Want to Tame the Anxiety Monster? Try the Untamed God.
Updated: Jan 3, 2020
“Well, mama,” my 8-year-old daughter began, shrugging. “At least God still knows how many hairs are on your head!”
I stared dejectedly at the snarl of hair twined around my fingers, a thick strand that had been abruptly torn out when I sat up quickly from my position leaning against the headboard of our bed. The wall behind me, once painted a garish shade of canary yellow, was scuffed and shadowed and vandalized with penciled graffiti and nail holes, some still lodged with nails, relics of the six boys in the family from whom we’d bought the house, an extreme fixer-upper whose fixing up was taking a leisurely pace. A tangle in my hair had caught on one of the nails, which rudely claimed its tendril from my head. I shrugged and laughed. “I guess He does,” I said.
My daughter’s guileless surety haunted me days later as I sat in an ER waiting room, paralyzed in the thrall of a severe panic attack. I apologized profusely to my mother between the waves of terror that seemed to constrict every molecule in my body, threatening to dismantle the cosmos itself, dislodging the very center of reality and sending me skittering off into a orbitless oblivion.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” soothed my mom. But my typically compassionate 10-year-old son turned away from me huffily, crossing his arms and murmuring imprecations against me for making us miss the screening of Frozen II we’d planned for the afternoon. Even though it was the day after I felt like I'd also effectively ruined Thanksgiving.
Why was I here again?! I begged God to sustain me when the panic began to rise, totally unbidden and radically unwelcome, two days prior. I can handle this, I told myself, donning a plasticine smile and relaxing into the waves of panic as my therapist had instructed me.
But still, I could feel my nerves winding tighter and the reckoning came, a gathering crest of horror which rode high and tense and refused to ebb. I strained to praise, to lift my eyes and fix them on Jesus. But now all I could manage was to hold my head in my hands and move my lips to Psalm 23, the medieval pronouns printed indelibly on my mind from the KJV version memorized in preschool.
All my life it’s been like this, since I began having panic attacks in the first grade: the thundering invincible highs, the darkest-night crater-nadir lows with some functional plateaus inbetween, even relatively long ones. I can joke about it then: “It’s hard being you, isn’t it?” my mom is fond of taking the loving rhetorical jab, to which I respond “hell yes it is!”
My highs were always spectacular, the mountaintop vistas, when a thousand glittering theophanies cartwheeled across my mind and even the flowers seem to stand up and shout His goodness. Everything was shot through with light and prismatic color and I had incontrovertible proof of Him through whom I could, truly, do all things as I was vaulted heavenward, numinous with creativity and endless potentiality.
When the inevitable fall laid waste to it all, I welcomed medication and therapy as a hungry beggar. But once the darkness retreated I was always certain that God had healed me once and for all. But yes, here I was, again, crying uncontrollably in public, feeling guilty for taking my place in the ER waiting line with other people who had what I perceived as “real” problems. A decrepit man in a wheelchair who gasped every time his right arm threatened to fall off its rest and pulled it back in place with his able left hand. A middle-aged woman with some kind of comprised immune system, pulling anxiously at her face mask whenever someone coughed. And then me, just a basketcase who couldn’t pull herself together.
Why, God? I asked. My daughter’s words – Jesus’ words – came back to me: And even the very hairs on your head are all numbered.
I love my kids as fiercely as any mother, but I’m not willing to sit and number the hairs on their heads. Yet our Father is. And it struck me anew, washed over me, this unfathomable love whose intimacy trepasses reason and whose depth is the genesis of awe.
I know, now: accepting help is a wonderful and terrible grace. Being one of the least of these, parched and desperate for a drop of living water, of soul-slaking mercy, is beautifully humbling. Here, at the end of myself, I relinquish the terms and conditions I use to try and police God’s mercy.
What is left? An invitation to trust. Surrender. Complete abandoned submission to an untamed God who says the fear of Him is the beginning of wisdom yet it’s a qualitatively very different fear than the one that pounds through my veins when I imagine my kids getting kidnapped or a thousand other terror-laced scenarios Satan plants in my mind with a slithering sibilant hiss before retreating with a smile and allowing my hypertrophied imagination to take it from there.
I think of Eve in the garden, shadows falling in a moment, in a flash like Satan falling from heaven. A new fear blooms horribly, like a wound. The garden which seemed impenetrably safe a moment before, before this terrible new knowledge befell her, knowledge which twinkled seductively with the promise of power and something like sophistication but which now, from the other side, doesn’t yield anything of its promise but instead has takes her innocence and leaves nothing but hollow paranoia.
And I am her daughter, inheriting her anxiety, her grief, her desperate wondering if what has been done can ever be undone, if we can ever get back to the garden like it was, walking in the cool hush of the shade with the Father we once knew so intimately that we were naked and unafraid. Oh, how we want to trust. But the prattling chorus of “what if”s assail us.
The everpresent undertone in all my frenzied “what if?!”-ing, the undertone that I prefer to deflect and beg off is this: God can’t really be trusted. As soon as the thought breaches my defenses I’m nervously rebutting it. Of course I trust Him, I laugh nervously.
But I don’t.
And a few nights after my ER visit as I abscond to my special prayer spot / cryroom / complain-a-torium aka our mother-in-law shack next to the chicken pen, I know it. There is blessed silence in which my knowing blooms, silence except for the clacking radiating heater in this place where in summer the green of the living world soaks into the windows at dusk and in winter the wind whistles lonely at those same windows, framed with sleeping ivy branches.
And it comes from my own mouth, Holy Spirit-bidden words that burn my tongue as they spill out in a cataract of relief:
You are God, and I am not.
You are God, and I am not.
You are God, and I am not.
Trust in Him. Belief in the One He sent. It’s either that or insanity for me, which presents quite the dilemma when either way seems insane, when the words of Jesus grate or perplex or affront or when I just plain don’t want to love my enemy and forgive unreservedly and pray for jerks. Or when I feel like yes, this is it, I’m finally losing my mind for good and maybe sanity has always been some delusive dream.
At those times, at the white-knuckle nerve-blown adrenaline-hemorrhaging height of panic, trusting Him fully feels as risky as losing my mind. And perhaps indeed it is. Paul the apostle never shied away from being called crazy and it didn’t seem to bother Jesus much, either. The question still beckons sometimes: what kind of man is this?
I’m not so sure, sometimes, and maybe that’s a good thing, when perplexity gives way to awe gives way to wonder gives way to worship. I know this anew: Jesus is both the mystery and the clue which unveils it.
And there is a glimmer in the garden again, so small at first it beggars belief, seems a wishful hallucination. But it isn’t. It is a word. It is her name. She was weeping, unwilling to be consoled by some gardener who couldn’t possibly understand the depth of her pain, of her greatest hope dashed like a snowfall of fragile ash rubbed into the hard ground. But at the word her sob catches. She cocks her head at it now, this daughter of Eve from whom seven demons fled at His command. She swallows hard, begins to turn, scared by the slow dawning of hope in her breast. No. NO. It couldn’t be.
But it is, oh, it is. He lives! And somehow that fact alone and only that fact makes life worth the living and the morrow bearable, as the hymn goes. He lives, and I decide to try this new fear, fearing Him, which is really no fear at all, at least not like all the others which exhaust and deplete me unto death. And Fear of God gives way to awe gives way to wonder gives way to worship. I close my eyes and leap into the radical thrill and sweet succor of trusting Him, the One who counts my hair, the One who holds my very molecules together, and I can breathe again.
“And I will be with you always, even unto the very end of the age.” - JESUS