Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Jars of Clay: Peace for the Anxious Soul, by Catherine Haddow

10ofthose, 2020, 200pp

The other Sunday evening I had the privilege of conducting an online interview with Catherine Haddow, where we discussed her Bible-based approach to helping people who are suffering with anxiety. Our conversation ranged around the material set out in this book and her earlier work, Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart. People with anxiety problems have spoken of how they were helped by what the author had to say, which is great. Jars of Clay deals more thoroughly with some of the issues we were only able to touch on in the interview. 

Haddow doesn't decry secular approaches to treating people with anxiety, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but she goes further, arguing that the things that make us feel anxious reveal what we really treasure. CBT can help straighten out people's thought processes, but it cannot touch the heart, or change what we value as most precious to us. Had it been available to him, Gollum* may have found CBT of some use, but his heart would still have craved 'The Precious' Ring of Power above all else. What's your 'Precious'? That's what you'll be most anxious about losing. 

Emotions are part and parcel of our being made in the image of God. We are fallen creatures, however, living in a fallen world. Our emotions are therefore distorted. What Haddow calls a 'constructive concern' about our own welfare or that of loved ones can become a crippling anxiety. Fear is the right response to danger, anxiety lingers on after the reason for fear has dissipated.

As 'embodied souls', human beings are a psychosomatic whole. Anxiety therefore affects our bodies as well as our spirits. High blood pressure and harmful chemical reactions may result from anxiety. Anxiety attacks have debilitating physical effects. On the other hand, some physical disorders such as thyroid problems can cause sufferers to feel anxious. Drug treatments for anxiety can be helpful when prescribed by a GP, but, like CBT, they can't get to the heart of the matter; what we truly treasure. 

Anxiety can have a disruptive effect on a person's Christian life. All-consuming worry can make God seem remote and his promises unreal. The bright light of the gospel may be eclipsed by overwhelming anxiety. The anxious can become withdrawn as they seek to insulate themselves from anything that might trigger their negative feelings. They stop attending church meetings, so they stop hearing the word of God preached and miss out on supportive Christian fellowship as they move in ever decreasing circles. Feeling secure has become their 'treasure'. 

The author's focus is not on techniques for dealing with anxiety, or phycological processes, but a person, Jesus Christ. We may bring all our anxious cares to God through him, Philippians 4:6-7. The psalmists poured out all their troubles to the Lord, Psalms 42-43. The apostles set their many sufferings in the light of our eternal hope, 2 Corinthians 4. As we learn to trust the Lord with our cares, he strengthens our faith and enables us to grow in grace. 

Anxiety may have a number of different causes, relational, material or health. Each of these factors reveals what the soul truly values and is scared of losing; a cherished relationship, financial security or physical wellbeing. While it is right to make proper provision for ourselves in these areas, the believer's greatest treasure is the gospel of salvation in Christ. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ. Nothing we could lose in this life is comparable to our Saviour, the one who us 'chosen by God and precious'.  

The book's title is taken from 2 Corinthians 4:7-9. God places the treasure of the gospel in the clay jars of our fragile humanity. We don't have to pretend to be stronger, or more resilient that we really are. The Lord knows our sins and weaknesses, yet loves us all the same. Although outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly the Lord is renewing us by his grace, a grace that is made perfect in weakness. 

Catherine Haddow's approach to helping people with anxiety is deeply biblical and gospel-centred. She helps us to apply the good news of Jesus to our anxious souls. We are not to listen to ourselves as our overactive minds clog up with worry. We must preach to ourselves, remembering what Jesus has done for us in his death and resurrection, what he is doing in us by his Spirit and what he will do for us when he returns. As we are captivated by the hope of the gospel, our present distresses will seem light and momentary when compared with the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 2 Corinthians 4:17-19. This is not a quick fix, but a call to renewed devotion to the Lord Jesus. Like Paul we need to count whatever gain we have as loss for Christ, Philippians 3:7-8.  

Jars of Clay keeps it real. The author is open about her own struggles with anxiety and gives anonymised case studies of  people whose lives have been blighted by worry, yet who have found peace through faith in Jesus. Practical tips are provided for mitigating some of the physical effects of anxiety. Quiet meditation on the Word of God is commended as an alternative to Mindfulness. The book is well written and helpfully structured, making it easy to follow the basic argument. Anxiety is a 'smoke alarm' that alerts us to what we really value as 'The Precious' thing in our lives. The more we treasure Jesus, the less we will be consumed with this world's 'uncertain riches', Matthew 6:19-21. 

Anxiety isn't just a 'woman thing'. Men may also become consumed with worry, Male mental health is an issue of big concern in our society. Men as well as women will benefit from reading this title and taking its message to heart, Pastors should read it too. It will help you minister more effectively to care-worn members of your flock. More than that, read Jars of Clay as  part of your pastoral self-care. 

Sadly men have dropped out of ministry, overwhelmed with the burden of the work. Paul knew 'the care of all the churches', yet his sufficiency as a minister of the gospel was not in himself, but God. If we are not careful we can treasure ministry success above the Master, which is a sure recipe for anxious insecurity. We who preach the word and apply it to others, also need to partake of its rich treasures for ourselves. 

Thank God that in Jesus we have One why says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28). 

* Please note, Catherine Haddow doesn't put J. R. R. Tolkien's character Gollum in the psychologist's chair. Any gratuitous  LoTR refs are the reviewer's. 

1 comment:

Ben said...

"CBT can help straighten out people's thought processes, but it cannot touch the heart."

According to the Bible, the heart is the seat of reason. We have got used to a non-biblical anatomy which locates thinking in the head, and sets up a dichotomy between "head" and heart. A serious consequence is to feed anti-intellectualism, and to promote religion as essentially emotional.

The usual Biblical contrast, of course, is between heart and lips; emotions are usually located, figuratively speaking, below the diaphragm.