77: How to lessen anxiety with gospelbound hope with Sarah Zylstra

Listen to this article

The New Republic observed in 2019 that “America seems to be in the midst of a full-blown panic attack.”

And then came 2020…and with it, an exhausting instability.

By the end of March 2020, 45 percent of Americans said stress from worrying about the virus was negatively affecting their mental health.

In April 2020, a government emergency hotline for emotional distress heard from 20k people—compared with just 1,800 in April 2019.

But—pandemic or not—this rise in anxiety isn’t all that surprising. It could be expected, in fact, when our unchanging faith collides with a changing culture. 

That’s what authors Sarah Zylstra and Collin Hansen explore in their new book: “Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age.”

The influence of Christians with hearts tangled up in the gospel seems to be waning just as we’re needed most. But there’s another story unfolding, too.

Sarah is on the show to counter growing fears with a robust message of a gritty, real, resolute hope for anyone hungry for good news.

Sarah is a senior writer and faith-and-work editor for The Gospel Coalition. She holds a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and wrote for Christianity Today for more than a decade. Now, her story assignment is to follow God around.

Show highlights include:

  • The state of anxiety today.
  • What’s going on with the rise in religious “nones” as the number of evangelical Christians in America has largely stayed the same. 
  • The consequences of nominal Christians disconnecting from God. 
  • Why Christians have “even more reason to feel unbalanced and a little scared.”
  • Why Sarah decided to write a different story to counter growing fears with hope. 
  • The seven traits of a “gospelbound” believer.
  • Stories of Christians living with these characteristics that give Sarah hope.
  • What it means to live with honor as a gospelbound Christian.
  • Why real freedom is recognizing the correct boundaries, and why that can be jarring in a nation that loves freedom.
  • How we can best reflect God.
  • The key to living with resolute hope.
  • A tangible step to live in faithfulness today.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

* * *

Christin Thieme: Well, Sarah, welcome to the Do Gooders Podcast, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Sarah Zylstra: Thank you so much for having me.

Christin Thieme: Definitely. It’s great to have you here. To start out, a little bit of a light question here for you. What’s the state of anxiety today in the U.S.?

Sarah Zylstra: Oh, yep. That is a light question, isn’t it? Probably your listeners can even feel this in their own lives and you probably can too, from the last year, what a dramatic upturn, we’ve had in anxiety, just from the unstableness of how everything feels. But we’ve actually seen anxiety rates rising even before that, Collin and I were under contract to write this book before COVID even came. So anxiety, you could already see in sleep habits, and survey questions, and medications dispensed, and counseling session books, that anxiety and depression were on the rise in the United States, even before that. There’s a lot of different reasons for that, I think one is definitely the news, our news habit. If you want to, we can go into that a little bit. There’s reasons I think why we are affected so much by this and why we also click on it.

And then also I think our culture is dechristianizing, so there’s less of what Tim Keller would call a thick face. And so for American Christians or people of faith especially, they can see the secularization of society and where a pastor used to be a respected position, now it’s not so much. Surveys tell us that the respect people used to have for faith is less and less. So for American Christians, there’s an extra anxiety that they’re living in a place where they’re starting to feel pushed to the margins.

Christin Thieme: Right. You mentioned the statistics, that church attendance fell from 54% in 2017, to 45% in 2019, as religious nones, people who described themselves, their religion as nothing in particular, rose from 8% in 1990, to 26% in 2019. But yet the number of evangelical or born-again Christians in America, has largely stayed the same: 28% in 2019 to 25% in 2019. So what’s going on?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah, isn’t that interesting? So there’s awesome chart on this; I wish we were on TV and I could show it to you, but basically if you think about the current of culture, where most average people’s opinions tend to land in. So you’ve always had your atheists on one end, and your really committed Christians on the other end. And in the middle were those cultural Christians, who would maybe go to church on Easter and Sunday, who would say they believed in God, but whose lives maybe didn’t reflect a full grabbing onto the gospel. But they in general would say, “Yes, I want to go to heaven and yes, I’m trying to live according to the principles of the Bible.”

