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Featuring guest Curtis Chang

Curtis Chang | Anxiety & the Doorway to Resurrection

Curtis Chang tells the story of the peace he found when he reframed his anxiety as an opportunity to participate in resurrection.


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Curtis Chang tells the story of the peace he found when he reframed his anxiety as an opportunity to participate in resurrection.

Description

Anxiety disorders are extremely common. Curtis Chang knows firsthand how anxiety can be extremely disruptive to the healthy and happy lives we all strive for. In this episode Curtis, who is a theologian, host of the Good Faith podcast and executive director of Redeeming Babel, tells the story of his own struggles and the peace he found when he reframed his anxiety as an opportunity to participate in resurrection. 

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  • Originally aired on June 08, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Chang:

Resurrection actually is getting to restoration through loss, not avoiding loss. It’s the doorway. We have to go through death in order to get new life. That’s the gospel promise. This gets back to why we cannot treat anxiety solely as a problem to eliminate, to avoid. Because if we’re saying we have to eliminate and avoid anxiety, we are saying we have to avoid and eliminate loss because anxiety equals loss, right? So if we say that, then we’re actually avoiding the very path that leads to the doorway of resurrection.

I’m Curtis Chang and I wear a lot of hats. So I am the host of the Good Faith Podcast. I’m the executive director of a ministry called Redeeming Babel, which produces content to help Christians make sense of the world. If you want more, I’m a consulting faculty at Duke Divinity School, senior Fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary. So I do a lot of things, but here I am.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders affect 30% of adults at some point in their lives making it the most common kind of mental health disorder. Anxiety itself is a natural and normal response to stress, and you can see how some level of anxiety could have been beneficial in our evolutionary development. Our ancestors who were imagining the saber tooth tigers crouched in the tall grass, even if there weren’t any probably survived better than those who didn’t worry about such things at all. Anxiety can still be helpful in today’s world, but often it turns into something more debilitating. Curtis Chang’s own story of spiraling anxiety and maybe more importantly, his attention to it and recovery from it has shown him that anxiety shouldn’t be something we ignore or see as a sin to be eliminated.

Rather, we should see it as a possible pathway to, and even an opportunity for spiritual growth and a better understanding of our future. For us Christians, the focal point of our future should be resurrection. Note, though that doesn’t exempt us from loss, if you want to resurrect, you have to die first. So dealing with anxiety is not about trying to convince ourselves that nothing bad is ever going to happen, but there are ways to work through this and Curtis offers some very practical tools for doing that during our conversation and in his book that we talk about. This is the kind of episode you might consider sharing with others who usually aren’t all that interested in the science and faith episodes we normally do. We at BioLogos think that mental health is a good topic for science and faith to speak into, but it also has a broader appeal because it affects so many of us. Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Curtis Chang, welcome to the podcast or welcome back to the podcast, I should say.

Chang:

Yeah, it’s great to be here. This is my second time. Do I get an award for the two timer?

Stump:

We give you jackets by five times, I think.

Chang:

Excellent.

Stump:

Well, we at BioLogos first became acquainted with you during the pandemic when you were working hard to get Christians to take the vaccine. I think it was a mutual friend who connected us. Then we had you and David French on our podcast talking about that. You had Francis Collins on one of the videos you produced.

Chang:

Thanks to your help. Yes.

Stump:

Yeah. So in one sense, those days seem like ages ago, even though not all the issues are resolved, but I wondered if you had any reflection on Christians in the pandemic by now in these days and what has all happened?

Chang:

Well, I think this actually leads to what I think we’re here to talk about, which is anxiety in that I would draw a straight line from the work we did on the vaccine to this book that I’ve just come out on anxiety. Because what was clear to me from that work in talking with Christians about the vaccine was how pervasive the emotional drivers of vaccine hesitancy was, and with the dominant emotion being anxiety and that there’s so much of how Christians are interacting with the world or making sense of the world, both on a macro level with something like politics or their health or some public health issue like the pandemic to their own personal lives, that really is just permeated with anxiety such that to make sense of the big world or your own individual world, it requires you to make sense of anxiety.

Stump:

Yeah, perhaps another sort of multiplier effect throughout that too, we’ve been hearing a lot more about recently has been social media and the influence that has on our mental health and particularly on teenagers’ health. Do you see that too as an sort of cumulative effect of the pandemic times of ratcheting up this sense that seems to be so much more palpable now?

