A Review of Gospel Anxiety


Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, who has written a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a chronicle of his father’s ministry in Mississippi, and a history of Christian organization in the Jim Crow South, offers in his memoirs a startlingly honest account of his mental health problems and his return to a fuller life through therapy and psychoanalysis.

The story begins with a description of what he calls his first blackout, which happened one night while he was a student at Harvard Divinity School. “How loud the body makes when amplified by fear! I could hear the hissing of molecules colliding. . . . I heard the sound of collapsing. Imagine, if you can, the slippage and the bursting of the barrier that protects your body from your own imagination.Too badly shaken, he found himself unable to concentrate for months afterwards.

Eventually, Marsh tied her anxiety to her upbringing in evangelical Christianity, which required constant purity of body, mind, and spirit. His reflections on this type of faith draw “parallel lines of complete collapse and my total depravity eventually merging into either/or: redeemed or damned; clean or unclean; all-in or lukewarm; possessed by the spirit of Christ or strapped in a white-paneled van on the way to Whitfield [the state asylum].” For Marsh, the demands of his childhood faith are simply impossible to meet.

Marsh’s nuanced account of the relationship between religion and mental health is a gift. Studies have shown that while religion can improve mental health, certain images of God can be detrimental. Marsh’s story illustrates how this damaging impact was rooted in his fears of not being able to please God or keep his mind and body clean of sexual thoughts. I often encounter similar anxieties in my work as a chaplain. Many people are afraid of displeasing God with their various imperfections.

Marsh testifies to what many Christians discover: that you cannot pray out of an anxiety disorder or deep depression. Christian congregations often have harmful mental health theologies, and many pastors have egos that prevent them from admitting the limits of their counseling skills. Readers who have struggled with the sexual purity requirements of some forms of Christianity might also be able to relate, especially those who consider themselves sexual minorities.

As helpful as Marsh’s honesty about his struggles with anxiety is, there are places in the book where I feel he tells us a bit too much. Many people suffer from anxiety and supposedly impure thoughts and could be linked to Marsh’s struggles on a general level. We might share the specifics of our fears with a trusted therapist, analyst, or loved one; not all details need to be published.

Still, it is an important book. Marsh combines moving stories, shrewd but uncomplicated theological reflection, and hope. He’s candid about how anxiety and depression clouded his ability to be a husband, father, and scholar. He notes that his therapist’s words “relieved me of the burden of turning inner torment into a sacrament. The language of the therapeutic hour resembled a reciprocal prayer.

Many Christians in the evangelical world from which Marsh hails view the therapy as self-indulgent. Others seek out “biblical counselors,” who often instill the same values ​​that caused Marsh so much anxiety. Marsh views therapy as a gift, even though the process of undergoing it takes time, energy, and sacrifice. Like prayer, therapy helped release him for what the scriptures call “an abundant life.” He observes, “from the analysis I needed reassurance about the capabilities of the human being, of body and mind, and with that kind of reassurance I could start meditating on God again. , because with this kind of direction, I could dream and imagine”. With that kind of direction, Marsh could also begin to pray – to a God who meets us in our fears with grace, love, forgiveness and hope.

No theologian would claim that therapy or analysis can give us faith. But perhaps they can help us heal past wounds, face fears, and imagine new possibilities that open all of our minds and hearts to meet God’s gracious call to us. If this is true, therapy might be one of the most profound spiritual disciplines of all. We are indebted to Marsh for his description of how he found this to be so.


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