In this short message in our new series “TGC Talks,” Sarah Zylstra—co-author (with Collin Hansen) of the new book Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age—discusses some of the reasons anxiety is on the rise. She explains how Christians can find peace in two seemingly contradictory ways: by thinking big, and by thinking small.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Sarah Zylstra: If you’re feeling anxious, I get it. There’s a lot to be anxious about. We’re coming out of a year where we juggled a pandemic, with sheltering in place, online schooling, wearing masks, standing in line for groceries sometimes. And then George Floyd, racial tensions and rioting, and then a contested election on January 6. A lot has happened in the last year.
And actually, America’s anxiety has been rising since the 1990s. That’s when studies show that high school students started feeling less likely to sleep and having a harder time thinking. College students started reporting feeling more overwhelmed, and adults started scoring higher in depression surveys. Between 1999 and 2017, America’s suicide rate rose 33%.
And if you’re a Christian, there’s another layer on top of that. Back in the 1990s is when America’s faith started to slip. Before that, belief in America was what Tim Keller would call “thick”. And what he means by that is that there was a generic belief in God, in the afterlife, in sin, and in guilt. People in general respected the church, and even if they didn’t go, they felt like they should. And in general, held pastors in high esteem. A Gallup poll from 1987 shows that people felt like pastors had really high, high or very high, ethical or honesty standards. 67%. that slid down to 37% in 2018. So what’s going on?
Well, the number of what we would call “committed Christians”, so people who go to church regularly, read their Bible, and say their faith is very important to them, was about 20% in the 90s. Today, about 20%. back in the 1980s and ’90s, the percentages of atheists, or those who said they don’t believe in God, in the United States was around three. And today, it’s around three or four. So, those two extremes didn’t change.
What changed was the 75% of people in the middle. What we would call maybe “nominal”, or “Christmas and Easter Christians”, stopped going to church on Christmas and Easter. They stopped saying that they believed in God, they stopped holding onto some of those values that we would have thought were common sense, or long-standing.
What that means for Christians is not just that our faith looks outdated, but increasingly that it sounds like it’s bigoted or homophobic or racist, which is of course distressing when we know that Jesus is none of those things. Those changes are real, and a source for actual anxiety. We’re not anxious because our faith isn’t true. We’re not anxious because we’re by sin. We’re anxious because, in America, our culture is rubbing against our Christianity in a way that it hasn’t before.
So what do we do about that? Collin Hansen and I recently wrote a book that is called “Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age”, in an attempt to find the answer to that question. Collin and I are both journalists, so it’s easy for us to see the problem with the media. And maybe even if you’re not trained as a journalist, it’s easy for you to see that problem too.
The first thing I want to say is that we love the news. Collin and I, and you too, love to feel informed about the world that God has made and the people that God has made in it. Even negative news headlines are a source of common grace for us. But I think the shift has come from when journalists, statistically go to church less and read the Bible less and believe in God less than the general population. It’s difficult to write well or charitably about something that you’re not as familiar with. So there’s a genuine disconnect there.
Another thing that has happened is that news has always, since forever, leaned toward the negative. And the reason for that is that consumers click on the negative news, or pick up that negative news headline paper. You do that because you get a physical response, your heart rate changes, and your perspiration changes when you see some negative news. That’s your adrenaline fight or flight response kicking in.
When you look at a positive news headline, you get the same physical response as when you look at a blank screen. Nothing changes. So while we’ve always been drawn to that, what has changed now is that you carry around in your pocket a smartphone with which you can access those negative news headlines; not just at night when you watch your cable news, not just in the morning when you read your newspaper over breakfast, but all day long. We’re never being able to set aside those negative news headlines to process or think about or pray about those, we’re just constantly bombarding ourselves.
Social media, as you know, has not helped. It favors a quick, anxious, angry response over a longer thoughtful response. And there’s also algorithms at work. So, while you think you’re reading more and more news, the perspective that you’re reading gets narrower and narrower.
So if you’re feeling anxious, I get it. And one very practical thing you can do is to limit your media intake, but you probably want something a little more robust than that. The Bible tells us over and over not to be anxious and not to be afraid. And when Jesus and Paul said those things, they weren’t talking to people who were stressed out because of a smartphone, but they were talking to people who many of whom would be killed and all of whom would be persecuted for their faith.
So how do we get that kind of not anxious and not afraid? A not anxious and not afraid that will sustain us, not even through a smartphone, but also through a sword. I’m going to offer two ideas here. The first one is to think big. And both of these are in our books, I’m just pulling right from stuff I’ve already written.
When you think big, when you think about what God has promised to us, he says things like, “I am always with you. I will never leave you. My love is here forever. You can’t get away from it. From the ends of the sea, the darkest place that you are, I am always there.” And that is the promise that is real and true, and one that you can hold on to and be sustained by.
The second way you can think big is to remember where we are in our own story. If you remember when your grammar school teacher wrote on the board, she was explaining the arc of a story. The setting, the conflict, rising action, the climax, and the falling action at the end. Well, she did that because every one of our stories reflects the story arc we live in. Creation is the setting, and then the fall is the conflict. You have a rising action of years and years of Israel’s history, a climax with Jesus on the cross, and the falling action.
