For part 1 of this series, click here.
God’s design is for anxiety to rise to energize you to take action to handle a crisis, then to subside once you have taken action. But what if the anxiety remains even after you’ve taken whatever mental and physical action you can take? It may be because you have not yet used your anxiety to help you take spiritual action–the most important kind of action for dealing with a problem.
In chapter one we learned God’s design for anxiety. The purpose is to pressure you into taking action to deal with a problem.
We also found that anxiety is a byproduct of love. The more you care about something the more energized you become when that thing is threatened. And so God commands us to have anxiety for one another—to feel pressure in your own heart when your brother has a problem.
But if all that is true about anxiety, why did Jesus say, “Do not be anxious” (Luke 12:22)? Evidently, there’s a good kind of anxiety and a bad kind—how do we discern the difference? What’s the definition of bad anxiety?
Jesus gave us a clue in Luke 12:25.
“Do not be anxious … Which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span?’” (Luke 12:22,25 NAS).
Anxiety is bad when it’s useless. When it doesn’t accomplish anything. Good anxiety energizes necessary action. Bad anxiety flails uselessly against problems outside your control.
If you want some cheap entertainment, go to a bowling alley and watch what people do after they release the ball. Bending, twisting, jumping on tiptoes—every kind of gyration trying to keep that ball out of the gutter. Does body English work? No.
And neither does soul English—twisting and writhing on the inside trying to control outcomes over which you have no power is useless. Once the ball is out of your hands, no amount of internal flailing can change the trajectory of events.
A student uses her good anxiety about the final exam to energize her to study. Great. Now the test is over and all she can do is wait for the results. But she’s still losing sleep worrying about her grade. To apply Jesus’ logic from Luke 22—Who of you, by worrying, can improve the grade on a test you already took? Jesus’ point is that kind of worry has no power. It’s useless, so it qualifies as bad anxiety—the kind you want to eliminate.
Anxiety is to get you to take action, so if there’s no action to be taken, then it’s useless anxiety. Even if you have power to take action, if you don’t have that power right now then there’s no point in having the anxiety right now.
Healthy anxiety rises only when it’s time to take action and subsides after you’ve taken action.
But what is “action”? It’s not always physical. Many times, the purpose of anxiety is to push you to mental action, such as planning or problem solving.
- You feel anxious about an upcoming conversation. That anxiety forces you to think through the best way to respond if the interaction goes one way or another. You’re taking action by planning.
- A child is going astray or you have an impossible situation at work, and you take action by examining the problem from every angle to figure out a solution.
But suppose you have taken all the mental and physical action you can, but the anxiety still won’t go away. Has it now become bad anxiety? Not yet. You have one more question to ask: I’ve taken mental and physical action, but have I taken spiritual action?
What is spiritual action?
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, ESV).
Spiritual action begins with prayer. You haven’t taken action to solve a problem until you’ve prayed. You can do more than pray after you’ve prayed, but you can never do more than pray if you haven’t prayed.
Take spiritual action with prayer, and not just prayer, but intensive, earnest prayer. Notice the phrase, “let your requests be made known.” When the Bible speaks of making something known (as opposed to simply “telling”), it’s emphatic. It’s like taking the person by the lapel and pressing your request.
Another way to make something emphatic is to stack up synonyms. Notice how many words Paul uses for prayer.
“… in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 1:6, ESV).
Prayer is talking to God. Supplication is asking God for things. Requests are the things we ask for. Thanksgiving is another facet of prayer. And the phrase “in everything” adds even more emphasis. Paul is pulling up every word he can think of to describe earnest, impassioned prayer.
When you have runaway anxiety, the purpose of it is to push you not just pray, but to pray hard. Don’t merely mention your requests. Grab hold of God and let them be made known to him. Use every form of prayer. Hit it from every angle. Be passionate. Be persistent. Be energetic and earnest and fervent and bang on the doors of heaven. That’s taking spiritual action.
How to Energize Your Prayers
But fervent prayer is hard. We all struggle with lukewarm, low-energy prayer. Maybe you’ve tried for years to get serious about prayer, but your prayer life is anemic. It’s mostly quick, one-line requests or expressions of thanksgiving through the day that rarely go longer that a few seconds.
You’re not alone. Prayer is difficult. And praying hard is even more difficult. It takes a huge amount of emotional energy.
