Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Talking with Rhett Smith

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, Rhett Smith's name just might ring a bell.  He's the guy featured in last May's inspirational $75,000 in Debt - Gone! blog post.  And now Rhett's the author of the newly published book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?  No stranger to anxiety, he has served as a pastor and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 1998. 

Along the way, I've found his blog to contain insights that have hit home for me personally and professionally.  And right now, I'm finding this new book fascinating and hard to put down ... and I'm delighted that he said "yes" to an interview!  If even a whiff of panic, fear, or anxiety has wandered through your life, or the life of someone you care about, you KNOW how debilitating this can be.  This is a subject that begs for attention.

{And maybe even more so for the Christian community.  Sadly, many of us have gotten quite used to donning our well-worn masks, and rather adept at pretending that all is fine when it's anything but.} 

So I invite you to grab a cup of coffee {decaf, please!}, put your feet up, and savor this in-depth conversation ...

Tell us a bit about yourself and your family.
I'm 37 years old and I have been working in church ministry for about the last 16 years. It seemed like the natural thing to do growing up as a pastor's kid. But over the last seven to eight years I have been transitioning into more full-time counseling. I feel like that my work in ministry and in the counseling office is a good intersection to help people navigate life. I've been married to my wife Heather for almost seven years, and we have two wonderful kids. A four year old daughter named Hayden, and a 19 month old son Hudson. I really love to communicate to people the work of God in their lives. So whether it comes in the form of writing, or speaking, or counseling, I hope that I can journey alongside of people and be of aid to them.

What was the spark that propelled you to put the subject of anxiety on the table?
I owe everything to my great acquisition's editor at Moody, Randall Payleitner. In short, I received an email from Randall in July of 2009, just a few days after my son was born. I was in that newborn fog that parents have and so when his email said that he had been reading my blog and was wondering if I would be interested in exploring an opportunity to write with them, I naturally thought it was some kind of joke. My dream of writing a book sort of fell in my lap. So as I worked to put together a book proposal for Moody, I apparently made the mistake of every first time author, and I tried to say too much. So Randall came back to me and said that the book proposal wasn't going to work, but there was 1-2 chapters in my proposal that really intrigued him. One of those chapters was on anxiety. So after much discussion we decided that I should turn that one chapter on anxiety into a full blown book. The timing was apropos because I had finished reading a year earlier The Meaning of Anxiety by Rollo May. And in that book, May leans heavily on Soren Kierkegaard's understanding of anxiety as something that has the potential to be helpful to us. I had always been drawn to Kierkegaard, and now for the first time I began to see anxiety as life giving, and my own personal struggle with anxiety was coming into light in a new way in my life. Anxiety was no longer a failing in my life, or hindrance on my part, but was rather a gift to me from God. That kind of reframing was life giving to me, and so as we talked about a book on anxiety, I wanted to be able to communicate that message to other people. So I owe Randall for getting me down this path.

How did churches and Christian publishers respond to your vision?
Well, I don't know for sure how many will respond to it. But if I trust the emails coming in to me, and the conversations I'm having offline with church leaders, then it seems that people are responding to it in a positive way. It's a message that I'm slowly beginning to speak more and more on at churches. Even if I'm doing a parenting class at a church, I have a section on the role of anxiety in the family. So I work hard at trying to address what I think is a big issue in our culture, and the Christian community seems receptive for a new way to look at it. I'm sure there will be churches or leaders who don't like my message, who may think that anxiety should not be a part of the Christian life (i.e. Phil. 1:6), but that's not necessarily the audience I'm trying to reach. I'm trying to reach those struggling with anxiety and who may have always thought of it as a negative indictment upon their faith or standing with God. I want to relay to them a new message of hope and how anxiety can help them.

What have you discovered about believers' stress levels?
What I have discovered is that believer's stress levels aren't really any different than the rest of the culture at large. I think that believers have an advantage in that they have an anchor in their life (i.e. relationship with God), but that doesn't mean they will rely on him in tough times. I have also found that when it comes to anxiety, believers tend to be more quick to pretend like it doesn't exist. Because it's very existence may mean that something is wrong with them, or that they aren't a good enough Christian. That's the message that they have heard, and so believers are often the last to acknowledge the presence of anxiety in their lives, and less willing to acknowledge that it could be of benefit to their growth. But believers struggle with the same stress that everyone else, from financial, to time, to family demands, etc.

