Collin Hansen on How to Thrive in an Anxious Age

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This past year has, not surprisingly, contributed to a spike in anxiety. You already know why—a global pandemic, sheltering in place, online schooling, unstable job markets, the inability to go to church or meet with friends, racial injustice and tensions, politics, and social media.

By now, you’ve heard thousands of stories on those themes.

But here’s what you might not have heard on the news: Couples got married. Children were born, fostered, and adopted. Some families tried homeschooling and thrived. Some of those who worked from home bonded tightly with their spouses and children. Churches handed out food to the hungry. People were introduced to church via livestream, and some came to know the Lord. Small groups took care of each other.

Nearly half of Americans whose religion is important to them said their faith grew stronger during the pandemic. And 86 percent of churchgoers said they were proud of the way their church handled the crisis.

There’s a reason you only heard the first set of stories—that’s what gets reported on, not because the news media is full of monsters, but because those are the stories consumers click on. When you read bad news, you experience a physical response—your heart rate and perspiration production changes. When you read good news, your body doesn’t respond at all; in fact, your heart rate is the same as when you’re looking at a blank gray screen.

After a year of endless terrible news, no wonder so many people feel they’re one more bad headline away from a heart attack.

On top of that, we’re watching our culture seem to turn against Christianity. Our faith, which was once widely respected and trusted, now comes across as outdated, bigoted, racist, and homophobic. Longstanding biblical beliefs about sexuality, supported by a majority of Americans 12 years ago, are now enough to get you sued by activists or shamed off social media.

But we know as Christians we’re not supposed to worry or be afraid (John 14:27, Phil. 4:6-7). We’re supposed to trust in God. So how can we stop being so anxious?

TGC vice president for content Collin Hansen and I (Sarah Zylstra) have just released a book called Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age. I asked him about how he keeps from worrying, how we can be winsome in a world that sees us as bigoted, and how Christians split by masks and race and politics can find unity.

You’ve got a job that means you have to pay attention to all the latest bad news, both in the church and also in the country. How do you keep from worrying?

Ever watch the TV series Chernobyl? It’s like working in a nuclear reactor. Really, the only thing you can do is limit exposure.

I’m not going to tell you to disengage entirely, but the best thing to do is simply focus on what’s real, tangible, in front of you. Turn off the streaming. Definitely turn off your notifications. We have to understand that the goal of Twitter is to worry us to death.

The goal of Twitter is to worry us to death.

We spend a lot of time worrying about things we cannot control—like a tanker stuck in the Suez Canal—and spreading that anxiety through means guaranteed to make no difference. During this past year, I’m convinced that we’ve flipped our primary orientation from physical to digital. Now we are first what we project ourselves to be online in pixels, and only second who we are in flesh and blood. We’re constantly worried about how we’re portrayed and regarded online.

Read books, especially the Bible. Get outside. Get together with family and friends. Love the ones who know you well enough to tell you hard things.

And make room for intentional and regular prayer, Scripture reading, and worship in your local church. But honestly, you’re not going to see much change or positive spiritual growth if you’re praying and reading the Bible for 30 minutes a day but spending four hours a day on social media, talk radio, and TV.

You started mulling over this book long before I did. How did you connect what we were reporting at TGC with the need you saw in the American church?

The media demands conflict and narratives. You can’t have an isolated incident—it must be connected to something bigger, to someone we can blame. It’s inherently skeptical toward tradition and toward institutions. And it almost always gets more attention for exposing problems than for offering solutions.

The media demands conflict and narratives.

No wonder when you ask about the world, people feel anxious, discouraged, and negative toward national and international institutions. But when you ask someone about their family, church, or community, it’s a different story. We tend to view these positively.

So I wondered: how can we flip around journalism so that it features what you can control instead of what you can’t? Could we feature people serving God and making a positive difference in the world? And if we can encourage people, and show them a model for what’s possible, perhaps the good news will catch fire and sweep across our churches and bring revival.

To me, my reporting seemed like a random collection of stories. But you saw seven themes. How did you make that connection?

These themes all come from Romans, especially Romans 12:9–21:

live with honor

suffer with joy

care for the weak

embrace the future

set another seat at the table

love your enemies

give away your freedom

You won’t find any loftier theology than in Romans. And yet it drives toward unity and toward love, for each other and for outsiders. Is that how we see theology today?

I don’t have a better agenda. I don’t have a novel solution to today’s problems. We don’t need anything new and different from the Bible. We just need to believe and obey it. Since we know God’s Spirit is at work today, then we know that if we’re looking, we’ll find examples of Christians doing what he told us to do. We just have to want to find them.

Our book offers concrete ways for people to live as Christians in a society where Christianity is marginalized. But this isn’t anything new or groundbreaking—we’re pulling from a Book that is 2,000 years old. Why do we need this pointed reminder? Don’t we read these words over and over in our quiet times and church services?

It’s all about the setting. A lot of our anxiety comes from expecting that Christians should be in charge, that we should get our way, that the world should look like the kingdom of God. Theologians would call that an over-realized eschatology.

A lot of our anxiety comes from expecting that Christians should be in charge, that we should get our way, that the world should look like the kingdom of God.

Today, worrying seems to be the universal sign that we care about the world. Anxiety seems to be the proof that we’re responsible citizens. But when I read the Bible, I see Philippians 4:4–9 and Matthew 5:25–34. It’s not like Jesus and Paul had nothing to worry about. Jesus agonized in Gethsemane. Paul was anxious, every day, about the churches he’d planted (2 Cor. 11:28). So what did they do? It’s 1 Peter 5:7—they cast their anxieties on our heavenly Father, who cares for us.