Chang:

Absolutely. I mean, I think the research of Jonathan Haidt and Gene Twenge have shown that the rise of–the combination of social media, loneliness and isolation that I think is accelerated by social media, but also has other causes along with sort of objective stresses in the environment such as the pandemic and politics, broader systemic forces like climate change, all are sort of brewing a perfect storm of anxiety for our people. I think though, the key thing to think about though is how to respond to this because you can think about the anxiety storm in a little bit of the way you think of a Katrina and how we responded to Katrina. When Katrina hit, you can sort of ask the question, gosh, why? Why did this happen? You can ask that question at the level of broad systemic forces like the Gulf Stream, this wind pattern, the global warming, higher temperatures, all conspiring to brew this perfect category five storm.

That could be the way you answer why did Katrina hit? But the real practical question that was asked and needed to be asked is why did the levees break? Why did the structures that we’d set up to withstand storms that hit us, at varying scales, why did they break? In the case of Katrina, we found that those levies were constructed on very faulty ground. They were poorly constructed, poorly designed, they could not do what they were supposed to do. I wrote the book Anxiety Opportunity because I think there’s a similar problem facing, especially Christians, that the levies that we’ve erected, the spiritual understandings and practices around anxiety don’t actually stand up to it. Especially don’t stand up to a category five anxiety storm. So this is the moment for us to actually look at those ways that we have constructed spiritually, mentally, and practically our response to anxiety and reconstruct, do a much overdue reconstruction.

Stump:

Good. Okay. So we are going to spend most of our time talking about this new book, but because I think this really is an outgrowth of part of your life, I’d like to get a little bit of that context. So you grew up in Chicago and went off to Harvard for your undergraduate degree. I’d like you to give us a little bit of your time there. What was that? What were you studying and then branch into involvement in campus ministry and how this led to becoming a pastor in Silicon Valley. So just tell us a little bit of that story if you would, that leads up then to one of these triggers for you writing this book.

Chang:

Yeah. Well I think in retrospect I could tell all of that story as a story of anxiety, but a particular kind of anxiety because the anxiety I had as a child and growing up and becoming, going to school and launching my career was really marked by what psychologists call highly functional anxiety. So what highly functional anxiety is, it’s actually driven by a deep underlying anxiety, but you develop coping mechanisms to it that actually make you seem very successful in the world. So for me, I write about this in the book. I actually grew up now, again, in retrospect, I did not realize it at the time because of my highly functioning anxiety, kind of cloaks it. Really as actually anxious, but just develop mechanisms to be clever about coming up with contingency plans, getting more data, anticipating things, staying on top of–

Stump:

So the story about you waiting for your mom to come home from work every day is pretty good story. So you should tell that here.

Chang:

Well you’ll have to read the book to get that story, but even as an eight-year-old, I developed very elaborate coping mechanisms to sort of try to say, oh, this is how I will get enough data so that to deal with my anxieties. I think that was part of, not the only reason, but part of the reason why I did well in school is because my anxiety drove me to be very functional and to be very organized, to plan, to anticipate things. So yeah, I got into Harvard, did well at Harvard, and then I felt called to ministry and I went to work in campus ministry first and then after that became the pastor of an evangelical Covenant church out here in California.

Stump:

What did you study at Harvard?

Chang:

I was government major, believe it or not.

Stump:

Government. Okay. Then were you involved in, was it InterVarsity?

Chang:

InterVarsity, yes, so I was a campus minister for InterVarsity for about eight years and then got a little too old for that game and then was put out to pasture as a pastor.

Stump:

What made you move to Silicon Valley?

Chang:

I was called by a church there that invited me. I was taking a sabbatical out in California and got connected and it was actually a church comprised of a lot of other folks from InterVarsity who had gotten a little old for the campus ministry game themselves. So it was a little bit of this is what InterVarsity staff do, the church for where InterVarsity staff go after they get too old.

Stump:

So you become senior pastor of a growing church. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how it ended as a way to transition into your book.

Chang:

So one of the things you can put in my bio is that I am a former senior pastor of a church and there’s a story behind the former, why that’s there. So I joined this pastoral staff team of a very rapidly growing church that was one of the first, back in the day you would call it seeker sensitive emergent church in the Bay Area. I think we at the height got up to like 3000 folks, which in the Bay Area is–

Stump:

Yeah, huge.

Chang:

Yeah, for the Bay Area, especially. One of the most secular contexts in America. A lot of it was driven by the charisma of the founding pastor and then the founding pastor left, he got burnt out and he got burnt out, it’s a longer story that I won’t tell all the details, but basically the church started moving towards incorporating the dimensions of justice, of mercy, of care for the poor versus just a straight individual relationship to God thing that produced a lot of disruption in the church.

