|Photo by telomi via Flickr|
I've been getting up at 5:00 a.m. this week. Yes, I know. Five. In. The. Morning. Some of you probably just unfriended me on Facebook. It was really the next logical step for me, though. I've been waking up at that time for months, every muscle tense with anxiety, nothing to do for it but take deep breaths, and say the Lord's Prayer over and over as I doze off, then awaken again with my jaw locked and my muscles tight. That gets old after awhile.
Anxiety is still a part of my life. A smaller part than it used to occupy, but still there, still sending my body into fight or flight mode at the most unexpected times. I'm starting to accept that this is part of who I am.
For years I've heard the verses...you know the ones:
Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.[Psalm 55:22 NIV]
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. [Matthew 6:34 NIV]
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. [Philippians 4:6 NIV]
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. [1Peter 5:7 NIV]
Lovely verses, really, and they make such lovely memes when superimposed over pictures of babbling brooks, majestic mountains, or sandy shores. And for some people, that's what they need. But when you live with chronic anxiety sometimes those verses are a reminder that you've failed. You are a Bad Christian. You've cast your cares on Him again and again and again, but you still feel pretty shaken. You've taken your requests to God in prayer...when you know what your request is. It's not so much worrying about tomorrow that is troubling you, it's the fact that you need to get from point A to point B and the quickest way to do that is via the interstate but you can't make yourself do it because what if your tire blows out while you are driving at 80 miles per hour? (True story...I finally got myself driving on the interstate again and they raised the speed limit to 80. Thanks a lot, South Dakota.)
So yes, I used to think that if I was still anxious I was somehow lacking in faith. I didn't know and stand on Scripture (and yet, I could recall each one of the afore-mentioned verses). I struggled with the thought of taking medication for it because SURELY that reveals a lack of trust, an inability to rely fully on God. (A line of reasoning that somehow never extended to my need for medication to compensate for an under-performing thyroid.)
And then this weekend I was about to jump out of my skin with anxiety when the thought popped into my mind "I need to take a walk." So I did, and although I had nearly finished my route before my brain calmed down, it DID indeed calm down. I think that I had a realization on that walk; that maybe sometimes what God wants from us is the most practical thing in the world. Maybe, just maybe, he doesn't want hours of me wrestling trying to figure out how to 'cast my cares on him'. Maybe he wants me to take a walk.
God has given us a myriad of coping mechanisms. Nature, music, kittens, exercise, talking. Do we do him a disservice when we insist that he remove our anxiety with no cooperation on our part? I'm not discounting prayer, but maybe we miss the whole point of communication with God when we struggle over and over to shift the anxiety off of our shoulders by spending hours on our knees and the whole time God is saying "Go pet a kitten." (Even my ten year old instinctively recognizes the benefits of kitten therapy when he's had a rough day.)
I don't want to make it sound like I am discounting everything that is taught in the church about anxiety. Some of it has its place. But so often I think it is disconnected from the real work that it does in us. Many of us have been handed a list of verses or statements to meditate on. The "I Am" list that affirms who we are in Christ. The verses about casting our cares on Him. They are handed to us like some magic formula; if we just recite them enough, just believe them enough we will be healed of all our anxious thoughts. It leaves us frustrated when they don't work.
Lists and verses can be helpful as part of a regular relaxation or meditation technique. Much like any other technique they can become a key that reminds your brain to slow down, your body to breathe, your muscles to relax. Practice it often enough and your body will recognize and respond to them quickly when you call them to mind.
And yet often when I'm struggling most with my anxiety I find that the most helpful scriptures aren't the ones that tell me what to do with it, but the ones that just let me feel what I am feeling. The Psalms are beautiful examples that run the gamut of human emotions. Fear, anxiety, sorrow, anger...the Psalmists deal with these without holding back the full weight of what they are feeling. And, in the end, sometimes like a whisper and sometimes like a victory shout, the authors remind themselves that God Is. Maybe that's what it really looks like to cast our cares on the Lord. It's not some easy shifting of a burden, a casual "Here God, you take this." It's walking through the fire and even in the midst of it, when the smoke is choking you and you can't see the way out, reminding yourself that God is here.
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.