This is a guest post from my dear friend, Steve West, an author from Raleigh, North Carolina, who shares about the torture of anxiety and the grace of meeting God in the middle of it.
In March of 2001 I was hospitalized for emergency abdominal surgery, a blockage. In the course of it, I developed a serious blood clot, which also had to be treated. After two weeks, I was discharged, went home, and in due course returned to regular eating and to work. But though I was physically well, it was not well in my soul.
For nine months after my discharge, I experienced anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. I obsessed over every abdominal twitch, convinced that I would be returning to the hospital any time, that I was not well. Doctors ran tests, all of which were negative, and yet I could not be dissuaded. I was listless and couldn’t concentrate. Some days I sat in front of my computer screen at work for long intervals before I realized I wasn’t doing anything.
I was haunted by a Bible verse during this time, a familiar one from Phillipians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” But I was anxious. I didn’t have peace. And then one day, I did.
Walking in Faith
We sometimes forget that Phillipians 4:6 is not the beginning of the sentence. The sentence begins in verse five with a promise: “The Lord is at hand.” His presence is our gift, the precondition to our not being anxious, and it took me nine months to realize that God was with me, literally “at hand.”
There were two things I could do during that time. I walked, a locomotion with promise of arrival. While concentrated thought was difficult, walking was not, and in Creation I was reminded of Presence.
I also read and prayed the Psalms. They helped remind me of the truth. The Psalmist experienced anxiety, depression, and despair and in raw language described what he felt to God. In Psalm 6 he cries out to God that “I am languishing. . . . My soul also is greatly troubled. . . . I am weary with my moaning.” And yet, as in most psalms, he comes around to preaching to himself, to consoling himself with the truth that God is sovereign and always good, that He, in fact, is at hand.
A Long Walk
Anxiety is often irrational. It still comes, unbidden, to remind me that God is at hand. Crossing the high bridge to the Eastern Shore of Maryland once, I was seized by fear of the height, just barely managing to steer to the other side. Sometimes, driving down the highway, I obsess for a moment over an axle break and consequences play out in my mind. I am even seized by a moment of worry over the national debt! One night last week, just before sleep, I had an image of being confined in a box and felt the claustrophobia that would ensue. In those moments, I preach to myself that God is at hand, and anxiety leaves, for a season. While neither mantra nor magic, that truth is an antidote to the lies beneath anxiety, an antidote that works itself out in time.
Forty million adult Americans have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Many more live with a low-grade or episodic anxiety, from a vague sense of unease that something bad will happen to specific fears, like that of being alone or left behind. There can be a deep and chronic anxiety that needs medical intervention. But for many of us who experience irrational fears, the medicine we need is the truth that God is at hand. We need to pour out our own psalms as we draw near to the only One who can bring peace. The more deeply we live in His presence, the less power our anxieties will have over us.