Seven Ways to Pray When You’re Feeling Anxious

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.

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 thoseelements 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 Vision4 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).

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