Excitement fueled my journey toward Gatlinburg, Tennessee where friends awaited me for a weekend getaway. Dusk was setting as I reached Chattanooga, so my eyes struggled to adjust to the darkening roadway and approaching headlights. Somehow I navigated that huge bend of highway skirting Lookout Mountain and then, just as the road began to straighten out, my excitement bottomed out. Before me stood a wall of fog so dense and so massive that it shrouded all four lanes of interstate. I had exactly 12 seconds to make a decision: pull over on the shoulder OR put on the low beams, reduce my speed, and navigate the haze. Honestly, these are the same choices we have when facing anxiety, even the chronic variety.
Pull over. Perhaps we lack confidence in our ability to navigate the threatening situation or person. Maybe the potential for rejection or failure is too great. The intrusive thoughts, intense feelings, and bodily reactions are too suffocating. We just need to park. Pull the emergency brake. Stare at the threat from a distance, typically through the windshield of our own presumptions.
But, binge-watching Netflix every night rather than meeting friends or—wait for it—making new ones—actually reinforces the discomfort and uncertainty that incite anxiety in the first place. Stiff-arming your spouse’s invitation to lovemaking rather than having a series of difficult-yet-vital conversations merely reinforces the angst-inducing discomfort and uncertainty. These pulling-over tactics reinforce the vicious cycle of anxiety.
Look, I totally get it. Everyone craves comfort and certainty. Sometimes believers seek them at the expense of following Christ. Allow me to paraphrase the words of Jesus:
“At some point you’ll want to pull over. Intimidation and intense opposition from your loved ones and community leaders will cause psycho-emotional distress. The temptation will be to deny me and return to your previous way of life; adhere to status quo. When that happens—when they drag you into their courtrooms, or into meeting rooms and before authority figures—don’t be anxious in defending yourselves. The Holy Spirit will give you words to speak in the very moment you need them” (Lk 12.11-12).
“You’ll want to pull over,” he continued, “when the markets won’t sell to you and the ministry won’t afford you luxury. The psycho-emotional distress will be intense. The temptation will be to compromise my Gospel for the sake of material security. Don’t be anxious in that situation of actively relying on me to provide for you. The Father knows your needs and will supply them sufficiently” (Lk 12.22-23).
Jesus never promised all the affection, housing, healthcare, income, or status a believer would want to live comfortably. He simply promised that the Father sees and will provide exactly the right thing in exactly the right measure at exactly the right time. He is not oblivious or uncaring to our needs. In fact, he often meets them in ways which go unnoticed, as in providing the stamina to endure hunger, the perseverance for poverty, or the surge of courage to step into difficulty—even death—for his Namesake, which leads to the second option.
Push through. Look at Jesus approaching Gethsemane, his soul blanketed by the billowy mass of anxiety. His distress was so intense that bloody sweat oozed from his body. He felt all the feels—the restlessness, nervousness, shame, discomfort, uncertainty. His emotional pain was amplified by the anticipation of all the indignities he’d face—being stripped, insulted, abandoned. His agony intensified with the awareness of the physical pains he’d endure—being beaten beyond recognition and billboarded to a stake. With the Enemy taunting and his own flesh tempting, Jesus could’ve pulled over.
Instead, in breathtaking vulnerability, he knelt to pray, “’Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done’” (Lk 22.42, NET). Was there any other way for God’s just judgment against Sin to be rendered? The question—and the entire prayer from that posture of utter dependence—was Jesus’ way of reducing the speed of his racing thoughts and emotions and fully submitting to the will of God. And, at the exact right moment in the exact right measure, the Father provided the fortitude Jesus needed to stand…walk through the haze…and accomplish the most inconceivable act of sacrificial love ever shown.
Consider: Jesus never stopped the anxiety from coming. We can’t, either— no more so than we can stop fog from forming on the interstate. So, rather than asking How can I prevent anxiety? or Shouldn’t I just pull over? let’s ask God to guide us through it. Scripture promises believers will experience distress and suffering, as well as the presence and provision of God in them. While in the valley we are to pray, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Ps 23.4). When brokenhearted and crushed in spirit we’re to experience God drawing near (Ps 34.18). While mourning we receive his blessing; while afflicted we receive his comfort (Mt 5.4, 2 Cor 1.3).
Friend, when you see that hectoring haze of anxiety stretching before you, pray. Invite God into it He can re-purpose discomfort and uncertainty into the courage and faith needed to push through the distressing situation and ultimately reclaim the power anxiety has stolen. Just as pilots-in-training must enter turbulence to learn how to fly in it; just like firefighters-in-training must enter blazing fires to learn how to squelch the flames, we must enter the situation to learn how to think, feel, act, be, and live as Christ in the face of that anxiety. As we do, anxiety gets re-purposed as reliance on and confidence in God.
What thoughts and feelings typically coincide with the anxious situations I face? How can I reduce the reactionary speed of these thoughts/emotions?
Do I trust God to guide me through the haze? Do I truly believe his intentions toward me are good and his provisions are sufficient?