We wrote this book during the pandemic, but it wasn’t inspired by the pandemic. Our collective anxiety was already in place before 2020. But last year didn’t help, and legislation like the Equality Act means social pressure is going to push harder on Christians who hold to biblical truth. How can we stand for Christ graciously and winsomely in a culture that increasingly opposes Christianity as intolerant and unloving? 

First, we need to stand in place, not seek to renegotiate what the Bible makes clear. The biblical sexual ethic was deeply countercultural in the first three centuries of Christianity. Refusing to worship the Roman emperor got thousands of Christians killed. We call this “living with honor” in the book—living for God and not for you, putting others first instead exalting the self and forcing everyone else to affirm you.

We need to stand in place, not seek to renegotiate what the Bible makes clear.

We can be gracious and winsome because Jesus was, and we have his Spirit working in us. Jesus tells us in John 16:33 that in this world we will have much trouble, but that we can still take heart, because he has overcome the world. In what sense has he overcome? Evil still seems to be in control, after all. But Jesus is overcoming as Christians love their enemies, care for the weak, and suffer with joy, as he did.

We can’t control that some see us as intolerant and unloving. But we can show true tolerance, which is bearing with people unlike us, who those who disagree. And we can love them because Jesus loved us first.

How can we teach that to our children? How do we prepare them for faithful obedience when their public schools (and sometimes Christian schools), park district sports, and social media all lean heavily on them to submit to popular opinion? 

Jen Wilkin taught me years ago that we need to raise alien children who understand they are different from the world. That doesn’t mean they always have to be separate, though—her kids attended public schools, as do mine.

We need to raise alien children who understand they are different from the world.

Sometimes you can only make the right decision for your children when you love them enough to raise them as aliens, so they don’t fit in. Because a lot of what’s necessary for fitting in is bad for your children’s spiritual, moral, and even physical health. Denying them what they think they want—perhaps a smartphone or social-media account—in order to fit in is good preparation to raise them to pick up their cross and follow Jesus.

It’s helpful to remember that what you’re giving them—knowledge of their Savior, peace from resting in his care, right desires, clear thinking about reality—is so much more than what you’re taking away.

In our book we talk a lot about how to behave—we should suffer with joy, care for the weak, love our enemies, and extend hospitality. How does that fit in with verbal evangelism? 

The conclusion is “No Apology Needed,” and it has two meanings. First, one of the biggest detriments to evangelism right now is the bad behavior and reputation of Christians. Since we can’t control media portrayals, we can only encourage Christians to live out the high calling of Christ, so that we don’t need to apologize for things like child abuse and rioting and predatory leaders.

Second, a lot of evangelism is now happening in the context of Christian community, where nonbelievers can see how the gospel is lived out in love. You don’t need the fanciest arguments in order to win your neighbor to Christ. You need to pray, then you need to take the initiative and strike up a conversation or have them over for dinner.

Yes, you need to call them to repentance and faith at some point. But in the beginning, the best thing you can do is simply welcome that person into your Christian community. It’s going to be hard for a lot of our friends to follow Jesus if they only see Christianity on TV and social media.

We think this book could be a solution to multiple problems facing the church. One is increasing marginalization and anxiety. But another is unity, especially after a year of divisions over whether to meet or not, whether to wear masks or not, whether to sing or not. How can this book also help us re-find our footing on church unity?

We need to get back to the gospel. It’s the only way for us to move forward—together. That’s the whole premise of Gospelbound: we’re tethered, bound to the ancient gospel. That’s what keeps us grounded when everything’s going crazy around us. And the gospel keeps us leaning into the storm, because we know it’s going to end one day. We’re bounding forward in hope.

We need to get back to the gospel. It’s the only way for us to move forward—together.

I guarantee we won’t find much unity in the church while we keep looking for ways to blame everything on Christians we don’t like. At some point we have to live with and even love Christians who don’t agree with us on everything. We’re going to have to bear with one another (Rom. 15:1).

That said, when we’re bound to the gospel, we don’t need to trade truth and justice for unity. The cross isn’t some kind of gloss over evil. The measure of our understanding of the gospel is whether we’re pursuing justice and speaking truth. But our zeal to speak the truth and demand justice cannot get ahead of the gospel. Because the death and resurrection of Christ are the only way we can obey Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Any practical advice to a person who feels anxious right now? 

It’s impossible for me to tell if you’re experiencing the kind of anxiety we see in the Bible—where we’re called to hand it over to God by faith—or if it’s a biologically driven anxiety. You can’t expect medicine to cure the former. But it can certainly help, at least for a season, with the latter.

Here’s the only thing I know that applies in both cases: watch your inputs. I hear a lot about anxiety in college students. It turns out sleeping four hours a night and eating 4,000 calories a day while living with peers of both sexes away from parents for the first time is a recipe for mental illness. So you may need to change your habits to cure the anxiety. If you’re not sleeping, if you’re not eating well, if you’re not exercising, you’re going to need to make changes or get help.

Watch your inputs.

Andy Crouch distinguishes between leisure and rest. We’re made by God to enjoy work and rest. But we can confuse rest with leisure, so we think we’re resting when we’re watching Netflix. But we’re not. A few years ago Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said sleep is their greatest competition. Netflix is not designed to help you rest; it’s designed to keep you watching so that you don’t rest.

Even if you’re a young mother, even if you’re working in hostile environment, you still control some inputs. Seek to pray rather than to scroll Instagram or Facebook. Keep silence, or find podcasts or playlists that edify you, around the house and in the car.

Stick to the basics—people, books, and above all the Bible. Search out ways to deepen your love for God and this world, even as you eagerly await the next.

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