Review of Good News for Anxious Christians by Phillip Cary
By COYLE NEAL
There are at least two reasons to read Phillip Cary’s Good News for Anxious Christians: to help you think about what being “guided” by the Holy Spirit means, and to think about the problem of pain in greater depth. Written for his students, Cary’s goal is to remind us that Christianity is a message of Good News about Jesus Christ rather than a requirement that we experience a certain emotion or receive some form of internal message from God. Additionally, his chapter on suffering is good enough (the best in the book, as far as I’m concerned) to merit special attention.
How do you know what God wants you to do with your life? Who should you marry? What college should you go to? What career should you pursue? Professor Cary writes that when his students ask these and other questions they often seem to expect some kind of special, personal revelation directly from God into their souls which will guide them in making decisions. When it is pointed out that we know the revealed will of God (“thou shalt not steal,” for example), and that we cannot know the hidden will of God (Deut. 29:29) which governs providence, history, and the future in general; the response is: that is insufficient. We don’t just want to know general principles applicable to our lives (not that we keep them anyway), we want to know specifics. This, Prof. Cary points out, misses the point entirely and even goes as far as to create a new kind of “will of God”:
So the ‘will of God’ that my students are trying to find is… an extra kind of ‘will of God’ that is not found in the Bible. That is to say, it doesn’t really exist. And that’s good news. It means—if they only knew it—that they are allowed to make their own decisions like responsible moral agents—like adults seeking to grow in wisdom and understanding or stewards learning how to invest their talents. (58-59)
And this forms the major theme of the book: it’s time for Christians to stop living like immature, self-centered children and accept the very adult responsibility that comes with being free in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Since our sin is paid for on the cross and God is completely satisfied in the life and death of Christ in our place, we no longer have to obsess over God’s will for us when we make decisions. Instead, we are free to pursue lives based on the Gospel and in accord with the wisdom and virtue that develop with maturity and experience.“But,” we might ask, “who should I marry?” Professor Cary argues that the Biblical answer is: whoever you want to (provided that you’re not sinning). Likewise we should pursue whatever career matches our disposition, desires, and abilities; and attend whatever college we can afford that provides the kind of education we need. In other words, God’s revealed will is not the still small voice within saying “go to Harvard,” it is the commandment “thou shalt not steal” at whatever school we attend; while his providential will is only going to be revealed after the fact in any case, so we need not worry about disobeying it.
While the bulk of the book is dedicated to meditation on the inner disposition of the Christian with relation to the decision-making process, there’s a connected excursion into suffering that is the best chapter in the book and is certainly one of the best interpretations of Job I’ve ever seen. Consider:
All he [Job] knows is that his suffering is fundamentally about his relationship with God. What he doesn’t know is that he suffers because his relationship with God is right. (146)
Professor Cary reminds us that the Christian life is not all sunshine and puppies, and to tell someone dealing with grief, depression, or despair that they are sinning by not being so happy that rainbows shoot out their ears can be an actively cruel thing to do. (Okay, so maybe some of that is my language rather than Professor Cary’s, but the point is the same.) What we need, he argues, is the reminder that the Gospel provides a hope that turns us away from our inner condition (even despair) and points us towards both the finished work of Christ on the cross and the future condition where our suffering now will come to an end, never to return. While we may not know the immediate cause of any given particular bit of suffering, we do know that the suffering itself is not the end of the story.
All this is not to say that there are no problems with the book. Here and there he makes leaps of logic that are suspect at best, and his reliance on liturgy over personal relationship is especially problematic. Nonetheless, this is a book that is particularly useful for modern American Christians. I recommend reading it in concert with Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something.