The senior pastor I think got really burnt out by a lot of the pushback and ended up turning it over to me. This was my first church. So I had no context for realizing just how difficult it is to replace a founding pastor of a growing church that had grown up around the charisma of that founding pastor as well as a church that was in theological sort of evolution in terms of expanding its understanding of God’s vision for the world. So all of this was going on when I took over and we were already experiencing decline. Oh, the other thing is we then moved from the suburbs of Silicon Valley where we were founded into downtown San Jose as part of our expression of wanting to get closer proximity to more diversity, economically and racially and so forth. So this is all this massive change happening.

By the way, that change and uncertainty is part of the brew of mix for an anxiety storm. So all this is happening, we’re already starting to decline in members. The founding pastor leaves and the decline accelerates as any church growth sort of scholar will tell you, that is just what is going to happen when a founding highly charismatic pastor leaves. But this is my first church and for all of us other university staff who are now pastors, this is all new to us. Then the dot com bust hits and that produces a significant exodus of people from Silicon Valley period, from the church and of course declining giving and finances. So now we’re having to do layoffs and dealing with budget shortfalls. While I am leading a church for the first time and preaching regularly for the first time, and basically all of my highly functioning anxiety, all of my coping mechanisms just got overwhelmed.

The storm swept right over it. I could not plan ahead enough, I could not anticipate every contingency, I could not prepare enough to offset possibility A, B, C, and D that we’re hitting us in rapid succession. So where it started showing up, where the floodwater started to creep in was really in my sleep. I started sleeping less and less. I kept telling myself that this was because I had a lot of work to do, because I had to… I kept narrating it as these external forces that I’m responding to, this next budget meeting, this next set of layoffs we have to consider and so forth. I just have to do more work. So started sleeping, started going from seven to six, then maybe five hours, then four, and then I hit in 2000, summer of 2005, I hit a two-week period where I did not fall asleep at all, where at least consciously, I do not remember for two weeks straight, I do not remember falling asleep.

I probably had micro-sleep but I don’t did never really fell asleep. That was a completely devastating experience. That was the levees breaking and the storm rushing into my life and swamping everything because I just couldn’t function. It was a devastating experience. I couldn’t function and it was just incredibly painful. I remember one moment where I was alone in the house, in the day 10 of my insomnia. I remember just screaming, I’m just screaming and I’m screaming at God and saying, God, just make this stop. Just make this stop. I’ll do anything. I’ll say anything. I’ll believe anything. Just make this stop. Then in the very next moment I had this moment of realization, I literally said out loud, so this is how Guantanamo Bay works. That was the time when all the revelations were coming out about American practice of torture in Guantanamo Bay.

One of the main practices, or one of the practices is sleep deprivation. I started realizing, oh, this is why the Geneva Convention calls sleep deprivation torture, because it felt torture. It’s not just you’re feeling tired, you’re feeling like your brain is fracturing, your very self is splintering into a thousand pieces. So yeah, it was agonizing and then ultimately it was disabling that level of anxiety and disruption eventually, as it often does or can do, led into a long period of chronic, of pretty deep disability, of depression. Then I finally had to just resign as a pastor. I couldn’t do it anymore.

Stump:

Well, so that leads us to the book more properly here. Let me introduce it. The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self. I have just read through it this past week and want to say that it’s really well done, it’s honest and vulnerable and funny at times and insightful, and I hope it’ll be helpful to many people. So let me see if I can give the quick elevator speech for it here as I’ve understood it. So you’re saying anxiety has become the most common mental illness in the United States. All of us exists somewhere on this spectrum of anxiousness and the church hasn’t done a particularly good job at acknowledging, let alone dealing with the anxiety that’s so prevalent among us. Too often it’s been seen as an obstacle to spiritual growth, perhaps even a sin. You however want us to see anxiety not as a flaw, but as an opportunity. You say the very place where we will meet Jesus. Is that an accurate description as far as it goes?

Chang:

Yeah, you’ve done a great job. Thanks for reading the book and for producing the Cliff Notes. Yeah, I would say the flawed construction of anxiety that the church has promoted and frankly much of secular culture has also promoted, is that we should understand anxiety as a problem and solely as a problem. Now anxiety is a problem. Somebody who has narrated the story I just narrated about my own struggle with anxiety could not possibly say, oh yeah, it’s not a problem. It is a problem, but it’s not just a problem. The reason why this is important is because once you construct anxiety solely as a problem, then the next layer of construction you put on that is, well, what do we need in response to a problem? Well, we need a solution. In our western technocratic culture, what is a effective, satisfying solution to a problem? Well, the solution we’re looking for is the thing that eliminates that problem. So we are set down a path towards thinking of anxiety as something we need to eliminate, to make go away in our life.