How do you respond when Christians tell you they feel "less than" if they struggle with anxiety?
When Christians tell me that I want to explore that with them. I don't criticize them or tell them to think different. I simply want to explore why they feel that, and I want to present them some new ways and possibilities of possibly looking at their anxiety. I often like to just look at different Bible stories and characters in the Bible and help them see the implicit anxiety in the text. And how it was that anxiety that drew those characters closer to God. I might use something like the Exodus story and we might talk about the anxiety that not only Moses felt, but that all the Israelites felt. Anxiety about their safety, food, water, shelter, etc. Anxiety in their journey to reach the Promised Land. As we see the anxiety emerge from the text we might talk about how that anxiousness drew them closer to God. So in essence, I like to give people a biblical framework of anxiety, and then help them reframe the meaning of anxiety in the text and in their own lives. This is a journey, and a process for people, so I try to be patient and not rush them to this place. And in my role as a pastor and therapist, I often try to hold out hope for them, or hold onto the new meaning of anxiety for them, even when they cannot themselves. Anxiety is a part of who we are and it has its roots in the opening passages of the Bible. So we are in good company if we are anxious.

You're raising a son and a daughter. What do you want to model for them?
I want to model to them that their dad struggles with anxiety, but that doesn't mean that God is not at work in my life. That doesn't mean that I'm not a "good Christian" or that my faith is somehow fallen short. I think most importantly, I want to create the space and seize the opportunities to be able to talk to my kids when I notice they are feeling anxious, or when they tell me they are feeling anxious. I don't want to rush in there and try to remove their anxiety because that causes all kinds of problems later on in life for adolescents and adults (just read Madeline Levine's book, The Price of Privilege), especially in their ability to self-manage their lives. But while I don't rush in there to take away their anxiety, I do want to model to them that I'm always here for them, and that as a team we will journey together through any anxiety they may experience. For my son and daughter I try and give them vocabulary for their feelings early on (this is especially important early on for boys in our culture), and help them develop healthy coping strategies for dealing with their anxiety. Last, I want to help them think through questions they can ask their anxiety, or ask God of their anxiety. Like, "God, I'm feeling very anxious right now, why is that? What is my anxiety asking of me? What are you asking of me in my anxiety?" I want them to see anxiety as as catalyst for growth in their lives and a way to draw closer to God.

Something you've just got to tell us ...
Besides the fact that I love chips and salsa? I want to tell people that working through our anxiety isn't an overnight process, and there is no magic in it. It took me several years of therapy, and more after that to start seeing my anxiety in a new light. So be patient with yourself as you wrestle through your own anxiety. God is there in the midst of the struggle.

 Dear Readers,
Would you be so kind as to share this conversation with someone who needs to hear about this book?
I think The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? is going to be a game changer for many ...

{This post is the 2nd in the new Seven Questions interview series.}


  1. Good stuff on your blog---

    Really like the Rhett Smith interview and I have always felt anxiety was not a bad thing. I never accepted what some Christians said that if you had fear/anxiety, you did not have faith. I have always fought with anxiety and know now that it is a part of life. God does use it to push me to my knees and I pray more when I am anxious.

    Loved Rhett's biblical account of Moses and the Jews coming out of Egypt......yeah, they sure were anxious and look at Moses complaining he can't talk. He sounded anxious to me.

    {sent via email}

    1. I love that the Bible gives us portraits of real people, "warts and all!" It gives us hope that God can heal and transform us ... Yes, even with our anxieties and struggles.

      As always, I always appreciate your insight, Carol!


Welcome to the table, friend!

This is where we gather and hang out. I'd love for you to pull up a chair and jump right into the conversation. Or simply say 'hello.'

l'll be dropping in to visit you sometime soon ...


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