Note: I received a promotional copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. -AR
When the email announcing Ed Welch’s new book, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart, hit my inbox offering me a promotional copy, I was very interested. Anyone familiar with counseling from a biblical perspective has surely benefited from an article or book of his over the years.
As his bio notes, Ed Welch, MDiv, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at CCEF. He earned a PhD in counseling (neuropsychology) from the University of Utah and has a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. Welch has been counseling for over thirty years and has written extensively on the topics of depression, fear, and addictions. In other words (my words) Welch is one of the most well-known figures of the second generation of Biblical Counselors.
Instead of trumpeting all that, the marketing for the book humbly suggests, There is no quick fix for fear and worry, but the new devotional from Edward T. Welch seeks to help.
The simple question before us then is, Does it?
A Long “Small Book”
A Small Book for the Anxious Heart is just that, a small book. It is 50-day devotional, with each day’s reading around 500 words, plus two or three short “Response” questions to help stir the reader to quiet reflection or beginning steps of action. Why 50 days, I don’t know. Why not 30? Why not 60? Fifty may well be an even number, but for a devotional book length it seems odd to me.
The entries themselves seem to have little to no order or progression. By Day 18 it dawned on me that I could have been reading Day 1, and I thought the same when I got to Day 50. There does not need to be progression, but the lack of it is significant for a reason I’ll discuss later.
Day 1 starts out promisingly enough. “[God’s] words to us cluster around two themes: your God is very near, and he gives the grace and power you need for today. The aim of this book is to help us become more skillful in how we identify our fears and anxieties, hear God’s good words, and grow” (emphasis added). Clearly Welch earnestly desires to serve others and that is, of course, admirable.
The problem though, is that by the end of Day 1’s devotional and for the rest of the book, it misses the mark. And I really wish I did not have to write that. A few examples will follow, but since I mentioned Day 1, here is a statement near the end of the day’s reading,
“God never intended us to bear the overwhelming burdens of life by ourselves. Instead, he gives himself—just the right person to bear them with us” (emphasis added). The problem is, God does not want us bearing our burdens at all. He tells us, commands us, to “roll them off” onto Him (Ps 55:22), to cast our cares on him, for he cares for us (1 Pe 5:7), to lay our heavy loads at Jesus’ feet and take up his light burden instead (Mt 11:28-30). Welch’s statement sounds comforting, but isn’t. It is intended to be help, but doesn’t.
By Day 18 the book feels long. Hypothetically, the reader has lived almost three weeks since starting the book and yet at this point the book feels very much still at Square One. And it continues that way for 32 more days. Overall, where there are the occasional sentences and sections of solid theology and pointing to Christ, on the whole the book is minimally encouraging. By the end it feels like seven weeks + 1 day of revisiting the same wounds, at first dressing them, but never leaving them alone to heal. Every day is like lifting the bandage to look at how they’re doing.
A Soft Word Turns Away
A recurring problem in reading this book is the pulling back from using Bible-language, substituting softer words for those God uses in his Word. For example, nowhere that I could find does the book specifically mention the need to “repent” of the “sin/s” of anxiety and worry. Welch does say “why not confess your sin of unbelief right now?” (Day 10), and similar on Day 18, but these are only close, not exactly where the reader needs to be to biblically deal with their problem. He follows up that Day 10 exhortation with the sentence, “It [confession of sin] is an efficient way to interrupt the tailspin of fear and anxiety.” There are two problems with what is being said here. First, Christians do more than “confess” their sins to God—acknowledging them—we repent of them, which includes the element of not just confessing them but also of forsaking them. Second, we aren’t primarily to repent (“confess”) of sins to feel better or get relief, but to acknowledge we have sinned against a Holy, Just, and Perfect God; it’s primarily to honor God’s holiness and submit to his authority over us.
A second example of this soft approach is found on Day 18 where Welch writes, “It is our breaking trust with God that separates us from him, his love, and his protection.” I’m honestly not trying to be nit-picky here. I am trying give quotes to support my impressions. It’s more than “breaking trust” with God that separates us, it is our sins, our rebellion, our—as RC Sproul put it—“cosmic treason”. Our failure to train others in thinking and speaking in biblical language leads us inevitably to either minimize God’s holiness or minimize our sin, or both. Day 28 (“Tomorrow”) and Day 30 (“Judgment”) are perhaps the strongest language in the book about dealing with our sin.
