Do Not Worry?
“Be anxious for nothing,” she whispers to herself as she lies on a cold surgical table awaiting a D&C, a consequence of an unexpected and devastating miscarriage shortly after her first trimester.
“Do not worry,” he mutters under his breath as he paces back and forth in the middle of the night, waiting for his daughter to return from a graduation party.
Words of Scripture like these may be near in a moment of anxiety, but the very human reality is this—we are anxious. Of course we’re anxious, especially in moments like these. In fact, at one level, anxiety simply demonstrates that we’re human, that we’re alive, and that we’re in touch with the beauty and brokenness of life.
If anxiety were an internal light switch that we could simply turn on and off, we’d save ourselves thousands of dollars a year on self-help remedies, medications, and unhelpful and sometimes downright harmful numbing behaviors—not to mention annoying physical symptoms like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, stress headaches, sleeplessness, and more. But anxiety is not like a light switch we can simply turn off. Instead, as we’ll see, our experiences with anxiety could be an invitation into a more honest relationship with God and a more wholehearted embrace of the complexity of our own stories.
Jill, the woman awaiting the D&C procedure, was a faithful Christian and an emotionally healthy human being, and still her body responded with a very appropriate and normal anxiety. Her unfinished grief accompanied her into a cold, sterile space in which she felt terribly alone and frightenedly vulnerable, given the invasive procedure she’d endure in just moments. These are the kind of moments, I suspect, in which creation itself groans, longing for the day of restoration (see Romans 8), when miscarriages will cease and when our mourning will be turned into laughing. If creation groans at brokenness, certainly we will too.
Henry, the man worrying about his daughter who was out late, was a great dad and a lifelong follower of Jesus. And he was anxious. Henry had been in a car accident his junior year of high school, and the trauma of it still loomed in his body. Loud noises set his body into alarm, raising his heartrate and causing his eyes to dart to-and-fro. That evening, Henry had awakened to a distant siren, unable to sleep soundly amidst his vigilance. His symptoms of anxiety masked a deeper longing for the well-being of his daughter, and for his own peace.
My panic attacks began as early I can remember. Some talk about a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect,” and I remember its first glaring intrusion into my life. It was my first birthday birthday party with friends, and we’d gathered that summer day for games and cake in my backyard on Long Island, NY. As my friends fixed their eyes on me for the “Happy Birthday” song, I experienced a surge of anxiety. From that moment on, I had a lurking sensation in my body that the spotlight was on, that others were training their eyes on me, laughing at me, mocking me.
But they’re not, you’d say.
And you’d be right.
But anxiety does not work in a mechanical way, easily managed or manipulated by a positive thought here or a truth-bomb there. Think about it—the lies we tell ourselves are seldom easily overcome, and often don’t make logical sense. Why does a young woman of normal weight look in the mirror and think she sees a “fat slob”? Why does an athlete who finishes second in a national competition feel like a failure? Why does a businessperson whose presentation is lauded as exceptional ruminate for days after about the one thing he forgot to say?
At times like these, when we hear Scripture verses plucked out of context like “Be anxious for nothing,” or “Do not worry,” our anxiety might even intensify. Why can’t I stop being so anxious? Why can’t I simply turn it off? Am I not right with God? Unfaithful?
To understand how the Bible addresses anxiety, instead of focusing on only a few select passages, it may more helpful to take a step back and see how anxiety fits into the bigger picture of the biblical story.
To begin, let’s meet one of Scripture’s heroes of in the midst of an anxious moment.
You’re Only Human
If you have a Bible nearby, do me a favor and open it up to Isaiah 30. Let’s spend a few minutes looking at an anxious episode in the life of God’s people and their good and just king—one of the best, in fact—King Hezekiah.