As Christians, we typically have two ways we do where we’re constructed to do this. We either, I’m going to summarize here, we either pray it away or we prescribe it away. So in the pray it away, we’ve conceived of anxiety as a spiritual problem, as a sign of lack of faith, a character flaw, maybe even a sin. That was really the construction I was laboring under as a senior pastor, even subconsciously that I could not admit, even though the warning signs were building, the floodwaters were rising even before the big collapse. I kept just working and pressing through there with my functioning anxiety coping mechanisms, because to acknowledge anxiety really in my mind would’ve been to acknowledge a spiritual flaw, lack of faith. I mean a pastor’s not supposed to be worried about their church and that they may not have enough money to afford my retirement or whatever. All these fears that are swirling through me that all would’ve in my own construction, mental concern would have been perceived as a lack of faith, rightly or wrongly that was going on inside my head or worse even a sin.

So we’re just taught like, well just pray it away or meditate enough or meditate enough, scripture enough, meditate in Philippians four, six over and over again. So we’re trying to make it go away. As I’ll talk about that, that actually doesn’t work and actually is a recipe for actually increasing our anxiety, which we can talk about in a moment. But the other path to prescribe it away would be for churches that maybe don’t go down the road of stigmatizing anxiety and they’re all about no, let’s mental health, it’s just a disease. It’s just a mental health issue. It’s not a sin, that that’s probably better because you’re not at least, you’re not adding the weight of shame on top of your anxiety, which really, like I said, crushed me. But then in prescribing it away, the typical prescriptions is that we’ll outsource this to secular mental health then and secular mental health has either medication or therapy.

Now let me be very clear, I believe there’s absolute value in medication and therapy. I took them, they were helpful for me in my recovery. I’ve been in many, many hours of therapy. Good. It helps, there’s a lot of value in it and certainly in medication I think physiologically can bring our anxiety levels down to at least some manageable levels. But when we approach them with this problem, solution, elimination, construction that I’ve been talking about, which secular mental health itself also actually adopts and many secular health professionals are starting to realize this is a problem, this is a faulty construction itself is because it sets us up for thinking, hey, anxiety itself is something that we have to eliminate. As all the statistics are showing, the public health statistic are showing, it’s not working. The very public health constructions are not actually eliminating anxiety, it’s not sufficient to stem the rise.

In fact, what’s happening increasingly, even leaders in secular mental health, I write about this in the book, they’re realizing they’ve made a–I think the smart ones are realizing they’ve made a mistake in terms of conflating anxiety and anxiety disorders. So anxiety itself is as I show in the book, it’s a natural human reaction. It is a fundamentally normal natural human reaction that we have to the face of impending future loss. Anxiety disorder is when we cannot hold that feeling of anxiety and we engage in various responses to actually avoid, to make go away, that feeling of anxiety. That’s actually what leads to anxiety disorders that lead to worse and worse outcomes, including the one that I suffered.

Stump:

Yeah, good. Let me try to connect that a little bit to some of BioLogos here. So as you know, we’re a science and faith organization and increasingly branching out to include topics like mental health, but we got our start by addressing evolution and origins. I wonder if there’s a connection here as you’re talking about anxiety itself as a fairly normal sort of response we have to some things. Is there an evolutionary explanation for anxiety in the hyper vigilance or maybe even false positives in threat detection, which were actually conducive to survival in our ancient ancestors, right?

Chang:

Yes, absolutely. I mean anxiety, and this is where it’s helpful to distinguish anxiety and fear so that this would be another distinction that’s helpful to make. Our bodies are wired to have a fear response, which in the classic construction triggers the fight or flight mechanisms in our brain, body, emotions and everything. That’s a critically important response mechanism. So when we see the saber-tooth, tiger, our ancestors did, right? We rightly ought to be afraid and because we have to mobilize all of our fight or flight responses to respond to that. But that’s a threat in the present moment that is real. That tiger, that saber-tooth tiger is real and present right in front of us. We really ought to be afraid.

Stump:

Maybe there was some something positive too by having our circuitry for that, to be able to have more false positives than false negatives in that sense. So we might–

Chang:

Absolutely, sure.

Stump:

Right? That’s going to help us survive if we’re more vigilant than the actual circumstances demand we should be.

