The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry is the Doorway to Your Best Self
The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry is the Doorway to Your Best Self. By Curtis Chang. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023. Paperback, 221 pp., $18.99. ISBN 978-0-310-36728-4.
To be human is to struggle with anxiety. Even the apostle Paul admitted to his own anxiety (Phil 2:28), while in the same letter urging his readers: “Do not be anxious about anything” (4:6). Apparently, avoiding anxiety is easier said than done! So many of life’s situations seem to induce anxiety, whether an upcoming medical report following a biopsy, an employment interview, a job performance review, a final exam, an upcoming plane trip, or one of a number of other things. You can fill in the blanks with what causes you to worry. Whereas regret may cause us to have bad feelings about the past, the uncertainties of an unknown future can produce anxiety in the present. Our inability to control what might happen in the future results in worry—and for some, debilitating apprehension.
Curtis Chang knows the effects of debilitating anxiety. A virtue of this lively and well-written book is his transparency about his own ongoing struggles with worry. He tells of his worries as a child and those that continue to the present, including a situation he calls his “catastrophic episode of anxiety” that forced him to resign as a senior pastor of his church in San Jose, CA. He now leads a consultancy that works with a broad range of leaders. He has written for a wide assortment of periodicals, has appeared on CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, and NPR’s All Things Considered, and hosts a podcast Good Faith. He previously wrote Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (IVP, 2007). A Google search will display his extensive background and areas of influence.
Like most of us, Chang attempted a variety of strategies to reduce or eliminate anxiety—sheer willpower, prayer, counseling, and others. While he does not deny the helpfulness of these tactics, in the end they failed to provide him with what he desired—freedom from anxiety. But his ongoing quest for answers led to a wide-ranging search into the nature of anxiety and a regimen that worked for him, and which, he claims, has helped many others through his seminars and video courses. This book details what he has learned and what he believes can help followers of Christ see anxiety not only as a problem we wish would go away, but as an opportunity for spiritual growth—hence the book’s title.
We experience anxiety, Chang argues, because we live as “Now and Not Yet” people. In this life we occupy “lowly bodies” that await our full inheritance in the Age to Come. We fall short of our eventual transformed “glorified bodies,” and in this current state we face inevitable struggles, among them anxiety. To worry is not sin—and this is a crucial point he emphasizes. Anxiety is a feature of being human. Anxiety simply tells us that we are not yet what we will become in our resurrected state. So, when Paul urges the Philippian Christians, “Do not be anxious,” he is not condemning them, but reminding them they need to view anxiety within the larger reality of being “Now and Not Yet” people. Dealing with anxiety is part of the dynamic of spiritual growth as our current lowly bodies need to be transformed into the likeness of Christ’s resurrected body.
Most of the book explains how to put anxiety into proper perspective and to view it as an opportunity for that spiritual growth the Holy Spirit seeks to foster in us. Chang first roots his counsel in Jesus’ encounters with anxious people (found in the Gospels). He considers Jesus’ crucial teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 6:25-43. From this text Chang develops his essential definition of anxiety: “the fear of loss is the spiritual essence of anxiety” (page 23). But importantly, it’s the fear of future loss that causes people to worry. Jesus instructs, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt 6:34 ESV). We worry about what might or could happen, and, specifically, what losses we might incur in the future. Chang argues that anxiety hijacks our mind into the future, and there’s where we battle our worries (in a virtual reality that is only possible, potential, or illusory). The solution Chang proposes requires that we allow God to reshape our vision of the future in a profound way.
As ongoing tactics, we can embrace strategies that can help us retrieve our minds into the present (away from the hijacker of worry). They include encounters with nature, mindful breathing, contemplative prayer, psychotherapy, among other useful tactics. Beyond these, however, Chang presents a formula that he believes can lead to transformational results:
Anxiety = Loss x Avoidance.
Anxiety occurs because we fear some potential Loss. And since some loss is unavoidable, we will always face anxiety. But Avoidance has a multiplier effect; the more we strategize to avoid some potential loss, the more anxious we become. Lowering our attempts to avoid loss will lower our anxiety.
The genius of the book comprises Chang’s strategies to: (1) reframe our understanding of Loss, (2) reduce our habits of Avoidance (typically we run away from, or we run around, things that cause us to worry), and (3) enable the Holy Spirit to transform our minds so we become more like Jesus. Chang has a very useful insight on this score: “Idolatry is avoidance directed at God, where we are avoiding having to trust in his love and provision for us” (page 130). He goes on, “An idol preys on our human vulnerability to uncertainty. It promises avoidance of uncertainty and loss in order to woo people away from God” (130). Worry can be idolatrous, though it is not always. Again, we need the Holy Spirit to help us discern whether our worry stems from an unwillingness to place our confidence and trust in God but idolatrously to trust in our own devices or other “solutions.”
Many potential losses we fear may never happen, even though we worried about them. In the end, of course, we all face a loss that is undeniable and unavoidable: our death. There’s simply no way around it, nor can we run from it. But our hope resides in Jesus’ promise of resurrection. What is “not yet” at the present will be our reality for all eternity. No more worries or anxiety because no more loss! Can that mindset transform our view of life in the “now”? Chang believes it can.
This is a very important book that will be accessible to all Christian readers. As well, I can wish that all Christian counselors or those who do any kinds of pastoral counseling or mentoring will absorb the wise guidance that Curtis Chang offers in this book. The book is well-researched, and Chang amply documents his findings and assertions. He bases his counsel on a wide-ranging survey of relevant biblical data, and he employs those data to great effect.
William W. Klein. PhD
Professor Emeritus of New Testament Interpretation