The setting of this story is during a frightening time for King Hezekiah and his nation. An empire called Assyria to the northeast is threatening the small southern kingdom of Judah, where King Hezekiah is doing everything he can to protect and fortify the city. Imagine for a moment how you would respond to a threat against everything you loved. Imagine, for example, that rampant flooding is impacting your region as a river near your home swells to record levels. You’d begin preparing, wouldn’t you? In a situation like that, your anxiety would likely mobilize you in genuinely helpful ways—to fill sandbags, build a barrier, or stock provisions. Sometimes faithfulness during an anxious time isn’t just a prayer of “protect me, Lord,” it also includes prudent action. And that’s how Hezekiah responded; he sprang into action.
I can’t get into Hezekiah’s head, but it’s reasonable to assume that, like any leader who loves his people, he may have been anxious. We know that sometime during this season, Hezekiah battled an illness that left him nearly dead (2 Kings 20). This was a challenging season for Hezekiah. He was facing, not just the prospect of his own death, but the possible destruction of his city and his people. Hezekiah was a great king, but he was also human, prone to the same fears we experience. The righteous king would likely check a good number of boxes on a stress test!
It’s not entirely clear how much Hezekiah was involved in the directive mentioned in Isaiah 30 to send ambassadors to Egypt for assistance. But the first two verses make it clear that God isn’t pleased with the decision. The words “alliance,” “refuge,” and “shelter” (in the NRSV) suggest that they were looking to Egypt as a kind of security blanket, something you’d do if you were a child. Perhaps you know the backstory—Egypt played a rather significant role in the life of God’s people, as a once-protector-become-oppressor from whom the Israelites had fled. The decision is judged harshly, not because there’s something inherently wrong with seeking aid in difficult times, but because of where they were seeking help. In effect, Hezekiah’s ambassadors were reversing the Exodus journey in seeking help from their former slave-masters. They were being childish, returning to a security blanket that had comforted in the past, but couldn’t possibly help them now.
How do you cope during times of anxiety? I can think of some poor choices I’ve made over the years; and I also remember feeling real embarrassment and shame because of those decisions. If you read on in Isaiah 30 (vv. 3–5), you’ll read the humiliation and shame that resulted from Hezekiah’s ill-advised decision. In fact, the remainder of the chapter shows the stubborn back-and-forth between God (through Isaiah) and those bargaining with God, trying to remedy their anxiety apart from God’s help and provision. One particularly poignant image shows up in verse 13, where Isaiah says:
“Therefore this iniquity shall become for you
like a break in a high wall, bulging out, about to collapse,
whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant.”
I once worked with an addict who said that this verse perfectly describes the crash that followed a season of self-medicating through alcohol—a bulging crack that gave out and came collapsing down. Sometimes our anxious ways of coping wreak havoc in unexpected ways.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Remember the fact that all of this happened during the watch of Hezekiah—a truly good king. Hezekiah was known for his obedience, for tearing down idols, cleaning up the streets, and for returning his people to the worship of Yahweh. In other words, Hezekiah was one of the good ones, one of the best kings Israel had. And yet, he struggled. Like you. And like me. Even amidst his obedience, hard things continued to happen to him and to his people.
And that offers a bit of identifiable comfort to me. Hezekiah was fragile, insecure, and anxious like me. He was human.
As I was telling a friend about my panic attacks, he surprised me with a thought that felt heretical at first. He said, “Is it consoling at all to remember that Jesus faced anxiety, too?”
My friend reminded me of the Garden of Gethsemane, when Luke writes that Jesus was “in anguish . . . his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44). And the gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as deeply distressed and troubled. He prayed fervently to God, prostrate on the ground, pleading for the cup to pass from him and crying out, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:33-34).
And suddenly, my theological training provides clarity—reminding me that Jesus was fully human. Like me. Like you. Jesus felt the things that you and I feel—sadness, anger, confusion, distress, and powerlessness. And anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t a curse for our disobedience or a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. It’s a sign that, like Jesus, we are human. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe God meets us here, in our humanity.
When I was training to become a pastor and a therapist more than twenty years ago, a wise professor once said, “Anxiety doesn’t want you to live in the here and now. It needs you to obsess on your past or ruminate on your future.” As an expert obsessor and ruminator, I was intrigued.