Chang:

But what anxiety does is it hijacks that system by hijacking us into the future. So all anxiety is, is about fear of some future event, future loss, especially loss of our lives, loss of something we value. So it’s not actually responding to a real concrete fear that is present before us. It’s not responding to a saber-tooth tiger. It’s responding to the possibility of a saber-tooth tiger lurking out there somewhere in the darkness. That’s what makes us anxious. So this is why the more there is uncertainty and the more in which our minds go roam into the future, the more we are vulnerable to anxiety hijacking us and such that we are now, our bodies are physiologically fight or flight responses, are responding not to something real, but to something imaginary. The sort of trap of the imaginary is as human beings, we have also evolved to be very, very imaginative creatures.

We can imagine all sorts of things in the future. That’s partly what makes us sort of wonderfully human, but it also has a trap in it in that we can then also imagine an endless number of scenarios of feared losses that can hit us. That’s what anxiety is, is when we’ve gotten hijacked into the future, our fight or flight systems have been hijacked such that they’re responding to an ever shifting, ever sort of newly creatively constructed fears of loss that our bodies respond to as if it is happening to us right now. It’s not, but we responded as it’s happening to us right now. This is why I couldn’t sleep because I’m thinking the senior pastor version of the saber-tooth tiger, a massive church decline is happening right there. So I’m staying hypervigilant. I’m trying to plan how to get out of this situation even though it’s not actually happening. It’s happening in my imagination.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey, language of God listeners, if you enjoyed the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our animated video series called Insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. They’re short, beautifully animated and easily shareable. You can find them at biologos.org/insights or on the BioLogos YouTube channel. All right, back to the show.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Okay, this is really interesting and I’d like, I mean interesting in looking at it from the outside as opposed to people who are living this right now, but–

Chang:

It’s awful if you’re living in it.

Stump:

But really interesting in trying to sort some of this out. I think there’s a real subtle sort of distinction you’re making here that I want you to unpack about this future sort of oriented aspect of anxiety because as you mentioned, this ability that we humans have for mental time travel, it’s often called. Is one of those uniquely human capacities that maybe isn’t all bad.

But much of your argument here is going to be talking about how our vision of the future is this opportunity for spiritual growth. So in one way it’s get out of the future, quit worrying about those things that are unreal, but replacing it with a different kind of vision of the future that you use this theological approach to eschatology, the now and not yet people you call us. So can you maybe explain that particularly with regard to our ability to see the future that can sometimes be hard but can be leveraged in a different way as this opportunity for growth?

Chang:

Yes. Yeah, this really gets to some of the real theological heart of my book. So first of all, the gift of the human beings that God has given us to imagine and anticipate the future is a good thing in and of itself, right? Because I also oftentimes experience a lot of both pleasure and hope when we think about the future that we can imagine a life growing up with our children, that that’s why we have children. The ability to think about the future is very motivating to and can be very helpful to us living productive, fruitful lives that God intends for us even in the present and now. So future is a good thing. It’s just it’s not a uni-vocally good thing. It comes with us the ability, because we live in a fallen, we’re fallen human beings. So any good thing can be corrupted by evil, by sin.

What happens with anxiety is that we start letting fear of some future loss grip us. So absolutely, I would say first of all, one really helpful thing is if we are in the grip of anxiety, one very helpful thing is to simply leave the future, not permanently, but at least in the moment of our fear because our temptation is going to want to fight anxiety on its terrain, on its terrain of the future. So actually, Jesus, his most practical, one of his most practical teachings on anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount, do not be anxious passage. Matthew six, he’s advising his people. He’s teaching his people like, hey, if you are caught in anxiety, and he says, don’t be anxious, if you are caught in anxiety, leave the future. Tomorrow has enough trouble of its own Jesus says, come back to the present.

Look at the now because that’s actually our most immediate best response to anxiety is rather than trying to combat anxiety, like future scenario on future scenario the way I was trying to do by out planning it out, anticipating anxiety, out thinking anxiety, our best response immediately is to come back to the present, to the now. Jesus has some very practical instruction there in the sermon mount and elsewhere about how we do that. Again, the book outlines some of these practical steps. Now, what you’re getting to though is once we have escaped anxieties version of the future, once we’ve sort of escaped that hijack, then that actually opens up multiple spiritual opportunities.

One spiritual opportunity it opens up to is simply for us to actually grow our relationship with God in the present. Because any relationship really can only grow in the present because if it’s always locked in the future, in the realm of the imagination imaginary, we’re not relating to a person just like if you’re thinking about the thing you need to do tomorrow and then your six-year-old wants to play with you, you’re not relating to that six year old very well if you’re still stuck in the future.

