One night last week, around 2:30am, I dreamt a horrible dream. No matter how hard I tried to turn over and dream of something happier, I could not. So I got up, drank some water, and sat in our living room with my Bible. “Help, God” was the only prayer I could offer in the midst of that paralyzing anxiety, prompted by an unwelcome dream. Eventually, I fell back asleep until morning, feeling nearly tangibly wrapped in the arms of the Father: “I remember you upon my bed, meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy” (Psalm 63:6-7).
As often happens though, the morning after a dark night like that, I woke feeling fragile in mind and sore in heart. My emotions were raw, my eyes weepy. I felt almost violated, that in the peace of my sleep, such horrible thoughts can enter my mind and deeply disturb my heart at rest. It can be tempting to welcome the light of the sun, the dark night leaving; to enjoy the first cup of coffee, the sounds of our happy home, and attempt to push out of the fragile place on my own.
Trusting God isn’t about never experiencing anxiety – it’s about turning to him in the anxiety.
Though it’s easy to move straight on with our lives while anxiety lurks in the depth of our minds, the habit of addressing our anxiety can be deeply helpful. I’m learning that it is better if I take the time to sort out with God what is happening on these dark nights, with these unwelcome thoughts. I do not expect to ever completely resolve anxiety this side of heaven, but rather to learn better how to deal with it through the power of the Spirit. Trusting God isn’t about never experiencing anxiety – it’s about turning to him in the anxiety.
What does it look like to turn to him in the anxiety? Let’s look at Phil. 4:5-7 as we think on this:
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
+ we name our requests to God. Is this because he doesn’t know them? By no means; but in the naming of our requests, of our anxiety, we acknowledge our total dependence on him. It also usually helps me to name my anxiety to someone else I’m close to, and ask for prayer.
+ we pray, in everything. A former pastor of mine once said, from this passage, that “anxiety and prayer are opposites… instead of being anxious, pray.” From my experience, I cannot be actively engaged in grateful prayer to God and be crippled by anxiety at the same time. As I mentioned above, in acute anxiety, sometimes the prayer is as simple as “help, God.”
+ we focus on thankfulness, particularly for who he is: “to begin by praising God for the fact that in this situation, as it is, he is so mightily God—such a beginning is the end of anxiety” (Karl Barth). We can proactively address anxiety by engaging in prayers of gratitude.
+ we let peace rule in our hearts. This is easier said than done, no? I’ve found that setting good boundaries around news and social media help tremendously as I fix my eyes on Christ (Heb. 12:2) and my mind stayed on him (Is. 26:3).
We recognize that fighting anxiety requires strength from God and his Spirit in us. But just as we are spiritual beings, so too our physical habits matter.
Amy Gannett recently articulated the importance of daily disciplines to combat anxiety in a short Instagram post, and provides practical ideas to do during the day. She writes, “God has seen it fit that the choices that we make in our practical lives deeply affect our experience of the work he is doing in the world.” I recommend her list here; perhaps we each take a few minutes to articulate our own practices on days in which we are struggling with anxiety.
How have you turned to God in your anxious moments? What practices have helped you when you awake from anxious nights?