I feel anxious sitting down to write this post on anxiety. Maybe it is because I don’t know what to say. Or I am afraid of being simplistic. I fear, that if you experience anxiety, you will think I don’t know what I am talking about… so I have avoided writing even as I can’t stop thinking about it. Do you know what I mean?
The apostle Paul wrote: “Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
What the heck did he mean? The problem with anxiety for me is that it is so amorphous. It floats. It seems to seep into my pores. It pervades. Often I don’t even know I am anxious. My rational brain seems in control. I am, after all, a reasonable man. I make choices. I have faith. I believe in God. But then, the anxiety is there.
Often it shows up somewhere else. I am irritable and didn’t think I was. Where did that come from? I can’t quite get a deep breath… and when I instinctively pause to reflect on my body and life, nothing is readily apparent. For a long time, it had no name. I didn’t think I was an anxious person, so it couldn’t be anxiety. But this feeling was there and it wouldn’t go away.
Over the last several years, I have realized that I am an anxious person. I experience a sense of unease, of being out of control, of looming fear or uncertainty. Most often, the cause is not readily apparent. It just is.
The problem is that it seems like it’s just a feeling. Anxiety just seems to hang around – sometimes debilitating and sometimes irritating. But it looms. What do I do? Is there anything that I can do?
Then I think of Paul’s words in Philippians – “Do not be anxious about anything…” I remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:34 – “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” And I wonder what kind of faith I have. Then, in that moment of dissonance when what I want to believe conflicts with what my life tells me I believe, I remember that this, like all difficult moments in my life, can take me toward God or away from Him.
At the risk of being/sounding simplistic, there are steps that I take. The first question I ask is “What am I so afraid of? What do I feel like I need, fear I won’t get, and can’t imagine living without?” For me, fear lies at the root of most of my anxiety. I need to identify the source of this floating fear. Sometimes it is a relationship. Sometimes it is a project or a goal. Sometimes it my health, my 401K, my job, my friends… often it is more than one. So my prayer is “Lord, help me to know what I am so scared about. Let me know what is so important to me that I can’t get it out of my mind/heart.”
My second question is “Why is that so important to me?” Whatever it is, it is big. Even if on first glance it seems small, for some reason it has great import to me. Does it symbolize something larger? Is it more critical to my heart than it is to my head? Somewhere deep inside me, I don’t believe I can live without this.
This question tells me things about my heart that may not be pretty. I can obsess about things that I would rationally tell you aren’t that important. I can obsess about things that I know are wrong. But somewhere in there, my heart says that they are necessary.
And that begins my journey back to God. I believe in my head that my relationship with God is all that I need to have real life. But my anxiety tells me otherwise. I find myself attached to ministry success or relational connection or to the respect of others or to a “certain” future. Sometimes I demand to know what that future will be. Other times I demand to dictate that future. But always, in my anxiety, I believe that this future must play out in some way that would make me feel more secure.
My anxiety exposes my belief that Christ plus something is necessary for me to survive. Something is creeping into my heart that rivals God as a source for life. That is why I can’t shake it, so it looms. It feels essential.
But the second truth there is that I live with this core fear that God alone is not enough for me. That He won’t provide for me. He won’t take care of me. Life without whatever it is would not be enough. I don’t trust Him to provide.
Paul says that the antidote to anxiety is to take our requests to God. In order to do that, I have to name the requests – and that can be difficult. And in order to take my requests to God honestly, I will have to examine whether I trust Him to provide what is necessary. We have to talk about His trustworthiness. I, in my heart of hearts, do doubt Him. I fear that He will leave me hanging. I fear He will give me a life that is less than I want and a life that is not what I need. And whatever is causing my anxiety at the moment is just one more example of that fear. Dare I tell Him of my doubts and fears? Dare I argue my case before Him? How will He meet me?
And that is where the peace comes – not in His response to my fears, but in His response to my person. I am met with a gentle reminder of His perfect love. I am met with an invitation to repent of my belief that He is not enough for life and that He will not take care of me. I am met with an understanding that I am not alone.
Ironically, the peace about my fears comes not with an answer about them, but with an intimate connection with God about them. It isn’t the answer; it’s the relationship that brings peace.
So my encouragement is – don’t run from your anxiety. Run into it. God will use it to bring you to Himself.