This article is part of the How to Pray series.
Praying at All Times
The question of how to pray when you are anxious begs the question: Well, what about when you are not anxious, but are relaxed? Angry? Furious? Complacent? Sad? Jealous? Perplexed? Happy? Expansive? Elated? Grateful? Some complicated mixture of several of the above? These states of mind represent only a few of those from which prayer may (and should) issue. John Calvin called the Psalter “an anatomy of the soul,” asserting that “there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented . . . all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.1” And, as the Psalter has rightly been called the "songbook" of the church, so is it also a “prayer book.” Many of the Psalms were written, prayed, and sung from a state of deep anxiety, our topic at hand, to which my thoughts will be limited after a brief digression into prayer offered in the apparent absence of anxiety.
Perspective on Anxiety
Because we are so accustomed to think of anxiety in solely negative terms, some perspective is in order. One of my favorite professors in my psychiatry residency program was Dr. John Buckman (1922–2010). A Polish Jew who emigrated to London to study medicine, Dr. Buckman’s entire family, immediate and extended, died in the Nazi catastrophe. In spite of, perhaps because, of his loss, he was a man of unflappable equanimity and of pithy good humor. Several of his many aphorisms stuck with me. He regularly told his residents, with utmost gravity, that all you need to know about people can be found in the Bible and in the works of Shakespeare. By this he meant that the nature of people had not changed, and that past accurate observations and insights remained valid and useful in understanding people in contemporary society. I particularly found his comment about anxiety to be refreshing. When the subject would come up, either in discussing a clinical situation or otherwise, he was apt to comment, You have to have a certain amount of anxiety or else you would slide right out of your chair. His inimitable accented English and his sober expression coupled with an exaggerated slumping down in his own chair were hilariously memorable and instructive. He was providing a visual corrective to the common notion that anxiety, in and of itself, is undesirable and in need of elimination.
St. Paul’s prescriptive promise—“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 your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7)—is trustworthy, as Paul might have said. But, if that verse is taken in isolation, it might suggest that we should always be free of anxiety about everything, and that if only we pray and petition God, we will always be. This is the same Paul who, after detailing his many and severe sufferings, cites one which he deems worthy of a separate category: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety [emphasis added] for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:28).
But, the overall sentiment regarding anxiety and being anxious expressed by Scripture is negatively weighted. Jesus, we recall, said “do not be anxious about your life” (Matt. 6:25, emphasis added), and he admonished Martha for being unduly “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41, emphasis added), and, by inference, of not being properly concerned (i.e., anxious) about what was more important at the moment. So, while anxiety is not a desirable or necessarily commendable state of mind, it is certainly a common one, and for most of us, inevitable at times. Otherwise, why the many scriptural assurances about anxiety and fear?
Anxiety may misdirect us, or, properly grasped, may point us to the right path. There must, therefore, be a proper tension between apathy and anxiety, one which motivates us and preserves us from complacency and presumption at one extreme, and paralysis and despair on the other.
This book presents 17th-century pastor Richard Baxter’s wise, gentle advice to comfort and strengthen all who struggle with depression or know someone who does.
Biblical Examples of the Absence of Anxiety
First, look at only two examples of prayers in Scripture which were offered in the absence of anxiety: Nebuchadnezzar's first prayer and that offered by the Pharisee at the temple.
Nebuchadnezzar was rather pleased with himself and his exalted station in life. While he had just witnessed the miraculous salvation of men he had moments earlier cast into his famous fiery furnace, his prayer strikes me as beginning with presumption (though it does end in praise). Looking at only the first portion, he says, “King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me” (Dan. 4:1-2, emphasis added). His opening reminds me of some of the braggadocio of modern “health and prosperity” preachers. In fact, this pagan king had plenty to be anxious about, as his subsequent dream reveals. Nevertheless, he did not find humility until much later, after being visited by a uniquely fitting judgment. While we should always find words to praise God for his favor, we should not be so relaxed as recipients of it that we imply or imagine ourselves to be deserving of it.
Jesus cited two prayers in the form of a parable, and we are explicitly instructed that he did so as a warning to the complacent who “trusted in themselves” (Luke 18:9). The Pharisee stood apart from the crowd, perhaps to both separate and elevate himself, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:12). Yes, he thanks God, but where is the fear of God reflected in those words, which are as self-congratulatory and devoid of proper anxiety (e.g., fear of God) as could possibly be? This was given as a specific example of how not to pray.
Biblical Examples of Anxiety
Now, to the topic at hand. Most experience anxiety from time to time, some of it enduring, some acute and at times overwhelming. Here are examples from Hannah, Hezekiah, the publican tax collector, blind Bartimaeus, and Jesus in Gethsemane.
First, Hannah. We know that for years, her annual trip to the tabernacle was fraught with anxiety, for her husband’s rival wife deliberately chose these occasions to provoke Hannah, who was childless in spite of her longing for children. Whether she had prayed this prayer before or not is unstated, though it seems likely she had.