Where will you get all that energy? There is a power pack you can plug into that will make energetic, fervent prayer 100 times easier. It’s called anxiety. Remember, anxiety is emotional energy.
All the worries and anxieties in your heart are like a bunch of rubber balls submerged in water. They want to bubble up to the surface. Let them. Let them bubble right up to God in prayer.
“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders” (James 5:13-14).
When you’re sick, you do one thing. When you’re happy, you do something else. But when you’re in a big crisis, the most fundamental response is prayer. Don’t waste that emotional adrenaline. Use it to pray hard because nothing can send a prayer rocketing into heaven like anxiety-fueled pleadings.
When you don’t have any anxiety in your heart, you can try to pray hard, but the earnestness isn’t the same. That’s just the way God designed the human soul. We need anxiety to drive our prayers. Thumb through your Bible and you’ll see—the most impassioned prayers rose out of the deepest trouble. Even Jesus needed anxiety to pray his hardest.
“And being in anguish, [Jesus] prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44).
Why didn’t Jesus pray that earnestly to begin with? The human soul—even a perfect, sinless human soul, in this fallen world, needs anxiety to stimulate the most passionate kind of prayer. That’s God’s design.
When Jesus had more anxiety, he prayed harder. And he didn’t ask God to relieve his anxiety. The idea isn’t that you feel anxiety and then you pray hard asking God to take it away. The point is that you spend that anxiety on intensive prayer about the problem that’s causing your anxiety.
Remember, the more passionate the prayer, the more likely God is to answer it (James 5:17). So don’t let your passion (anxiety) go to waste. It is when anxiety boils that our hearts explode with strong, passionate engagements with God. And those are the kinds of prayers that move God’s heart.
I routinely ask God for greater anxiety. It’s often how I begin my prayer time. “Ignite my heart, Lord. Don’t let me flatline. Light up my heart to care a lot about something that’s big in your heart so I can pray with a passion that’s in sync with your great heart.” I begin my prayers that way when my heart is dull. If you already have the anxiety, you have an advantage.
Anxiety can tell you when more prayer is needed. If your normal daily prayer routine is handling your anxiety, that’s great. But when the anxiety lingers in your bloodstream, it’s calling for more prayer. If you normally pray two minutes, get alone somewhere and pray for ten. If you normally pray twenty minutes, make it an hour. In an extreme crisis, God may fill your soul with a dose of anxiety that won’t dissipate until you’ve spent a full night in prayer or set aside a whole day alone somewhere to seek hard after God.
We send up little sentence prayers all day long—“God, please let this work out.” “Don’t let me get laid off.” “Don’t let it be cancer.” “Please, help my marriage.” When was the last time you prayed at length over a matter of great importance?
When Peter fell asleep in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray” (Mark 14:37-38). He says, “one hour” like that’s a small increment of time. Sometimes Jesus prayed all night.
He didn’t do that every night. Or even most nights. But the more important the issue, the deeper the anxiety, the longer the prayer. Times of excessive stress call for excessive prayer.
Sometimes people in trouble are so busy they begrudge a ten-minute prayer time and then wonder where God is. The question isn’t, “Where is God?” God is right there in your prayer closet. The question is, “Where are you?”
Intensive Prayer Depletes Anxiety
Once you’ve spent your energy on intensive, thankful prayer, you’ll find your anxiety level will drop. If it doesn’t, keep praying until you burn it off.
Think of your anxiety like money in the bank. If you wonder why all that money is still in there, it’s because you haven’t spent it. When anxiety lingers in your heart and stays in your bloodstream and refuses to let up, it may be because you haven’t spent that energy. Spend your anxiety on action, especially the action of fervent prayer.
Are there certain times when your anxiety level tends to be higher, like after watching the news or dealing with certain people? Maybe the best time to plan your prayer time is right after those events, when your spiritual adrenaline level is highest.
This is God’s preferred way of accomplishing great things in his kingdom. When he wants to bring about a great work, he will often put a driving anxiety in the heart of one of his people. That anxiety drives that person to passionate prayer, then God answers that prayer by carrying out his marvelous plan.
- From your lists of good anxieties from the previous chapter, choose the two strongest—the anxieties that boil the hottest inside you. Carve out some extended time to pray hard about those two issues. Use the prayer guide below.
