know my anxious thoughts
I’m sure you’re familiar with this prayer that ends David’s beautiful Psalm 139.
“Search me oh God, and know my heart.
Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
For most of my life, I’ve understood this passage as a plea for God to convict me of displeasing actions and attitudes in my life. Sort of a request for Him to open my soul’s door, turn on His flashlight, and spotlight the sins that I may be able to see myself. It’s been a prayer that often led to confessing unholiness I wasn’t previously aware of. And, since I know there’s plenty of sin tucked away in my soul, it’s long been a prayer I’ve been a little hesitant to actually pray.
Lately, though, these verses have taken on a different, more hopeful, meaning.
In her wonderful book, Abundant Simplicity, Jan Johnson (whose writing, by the way, has been a source of guidance and encouragement to me for many years), paraphrases this prayer like this: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts that drive me to distraction and excess. See if there is any offensive, ostentatious way in me and lead me in your glorious way everlasting.” She encourages us to use this as a prayer of self-awareness, so that when we recognize anxiety or distraction, we can ask God to gently redirect our thoughts and steps.
Anxiety. Distraction. Excess. When I read those words, something resonated.
I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety lately, because (partly as a result of Johnson’s book), I’ve become newly aware how often anxious thoughts spin through my mind. Some of them sound like this:
* When I’m running late (which is more often than I’d like): What if people perceive me as unreliable? Or (worse), what if I really am unreliable?
* When I’m giving what I know will be a disappointing grade to a student: What if s/he doesn’t like me now? What if s/he gives up, and it’s all my fault?
* When I see the wonderful things my colleagues are doing around campus: What if my peers think I’m not as invested in in my work as they are? What if I can’t come up with similarly brilliant ideas? What if they decide I don’t belong here?
* When my children aren’t doing as well in school as we’d like: What if they get a bad grade on their report card? What if their teachers think we are slacker-parents? What if we are slacker parents? What if we are totally and completely messing up as parents?
· When (because of days that are filled to the brim with work and family activities): What I’m too exhausted to be as sociable as I think I should be? What if my friends think I don’t care? What if I find myself completely alone, with no friends . . . and it’s my own doing?
As I’ve become more aware of my own anxious thoughts, a pattern has begun to emerge: When something in my life threatens to go awry, my mind shifts abruptly from calm to churning, and my body reacts as well: my muscles go from relaxed to tight. My face and neck suddenly feel hot. I’m anxious. Distracted. Fear-full. Desperate to avoid whatever awful outcome my mind has managed to conjure.
This, of course, leads me to excess. Excessive attempts to avoid bad things. Excessive attempts to be super-mom, super-wife, super-friend, super-teacher. Excessive attempts to muscle it up and “do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
It’s all just a big, ugly whirlwind of a lie. A lie that I’m so easily swept up in.
What I’m beginning to understand—what I’m so very grateful for starting to see—is this:
I don’t have to get swept up.
When my heart starts to pound, when I feel my cheeks reddening, when I sense my body reacting to anxious thoughts about who I have to be, I can stop. I can ask God to reveal those thoughts—and their deception--to me. I can take a deep breath, step back from the desire to bolt-and-run down a path that will help me avoid whatever awful outcome I’ve imagined—an outcome that probably won’t even happen. And I can choose, instead, to put my feet back on the road right in front of me. The road that is illumined—one step at a time—by His lamp. The road that is guided by One who is gentle and humble. The road that He prepared for me to walk, and that He knows completely, from beginning to end.
And I can trust. Not myself, and my own capability. But Him. The One who made me, knows my every thought before I even think it. The One who loves me. The One who is redeeming me, bit by bit. The One who says I am enough, because He is enough.