She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”—1 Samuel 1:10-11
Here is a prayer offered in bitterness and distress, and as she told Eli, reflective of “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Sam. 1:16, emphasis added). Not a light, momentary worry, but an enduring great anxiety. It certainly made for a good and acceptable prayer, and God answered that prayer.
Next, Hezekiah, who had just received notice of imminent assault by Sennacherib, King of Assyria.
Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord and said: “O Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.”—2 Kings 19:14–19
The situation for Jerusalem was dire, and the terms offered by Sennacherib were ungenerous. Hezekiah was acutely aware of the pending disaster. His response? To afflict himself and, in humility, take the problem to the only One who could be of any help, and appeal to him to act in a manner which would rebuke the arrogant Sennacherib while demonstrating for all the world to see that the God of Israel was “God alone,” able to save and inclined to do so. Anxiety? I’m sure; and it gave focus to this good king’s attitude and actions as well as fitting words to his prayer.
Anxiety may misdirect us, or, properly grasped, may point us to the right path.
Returning to the temple and the figure contrasting to the Pharisee: the tax collector. What was this outcast even doing in a place as holy as God’s temple? Repenting, it appears. His prayer, with which we may be overly familiar, was simple: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’’ (Luke 18:13). He stood apart so as not to be conspicuous, and unlike the Pharisee, whom we may assume to have spoken so loudly that everyone could hear him (Matt. 6), did not even lift up his eyes; so presumably, not his voice. Here is a picture of abject humility and a sense of sin, surely an anxious condition! But, it is thankfully what repentance looks like, because we know “this man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14). Anxiety? Certainly, but of the best kind—that which drives us to God in spite of our sins, and which is associated with repentance. And we know that Jesus welcomed those who were anxious for their sins, to the disgust of the Pharisees, who inadvertently gave the most succinct summaries of the gospel ever voiced: “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Thanks be to God! So, anxiety for sin is a good thing if it leads to repentance. It should be a sure guide to our prayers to recall the man who went home justified in spite of the burden he brought to the temple.
Another instance of anxiety in prayer was the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, dependent upon the crowd to tell him what was going on. He had learned enough to know that Jesus was about to pass by. Unlike the crowd, he was unable to navigate by sight and follow Jesus until he finally caught up with him, or to press through the crowd like the woman with the hemorrhage. This was his big opportunity, and was it likely to come again? Bartimaeus was taking no chances. He could not see, but he could make himself heard over the tumult of the crowd. Evidently he did so in a manner which offended those around him who told him, effectively, Shut up, you! His prayer continued loudly and repeatedly: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:46-52). But, once he was noticed by Jesus, even the crowd became friendly and told him, “Take heart!” This man, fearful and anxious about missing Jesus during his visit to Jericho, voiced his anxiety in the hope that he would be heard. Having been heard and summoned, he found an invitation to tell Jesus what he wanted, and received of him what he asked.
Finally, the man of sorrows in Gethsemane. In the face of the most severe trial any man has ever endured—and one different in both purpose and intensity from anything anyone else has suffered—the Son of Man experienced what we may construe to be the most severe anxiety ever known to mankind. He was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matt. 26:37). Is not that an understatement? In his own words, Jesus was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Yes, we can ourselves be sorrowful, and heartbreak can indeed kill, though uncommonly. 2 But, his sorrow was leading to an intentional and necessary death. Yet, he prayed. He asked his Father if there might not be some alternative path which would yet be in keeping with the Father’s will. He prayed three times, and finding that there was no other way, resigned himself to the one prayer which we can always pray and know that it must and will be answered. He prayed, “Your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). How simple a prayer and yet how difficult to pray it when we suspect or know that his will entails that which we would gladly avoid. But, Jesus’s concluding prayer before his arrest was of acceptance and resignation to what was so clearly revealed to be the Father’s will. We are not always given to know what that will is in our own suffering, though we may suspect and fear what lies ahead. But this prayer is fitting for us all in all of our suffering, anxiety, and sorrow. It is too brief to forget, but too weighty to say sincerely and earnestly without submission to a will better than our own.
So, how should we pray in the face of anxiety, whether that anxiety is grounded in an all-too-certain knowledge of what is upon us and lies ahead, or in an overwhelming uncertainty of what is to come? Here are some suggestions:
