Dear Friend...On Anxiety
As a frequent retreat speaker, I often find the conversations that follow a gathering to be the most fruitful. This month I’m taking a break from the Fine Fire topic to share a bit of post-conference correspondence which seems particularly relevant to our current stressful cultural climate.
Dear Friend...On Anxiety,
It was great to see your name pop up in my inbox again, recalling how kindly you represented your church in caring for your retreat speaker. I loved my time with you all.
I’ve been grateful for the question you posed to me from your Bible study: “How have you effectively applied the peace of God to your life?” It has been a helpful exercise to ponder this question!
First, an obvious disclaimer, I suppose . . . my work of applying peace has been shot through with holes from the start. Fear has been the Achilles heel of my life as a disciple. I’m sure it’s why scenes of panic like the one with the widow of 2 Kings 4, or with Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6, speak so eloquently to me. I completely identify. And I imagine it’s why I have spent so much time contemplating the wilderness experience of the Israelites. They were helpless and their terror seemed reasonable. All my anxiety seems reasonable on the face of it. Why not fear abandonment if you’ve been abandoned? Why not fear raising a family if you come from a dysfunctional one? Why not fear the opinions of others if you’ve been bullied? Why not fear Covid-19 as America’s death rate tops the globe’s? What breaks me out of those reasonable fears?
Chronologically, for me . . .
As a new believer I received prayer from my mentors to be supernaturally released from the grip of a spirit of fear. What God did was dramatic at the time. I don’t discount a demonic component to most of our psychological woes. Still, I was warned that anxiety was sure to continue to tug at me as I went out from there. My counter-intuitive takeaway? Don’t fight fear in your head!
Because most fears seem reasonable on the face of it, we don’t win the battle by reasoning with them on the face of it. Our emotional reasoning discounts God’s power in the picture. If the people of Israel had been able to picture the parting of the sea, they needn’t have been frightened. Instead, their panic was based on the natural-seeming reasonableness of their impossible-seeming situation.
My counselor’s strong advice for dealing with those moments of being pulled back into the black hole of fear?
- Pray with someone else about the specific fear so that you have a witness that you gave it to God.
- When it arises, remember where you left it, and don’t take it back! Instead, go for a walk, eat a hot fudge sundae, read a book (maybe not a Christian book so you don’t fall back into theological reasoning with a spirit of fear!). Do NOT engage. You gave it to God, remember? Your witness was there. God’s got this. When we think and re-think our fears in an effort to somehow talk ourselves out of them, we usually lose, often making them worse. Ultimately the battle is the Lord’s.
This will be familiar from the wilderness material, but it bears repeating. Frequently we let our fears catapult us around like a ball in a pinball game. They sap us of strength but, for many reasons, we resist stopping to name them before God in face to face petition. Does He hear our every thought and groan? Absolutely, in His mercy He does, but still the Scriptures repeatedly urge us to cry out to God . . . to get specific with Him. Otherwise we are not positioned to recognize His mercy when it arrives. Just doing this often brings real relief.
This, too, is from the wilderness experience. God’s people respond to each helpless situation as if their past had been a blank slate. What if, when each challenge to their security arose, they had deliberately recalled the way the Lord had acted for them in the past? As my favorite Old Testament scholar comments, “It’s not like God hadn’t built up an impressive resume of being able to rescue them!” Think of the plagues, the Red Sea parting, manna, water from the rock, or the serpent on a pole. When anxiety grips us, this is an important discipline. I hear the Word call me to do this, and the exercise has fortified me over and over.
“They will speak of the glory of your Kingdom. They will give examples of your power.” Psalm 145:11
"Who can list the glorious miracles of the Lord? Who can ever praise him enough?" Psalm 106:2
THINK VERY BIG
OK, this is admittedly quirky, but you asked, and this one is right up there at the top of my list. My fears come from feeling out of control, and reminding myself of both the enormity and the specificity of God’s control has been really helpful. I think about things like . . .
- The way our bodies work: My daughter in law is expecting now. Do you know what the ovaries do in a woman’s body when they aren’t needed to produce eggs while she’s pregnant? They become the corpus lutem, which morphs into some sort of gland that secretes a chemical which loosens the hip joints (!) at the end of pregnancy to prepare for labor and delivery.
- The intricate and interdependent and ordered nature of our ecosystem. The hidden spring of life in an apparently dead winter tree. The geometry of snowflakes. The seemingly unnecessary beauty and humor of deep-sea tropical fish or jungle orchids. (https://verocommunique.com/2016/09/09/flowers-that-even-darwin-cant-explain-mother-nature-never-fails-to-impress)
- Our solar system! I’m not a mathematician, but I can still appreciate the infinitesimal probability that a planet could support life, let alone be positioned so that it can observe its place in the solar system (and therefore observe its order and enormity). The Lord’s word to me is, take it personally! It defies reason to think all this could result from a chaotic or random beginning (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9SEUtPEGAM). And therefore . . .
- I watch the tiny birds play in the branches of the new orange tree outside my window. Jesus promises that the Father, the God who “hurled a universe,”* watches with me (Luke 12:6). I brush a stray strand of hair off my face. The Word promises it has a number (Luke 12:7). God supervises even the unseen and unappreciated details of my body.
Do I think this powerful and personal God can help me to parent my children or navigate my social or professional world, if I ask Him as a child asks a father? He can! There’s evidence all around us.
So, to summarize, and maybe personalize, when overcome with anxiety, my strategies are:
- Pray against fear as a menacing spirit. God has given us the authority of His Son for this.
- Cry out to the Father, naming specific fears.
- Remember His past mercies and rescues.
- Ponder His power and His intimate knowledge and love for you.
- Then distract yourself as an act of faith!
And here’s a final word. I believe some people’s genetic makeup predisposes them to anxiety. There’s good science to support that. I’m a firm believer that medication is sometimes called for and is a demonstration of God’s goodness and provision. I love that God sends the prophet Isaiah to proclaim healing to King Hezekiah, but Isaiah also instructs certain leaves to be applied to the king’s lesions. To me, this reads: Go tell him he’s healed, and stop at the drug store on the way (2 Kings 20).
Warmest regards, my friend. You’re not alone!
*(Lucy Shaw, in her poem, Mary’s Song)