Well, as that falls away as it does, if there’s nothing really… if you don’t believe in Christ, why would you keep living like that? It doesn’t make any sense. And gradually, that has shifted over, and so that middle part, which used to be like, “Yeah, I’m probably Christian,” is now like, “No, not really. I don’t know why I would hold onto that anymore.” And so all those two end sections are still pretty much the same, that middle section is drifting more toward the, maybe not completely anti-Christian, but probably at least much more lukewarm toward the value of Christianity than it used to be.

Christin Thieme: So what are the consequences then as the, maybe call them nominal Christians, have started to disconnect from God?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Isn’t that an interesting question? I think one is the rise of anxiety. I think if you don’t have a grasp of why you’re here and where you’re going, even if you’re not a philosophy major, those are questions that people have to grapple with. What does happen after we die, is there anybody running this world or, what’s going to be rewarded and what isn’t? And as we lose that larger narrative, that we were all living together, everybody has their own narrative and it’s not as stable, mainly because it’s not as true. And so if you’re just making up your own thing as you go along, you have a lot more questions that you can’t answer.

Christin Thieme: That would cause some anxiety.

Sarah Zylstra: It would.

Christin Thieme: So you write in the introduction that, “Christians aren’t exempt from worrying about the many changes that affect our culture. If anything, we have more reason to feel unbalanced and a little scared.” Why is that?

Sarah Zylstra: That’s a good one. So I think one reason is… well, I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not that our faith, we’ve suddenly discovered is untrue, we know that God is still real, His promises are still true, the Bible is still there, Jesus still died, those are all real things. And it’s not that we’re really surprised that we live in a sinful world either, I mean, that’s been true since Adam and Eve, we’ve always known that we lived in a world that was sinful. I think what’s changed is where we rub against that, that flow that I was talking about a little bit earlier, that current of society, we’re not respected anymore and we’re rubbing against society.

If you just look at laws on abortion, or laws on gay marriage, or transgenderism, or the equality act that’s sitting in Congress right now, those are rubbing against Christians in America in a way that they never have before. It’s not that the church is in a different position, I would say throughout all of history, the church has mostly been operating in the margins, but for American Christians, that’s new. Usually, Christianity in America has always been very well-respected and has shaped our whole culture and our laws, and has been extremely influential. So to have that turn a little bit, that’s rubbing against us in a weird way, and it doesn’t feel very comfortable.

Christin Thieme: Right. In your book now, “Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age,” you said in it that you decided to write a different story to counter growing fears with hope. So, can you tell us a little bit about the book and what that resolute hope that you refer to is?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. So we started thinking about this… I started writing for Collin at The Gospel Coalition about four years ago, and he said, “Sarah, I just want you to write stories, and can you follow God around, what is the Holy Spirit doing? And let’s write those stories.”

Christin Thieme: I like that. The God beat reporter.

Sarah Zylstra: Yes. It’s the God beat reporter, and at first I was like, “That’s not even a thing. What are you talking about? You can’t do that.” But it turns out that you can. And so I just spent the past four years finding places where God has been at work and writing it. And it has been most joyful, energizing, faith-affirming job in the whole world. Because everyday people are telling me stories of like, “We didn’t know how we were going to do this, and look at the ways that God has showed up and the beautiful things that he’s doing all across the world.” 

So then Collin, a few years ago was reading through Romans and he could see the principles that these people were living out. Like living with honor, and suffering with joy, and extending hospitality, and caring for the weak. Those are the stories we’re telling.

And so we just put each one of those into a chapter, and then filled it up with stories of how people were living those things out, and hoping to offer it as a, here’s an example, this is how the church has always done it, this is how Christians are still doing it, you don’t have to be anxious. Even if the culture turns completely 100% against Christians and wants to put you in jail, that’s not a reason to even be afraid or anxious. God is still there, and here’s examples of people who are living in that joyful resolute hope.

Christin Thieme: Was there a particular story that had a significant impact on you?

