2:35pm. Minutes before joining a friendly podcast to discuss writing as a Christian vocation, I found myself pacing in the office. My throat felt too small, like a rolled up piece of paper slowly constricting. The sensation made me swallow every few seconds: my mind’s way of making sure everything was still working. I swung the cord of a pair of headphones around like a lasso as the clock crept closer to the time I had to log in to join the podcast. 2:37pm. Why is this taking forever?
I tried to distract myself by going through my notes one last time. It didn’t help. The feelings were too tangible to ignore. 2:38pm. Come on! I turned to look out the window at the sky. “God . . . I am so small. And you are so great. Please, would you help me to say something that would encourage other people?!” 2:39pm. This is ridiculous . . .
Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences. I’ve dealt with an anxiety disorder for over a decade, so this is nothing new to me. I was reminded in those few minutes that much of our anxiety stems from anticipation. It’s not what we have to do that causes us so much mental anguish; it’s the waiting, the stillness before the movement, the absence of mental rest.
Sure enough, the anxiety began to subside as soon as I started speaking on the podcast. There was a little nervous energy in my voice, I’m sure. But I wasn’t nearly as anxious as I had been a few minutes earlier. And then after the podcast ended, I sat down in my chair and breathed freely.
Anxiety, you see, lives in the future. It attacks from a place of potentiality. That’s part of what makes it so difficult to combat (how can you combat something that isn’t really present?)—whether it’s situational anxiety or routine battles on the front lines of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety reaches into our lives from where we have not been: the unknown future.
Now, that doesn’t mean (sadly) that the remedy is simply a more dedicated effort of focusing on the present. That is profoundly helpful, and I recommend it. But we need something deeper, something greater. We need a peace that doesn’t just meet our understanding; it transcends our understanding (Phil. 4:7). And that sort of peace comes from prayer. More specifically, it comes from prayer rooted in a firm belief that “The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5).
Right after the Apostle Paul tells you and I that the Lord is at hand, that God is with us, he says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Make no mistake, this is not a sort of divine hand-slapping: “Don’t you dare be anxious!” It’s a warm encouragement in which God gathers us to himself as a hen gathers her young (Matt. 23:37). In our anxiety, God whispers to us, just as I whisper to my three-month-old daughter when she’s crying: “Shhhh. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m right here.” The Lord is always at hand.
That doesn’t mean that a quick prayer or a momentary rumination on God’s presence will eliminate our feelings of anxiety. I prayed right before I joined that podcast, but the feelings didn’t disappear in a blink. They lingered. However, it does mean that those feelings now have a context. They are serving a very important spiritual purpose: they are driving us to Christ. And Christ knows exactly what it feels like to be horrifically anxious. Anxiety, after all, poured off his own forehead in beads of blood (Luke 22:44). He knows. He can sympathize with us in every way (Heb. 4:15), but he has also overcome anything that the world can throw at us (John 16:33), including our anxiety. So, Jesus is not just “at hand”; he takes our hand and walks us through our experiences.
As you continue to deal with anticipation and anxiety, my friends, remind yourselves of this: All of your feelings are there to drive you towards the triune God, just as Jesus’s own anxiety drove him to his heavenly Father in prayer (Matt. 26:36). That is the context for these oppressive sensations we encounter: the shallow breathing, the thudding heartbeat, the hyper-vigilance. God is right there with us, whether or not we can sense him. May our anxiety push us into prayer with God almighty, who has led his people through many a Gethsemane.
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