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How to Pray in the Midst of Anxiety

How to Pray in the Midst of Anxiety
How to Pray in the Midst of Anxiety

“I know I’m supposed to pray when I’m anxious,” my friend sighed, lowering her gaze to her clenched fists. “I just don’t know how.”

I knew what she meant because a few years prior, I was the one staring at my own white knuckles. I remember the sense of paralysis and the unrelenting mental parade of “shoulds.”

I should be able to cope better.

I should have stronger faith.

I should just give my worries to Jesus and let him handle them.

But in the midst of anxious thoughts I didn’t know what to pray. Emotional and mental turmoil can hijack our ability to communicate clearly, even with God.

If you identify with these feelings, here’s the first thing you need to know: God is already intimately familiar with your heart and he cares for you! When you don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays to the Father on your behalf “with groanings that can’t be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26b, NLT). God’s understanding of your struggle is independent of your ability to form a logical prayer.

So why should you pray if God already knows what you need?

Philippians 4:6-7 explains the purpose of praying when you’re anxious: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (NLT). God wants you to loosen your grip, release control of your circumstances and allow him to guard your heart and mind.

In the grip of anxiety, I realized that this Scripture passage is a promise rather than another item on my list of “shoulds.” And that meant that the pressure surrounding prayer lifted from my mind.

Years ago, I created a simplified prayer model based on something I used as a child. This way of praying, which I gave the acronym “WITH US,” was simple enough that I could recall it even when my worries threatened to overwhelm me. Gradually it became part of my daily rhythm. This prayer model isn’t a formula that makes my anxiety symptoms disappear, but it does clear my mind enough that I can read God’s Word and reach out for the help I need.

Here’s how to pray using the “WITH US” model.

W: Wow

Well-meaning people sometimes say, “You’ve got this” to people struggling. But encouragement like that rang hollow for me in the midst of anxiety because I knew I wasn’t strong enough or wise enough to handle overwhelming circumstances. Instead of looking inside myself for steadiness, I needed to focus on God. Beginning prayer with “wow” shifts my focus from my situation to our unchanging God.

Worship doesn’t need to be set to music. It doesn’t need to have a lot of elaborate words.

Worship is simply a humble, true statement about who God is and what he does. You can worship God by telling him what you’ve learned about his character and actions. You can declare: “You are good and merciful” (Psalm 145:8-9, NLT) or “you tenderly care for your people” (Isaiah 40:11). You can say: “You work in ways beyond my understanding” (Isaiah 55:8-13) or “you won’t give up on the work you’re doing in me” (Philippians 1:6).

It’s easier to take the next step in your conversation with God when your mind is fixed on him and your heart is steadied by his love.

I: I’m Sorry

It may not be pleasant to admit when we’ve sinned, but confession is an important part of prayer. At times I’ve willfully made destructive choices or passively drifted from God’s path. Being misaligned with God’s heart and his Word can — and should — cause us to feel unsettled. Practicing the “I’m sorry” part of this prayer model means asking the Holy Spirit to bring actions, thoughts or beliefs to mind that you need to examine, and then trusting his forgiveness and restoration. “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 John 1:8-9, NLT).

The experience of anxiety itself isn’t sinful or shameful. It’s a mental and physiological response often rooted in external circumstances, trauma or brain chemistry. However, inviting God to shine his light into our dark corners and giving him control of our lives sets us on a path toward peace (Romans 8:6b, NLT).

T: Thank You

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel sometimes built stone memorials to remind themselves of how God rescued them (Joshua 4; 1 Samuel 7). Remembering specific ways God has been faithful to us strengthens our belief that he will continue to be faithful. One of the ways my family expresses faith-building gratitude is by retelling stories of times we’ve clearly seen God meet our needs, like the day my husband unexpectedly found a working gas grill abandoned beside our road just minutes after I’d prayed God would provide one we could afford. Most of our gratitude stories involve less immediate answers to prayer, but all of them remind us of God’s care for us.

How have you seen God’s power and kindness? How has he shown you that he sees you and cares about your heart? Naming specific gifts and thanking God for them — from the air in your lungs to the people who love you — reorients your mind to recognize God’s goodness in your life.

H: Help

Although I know God delights in caring for his children, asking him for help has sometimes been the hardest part of prayer, especially in the grip of anxiety. Instead of remembering when God has been faithful, I often think back to times I’ve prayed for something specific like the healing of a loved one or the resolution of a difficult situation, and God didn’t respond the way I wanted. In these moments, I think about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:7-8 and am confused about the promise that we would receive what we ask for and find what we seek. Was it an empty promise?

I discovered something while serving in Papua New Guinea that helped me understand Jesus’ promise in context. Many gorgeous sea creatures make their home in the warm shallows of the South Pacific, including the zebra moray eel. A zebra moray eel is an eye-catching fish with vertical black and white stripes running the length of its body. My young daughter begged to search for the fish while snorkeling, but my husband and I had a good reason to deny her request: It can be difficult to tell this fish apart from the extremely venomous banded sea krait.

When Jesus promised we would receive what we asked for, he added an important point: “You parents — if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:9-11, NLT)

God listens attentively and cares deeply when we ask for his help, provision and healing. Sometimes he gives us exactly what we want, but he also knows that there are times we can’t tell the difference between a fish and a snake. We can trust our compassionate heavenly Father to discern what’s truly good and life-giving for his children. He sees and meets the real needs beneath our requests.

US: Unclenched Surrender

During the peak of my struggle with anxiety, I came across an astonishingly gentle psalm: “LORD, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD — now and always” (Psalm 131, NLT). David wrote this prayer when he was surrounded by trouble, danger and unresolved conflict, but he had learned to rest in God’s safe embrace in spite of his circumstances — and we can too.

When we focus on God’s character and glory, he shows us that he’s good and in control of everything. When we invite God to bring our hidden darkness into his healing light, he gives us his compassion, freedom and restoration. When we gratefully rehearse all God has done, he builds our confidence in his faithfulness. When we ask God to meet specific needs, he provides for us as our wise, loving father.As we remember who God is and that he holds us, our loved ones and all our circumstances, we can relax into his embrace, unclench our worried fists and surrender to his heart and plans. Even in the grip of the strongest anxiety, we can pray with simple confidence and freedom because God truly is with us.

Make It Personal

What anxious thoughts are you experiencing today? Consider these questions as you pray “WITH US” through your anxiety:

  • Wow: What do you need to remember about God right now? Tell him how he amazes you.
  • I’m Sorry: Are you uncomfortable with any of your thoughts, attitudes, actions or habits? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you if anything in your life is sinful or destructive, and accept his forgiveness and freedom.
  • Thanks: How have you seen God care for you or your loved ones recently? Begin by thanking him for something simple like clean drinking water or easy access to Scripture, and let him remind you of his goodness as your list grows.
  • Help: What specific needs can you bring to God? Ask him for help like a little child would, with unashamed confidence in his love and simple trust in his wisdom.
  • Unclenched Surrender: What situations or struggles have you been holding onto tightly? Ask God to take care of them and help you rest in his safe, capable arms.

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