1. Pray anyway.
Don’t think of anxiety in merely negative terms, but, as you are able, try to view it as a motivation and subject of prayer. Anxiety often has discrete origins and will add to that necessary “baseline” without which you would slide right out of your chair. Paul’s well-known admonition and promise (Phil. 4:5-7) is preceded by what we tend to forget, which is the basis of his directive: “The Lord is at hand.” Unlike Jesus, who was very alone in Gethsemane (having been abandoned by his closest disciples, first in sleep, then in flight), we are not left alone. The Lord is near, and we need to remind ourselves of that as we wrestle with that which he has placed in our path. So, in order to pray, we will do well to tell ourselves what God has said, out loud and circumstances permitting, loudly, The LORD is at hand! We may not feel this to be so, and may not even fully believe this to be so, in which case a “Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) is an appropriate amendment. We all want to get to the other side of Paul’s admonition to not be “anxious about anything,” and the path to that is clearly through prayer, which will come more readily if we remember that God really is near and ready to hear those prayers. If, on the other hand, we view anxiety as mainly something to be gotten past, we may find ourselves praying more for the relief of anxiety than about whatever situation or concerns have given rise to anxiety. While it is true that some anxiety may seem baseless or be purely physiological in origin, much of the time an anxiety which exceeds whatever baseline is “normal” to a particular individual has definite situational and emotional constituents. It is those elements that I suspect Paul expects us to bring to God in prayer and to anticipate relief of anxiety as we find ourselves more able to trust God with those matters.
2. Use scriptural examples to guide your prayer, and pray for yourself those Biblical prayers which are clearly spoken from the midst of anxiety.
The richest and most easily located examples are found in the Psalter and have traditionally been used by Old and New Testament believers to approach God.
3. In keeping with #2 above, don’t pray (only) alone.
We are meant to share certain burdens and to carry some of the burdens of others. Some aspects of sorrow are so personal that they are private and must remain so. “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Prov. 14:10) and “each will have to bear his own load” (Gal. 6:5), yet we are clearly admonished to share our sorrows when that is appropriate. How else can we “bear one another's burdens” (Gal. 6:2) or expect anyone to help bear ours or to rejoice in our deliverance through them (2 Cor. 1:11)? Certainly, discretion and discernment are in order, and there are some burdens which should be shared only narrowly and cautiously. Not all of our business is everyone’s business, but little of our business is ours alone. Sometimes just letting your small group or close friends know that you have a large burden is sufficient; sometimes you will wish to be more explicit about your anxiety. A wise pastor will know how to assist if it is unclear.
4. Don’t limit your prayers to those words which you can produce yourself.
As it is appropriate to use Scripture as a guide and template for prayer, so it is appropriate to use prayers which have been carefully formulated from Scripture and which are consistent with it. My own traditions are rich in such prayers, some of which I am rather late in discovering. The Book of Common Prayer 3 is replete with topical prayers, meticulously worded, which extemporaneous prayers are hard-pressed to match. Similarly, the edited compilation of Puritan prayers found in “The Valley of Vision”4 is an excellent source to use when our own prayers seem to be inadequate to the situation. We all have a liturgy—explicit or implicit—through which we approach God with words and symbols. If yours is too narrow (as I believe mine once was5), borrow from the ancient traditions that are fully in accord with Scripture. This past Sunday, for example, the weekly recitation of the Confession of Sin struck a particularly resonant note with me, especially the ending phrases “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.” I had recited that prayer many times, but on that day, it had a fulsomeness which caught me off-guard. Neither should the creeds be neglected, or the Lord’s Prayer, each of which reminds us of who God is and who we are to be in his presence. They are each meant to be spoken, and though only the latter is a prayer, I see no reason that the creeds cannot be said prayerfully.
5. Do keep attending public worship, and join in the prayers offered in that context.
We are told that public worship is a means of encouragement, but its neglect is a sure path to discouragement and a stifling of prayer. (Heb. 10:25) Likewise, the sacrament of Holy Communion is not to be neglected as a means of grace. The departure from its convention during this time of COVID-19 has made me acutely aware of what I am missing.
6. Keep it simple if the struggle is severe.
Others did, including Christ. Here, I do find that praying those brief prayers provided for our example are in order, as they are both apropos to a state of anxiety—the very prayers which God is ever pleased to hear and answer. “Son of David, have mercy on ME!” (Mark 10:47) can be prayed quickly and repeatedly until we, like Bartimaeus, sense that our cries have been heard. And upon knowing that he hears us, we can more confidently pray, “Your will be done” (Matt. 26:42) with the expectation that “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). What can be more in keeping with his will than praying for his will to be done? And, as with most things, doing what you can do and know to be right will enable you better to do, in the future, that which you now find so difficult.
7. Finally, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Paul appears to have in view a mindful, intentional posture of supplication. We can maintain this posture of prayer if we direct our anxiety to expression in those words used by the psalmists, Jesus, Bartimaeus, and the tax collector. Paul didn’t just instruct his hearers to pray always, but he took his own advice saying, “we always pray for you” (2 Thess. 1:11). So we should pray always, and always pray, and let our anxiety be channeled into prayer rather than letting anxiety paralyze us and prevent prayer. As James put it: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13).
- From Calvin’s introduction to his commentary on the Psalms.
- Broken Heart Syndrome, which I have personally witnessed, is a well-documented medical phenomenon.
- I suggest the venerable 1928 BCP or the excellent 2019 BCP, if you are unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition.
- Banner of Truth
- My own experience in moving from a more austere liturgy to one which is, if you will permit, fuller and more structured, was like moving from a too-small space to an open one. Far from being confined by the structure, I found it liberating.
Michael S. Lundy is the author of Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life.
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