Maybe this description will help you understand what he meant by that. There are primary emotions like sadness, joy, and anger. We feel these immediately, in the moment. And our successful growth and maturation in life depends, in no small part, on becoming more aware of these emotions—and, more importantly, befriending them. Yes, we are to befriend these primary emotions. If this is confusing, hang on. It may make more sense in a moment.
What we’ve come to know based on work in multiple fields—spiritual, psychological, physiological, even neurobiological—is that secondary emotions are sometimes harder to see or name, as well as more complex, often lingering beyond a primary emotion. Let’s return to our earlier hypothetical. The rivers are rising in your small town, and you’re scared. In the following days, the very valid fear of flooding turns into a paralyzing anxiety about what will become of the life you’ve built, the town you love, and the home you cherish.
Indeed, the flooding does come, and your home is enveloped in seven feet of water, which rose at a rate few saw coming, requiring your evacuation by local rescuers. The next weeks and months see you displaced, financially strained, and emotionally drained. But the trauma lingers on.
Two years later, the waters begin rising again. The local dam has been reinforced, your home has been rebuilt, and the prospect of flooding is low. Yet one evening, after a weather forecast, your heart begins palpitating so hard you think you’re having a heart attack. You can’t sleep. Nightmares and flashbacks terrorize your mind. Sometimes you can see the waters rising, even as your spouse reminds you that you’re safe, that the reinforcements along the river and at the dam are secure.
Secondary emotions are more complex and longer lasting than our initial responses to a situation. And much of what we now call “anxiety” is secondary emotion. Fear can surge in a moment, but anxiety can plague us for weeks and months after.
If you recognize this emotional two-step, you’ll also understand why I invite you to befriend your (primary!) emotions. When we learn to experience and feel fully our primary emotions in the moment, they have less opportunity to go underground and become super-charged. Even more, as we learn to befriend these emotions when they surface, secondary traumas can heal. Jesus’s words on anxiety are helpful here:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:25–26, 33–34, NRSV).
Jesus’s encouragement to “live in the moment” isn’t naïve. It’s not the spiritual technique of some out-of-touch guru. This is wisdom that was gained from forty days in the desert, wrestling with the Accuser. This is wisdom from God-with-us, the Word made flesh, the fully human one, the one acquainted with all of our griefs.
We’ve learned in the centuries since Jesus’s ministry on earth that human beings thrive when we’re connected—body, mind, and spirit—as whole and embodied creatures, in the here-and-now. And what we know about chronic anxiety is that it disconnects us. It lodges itself in parts of our being, often hidden from sight until something prompts its awakening. Indeed, folks who are perpetually anxious will tell you how hard it is for them to live in the moment. Sometimes they’ll report losing track of their day, forgetting about important things, and feeling cloudy, distant, or aloof.
Jesus isn’t trying to shame us into a worry-free life. Jesus shows profound awareness of the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of chronic anxiety. Instead, he is pointing out the way that worry thrives on the pursuit of control, the myth that we can figure it all out, manage every contingency, and avoid pain at all costs. But the life and eventual crucifixion of Jesus reminds us that life cannot be controlled, and pain can’t be avoided. Jesus is telling us that it’s better to embrace the uncertain moment, the now, than be consumed with the paralyzing anxiety fed by the illusion of control.
Let’s imagine that after the flooding had subsided, you took measures to rebuild and secure your home. But you never dealt with the internal trauma of the flooding event. So even after your home is rebuilt, and even as you sit quietly drinking a cup of tea alongside your spouse on a serene summer day, you can’t enjoy it. You can’t live in the moment. Though a past event, the anxiety still lives in your body today. It leads to not only internal torment, but also quick, angry outbursts that your closest family members cannot understand. You react defensively and then try to blame it on something else—maybe the political climate or not getting enough sleep. But the reality is that you’ve become out-of-touch with what’s really going on.
So what can you do?
Embracing God’s Nearness
After a particularly painful and unjust event, someone reached out to me, saying that her inner world felt like a “five alarm fire,” and she wasn’t sure she could go on. Then she wrote in all capital letters: “WHERE IS GOD?”
