At one point last year as I transitioned out of my role leading a church and into this new role doing spiritual direction and soul care, I became aware that my future was uncertain. I had this vision for a new life centered around prayer, but a lot of the details were foggy. I had a general sense about what I wanted to do, but I also knew that it was hard to make a living in this line of work. I was stepping out and taking a risk. This felt simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
During this transition, I started to experience all sorts of symptoms in my body that gave voice to the vulnerable experience I was going through. I had stepped out in faith trusting that God would care for me, and I was feeling anxious. This isn’t a new experience for me, and throughout the years, I’ve learned how to pray my anxiety. Here are the two main things that I do to help me pray when I feel anxious.
Sleep with Jesus
The first thing I do is related to one very particular symptom of anxiety that I experience: sleeplessness. When I feel anxious I often have a hard time sleeping. I can’t shut my brain off because I’m turning my circumstances over in my head on repeat. I think about the thing I’m worrying about over and over again. When I find myself in this situation, I call to mind the famous passage of Jesus asleep in the boat in the middle of a storm.
Jesus was inside the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow. The followers went and woke him. They said, “Teacher, don’t you care about us? We are going to drown!” Jesus stood up and gave a command to the wind and the water. He said, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind stopped, and the lake became calm. He said to his followers, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” ~Mark 4:38-40, NIV
The disciples perfectly capture the experience of anxiety when they wake Jesus and ask: “don’t you care about us?” When we are anxious we feel both vulnerable and alone. This sense that we are in danger and unable to protect ourselves coupled with the fear that God is not going to intervene provokes anxious terror within. This question, “don’t you care?” captures both their fear and that deep sense of abandonment we often feel when we are anxious.
But this is a misinterpretation of the event. Like the disciples, anxiety occurs because we have stopped seeing things correctly, and Jesus models a better way for us. He shows us that the thing we fear does not exist outside the will of the Father. He trusts in the Father’s love, and this profound trust is expressed in his capacity to sleep in the middle of the storm. The contrast between his rest and the disciples anxiety reveals the broad range of responses available to us in turmoil. The defining character trait that dictates where we will land on that spectrum is our faith. Jesus marvels at their lack of faith. He says, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
For Jesus, faith is not simply belief in God. In his day, everyone believed in God. For Jesus, faith meant believing that God is love. It meant believing in God’s care. It meant believing that the Father is actively involved in all parts of our lives. Nothing happens to us apart from God’s love, and God is always with us and at work in our lives. This doesn’t mean we won’t face hardships. It just means that everything unfolds in our lives while we are being loved and cared for by God.
So when I find myself unable to sleep because I am terrified of some storm, I remember this passage. I choose to believe that Jesus had it right. He shows us the truth when he naps through the storm. Our Father cares for us and we can trust in him. So when I am restless in bed, I pray:
“Lord, help me to sleep with Jesus tonight.”
The second way I’ve learned to pray my anxiety is associated with a feeling of being nervous before some performance or leadership thing I need to do. Usually, leading up to that experience, I get butterflies in my stomach thinking about my performance. In my former self, these nervous feelings could become consuming as I turned the event over and over wondering what could go wrong or what more I needed to do to prepare. This usually made the anxiety worse.
I’ve learned that preparation is important, but I can never control every variable. I need to let go of that impulse to be in control and trust that God cares for me. I’ve learned to use the experience of having butterflies in my stomach as a sort of prompt or cue to pray and let go of my need to be in control. Every time I feel nervous, I will pray, “Father, I know that you love me. I let go of my need for control. I trust you. I surrender my life to you.”
In the weeks and days leading up to the event that has me feeling nervous, I will do this over and over and the very experience of anxiety is transformed. It doesn’t go away; it just comes to mean something different. This happens as the movement from an experience of anxiety to a place of surrender gets compressed each time it unfolds. First comes the butterflies. Then I am reminded to turn towards God in prayer. As I pray, I am able to release control and practice surrender. Finally I become aware of God’s presence with me. As I do this over and over, the process gets shorter and shorter. I do it faster each time. After a while, the experience of anxiety immediately leads me to a place of trust, release, and surrender to God’s presence.
When this happens, the very feeling of anxiety becomes synonymous with the presence of God. I feel anxious, and I am reminded that God cares for me. This is akin to what Paul talks about when he boasts of the thorn in his flesh. When he is weak, then he is strong. The anxiety, in an odd way, becomes comforting to me. It becomes a reminder. It is God’s voice of love.
These are two of the primary ways I’ve learned to pray my anxiety. When I toss and turn in my bed, I remember Jesus napping in the boat in the middle of the storm. I see him model for me a life of radical trust and I pray, “Father, help me to sleep with Jesus.” And when I go about my day and I’m tempted to worry and obsess over my preparation, I respond by praying a prayer of surrender. I intentionally focus on letting go of control, and over time the feelings of anxiety become for me the very presence of God.