It’s the same way with God. We relate to God and grow our relationship with God in the present. So we have to start by getting present. That’s actually one of the opportunities of anxiety. It’s a warning sign to say, hey, you’re living in the future, come back to the present and the present is where you can actually grow that relationship with God. Now, once that happens, as we do that, then God can actually give us his vision of the future, which is going to be different perhaps than the vision of the future we want. Because the vision of the future that most of us naturally want is the vision of the future that guards us against loss. Because again, if anxiety is the fear of some future loss, and I do this even in the form of an equation, anxiety equals loss, right? Anxiety is the fear of some future loss.

The temptation, the trap spiritually is to think then therefore the answer to anxiety is some scenario in the future guaranteed underwritten by God that guarantees I will not experience loss. We want to avoid loss. So this is where we start praying, asking God to help us, give me that future to avoid loss. There’s nothing wrong with that to do that. Jesus himself does that. He asked the Father, hey, in the Gethsemane, if this cup can be taken away from me, I welcome that. So there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we start insisting that that is the only solution to loss, we become trapped. Because it turns out that God’s ultimate scenario for us in the future, the true scenario for the future is actually not an avoidance of loss. It’s actually going through loss. That is the ultimate promise we are given as Christians.

Not that God will enable us to avoid all the things we fear losing in our lives, but actually we’re going to lose all of those things because we’re all going to ultimately die. The promise of God’s future is not loss avoidance, it’s actually resurrection. There’s a world of difference between resurrection and loss avoidance. Because resurrection actually is getting to restoration through loss, not avoiding loss. It’s the doorway. We have to go through death in order to get new life. That’s the gospel promise. So if we are, and again, this gets back to why we cannot treat anxiety solely as a problem, to eliminate to avoid. Because if we’re saying we have to eliminate and avoid anxiety, we are saying we have to avoid and eliminate loss because anxiety equals loss. So if we say that, then we’re actually avoiding the very path that leads to the doorway of resurrection. That doorway only goes through loss.

Stump:

So you don’t get resurrection unless you die first, right?

Chang:

That’s right.

Stump:

We are not going to be exempt from that ultimate loss. So this is a very particularly Christian perspective and where the resurrection is the ultimate sort of fulcrum on which this hinges, on which this depends. I’m curious if you’ve had response from people about this book yet who aren’t Christians. Do they feel like you’re saying that only Christians can really get through anxiety then in this way? Or is that what you’re saying?

Chang:

No, not at all. Because I think many of the practices that are part of this pathway that I’m describing are still relevant for anybody. I talk about how Jesus introduced mindful breathing to his Christians. This is a secular practice that many folks in secular workplaces have done. They may really think, can I do this? Is this new age, is this—\

Stump:

It sounds very new agey, not as much Jesus. So tell us how Jesus did this?

Chang:

Yeah. I’m trying to introduce, it’s like, no, this is not new age. This is Jesus. A lot of the practices of mindfulness are actually rooted, they’re not attributed, but they are actually deeply rooted to ancient Christian contemplative practices that go back centuries. They’ve just been stripped of their Christian origins and secularized and things like mindful practice or even touch or grieving. These are all deeply Christian activities that actually by the bountiful grace and mercy of God that makes this the rain and sunshine on everyone. These are available to anybody, to any human being, and they help because they are true and good. They are part of the pathway. But there is a point in the pathway in which Christianity goes, keeps going forward and all other secular and frankly other religious, most other religious approaches branch off from. That really is, is there a promise of restoration of loss at the end?

Is there resurrection? That’s really, in some ways that’s the theological heart of the book, is I am trying to reconnect the Christian truth of resurrection to the mental health crisis of anxiety. I’m trying to connect resurrection and anxiety. I think that is a connection that we have not made, and that is the true levy. That is the structure we need to stand on that really will withstand any storm that the world throws us. Because the worst thing that the world can throw us is the ultimate loss of all losses. It’s death itself, that’s what’s behind all anxiety because anxiety is loss. The biggest, baddest, most fearsome loss is death. So if we have something to stand on that can withstand death, not by making it go away, but by enabling us to go through it, to truly endure it in a way, a levy truly endures a storm and stands on the other side of it. That’s what resurrection is for Christians.

Stump:

Okay. So let me ask you to clarify this point a little bit because I hear you saying that you’re not making the claim at all, that only Christians can be free, at least to some degree from anxiety in the here and now. There are things that we can do that for anybody, that can help to bring this about. But I also hear you saying that the sort of ultimate levy against the storm of anxiety is the resurrection, which is this distinctively Christian idea. So talk a little bit more about that.

Chang:

Yes, that is the proclamation of at the heart that Jesus has died, has risen and will come again. When he comes again, we will participate in his resurrection. That resurrection is a bodily resurrection. It is the true restoration of what we have lost personally. Because it is also the restoration of the creation and the new heavens and the new earth, it is a restoration of all of the losses we fear happening in the world as well out there from climate change to pandemics, to racism, to everything, all these other grievous losses that ultimately is the distinctly Christian hope and response to anxiety.