A third example is on Day 36, where Welch writes, “The problem is when our wants shift into needs, which might more accurately be called loves.” Ed Welch has been serving the Body of Christ at least twice as long as I have been a Christian. He is smarter than me, has counseled tens of thousands of hours longer than I ever will, and I write all of this with great respect to my elder brother in Christ. However, when our wants shift into perceived needs, the Bible does not gently suggest them to be mere “loves”; it calls them idols. Welch knows this.
If we are to disciple believers into wholeness and hope in Christ, and affirm that he can save them from their fears and anxieties, I’ve always been told we must love them enough to be clear, and that means using the words God uses if we are to counsel them from his Word.
A Disappointing Role Model
My disappointment with Welch’s quoting Eugene Peterson‘s Bible paraphrase The Message was only surpassed by his praise for Peterson the man. The popular paraphrase is also fraught with errors, causing at least one evangelical leader, Justin Peters, to call it “not only a poor paraphrase, but it is, in fact, heretical.” Whereas Al Mohler, in his essay about Peterson’s very public retraction of his full endorsement of gay marriage, describes Peterson as a man who “has never been very clear about controversial questions, or on many crucial biblical and theological questions. His writings were categorized as ‘pastoral theology,’ and there is little explicit doctrine in his books,” Welch regards him as “one of an endless number of God’s children who point the way for us and show us what is possible.” I don’t see Welch’s quoting of The Message or speaking of Peterson as egregious, only unfortunate.
Welch quotes Peterson’s assurances about his own eventual death as an example of the kind of confidence (versus fear and anxiety) believers can have about their eventual demise. I agree! As Keith Getty and Stuart Townend co-wrote in In Christ Alone, Christians can rejoice, having now “No guilt in life, no fear in death/this is the power of Christ in me.” I just wish Welch had used someone else an example instead of Peterson, like maybe the famous martyr like Polycarp (“86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”), Jan Hus, or any of the hundreds of English martyrs who died for their faith during the Reformation, to name a few examples of those having no fear in death.
Praise …and Problems
There are some excellent passages, for sure in this book. Consider this tender and pastoral note of encouragement Welch offers readers:
His love means that he will be close and nothing can separate you from him.“A Small Book for the Anxious Heart” by Ed Welch, Day 23
His strength means that he is an ever-present help in trouble and he will make things right.
These two are joined into one event: Christ and him crucified.
In Jesus Christ, we see that God became our suffering servant who identifies with the weak and oppressed, and he takes their burden on himself.
In Jesus Christ, we see the mighty God who takes up the cause of the weak and brings justice to the oppressed. He is the King who has inaugurated his kingdom that will conquer death itself.
[…]The entire Bible is meant to open your eyes to those truths about Jesus, who was seen by all, but for now is just barely out of sight.
But then, again, more problems emerge. On Day 42 Welch makes a comment about God and the Garden of Eden I have never heard anyone suggest, “The garden of Eden was God’s house on earth, and he walked with his people in the garden. When we left the garden, he left with us and promised that, in the end, sin would not interfere with his purpose” (emphasis added). Huh? I looked up the verb used in Gen 3:23. It is shalach, and it means “to send”, which by definition indicates the one doing the sending stays while the one sent departs. In fact, Matthew Poole in his commentary (and Gill agrees) says, “the Lord God sent him forth, or expelled him with shame and violence, and so as never to restore him thither; for it is the same word which is used concerning divorced wives” (emphases in original).
No man or woman could write a book like Anxious unless they were writing from a place of deep compassion for their wounded readers, desiring to help point the way out of their darkness and misery and into the light of hope and peace in Christ. As he stated at the outset, Welch’s heart’s desire is to “help” readers, and of that there is no doubt. As well-meaning a resource as it is intended to be, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart regrettably misses its noble goal.
A Small Book for the Anxious Heart by Ed T. Welch was published in October 2019 by New Growth Press. I received a promotional copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.