I don’t, you know, feel God’s presence like I used to. What’s wrong with me?”

“I’m not sure if I really even believe in Jesus. Can I?”

“My Christian high school never taught me about racism in America. What do I do with what I’m learning? How can I ever go back to that kind of Christianity again? Should I?”

I am privileged to sit with Christian young people as they ask questions like these—questions about identity and development, change and growth. Who am I becoming? they want to know. And how is that related to who I’ve been until now?

That interrogation is at the heart of Inside Out 2, the smash-hit sequel of the summer. Pixar fans first met 11-year-old Riley in Inside Out (2015), when Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust worked together to help her navigate a new middle school.

Now, Riley is about to start high school, trying to find her way onto the hockey team and through the complexities of puberty. Her adolescence introduces the five original emotions to new and disruptive company: Embarrassment, Envy, Ennui, and—most notably—Anxiety.

Anxiety plays a complicated role in our lives—paralyzing on the one hand and prudential on the other. Oriented toward the future, it helps us identify negative outcomes and work to make them less likely. Anxiety keeps us off ledges; anxiety prevents us from taking selfies with bears.

With Anxiety at the helm, we see Riley somewhat successfully navigate through the perils of adolescent life. She makes new, older friends by guessing at the kinds of things high school girls talk about, even risking a conversation with the hockey captain, Val, to make up for a rocky start with some other teammates.

But Inside Out 2 also makes it clear that anxiety—even “successful” anxiety—comes at a cost. Riley ruminates frantically about what others might think of her, how things could go wrong athletically and socially. She develops an “intolerance of uncertainty”; she sees danger where it doesn’t exist, tormented because she can’t fully know what her teammates and coaches think of her. In one particularly anxious sequence, she imagines she’ll be so bad that she’s laughed off the team; a minute later, she worries she’ll actually be too good and her teammates will be jealous. Desperate for some objective knowledge of where she stands, she betrays her values by sneaking a peek at the coach’s private notebook.

Article continues below

As Anxiety works ever more frantically to navigate Riley through stressful situations, the other emotions realize something crucial: Anxiety, too, is just trying her best. They stop their winner-take-all battle and instead help Anxiety find her place in Riley’s complex emotional life. Anxiety’s positive contributions can belong without allowing compulsive desperation to take over.

Many anxious young evangelicals, including some of the students I work with, struggle to integrate their anxiety this successfully. Most of them understand that it isn’t a sin to experience anxiety; they know therapy, biblical counseling, and medication can all be beneficial when their worries get out of hand. But what exactly is the connection between our anxiety and our Christian faith? If we are encouraged to “not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6), how can our anxiety be anything but problematic?

That “do not be anxious” verse is familiar. Less familiar is Paul’s use of the same Greek word (merimna) in 2 Corinthians 11:28, writing about his “daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (NRSV). Paul lumps this anxiety in with many other difficulties—imprisonment, shipwreck, hunger, thirst, danger—that he faced in his apostolic role, all braved out of a compassion for the churches he planted and a yearning to see them flourish.

Merimna is also sometimes translated as care. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 12:25 to talk about the sort of “care” or “concern” that church members ought to have for one another within the body of Christ. When we care about others’ well-being, we remember just how fragile and precious they are; sometimes, naturally, we feel anxious for them.

I don’t want the Christian young adults I work with to be calm to the point of complacency. I want them to care about serving Jesus: I want them to ask hard questions about what they are becoming and what they believe. I want them to appreciate the gravity of the responsibility that comes with being created in the image of God and charged with stewarding the world. I want them to know that their actions can make their neighbors’ lives better, or worse.

But I also want them to experience this “anxiety” about vocation and mission and living for the Lord in the context of the gospel’s certainty. I want them to rest in God’s love for all people and for each of them. I want them to be anxious about nothing in Paul’s positive sense, knowing they ultimately can entrust their striving to the one who cares the most of all, casting their concerns upon him through a life of humble prayer (1 Pet. 5:6–7).

Article continues below

In Inside Out 2, we see not just the symptoms of Riley’s anxiety—the sleepless nights, the racing heart—but the healthy longings that her anxiety conceals and distorts. Riley wants to be grown up. She wants to be loved and respected. She wants to contribute, to be part of a team, and to be good and recognized as good.

Just so with my students, whose anxiety often reveals so much about the people they are. Anxiety about grades reveals a desire to learn and grow. Anxiety about parents’ acceptance reveals an appreciation for how their families have blessed them. Anxiety about our online culture is a recognition of the power and potential of social media. Underneath our anxious fear that everything will fall apart is a yearning for all things new.

In Curtis Chang’s The Anxiety Opportunity, he observes that Jesus regularly encountered anxious people in the Gospels: He listened to widows and touched lepers, meeting people where they were instead of encouraging them to sidestep their feelings or calm down. Jesus loved these anxious selves, understanding that their agitation, appropriate or otherwise, was normal to feel in the very situations that drove people to find him.

When we see our anxious selves with the grace with which Jesus sees us, anxiety takes its rightful, subservient place in our Christian lives. Then we can begin to work for the world Jesus loves so much.

J. Michael Jordan is Associate Professor of Theology at Houghton University, where he served as Dean of the Chapel from 2013-2024. He is the author of Worship in an Age of Anxiety: How Churches Can Create Space for Healing.

[ This article is also available in Português Français 简体中文 한국어, and 繁體中文. ]