is having some really significant dysfunction for individuals and also is causing dysfunctions in how the church relates to the wider world.
And that’s really the topic I think we’re talking about today.
But that is why I wrote the book. I just felt like we need to fundamentally rethink how we are approaching anxiety.
[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]
HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French
PRODUCER: Kris Carter
The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.