It is what enables us as Christians to face our both personal and social and global anxieties, including something like what will AI do to what will climate change do. Is that in the end we know whatever loss has come our way from all of these potential fears of loss that make us anxious in the end, that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is resurrection. It’s restoration of all things and all people and ourselves included. Not just restoration, but actually glorification. It’s when our true intended purposes for ourselves and for the world are fully revealed. It’s going to be even better than what we’ve lost. What we get back is going to be even better than what we’ve lost. That is an amazingly hopeful view that I think is what I cling to and enables me to face all of my personal as well as political and social losses that I fear.

Stump:

Well, good. May it be so. Okay, this has been very theoretical as philosophers are want to do here, but let’s end maybe with some practical steps. So you started talking a little bit about breathing exercises and such, but you have a section at the end of the book that you offer as ways of developing holding practices. So you say we need to move from avoidance to holding. So give us just a little description of what that is, but then how we can train and what you say are the ordinary days to get better at holding.

Chang:

Yes. So I’m just differentiating holding from avoidance. So if our temptation is to avoid loss, and that’s what actually drives up our anxiety, I have this formula, anxiety equals loss times avoidance. So it’s when we can’t avoid loss, but if we try to avoid loss, if we try to avoid the unavoidable, that’s when we get into anxiety disorders. The hallmark of anxiety disorders is various forms of avoidance that we’re engaged in to avoid any possibility of loss that are futile and end up put us on a hamster wheel. So rather than seeking ways to avoid any possibility of loss, the model I believe that Jesus walked through and invites us to follow is how do we hold loss?

How do we actually endure it and go through it? I look at Gethsemane as really the key revelation for the Jesus centered way to go through impending loss because that was the moment when Jesus faced his greatest fears and greatest loss, the loss of all losses, his own life and his friends and all of what he loves. We see in that moment, by the way that’s a critical, critical passage. All three of the gospels include that story. John includes a version of that, not in Gethsemane, but in John 12, but all of the gospels go out of the way to show Jesus experienced that fear and Jesus experienced anxiety and this should be the definitive answer to anybody who believes that anxiety is a sin.

That Jesus himself experienced anxiety and therefore show us the way to go through anxiety, not to avoid it, not to eliminate it and make it go away, but to go through it. In Gethsemane, he models three what I call holding practices. How does he hold anxiety? One is prayer. He engages deeply in prayer. This is where it’s really important for us to learn from Jesus how to pray through our anxiety. In his prayer, he includes both prayers that actually ask for avoidance. He says, if you can take this cup away from me, but ultimately leads to submission, right? Ultimately it says, yeah, not my will, but yours. So how do we learn as we face fear losses to pray certainly, to pray God please don’t make this happen. Please don’t… Give me a different future, but also ultimately end up in that prayer, in a prayer of submission that enables us to go through loss if that ends up being, what is the future that God has for us.

So prayer is one, a second is grieving, learning to grieve and the reason why, and we see in Jesus grieving and desiring his disciples to grieve with him. The reason why grieving is so important is, what grieving does is it takes, it is actually saying, rather than avoiding pain, avoiding the pain of loss, I’m going to suffer it. I’m going to actually experience it in the here and now. I’m not going to push it away. I’m going to actually just hold it, just experience it. We’re just so, as a culture, so devoid of practices that give us space to grieve, to slow down, to be still. Rather than push hard feelings away, to just sit with them and suffer them. But the why this is so crucial is when we can actually suffer them, we realize, oh, that was hard. That was painful. But I can get through it. I can go through it, I can hold it. It’s not something, this loss is not something I have to furiously and futilely try to avoid. It’s something I can actually go through. So it enables us to go through that doorway.

Stump:

So I like how you described this almost as a kind of practicing for bigger events in our life where anxiety might be triggered more severely, where the ordinary losses can be chances for us to practice grieving a little bit. Here too, you tell the story of Jesus and Lazareth, Lazarus, when Lazarus dies, this is a kind of foretelling or a practicing for the bigger grief that is to come there too.

Chang:

Yeah. Then just the last one I’ll say is community. It is not an accident that Jesus, at the height of his anxiety, at the height of his anticipating his loss of all losses wanted his friends to be with him. That was the thing he wanted in addition to prayer and grieving. Now his friends being human, fallible disciples, let him down.