There is a constant refrain in Scripture that goes like this:
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God (Isaiah 41:10, NRSV).
The refrain, found time and again, is the promise “I am with you.” Remember what the father in Jesus’s parable said to his elder son: “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).
I am with you. You are with me.
God doesn’t go away.
One Psalmist puts it like this:
| Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7–12)
God doesn’t go away.
Even the old theologians say this when they describe God as omnipresent, or always present. God is here, even when it doesn’t feel like God is here.
This is why the Cross is at the center of the Christian faith. If I were designing a new faith, I might think a more effective marketing technique would use a more uplifting symbol—one that conveys victory or leadership or courage. But the symbol of our faith is one that conveys God’s solidarity with us in the midst of suffering. God doesn’t watch our pain from a distance. God, in Jesus, suffered with us and for us. God is here, not in spite of suffering, but in the particularities of your pain.
So why does it often feel to us like God is absent?
The reality is that it is not God who goes away; it’s we who go away. When our primary fear becomes secondary anxiety, we become dissociative. That’s a sophisticated way of saying that we protect ourselves; we escape. Often this happens automatically. In the short run, our body’s capacity to numb or escape might protect us, but to heal we’ve got to get back in touch with the primary emotion.
When we detach from our pain, we go away, we forget. We disconnect. We psychologically dis-member ourselves. This is why some people’s anxiety is felt in their guts, other people’s anxiety in their heads, and still others in their necks and backs. When anxiety goes underground, who knows where it will pop up. Living with our anxiety becomes a game of whack-a-mole. We do our best to address whatever symptom rises up.
If we are prone to dis-member in response to our pain, Scripture provides a way forward—we must re-member. Remember. This is why it is important to tell your story: to re-connect the disparate dots of your life. Psychologists didn’t invent this idea. It’s ancient wisdom. When God rescued his people from slavery, he commanded them to remember, to tell the story, to keep it on their lips and in their hearts. And each feast day of the Jewish calendar featured a different aspect of this re-membering of past trauma and oppression and divine intervention. And Christians do this work of remembering every time we take the Lord’s Supper.
Maybe you’ve experienced something like this. I once worked with a man whose father was a raging alcoholic. Now fifty himself, he was a devoted Christian, father, and director of a thriving after-school program. He came to me complaining of persistent anxiety, and we quickly discovered that he never felt as if he was doing enough. He’d won awards for his community development work, and he’d impacted young people for two decades. But it never felt like enough.
When I asked him about his relationship with Jesus, he said, “I’m a Christian,” but said that God felt far away. I wondered how he experienced God, if he had ever felt God close to him in any way. He said, “Chuck, all I hear is God saying that I’ve got to work harder, impact more people.” He sighed, resigned head bowed low.
“I don’t think that’s God’s voice . . . it’s a very critical voice within you,” I said. “That’s your dad’s voice within you, echoing even today.”
He was defensive. “My dad was a good man,” he fired back. “He did his best.”
I didn’t push. But in the weeks after, I began to explore his one-sided narrative. I didn’t want to demonize his father. I’m sure there were many good things about him. But I was also convinced that his dad’s alcohol-induced fits of rage were lodged deeply in this man’s being—a major obstacle to hearing God’s deeper and kinder voice. So I wanted him to remember the pain in his past, not for the sake of demonizing his father, but as a way of re-organizing his inner life, of taking inventory of the primary emotions he’d buried away.
And then the day came when he remembered a terrifying encounter. He said,
Dad was sloppy drunk that night. He walked into the middle of Mom’s Bible study and started saying the most misogynistic things—that they shouldn’t be studying and should be listening to their husbands, that the world would be a better place with women who laid down rather than rising up. Stuff about feminism. He was a jumbled mess, slurring his words. After a back-and-forth with my humiliated and embarrassed mom, he went looking for his keys, hoping for an escape. But—and I had completely forgotten this—I had taken them. That was the deal. When dad was drunk, I took the keys. That was my mother’s plea. And so he came into my bedroom. I remember him looking at me with disgust. “Such a worthless piece of crap,” he said as he looked at me. And then he went to grab the keys. I reached out and our hands met, and he pulled so hard that a key gashed my hand from my wrist to my middle finger. He ran out, and I went to sleep with my bloody hand. No one ever spoke of it.