- Continue to review Romans 12:11 and begin memorizing Matthew 6:25-34. It contains some of the most soothing words in Scripture for the anxious heart. You’ll be amazed how comforting it can be to simply speak these beautiful words from memory in times of stress. What you say verbally can steer the direction of your whole life (James 3:3-5). For now, start with verse 25.
How do you pray hard about something? You start out, “Please God, please, please, please . . . ” But then what?
First, do what Jesus did and get away. Go for a long drive or walk. Solitude makes a big difference, especially if it can be out in nature somewhere. And bring your Bible because that’s how God speaks to us.
Talk the issue over with God from every angle. Here are some examples:
- What is God’s will in this matter?
Explore God’s heart. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” So always begin by seeking God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. Ask him to help you recall what his Word says about situations like this.
Keep in mind, the primary goal is not to find a solution to the problem. The goal is discovering which responses would be righteous or unrighteous.
A big mistake people often make when they are seeking God’s will is to say “Show me your will,” but what they really mean is “Show me what I could do to solve this problem.”
God’s will is that we be holy, and seeking his will is seeking what path we could take that would be holy and righteous. If you’re responding righteously, you’re where you need to be, regardless of whether the problem is solved.
Ask God opens your eyes to the righteous path, ask him to enable you to take it.
- What is your will?
Talk to God about your desires. What are you passionate about in the matter? And what do the feelings you’re having say about your values and priorities? It’s the passions of your heart that are driving your anxiety. Are they the right passions?
Is there anything you love too much (judging by your emotional responses when it is threatened or lost)? Is there anything you love too little?
Ask God to enable you to conform any wrong values, priorities, or passions to match his. Use your good passions to empower earnestness in your prayer.
In a ballroom dance, sometimes the man advances, and the woman steps back. Other times she steps forward, and he gives ground. Prayer is like that. Sometimes we ask for something and God yields to our request. Other times, when our request can’t fit into God’s perfect plan, we must yield and say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Ask God to show you whether this is a situation like Moses pleading for the Israelites, where God relented and granted the request. Or if it’s like Jesus in Gethsemane, where his request was not possible, and Jesus had to yield.
- Ask God how you could put some of his attributes on display in this matter.
- Ask how you could show humility in this situation.
- How could you show kindness?
- What would patience look like?
- What are some ways you could love your neighbor as yourself in this situation?
- Pray through a psalm or two, watching for attributes of God stated or implied and pray about the implications of those attributes for the matter at hand.
- Ask God to show you a good next step.
When you have used your anxiety to intensify your prayers, then you can use your prayers to relieve your anxiety.
- Ask God to comfort your soul.
- Lay each of your concerns on God’s shoulders one-by-one, asking him to take the burden from you.
“By casting all your cares on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7 NET).
Working through them one at a time is a more effective than trying to cast your cares on God in one giant batch (“Lord, just let it all work out”). Naming each anxiety and intentionally casting the weight of it onto God trains your soul to trust God for each one. George Mueller described how he handled all the stresses of the massive responsibilities that were upon him.
I do not carry the burden . . . It is not only permission, but positive command that He gives, to cast the burdens upon Him. Oh, let us do it! My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall sustain thee.” Day by day I do it. This morning, sixty matters in connection with the church of which I am pastor, I brought before the Lord.”
The heartache you feel from that broken relationship, that nagging anxiety that rises when you hear that weird sound in your transmission, the gut punch you get every time you see that bill on the counter that you know you can’t pay—each of those problems creates a different kind of anxiety and they must be handled individually. Roll each one onto God.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “Agitated Christians, do not dishonor your religion by always wearing a brow of care; come, cast your burden upon the Lord. What seems to you a crushing burden would be to him but as the small dust of the balance. See! the Almighty bends his shoulders, and he says, ‘Here, put thy troubles here.’ ‘Come unto Me, and I will give you rest.”
Interested in More?
This post will be chapter one of my next book, Anxiety and the Peace of God (tentative title). If you would like to be notified when future chapters are posted and when the full book is available, sign up for my Readers List here. For videos of this content, visit FoodforYourSoul.net or TreasuringGod.com.
 Interpreters debate about whether Jesus was referring to life span or height. Since a cubit is a unit of length, not time, I believe Jesus is referring to height. But either way, it is not a result that can be achieved by being anxious.
 Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, January 6th, Morning Reading.