Sarah Zylstra: Oh, Christin, I love so many of these stories. I will tell you the story of Rochelle Starr who lives in Louisville. She was a marketing manager and as she would drive to work, she’d drive past a sign for a strip club every day. And after a while, she just felt such a burden for the girls who are working there. And she said to her husband, “I just feel like I need to do something about that strip club,” and he was like, “Well, that’s what Jesus would do. So, what are you going to do?” And so she started by, she didn’t have a plan, she didn’t get a board together. What she did is, she took a couple of girlfriends and they would go sit across from this strip club once or twice a week, for a year and pray. And Christin, I can’t tell you how many of my stories start like this. It’s like, “Well, we didn’t know what to do. So we just regularly and intentionally started praying together.” And that is where the spirit of God loves to work, I think, because a lot of my stories start like that.

So she did, and then after a year she felt a prompting from God that it was time to go in. So she went in and she said, “Hi, I’m a Christian, and I’d love to do something kind and loving for the girls who work here.” Well you can imagine how the management was like, “Are you for real, who are you lady? But they did. She said, “Could I bring in a meal?” And they said, “I guess, there’s no law against it, sure.” So she did, and at first, the girls who danced there, she said some of them wouldn’t even eat it because they were afraid it was poisoned, but she kept coming back.

She had some help from her local church that she went to, and they would just, every week they brought in a meal, and every week they brought in a meal, and every week they brought in a meal. You can imagine, if I met you for a meal every single week for months on end, we would start to become really good friends. So they started talking to these girls. And then from there, it was very easy to hear the stories of, “Oh man, I wish, I need help with diapers for my kid, I’m in an apartment and I don’t have any furniture, or I’d love to go to culinary school and I never got a chance.” These were girls, she said, “I’ve never met one who wasn’t abused in some way as a child.” And so they are just loving these girls and walking alongside them, and today she’s in, I think Louisville has 23 or 24 strip clubs, and she has a presence in all of them.

Now, since COVID, I guess I haven’t asked her since that, that’s probably different. But she has pulled 600 women from the sex industry.

Christin Thieme: Wow.

Sarah Zylstra: Yes. And she’s having conferences to help people in other cities do the same thing. It has grown magnificently from where she started just sitting on a curb, looking at a strip club, praying for God to show her what to do.

Christin Thieme: And that’s what really stands out about that story, it’s just the commitment involved in going and praying day after day, going and showing up day after day. That’s incredible.

Sarah Zylstra: It is. Yep. She’s doing a great job. And another thing, she said, “For every woman that leaves the sex industry, five more walk in.” So it’s not like she’s going to eliminate the sex industry from Louisville, but she’s just like, “I’m just trying to pull one out at a time. You’re just doing what you can, even though we’re not Jesus, we’re not going to make the world perfect. But to just redeem one little life at a time, I think that’s what really strikes me too, it’s just her persistence in that and the effect she’s been able to have.

Christin Thieme: Yeah. Makes a big difference for those lives too.

Sarah Zylstra: That’s right. Yep.

Christin Thieme: So you arrange all of these true stories in the book under seven traits that make up a gospelbound believer. One of those traits is honor, and it’s interesting from that story. Because you write in this section that, “Happiness comes not through self-fulfillment, but rather through commitment to others and doing what is right, according to a code of honor.” For a gospelbound Christian, what does living with honor mean?

Sarah Zylstra: Ooh, that’s so good. Honor is such a term that… If you read Jane Eyre or Jane Austen, some of the older stuff, it comes up all the time, living according to honor. Even if you watch Hamilton, right? Literally the guy died for his own honor. It’s everywhere, used to be a big deal, the reputation of your name, and we’ve lost that a little bit. But honor means, is you’re just living for someone not your own self. So you’re living according to a different code. So for Christians, for example, one is just living with sexual honor, especially in this day and age. And that doesn’t necessarily… and I mean part of it means honoring the gender that God gave you, part of it means obeying… marrying someone of the opposite gender and staying married to them, keeping sex inside a marriage.