When he finished the story, he showed me the scar. He had forgotten about it. In fact, his wife of twenty-five years didn’t know about it. And as he sat quietly massaging the scar from wrist to finger, I got up and sat next to him on the couch. Within a few seconds, he’d buried his head in my chest and wept forty years’ worth of tears.
A few weeks later he commented, “I came to you for pastoral counseling because I was anxious. I didn’t think I’d find all of this. But I feel such a sense of relief and—I’m scared to even say it—joy!”
I asked, “Where is God in this?”
Placing his right hand over his heart, he looked at me, tears welling up in his eyes, unable to speak.
Fortunately, we each have that repeated refrain to remind us:
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God (Isaiah 41:10, NRSV).
Taking Anxiety Seriously
We saw in the last section the transformation that occurred when one man did the work of re-membering, the healthy and healing work of connecting the dots of our stories. I wish I could tell you that, for everyone, such a process of remembering would make the anxiety go away immediately and completely. What I can tell you is that it is vitally important to healing and wholeness—but it may not be enough.
When I began dealing with my own anxiety issues more than twenty years ago, an essential part of that work included connecting the disparate parts of my story, making sense of them, and discovering God’s nearness in it all. But my inquiry into my own life led me down a longer and more complicated road—the story of my extended, multi-generational family. And that’s when things started making much more sense.
What I learned was that anxiety burdened my mother. And my mother’s mother. And many others in my family. Indeed, what I learned ultimately is that I wasn’t an anomaly, but the bearer of a generational burden.
Suddenly I wasn’t alone. I was in the company of the anxious.
Discovering the extent of anxiety—not just in my body, but in my family—helped me immensely. It made my anxiety make more sense. Suddenly I was dealing with something larger than me. Just as a grandparent’s proclivity to cancer or diabetes might impact me, so our generational history of anxiety had left its unique mark on my life. In fact, I wasn’t even afraid when my therapist talked about the likelihood that I had an anxiety disorder. It made a lot of sense. It helped me take my condition seriously.
I also opened up to the possibility of treating my symptoms with medication, much like I would do if I were diabetic or struggled with high blood pressure. Medication can be controversial. Medications can be misused and even abused, so pursuing this path wisely and under the care of a competent professional is essential. My doctor prescribed me an antidepressant called an SSRI which, in time, curbed the pervasive undulations of anxiety. He also prescribed something to be used when panic ramped up and took my body hostage. I was a bit nervous as I began the regimen, wondering whether I’d feel strange or encounter side effects.
Then came the day of a major oral exam in graduate school. Along with two others being examined, I sat in the front of a room looking out at peers and professors. Ordinarily in a situation like this my heart would race endlessly, my hands would sweat, my mouth would dry. But I’d taken my medication about a half-hour before, and I felt good. I felt present. I felt calm. When the questions started coming, I was clear.
I thought back to my birthday party and that odd and troubling “spotlight effect” I’d experienced; this time I didn’t encounter it. Since then, my medications have been like supportive friends in difficult times, there when I need them. As I’ve grown older, my anxiety has diminished, but there are still times when I’ll reach for my nedications. I see it as God’s grace for an anxiety disorder and a generational struggle.
While every human being wrestling with the contingencies of life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) will experience some anxiety, we also need to recognize the life-altering and overwhelming experience of pervasive, debilitating anxiety, which may require medical intervention, therapeutic intervention, or both. In these cases, it is unhelpful, even immoral, to spiritually trivialize anxiety with a Bible verse—“God works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28)—or a trite encouragement—“I’m praying for you . . . God’s got this!” For someone whose anxiety requires clinical intervention, it’s crucial to remember that God works through the ordinary processes of therapist’s appointments, anti-anxiety medications, good sleep, regular exercise, nutritious meals, and supportive friends. While we can pray and intercede on behalf of someone with an anxiety disorder, we can also show support by de-stigmatizing it and affirming every aspect of a good treatment plan.
