Book Review: Stressed Out by Todd Friel

Anxiety is a problem everyone faces at one time or another. For some, anxiety is a problem faced every moment of every day. Because of this epidemic of stress, depression, anxiety, and other related issues, Todd Friel of Wretched TV and Radio has written a book to help people not only confront their anxiety but overcome it. The book Stressed Out: A Practical, Biblical Approach to Anxiety is a short, popular volume published in 2016 by New Leaf Press. The book contains eighteen chapters divided up among three sections, plus an introduction. Each chapter ends with a short excerpt from another writer to reinforce and illustrate what Friel discussed.

The first section of the book helps the reader understand the true nature of anxiety. Friel distinguishes between organic, medical issues that impair the brain’s ability to function correctly and require medication to correct and non-organic issues that result in anxiety. This distinction is important because of the amount of medication prescribed for anxiety disorders by contemporary medical practitioners. As Friel rightly observes, anxiety that is not caused by a medical problem is caused by something else, namely, a spiritual problem. A spiritual problem cannot be overcome by medication. Many readers will find this section as surprising as helpful because of how easily people label anxiety as a medical problem requiring medication.

The second section of the book walks the reader through twelve anxiety relievers that come from Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 14-16). Such treatments include knowing you have a future, you have a Comforter, you have an Avenger, and your God loves you. For anyone who has been a Christian for a while, nothing in this section will be surprising. Friel weaves together gospel truths with a basic theology proper to help readers put the pieces together as they sort through the areas of life that are provoking anxiety. The lack of novelty in this section is not necessarily a negative aspect of the book, however, as we do well to remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel and of the nature of God on a regular basis. Much of our anxiety comes from forgetting these truths or not integrating them with our current situations and problems. This section thus serves as a basic refresher on foundational truths, with some help learning how to connect them with your daily life. For a new Christian, this section will lay a good foundation for understanding the gospel better and God’s nature more clearly, while doing double duty of showing how these realities should impact our lives in practical ways.

The final section of the book focuses on applying the anxiety relievers, giving the reader a goal and a plan to approach anxiety. Friel reminds the reader that the goal of the book is not primarily to make her feel better but to compel her to become more like Christ. The more we become like Christ, the more joy we will have. So why don’t we experience this joy? Friel notes a few problems we face as fallen but redeemed creatures followed by a (brief) tour de force on the means of grace. The final chapter lists seven steps to applying the means of grace properly to our lives. Once again, for anyone who has been a Christian for a while, nothing surprising or terribly deep will pop up in these chapters, but they still serve as helpful reminders of how to seek the Lord and to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

Stressed Out has several strengths that make it a helpful read for any believer, whether currently struggling with anxiety or not. One of the primary strengths of the book is the sheer volume of passages Friel mentions throughout every chapter. While I didn’t do an official count, it seemed like the reader couldn’t get more than a page or so without seeing some passage of scripture being cited. One reason this aspect of the book appeals to me is because of the biblical illiteracy even among professing evangelicals. Many do not know where to turn in the Bible to find answers to their problems of stress, anxiety, or depression. Friel gives myriad passages from which to choose, leaving the reader with no shortage of possible Bible studies as she seeks to alleviate her anxiety by the Word of God.

Another strength of Stressed Out is the examples Friel gives. He ensures the reader is not left to speculate about various causes or symptoms of anxiety; instead, he gives situation after situation where we might feel anxious. He then discusses the appropriate approach to dealing with such temptations to worry.

The chapters are relatively short and easy to read. The book clearly is written for a popular audience, not a scholarly one, so anyone should be able to pick up the book and understand its message.

Along with these strengths, the book does suffer from a few shortfalls. While perhaps nitpicky, I noticed some misspelled words (such as the word massage spelled message in the introduction) and consistent stylistic problems, such as putting the word not in between every infinitive (“to not…” instead of “not to…”). As noted, these are minor issues, but every time I came to one of these infinitive phrases, it tripped up my reading a bit because the word order was wrong. Those not so inclined to notice grammatical and stylistic details like this will not be concerned about this in the least.

Another weakness of the book is the other side of one of its strengths: because Friel uses so many passages of Scripture, he rarely can delve into any one passage with any real depth. The diligent reader can note the passages covered and do her own study at another time, but most readers probably will not be so diligent. While John 14-16 serves as the framework for the middle of the book, exegesis is thin and many other passages are brought in to supplement the main text being discussed. I think Friel could have struck a better balance between incorporating many passages of Scripture and more in-depth exegesis of the most critical passages related to his theme.

Finally, Friel’s work suffers from some minor theological problems related to understanding God’s promises. In the chapter on using the promises of God to battle anxiety (chapter 8), Friel exhorts the reader only to apply the promises of God that are “for us.” He notes that promises of destruction and judgment do not apply to the believer, which is true, although to put these under the rubric of a divine promise is unhelpful. It seems better to call these divine threats than promises given the way the term promise is used in the Bible. Furthermore, he falls into the error of claiming that promises made to Israel in the Old Testament are not for believers today, citing Jeremiah 29:11 as an example. While a popular line of reasoning among certain sects of evangelicalism, this interpretation of the Old Testament fails to account for what the Bible itself says about such promises. 2 Corinthians 1:20 states unabashedly that as many promises as God has made are ours in Christ Jesus, which would include promises like Jeremiah 29:11. Readers can joyfully and powerfully use these promises made to God’s people of old as their own because of Christ’s redemptive work and their union with Him in the new covenant. The whole Bible belongs to those who are in Christ, not just the New Testament.

One final area I’m not sure to classify as a strength or a weakness is the writing style. Friel has a unique style, and if you are familiar with his work, you know what I mean. His style is not for everyone. Some people love it; others are put off by it. You’ll probably know which you are within the first two pages of the book, so if you are unfamiliar with his work, download a sample on Kindle or some other eBook platform to see if it suits your taste. If not, there are many other options that are helpful in battling anxiety, such as John MacArthur’s book Anxious For Nothing.

Overall, this book was a solid but not deep treatment of the problem of anxiety in the believer’s life. If you struggle with anxiety and you are a newer Christian, I recommend checking this book out and, if the style works for you, grabbing a copy and prayerfully reading it. If you have been a believer for a while and want a refresher on the gospel and/or the attributes of God from a fresh vantage point, you might take a look at this book as well. If you are a mature Christian who doesn’t really struggle with anxiety, your time would be better spent reading something more relevant to you or that delves deeper into the biblical text. Overall, I liked the book, but I didn’t love it. Three stars.

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