But also means not looking at pornography, or keeping yourself pure in that way, living in a different way with different values. And so what’s been fascinating is to watch… But I have quite a few friends or people that I know, who are same-sex attracted and have chosen not to live that lifestyle. And it’s so interesting to me that it’s possible, and the joy that they find in following the Lord, even though I know their desires would steer them elsewhere. I think that’s an enormous testimony, God’s… He gives them the strength and the ability to do that and the joy in following him has really been tremendous for them. So that’s one way, yeah.

Christin Thieme: So you write at one point that, “Real freedom is recognizing the correct boundaries.” So almost comes down to that, that we find freedom in boundaries. Is that jarring in a culture and a nation that loves freedom, that celebrates freedom everywhere. I mean, we can choose to do just about anything as an American, but are we really free?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Isn’t that a good question? I mean, it’s so hard for us I think, sometimes to wrap our minds around that, because it seems freer if I would just say to you, “Do what you want, eat what you want, go where you want, sleep with whoever you want, spend your money on whatever you want.” That sounds like it would be free, but really if your mind takes you down that path for a minute or two, you can see exactly the tangles that, that leads you, those feel like traps almost. Like, “Really, sleep with whoever I want? Do you know the diseases that you could get, or you could become pregnant, and then what’s the path?” It doesn’t lead to freedom. Or “Really, spend money on whatever I want? Now I’m $20,000 in debt, now I’m really trapped.” All of those that sound good, trap you.

But if you start from the beginning and you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to live in these boundaries. I’m saving myself from my husband, I’m just going to wait and marry someone that I love. And then when we have sex and eventually have a child that’ll be born, we’re going to want that child, it’s going to be such a joy for us.” Or “I’ll live inside this budget, here’s where I’m going to spend my money. And I’m going to plan that ahead of time, and it’s going to be on things that I think are really important. And 10 years from now, instead of being in debt, I’m going to be able to give generously, and pay off my own debts.” Every time that you choose to live according to those laws and boundaries that you keep yourself inside of those, it just opens up more and more avenues for you. Even thinking about at work, if I’m following the rules at work and trying to really flourish and do a great job in the spot where I am, it just opens up more opportunities for you.

But if I’m at work stealing office supplies, and like, “Hey, I’m just free to do what I want.” That’s not going to work out. You’ll get fired.

Christin Thieme: Yes, with your post-its. So what does it mean then to give up your freedom, in this context of living as a gospelbound Christian?

Sarah Zylstra: Oh, there’s just such a joy in it. Honestly, Christin, it doesn’t even really feel like giving up your freedom, once you get into it. To adjust your life so that you’re looking for the good of someone else who… To first of all, really center yourself on the Lord, and be in the Bible, reading it and understanding what he wants, to be at a church that offers me both really good teaching, and a community with which to serve. Those are definitely ways that you can be a gospel-focused, gospelbound, we call them, Christians. Living inside all of those parameters, asking mentors for help with that, and finding your way. And I think also the more you practice this, the easier it is, and the more you see the rewards of it. And so then the easier it is, and the more you see the rewards of it, and then… So it’s just a cycle of pressing through. Sometimes it’s hard, the discipline of it is not always your favorite in the moment, but the rewards of it are always worth doing.

Christin Thieme: So it’s always choosing to follow God and doing our best to reflect what he would want us to do. It’s easier in many cases to speak the truth that we know, than necessarily to live that truth. So how can we encourage others to follow God, knowing that it is difficult sometimes?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Isn’t that true? I think one thing that inspires people is stories, and one can be telling other people’s stories, but another can be telling our own story. So if I say to you, “Oh, Christin, I so did not want to get out of bed today and do my Bible reading, but I did, and I’m filled with so much joy and peace in that, and I’m so glad.” Or “Oh, I have been working on this habit of better giving,” or “this habit of trying to check in with my neighbors,” or “this habit of trying to have someone over for dinner once in a while,” or “this habit of showing up at the food pantry,” or whatever it would be.