Cynthia, a twenty-eight-year-old stay-at-home mom, struggled with debilitating social anxiety for years, sometimes unable to leave her home for days or weeks. Growing up, her father attributed her anxiety to a lack of faith and chastised her for being “weak.” Her husband was only slightly more compassionate, more often than not passive-aggressively chiding Cynthia for not getting groceries or making friends. When Jane, a deacon from church, came by to drop off some clothes for the baby, Cynthia found herself opening up for the first time about her pain. Jane—a licensed therapist—listened well and wisely. Sensing Cynthia’s reticence to seek professional help given the disparaging attitude toward mental health issues in her family, Jane shared a bit about her own battle with depression, her need for mental health care, for medication, and for good support structures.
Cynthia wept. She felt both fearful and hopeful, and before Jane left that day, Cynthia set up an appointment with her physician. Cynthia’s journey to health and freedom was difficult, not just because of family voices, but also due to the inner voices that chided her as if her struggle made her weak and broken, even helpless. But with Jane’s support, Cynthia began to pursue the care she needed. And in time, her husband recognized his own unhelpful and even toxic contribution to Cynthia’s struggle and repented, committing to his own journey of emotional and spiritual health.
Sharing Our Burdens
Jesus does not shame the broken-hearted. In fact, Jesus calls the broken-hearted blessed (Matthew 5:2), and offers them rest, saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (11:28–30). According to the psalmist, God “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). Time and again, the Scriptures invite us—not to hide our burdens, to self-medicate our wounds, or to toughen up—but to recognize our needs, our vulnerabilities, and our pain. The psalmist declares:
Cast your burdens on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let
the righteous be shaken (Psalm 55:22).
Could it be that God isn’t in the business of asking us to toughen up or get it together?
For Cynthia, that was a difficult proposition. Her earthly father was a devoted church-goer, a tireless worker, and a respected dentist in their small town. Her image of “father” was of someone tough, unbreakable, and prone to demand the same of others. Two voices battled in Cynthia’s head. One voice sounded a bit like Jesus—“Come to me. I love you, Cynthia. You’re not too much for me. I want to walk with you and heal you and give you my rest.” But another very loud voice sounded a lot like her father’s voice—“Stop complaining and get moving! God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves!”
Cynthia’s therapist was a committed Christian who took anxiety seriously. The therapist wasn’t interested in demonizing Cynthia’s father, but did help her to see that perhaps her father wasn’t infallible, either as a father or in his perspectives on mental health. Cynthia began to realize that accepting the imperfection of her earthly father might be a pathway to embracing the perfect love of her heavenly father. She could grieve and even forgive his shortcomings, in time. She could also begin to open herself to the only real Source of faithful love she could find. Slowly, she began to see herself as God’s beloved daughter, held and comforted in her anxiety.
Believers are called to bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), the fulfillment of the commandment to love our neighbor. Yet sadly, sometimes the church kicks its wounded while they’re down. There are far too many stories of people with mental health issues, disabilities, and spiritual struggles who’ve found the church to be far less gracious than Jesus. But there are also countless stories of churches choosing a better way, of opening their arms to those in pain. And, thankfully, Cynthia experienced this.
Jane had opened the first door. In time, Cynthia discovered kindred spirits, fellow believers with bipolar disorder and depression, panic attacks, and addictions. She could hardly believe that many of the women and men who sat around her at church every Sunday struggled in the same ways that she struggled. In time, her husband admitted to an addiction to pornography, and even this difficult betrayal led, in time, to renewed connection. Jane’s open door led to many other open doors, as the church and its community became a place of hope and healing for Cynthia and her family.
In fact, all of the women and men I’ve introduced you to in this short book needed the multi-dimensional care of God, a good church community, and trained professionals. Reaching out for support is not a sign of weakness, but strength.
