When I talk to other Christians about what they need prayer for, the most common item on the list is stress. Worry and hurry seem to have become the primary ingredients in the modern lifestyle, and no matter what the cause, it seems like stress is just plain unavoidable these days.
I’m certainly no stranger to it, or to its ugly cousin anxiety. I vividly remember a recent struggle I had with anxiety about a year and a half ago, while I was working part-time for my church.
I had just graduated from seminary, and what should have been a season of sweet relief from the stress of school instead became a time of turbulent self-doubt. I was wracked with worry over whether I would ever find a career opportunity where I could serve God, or even whether I deserved to call myself a servant of God at all. (Side note: none of us do; that’s why the grace of Jesus is essential. But I digress…)
As a person who tends to overthink everything, I was caught up in a tangled knot of insecurity. But God, in his grace, cut through the knot with a word from Scripture.
I still remember the rainy Sunday afternoon when, in the middle of a mild panic session, the words of 2 Timothy 1:7 began playing over and over in my head:
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (CSB).
Scripture Addresses the Reality of Anxiety
Those words from the apostle Paul to his stressed-out protege Timothy were exactly what my spirit needed to hear in the midst of my anxiety. It was as if a fog lifted off of me. I suddenly realized that such insecurities were not only not from God, they probably weren’t even just from myself. Not every case of anxiety is a direct attack of the enemy, but it was surprising how quickly these particular concerns left me and didn’t come back.
My experience isn’t everyone’s, though. I know many Christians who continue to struggle with anxiety and who are still desperate for a breakthrough. For some, this may even be due to a physical ailment or circumstance that can’t quickly be remedied.
So I’m not here to promise anyone a quick fix. Instead I merely share my story as living proof that Scripture not only acknowledges the reality of anxiety in our human lives; it has important things to say in regard to it.
Three Resources When You’re Anxious
As finite creatures living in a fallen world, stress and worry are sure to come. God knows this, and he offers believers powerful resources to overcome in spite of them.
One such resource, and the most important, is the one already mentioned in 2 Timothy 1:7 — the Holy Spirit’s presence in and with us. No matter your circumstances, if you’ve put your faith in Christ, he is with you in the midst of your stress. And he promises to never, ever skip out on you when the going gets tough (Hebrews 13:5-6). Even if you feel like he is distant, the reality is that you are never in it alone.
Consider the example of King David. He experienced the stress of having to flee for his life into the desert from his own son who wanted to kill him (I’m thankful I’ve never had that kind of stress!). But even with all that craziness going on, David said this:
“But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
I lie down and sleep;
I wake again because the Lord sustains me.
I will not be afraid of thousands of people
who have taken their stand against me on every side.” (Psalm 3:3-6, CSB)
For David, just knowing that God was present with him was enough to enable him to lie down in peace even while fleeing an army. The same Lord offers to be your shield and sustainer as well.
The second vital resource is prayer. As Paul instructs us in Philippians 4:6-7, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Now, don’t misunderstand: this verse isn’t saying that if you’ll just say a quick prayer, all your chronic anxiety will just instantly disappear. This isn’t a magic formula. Rather, Paul is simply reminding us that prayer, not worry, should be our first response when we experience a time of need. Worry comes when we think there should be something we can do to fix the problem, whereas prayer is acknowledging that only God can solve the problem.
It’s when we admit our limitations and talk to God directly about our needs that God’s peace (which is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness) guards our minds. I can look back on many times when I was stressing out and getting irritable about who-knows-what, and my wife would say those five little words that I never wanted to hear but always needed to hear: “Have you prayed about it?” (I guess in some ways it’s the spiritual equivalent to, “Did you try turning it off and back on again?”)
As Oswald Chambers puts it, “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”
Thirdly, as Christians, God has given us one another as resources to help reduce our worries. Though churchgoers may often fail at this, we are nonetheless called to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), pray for each other (James 5:16), and love one another as family (Romans 12:10). Not only that, but God has gifted many believers to be counselors to those with serious needs, and we should make use of such people when needed.
When the Anxiety Just Won’t Ease Up
Even when we’ve prayed and talked to other Christians, and despite knowing that Jesus is with us in our pain, there may still be an ongoing struggle. In those cases, don’t lose hope. At times, anxiety may cling to you like a barnacle on a ship, but we serve a God who is far greater than all our anxieties. And he promises to guide you to safe harbor — barnacles and all — if you’ll continue to let him be the wind that drives you.
(And I should mention, of course, that some cases may require the help of a mental healthcare professional. If that’s the case, I strongly encourage seeking help — there is absolutely no shame in it; we all have issues that we can’t fix on our own, and in fact I think everyone could stand to benefit from counseling! It’s one more important avenue God has provided for those who need it.)
When the war on worry rages on, here are four more biblical truths to hold on to:
- Make sure your worries are not due to misplaced priorities. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:25-34 not to focus all our concern on material needs, but instead to trust that our Heavenly Father will take good and loving care of us. When we make his Kingdom our top priority, the rest of our needs are put into perspective.
- Keep learning about Jesus and investing in your relationship with him. Whenever you’re feeling burdened, remember that Jesus gives you this powerful invitation: ““Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, CSB).
- Get some rest! Don’t neglect the fact that most of our struggles with stress come from taking on more than we can manage with less-than-adequate rest. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is prioritize a good sleep schedule. When the prophet Elijah had a severe bout of anxiety and depression, the first thing God did for him was send him food and let him rest (see 1 Kings 19 for the full story). Sometimes that’s just what you might need, too. Notice it was only after Elijah had recovered his physical strength that God talked to him about how he should move forward.
- Keep crying out to God. Don’t give up. As David prayed on another occasion, we can say to God, “Restore the joy of your salvation to me, and sustain me by giving me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12, CSB). Remember that every adversity is an opportunity to press further toward God.
God Cares for You
The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, remember these words Scripture has to say about your anxiety. Remember that Christ is with you. Pray to him about your needs. Call on the support of trustworthy believers around you. And keep fixing your eyes on Jesus, who suffered just as we do. As 1 Peter 5:7 tells us, “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Will you cast your anxieties on him today?
See you down the path.