I think even being able to walk alongside one another, and encourage each other, and share our own struggles and strengths, and pray together, I guess I’m talking about the local church. How important it is to walk with each other in this, because you’re right, it’s hard to do, but it’s so much harder alone than if you have a buddy with you, who’s encouraging you along the way. Or even better yet a whole church of buddies, that’s encouraging you along the way.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Part of that difficulty, which you mentioned at the top, the rubbing against the culture, it can be hard nowadays to identify as a Christian. You write at one point in the book, “The self-control of Christianity looks outdated. To a generation committed to throwing off any constraints, things like commandments, and laws, and right behavior, sound backward at best, abusive at worst.” So how can we rise above maybe a crisis of confidence in calling ourselves Christians and holding that power of the gospel to change people?

Sarah Zylstra: Oh, that’s so good. It’s such a good question. I think this is true, especially on university campuses. When I think of a place where it’s hard to be a Christian, that’s what I think of, because I don’t know how much in your everyday life, probably, once you get to know people well enough, I think it’s easier to talk about faith with your friends, than it is with a stranger. And I think university campuses of all places are probably… especially, I’m thinking maybe a public university or even an Ivy League school, it’s a lot harder there because Christianity not only seems outdated, it just seems dumb. Like only dumb people believe that. So I think it’s extremely difficult there, I wish I was a campus minister because then I would be able to tell you what to do.

Sarah Zylstra: I do wonder if maybe once you start to own it, it’s easier for you to keep talking about it, it’s probably hardest to break the seal that first time. And I also just think the example of your life can speak pretty loudly, I don’t know if you need to walk around with, “I am a Christian,” plaster on your shirt, but you could wear a Christian shirt. It’s just the joyfulness of your spirit, and the other-centeredness of your action, and the kindness of your tongue, of the things that you’re talking about, I think can be pretty bright witness in drawing other people to wonder, “Gosh, she’s so great. What does she have? I want that too.”

Christin Thieme: The words of John come to mind that, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Sarah Zylstra: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Christin Thieme: So for somebody who maybe hasn’t read the book yet, doesn’t have any context. How do you describe it—what is a gospelbound Christian?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah, this is so fun. This is such a great word, and we struggled a long time over the title, but this is really what it has to be. So we thought about gospelbound in a couple of different ways. First of all, gospelbound Christians are Christians that are bound to the gospel; they’re tied up in it. Like we were just talking about, with those rules, and laws, and commandments, but their heart is tangled up in the gospel. They can’t drop it even if they wanted to. If you ever feel like, “I couldn’t not believe in God. He’s just so real to me,” that’s one sense.

And another sense, we thought about bounding, like you’re bounding ahead, you’re bounding, right? You’re not just walking, you’re bouncing as you’re walking along. As we’re walking through this life, our steps should be a little different. We should be, “They’re bouncing along a little differently than the rest of us trudging along over here.” Because they’re bouncing in the gospel, they’re bounding in that honor and that joy and that caring for others, and that confidence in the future and loving people who vote differently than them, all those things should be something that sets our steps a little bit apart.

And then the third way we were thinking of bound is, we’re bound toward heaven, we’re bound towards something. We’re not aimlessly wandering around, we’re looking at where we’re going to go. It’s far more beautiful than where we are, it gives our lives here, both a weight and importance, like, “Hey, we want to share this with as many people as we can,” but also it gives our lives here… you don’t have to take it too seriously. This is just a small amount of time, don’t worry about all those little things. You’re headed for a better place. Hey, we live in a place that’s broken and sometimes you just have to be like, “Yep, that’s broken. Not going to get fixed until heaven, we’re not going to worry about that right now.” So all those different ways have made us just love the word gospel bound.

Christin Thieme: I like it. So you say, “The key to living with resolute hope as part of being a gospelbound Christian, is to think big and small at the same time.” What do you mean by that?

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. I love this too. So we were thinking about this, when you’re looking at the news… And part of the trouble, one reason that we’re so anxious with our news, is that we’re hearing so much of it and we hear it all the time. So all that, it used to be, maybe you live in a little farm village somewhere and you’d hear, “Oh no, someone got ran over by their cow,” or something, but you’d also hear, “Oh, so-and-so had a baby,” or “had a good crop.” So you’d hear probably a better balance of the good news and the bad news, you could be rejoicing and mourning with your neighbors. But the news that rises to the top to go nationally or internationally is almost always the bad news, and we’re constantly feeding on it. So, that’s something that’s pulling us down.