With Open Hands
Together, we’ve explored the reality that anxiety is a normal human experience, one that God entered into through Jesus. Because of this, even if anxiety has prompted us to cope in ways that take us away, we can find that God is more near to us than our very breath. Indeed, one of the great joys on the other side of a painful burden is discovering that God was with you all along. As the psalmist writes, “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy” (Psalm 94:19 NIV).
At the same time, living with anxiety can be a scary and even pervasively burdensome experience. Sometimes in our anxiety we feel crazy, weak, faithless, even sinful. One woman said, “If I were a real Christian, I wouldn’t feel so anxious. God must think I’m so helpless.” I hope that you now understand that the opposite is true: God sees us in our helplessness and is compassionate.
I recall a helpful image for prayer that has guided my own journey with God through anxiety. It’s an image from the late priest and psychologist Henri Nouwen, one of controlling, clenched fists and surrendered, open hands. Allow me to illustrate.
When I was young, we’d get an allowance, and I could hardly wait for the ice cream truck to come around to spend some of it. On one occasion, I spent a few bucks on Fun Dip, Spree candies, and an Italian ice, collecting my change and goodies in a hurry so that I could race to my front stoop and enjoy them. But within moments, a couple of buddies sat next to me eyeing my sugary treasure. Soon they began grabbing. I held tight. I wrapped my hands around them so tightly that I thought my knuckles would pop out. My fists were fiercely clenched, and I wasn’t about to open my hands.
Now what if I said that I’m almost fifty years old and I’m still clenching my hands tightly around things? My hope is that you’d relate. In my anxiety, I control, clench, and grasp—all in an effort to make sure my hold is good and tight and that I don’t lose anything. Maybe you do too. We’re only human.
But as we grow up, we discover that letting go is not only more lifegiving, but essential to our growth and maturation. This year I let go as my daughter left for college. I was anxious, but it was not time to hold on but to release her. This year my wife Sara and I let go as we said goodbye to her parents, who passed within months of each other. With every act of letting go, we discover the joy of trust, and perhaps even realize that our attempts to be in control were futile in the first place.
Jill, who we met in the first chapter, eventually let go of her grief and anger, finding the courage to say goodbye to her unborn baby. As she released her child into the hands of Jesus, tears of both grief and joy filled her. Henry, who we also met in the first chapter, needed to do the work of exploring his traumatic past in order to let go of the besetting worry that had kept him in a constant hypervigilant state. By remembering his story and opening himself to a new one, he found new freedom in life and in parenting. Cynthia let go of an old belief that her fear was wrong and sinful, and moved with open hands into new and courageous relationships with others, discovering delight in each new connection.
Each of us has things we hold tightly, motivated by the anxious need to control. Just as Hezekiah’s ambassadors tried to manage the anxiety of imminent invasion, so we try to manage the many wild contingencies of our lives. The writer of Ecclesiastes calls these anxious efforts “chasing after wind.” We’ll never really catch up.
And accepting that reality is the way to discover real joy. We can never catch up. To be human is to be vulnerable, fallible, never quite as in control as we’d imagine despite our silly attempts. If the Gospel is true, we can’t fix ourselves. And in reality, there is a lot else in our world we can’t control, either. Sometimes it’s helpful for me to go outside on a dark night and look up at a starlit sky, just to recognize how small and dependent I am.
“Do not worry,” Jesus says. And maybe in those words, he’s not trying to shame us or set some impossible expectation before us. Maybe those words are more like a dad’s as he whispers to his daughter, “Don’t worry sweetie” when she’s scared of the dark. Maybe they’re like a mom holding her little boy when he awakens from a bad dream. Maybe God’s invitation to trust is gentle and freeing, something we can relax into rather than figuring out. Maybe, just maybe, it’s his way of saying, “I’ve got this.”
And so, in the quiet and alone with God, we open our hands. In the presence of a safe therapist, we open our hands. In the face of our most anxious moment, we open our hands. In the company of a good friend, we open our hands. Because of Jesus, we open our hands. The anxiety may not magically go away, but through it we may discover, again and again, the one who says over and over, “I am with you.” And maybe, that’s just enough.