So, if you think about that, we actually should live in the least anxious time in history. We’re in the relaxed part of this story. We can look back and see, we don’t have to wonder, “How is God going to save us?” He already has. We know where the turning point of the story is. We know how things are going to work out in the end. All we have to do is live into that. So it helps to remember that. So, I would encourage you to dwell there, to sit there for a minute, and think about those things until they get in your heart.
The second thing that you can do is to think small. Studies show that people don’t like the national government. There’s a lot of negative reactions associated with that, but they don’t feel that way about their own city council. And they feel negatively about education in America in general, but they don’t feel so bad about their local school, where their kids are in a classroom. And it feels stressful to think about the other political party, maybe even hateful. But if you think about your niece, or your dad, or whoever voted for that political party, you don’t hate them. We think that’s a place where we can be guided. Where should we look? Look at those places.
Four years ago, Collin asked me to start writing stories about where those little things had grown into something really big, where God’s spirit was at work there. We found tons of these stories, which we packed out in Gospelbound, but I will share one here with you.
There is a girl named Rochelle Star, and she lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and she loves the Lord. And she was working as a marketing manager for her firm and was driving along one day and noticed a sign for a strip club, and felt a burden on her heart for the girls there. So she called her husband and said, “I think I’m called to work in the sex industry.” And he said to her, “That’s what Jesus would do.”
But she didn’t start a curriculum, she didn’t come up with a vision statement, she didn’t find people to be on a board of directors. What she did is just went and sat outside that strip club with a couple of friends and prayed, and then she did it again. And regularly and intentionally on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a year, they would go and sit outside the strip club and pray, until she felt like God was telling her it’s time to go in.
So she went in and said to the owner of the strip club, “I would like to do something kind and loving for the girls in this club. Would it be okay if I brought in a meal?” And you can imagine the reaction, his jaw hit the floor. He was like, “I have seen Christians picketing outside, but I have never knowingly had one in here before.” She said, “Here I am.”
So, he let her, and the next week she came with her girls from church and they made fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and in they came with their meal and laid it out for the girls. And some of the dancers were just as concerned as the owner. Some wouldn’t eat it because they were afraid that it was poisoned. But eventually week after week, she just kept bringing a meal, and then bringing another meal, and then bringing another meal.
And you probably know what happens when you eat with somebody week after week after week, you grow a friendship and you start to trust them. So they started to share stories with her. “I’m addicted to heroin and I can’t get off,” or, “I hate doing this. I wish I had gone to culinary school, but through the events that have happened in my life, I’ve been pushed here.” One girl, she went to visit her apartment, and she said the only thing in there was a Disney princess sleeping bag.
She didn’t know what to do with all of this. There wasn’t an agency that she knew that she could refer these girls to. So she just started like, “Okay, call the people from church and see if they have any extra furniture.” And they brought the stuff over and outfitted this girl’s house. Tried to get help for girls who are addicted to drugs, trying to find ways to open doors so these girls could walk out of an industry that hadn’t wanted to be in.
Eventually, she started a bakery that’s called Scarlet’s Bakery, in Louisville, to give them something to do. If you’re going to take away a source of income from somebody, you have to provide another one. I’m not saying it’s not dark and hard, because it is, but it’s also been beautiful. Rochelle has pulled more than 600 girls from the sex industry. She has changed thousands of lives of both the girls and the volunteers, and seen hundreds come to the Lord.
And at this point, she has expanded into five more cities and opened two more bakeries. It is a beautiful story of where God is at work. And it started not with a big vision, but with just a girl and her feeling and her praying with her friends outside.
You can imagine how I feel hearing story after story like this. It’s basically the exact opposite of hearing negative story after negative story. Every time I see God show up, my faith grows a little bit more. “Wow, He did that? He did it again? Did He do it again? I bet He’ll do it again.” And then he does, and you think, “I’m pretty sure he’ll do it again.” And before you know it, you are rock solid certain He will do it again. And he does. He always shows up.
So let me recommend that to you. Think big. Meditate on God’s promises. And think small. Find the stories of where God is at work in the world, in your world. Maybe it’s a pocket of quiet time to work in the afternoon, or a ride to where you need to go, or peace in the midst of tragedy. He’s in your life, you just have to look for it.
If you’d like, you can either pick up Gospelbound and read some stories, or go look at my work at the Gospel Coalition. I have four years of stories like this to encourage you. Fill up your soul with what God is doing. Exercise your muscles of trusting in him, and then walk forward in hopeful confidence. Offer to babysit for a single mom, barbecue for your neighbors, chat with a stranger at your church, bring groceries to a food pantry, abstain from sex outside of marriage, pray for a missionary.
If you’re feeling anxious, I get it. But we don’t want souls that are crushed with anxiety from seeing the world through negative headlines. We want hearts that are full of great joy and gritty hope that comes from watching God keep His promises, and trusting that He’ll do it again.