But Jesus still wants that. I think that’s a sign of how much as human beings and Jesus being the ultimate human, we were designed to hold loss together, not by ourselves. This is why our anxiety epidemic currently is so intertwined with the rise of loneliness, the rise of social isolation, they go hand in hand because we were meant to face loss, not by ourselves and not by ourselves just on our screens, but with flesh and blood, human beings by our side. So we need to recapture practices, disciplines that take us with other people when we are experiencing loss. That is a very practical way we think we can practice, like you said, even in our lesser losses, even in our ordinary anxieties we face to practice that for the larger losses that we will face.

Stump:

Are there very sort of practical or examples perhaps from your own life, how do you intentionally cultivate community in this sense? Is this, we have dinner every week with this group of people, or we have this small group? Or what are some of the ways that you’ve done that?

Chang:

All of those are true. I think things that we can just build in ways of being with other people. But I think especially the truth is people need and groups, including small groups, they need some structure to actually go deeper, to actually have those experiences, not be superficial, but actually take us to places of anxiety, to places of loss. This is why in addition to the book, I wrote the book, so that actually in addition to individuals, that groups can actually go through this together.

You can read it with a family member. I’ve had a number of folks tell me about how they’re reading this book with their kids, because it’s really hard to talk with teenagers about anxiety and loss, just face to face. But if they can read something together and talk about that, it’s a way to structure the being together around that takes them deeper or redeeming babble at the course I created. I created a course that small groups can go through. Because I think it’s not just we need community, but we need real community. We need genuine community that takes us there. We need help to do that.

Stump:

Not just more Facebook friends.

Chang:

Right? Or just the superficial talk about the Warriors or the NBA playoffs and something like that. So as church communities, I think in this anxiety epidemic, one of the critical tasks for pastors, church leaders, small group leaders, is to take our communities to places of anxiety and loss and not just be it, be a superficial holding tank for community.

Stump:

Well thanks so much, Curtis. The book again is The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self. Available now wherever good books are sold, right?

Chang:

Absolutely. Yes. So love and encourage folks to get it, leave a review, tell folks about it if you’ve read it.

Stump:

Well, we like to end these conversations by asking what books you yourself have been reading lately?

Chang:

I just finished a book called Song of the Cell by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The guy who wrote Emperor of All Maladies. I’m reading this because I’m a board member of BioLogos and so I’m supposed to be thoughtful and educated on topics of science. I’m not a scientist myself, so I’ve been reading more on about things that are on the cutting edge of science and cell biology is one of them. I would say, cell biology combined with AI are probably the two most pressing developments in science that we need to make sense of, and which we need organizations like BioLogos to do so. So I’ve been reading the book, so it’s a beautifully written book and I think it captures the duality of science. At the one hand, you read the book and you are just amazed at the intricacy and design and beauty of things that occur at this cellular level.

It’s just amazing. It’s a world unto itself. It’s one of those things, of course, the author is, I think has more of an evolution, pure evolution, philosophical evolutionary explanation for the origin of all things versus a God working through evolution. But I read it like, oh my gosh, this is so much a sense of a beautiful designer behind all of these evolutionary processes that led to the something as magnificent as a individual human cell. Yet at the same time, this beautiful frontier is also the frontier of really challenging and troubling human attempts to master this realm with genetic engineering, with enhanced humanity at the cellular level that’s being engineered, which is deeply troubling. I think Christians need to be aware that this is happening and engaged in how and shaping actively how all of these new scientific technologies are getting worked out. So I’m not one myself, but that’s why I care about BioLogos is because I think these are important topics.

Stump:

Well, thanks for the plug there, and we’re very glad that we’re pulling you further and further into the BioLogos orbit, so we look forward to further conversations. But thanks again for writing your book, and thanks so much for talking to us here today Curtis.

Chang:

It’s been a pleasure, Jim. Thanks for having me.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by The Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors and listeners who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf, that’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River Watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum, or visit our website, biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

Curtis Chang, BioLogos

Curtis Chang

As a theologian, Curtis is on the faculty of Duke Divinity School and is a Senior Fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary. His ministry experience includes serving as a senior pastor of an Evangelical Covenant Church in California, a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and engaging in racial reconciliation work in Soweto, South Africa. He has authored or contributed to numerous books, including Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (IVP). Curtis is the founding Executive Director of Redeeming Babel, a nonprofit that produces content to promote a reformation in how Christians engage the wider world. He also hosts the Good Faith podcast where he discusses how Christian faith intersects with culture, law, and politics. His Biblical insights are enriched by his own secular career, which includes founding a White House award winning nonprofit consulting firm and teaching strategic planning as a faculty at American University’s School of International Service. Curtis graduated from Harvard University and is a former Rockefeller Fellow.

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