So Collin and I were thinking about, to think big would be, “Okay, let’s leave that behind and think even bigger picture, where we are in God’s story.” And the story arc that we have creation, and the fall, and then Jesus dying for us on the cross, and now we’re living in that tail end resolution part of the story arc, heading toward glory. So that’s where we are, and if you think about God’s promises, and all the promises he has kept so far, which give us confidence that he will keep those promises in front of us, and to sit there in that big arc and see where we are. That gives us a lot of hope, not this fanciful hope, but this gritty, real hope. We have seen him keep his word and we know he still will.

So that’s thinking big. And thinking small is, so studies show we’re super anxious about our national government and we don’t trust Washington D.C. However, we’re not so worked up about our own city council, we probably have even warmish feelings toward it, or we’re not crazy about the teacher’s unions or the National Education Association, but we don’t mind our own school board. We can see, we know those people, and we can see what they’re doing and so we can trust them a little bit more. We might hate the other political party, but our niece votes for them, and we don’t hate her, we love her very much. When you take those issues and bring them all the way down to where you live, they lose a lot of their anxiety, and you can also see God at work in your own context, and I think that also gives you a hope of, that gritty, real hope, like, “God showed up for us yesterday, and he’s showing up today, and I think we can trust that he’s going to show up again tomorrow.”

And then it also, if you bring your eyes down to that level, it also gives you something to do. You can run for the school board, you can bring diapers for that single mom, you can bring in a meal to a neighbor. And I think when we’re able to do something that also gives us hope and alleviates that anxiety.

Christin Thieme: I love that. Gritty, real hope.

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah, yeah. 

Christin Thieme: And that idea of doing something, a lot of the stories that you tell in the book, they can almost feel out of reach. I mean, these are the best of the best of these people doing amazing things that you might not even be able to imagine attempting yourself. What can we learn from that? What’s one way that somebody listening today could do something to be involved, to take this step of faithfulness, toward being a gospelbound Christian, like you write about?

Sarah Zylstra: Oh, that’s so good, and you’re right. A lot of these stories are amazing, but they all started really small. A lot of them started with people just like, “Every Tuesday, I’m going to pray for this one thing.” Or even I tell a story about, there’s a girl I know, a friend called Rebecca McGlaughlin, and she just started, like, “I just want to reach out to people who come into our church.” And so she just started sitting by people who were strangers in church. Now, you can’t do that now probably in the days of COVID, you might in the future, but just even smiling at somebody.

Christin Thieme: What a simple, beautiful thing, though.

Sarah Zylstra: Yes. To just sit by somebody who’s sitting by themselves. Or to just be like, “Let’s invite that family over for dinner.” Nobody ever jumped from, “I think I want to do this,” to full-fledged, giant Salvation Army size ministry, right? Even The Salvation Army didn’t all of a sudden wake up like that.

Christin Thieme: It’s true.

Sarah Zylstra: There’s a million steps along the way where people just prayed through something and were like, “I don’t know. It seems like God’s opening this door, could we go through it?” “I don’t know, let’s try.” “Oops, wrong door. Let’s try this one over here.” And that’s just how all of these stories are. It’s really just smiling at a stranger, or helping your neighbor with his car. That’s where the change starts.

Christin Thieme: Think big and small. Small first.

Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. That’s right. Small first, just the little things around you. Take your dog for a walk and talk to your neighbor, who’s doing the same thing. That kind of thing.

Christin Thieme: Yeah. I love it. Well, Sarah, this has been so encouraging. Thank you so much. 

Sarah Zylstra: Oh, thank you. Christin, this was super fun. Thank you for having me.

Additional resources:

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.

Knitting pattern fundraiser helps survivors of Oregon wildfires

Knitting pattern fundraiser helps survivors of Oregon wildfires

When wildfires raged, small business owner Kay Hopkins had to do something to

Love In Action: Teen turns coffee to water

Love In Action: Teen turns coffee to water

Eden Wild is a headstrong teenager with a calling

You May Also Like