What If Prayer Makes Anxiety Worse?

There is a mandatory question that the nurse at my doctors office always has to ask me. “Have you had feelings of hopelessness or despair in the last two weeks”? When she asked this question to me yesterday I was relieved that she said two weeks ago and not three. Had she said three weeks I’d have had to say, “yes”.

My doctor knows of my bouts of anxiety and depression but apparently my nurse doesn’t. She does, however, know that I’m a minister. And she rather absent-mindedly informed me yesterday that because I’m a minister if I ever answer yes to that question I just need to pray more. I told her it was probably a bit more complicated than that.

But she’s actually not alone in suggesting “more prayer” as a remedy to depression. A recent study shows that prayer is helpful to the anxious only if their view is that God is gracious and loving. But what happens when our view of God becomes so askew that we don’t believe he is gracious and loving?

I’m reading through John Bunyan’s classic Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Bunyan recalls a time of great anguish of soul. He feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin and that there was no hope of redemption for him. Here is what he says about his prayer life during that time:

I found it a hard work now to pray to God, because despair was swallowing me up; I tought I was as with a tempest driven away from God; for always when I cried to God for mercy, this would come in, ‘Tis too late, I am lost, God hath let me fall; not to my correction, but condemnation; my sin is unpardonable; and I know, concerning Esau, how that after he had sold his birthright, he would have received the blessing, but was rejected.

The more Bunyan prayed the worse things got for him emotionally (and mentally).

Prayer is difficult in these times. It’s difficult because when I approach the Lord I’m not approaching a throne of grace. I’m coming before Him to get yelled at again and reminded of all the terrible things I’ve done—or worse yet—that at the very core of my being I’m deeply unacceptable to the Lord.

So what do I do? Do I just give up praying? If it isn’t helpful unless my view of God is gracious and loving—and if prayer only further distorts my view of God and self—then what in the world am I gaining by praying?

It is here that I disagree with the findings of that study. It is worded as if God only exists in our conception. But God transcends my depressive thoughts.

Sure it stinks when I come before him with a heart that is barely believing, a heart that can’t grab hold of 1 John 1:9 and believe it for myself. But God is bigger than my moments of unbelief. This is, in part, what I think 1 John 3:20 is teaching. Even if our hearts condemn us we take comfort in the fact that God is greater than our hearts. The gospel goes deeper than even our hearts.

This is why I still pray…or try to pray…in the midst of darkness. Because eventually the gospel wins out and God breaks through. It happened with Bunyan and it happens with me.

Prayer is helpful even when our thoughts of God are jacked up simply because the gospel is true. When we cry out to God—even with hearts tinged with unbelief, depressive thoughts, and the whole lot—he answers. It may not make me feel better in the moment in which I pray. But God hears and God answers.

That’s why you keep praying…even if prayer might make anxiety worse. We don’t pray because that’ll quickly fix our emotions. We pray because we’re desperate and it’s the only reflex we know.

God hears.

This post is a rework of a previous post.

Photo source: here