Many years ago, while I was still a university student, I competed in a national piano competition. I was no stranger to the competition scene; in fact, I had won several big events in the past. But this one was different. It was both mentally and physically very challenging. The idea was that it would prepare you for the demands of world competition. There was an international panel of judges, lots of politics, and fierce competition from young pianists of all ages across the country.
I had a busy academic load at university that year. In addition to my courses, I had practiced upwards of 8 hours a day, preparing for a number of performances and competitions. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I hadn’t done a very good job of prioritizing my workload. As I prepared for the competition, I felt enormous pressure to live up to the expectations of my teachers, fellow competitors, and friends. But perhaps my biggest enemy was myself. I was proud, and I wanted to succeed in what I knew would be a very public arena.
In hindsight, it is easy for me to see that the entire situation was a recipe for disaster. I had never suffered from a severe case of nerves before, but when the night of the first elimination round arrived, I was terrified. I felt underprepared, overextended, and completely exhausted. I couldn’t eat my dinner, and what little I did manage to choke down made me feel ill. I broke out in a cold sweat, my heart was pounding, and I felt like I was walking around in a mental fog. My knees shook so hard as I walked out onto the stage that night that I thought I would collapse. Although I managed to survive that experience and go on to the next round, my performance was hardly memorable.
We have all experienced fear or anxiety in our lives at one time or another, but it doesn’t always have such a crippling effect. Fear can be a force for good; it can energize us to action and help us to exercise prudence in the face of danger. But fear also has the potential to be a negative force. It can reduce us to a state of frozen inaction and prevent us from thinking or acting decisively.
Negative fear and anxiety can be triggered by any number of things. For some, it may be an important exam or job interview. For others, it may be sparked by the pressure of public speaking, or even just from feeling overwhelmed at juggling so many different responsibilities. Whatever the cause, I think we all agree that this kind of fear is at best unpleasant. At its worst, it can be debilitating.
Prevalence of Stress and Anxiety in Society Today
Stress and anxiety seem to be an accepted part of our culture today. School children complain about stomachaches and headaches. More and more young people suffer from depression and have suicidal thoughts. Adults often seem weighed down by the burden of their everyday worries and concerns. These kinds of reactions fall within what is considered the ‘normal’ range of behaviour today.
However, more serious responses to the pressures of modern life are on the rise. Anxiety disorders are now the most prevalent form of mental illness in Canada. One in four Canadians will suffer from at least some sort of anxiety disorder during their lifetime. The consequences are not surprising. Students who suffer from anxiety don’t do as well at school. The ability of employees to do their work is impaired, and people are less likely to remain in the work force.1
What can we do to avoid getting over stressed? We are encouraged to exercise regularly, to eat a healthy diet, and to get lots of sleep. Close friends are an important source of support. When relaxation exercises and medication fail to bring down our blood pressure, health professionals are standing by, ready to help. These are all positive responses that can help us to reduce our feelings of anxiety. Sadly, however, two of the most important means to finding joy and peace – faith in God and prayer – are rarely mentioned.
God is Worthy of our Trust
You may be wondering how faith and prayer can help you deal with the stresses and anxieties of your everyday life. After all, God isn’t about to head down to the university to write that exam for you, He can’t watch the kids while you duck out for groceries, and He definitely isn’t going to write the cheque for next month’s rent! Aren’t these things our own personal concerns? What does God have to do with them anyway?
It can be hard for us to believe that God is interested in the small and most insignificant details of our lives. But He assures us, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Is 65:24). God is always close by, always ready to help. Yet even though we may believe in His love for us and in His power, we aren’t always open to accepting His grace.
There is an old story about a man who was convinced that God was going to save him from a terrible flood. It had been raining for days, and in the midst of the storm an emergency notice went out to everyone in the town. The riverbanks were about to overflow, and everyone needed to evacuate at once. The man read the notice, but he decided that he wouldn’t leave. He said to himself, “I trust in God, and I know that if I am in danger, He will save me.”
A few hours later, as his next-door neighbours were pulling out of their driveway, they noticed that the man hadn’t left. Rolling down the window of their car, they called out, “Are you okay? Do you need a ride? We have room for you in the car!” But the man declined their help, saying, “Thanks, but you don’t need to worry about me. I have faith that God will save me.”
Before long, as he stood on his porch watching the water steadily rise up the front steps, a man in a canoe paddled by and called out to him, “Hurry! Get into my canoe! The waters are rising quickly!” But again the man said, “No thanks! God will save me.”
Later, a police motorboat came by and even a helicopter, but the man still refused every offer of help. In the end, both the house and man were swept away in the floodwaters and he drowned.
When the man arrived in heaven, he stood before God, and with a pained expression on his face he said, “I put all my faith in You! I trusted You! Why didn’t You come and save me?” And God replied, “Son, I sent you a warning. I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”
While we may laugh at this story, it highlights an important fact. God cares about us, and He can and will act in our lives. He often chooses to act through very ordinary means, though, and because of that, we don’t always recognize His Presence. Yet God reveals Himself to us in the kindness of the people we encounter each day. He sends friends to encourage us, doctors to care for our physical bodies, and priests to care for our souls. God works through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to forgive our sins and bring us peace. He comes to us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist to fill our souls with the joy of His Divine Presence, to transform us so that we can be more like Him. We can count on God to take care of us, but He can only help us if we are open to His grace. We must open our hands and our hearts to receive the blessings that He is waiting to shower on us.
Everything Works Together for Good with God
There is a beautiful story in the New Testament about a man who had been lame from birth. Every day, people laid him in front of the gate of the Temple where he would beg for money. When Peter and John passed by, he asked them for alms. They stopped, gazed down at him, and said, “Look at us.” The man looked up, expecting them to give him something. But instead Peter said, “I don’t have any silver or gold, but I will give you what I have. In the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Peter then took the man by the hand and helped him to stand up, and immediately the man’s feet and ankles were made strong. He went into the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.2 God could have indeed answered the lame man’s prayer for money, but He had a much greater plan – to heal him!
Was the man discouraged when he realized that Peter and John didn’t have any money? After all, he couldn’t have imagined that they had anything else to offer. But he continued to look at them with trust, and he was not disappointed. God worked through Peter to heal the man of his affliction. God is an expert at bringing good out of every situation. No matter how things look, we can have confidence in His promise that everything will work out for good.3
The Grace of Living in the Present Moment
There is one problem, though. Even when we are trying to trust in God and be open to His grace, we have a tendency to fall into a type of fear that takes the form of worrying. We worry over things that may or may not happen, and we worry about things that we can’t do anything about. Often our worries begin with the words, “What if …?” “What if I get sick?” “What if I don’t get this job?” When we worry about things like this, we are struggling with issues of control. We are essentially saying to God, “I’m not okay with You being in control of this. I don’t want to entrust it to You because I’m not sure I’ll like what You have in store for me. I want to be in control. I trust in myself, and I want things to happen my way.”
Trusting in ourselves is a dangerous thing. Because we are human, we only see a limited part of the picture, while God sees it all. We are weak human beings, prone to faults and failures, while He is our Creator, the Lord of all that exists. God knows our past and our future; He knows our strengths and our weaknesses. He alone knows what will bring us the greatest happiness. But it can be very hard for us to let go and trust Him.
When we do make that leap of faith, we come to see that God only gives us the grace that we need for today’s challenges. That’s why thinking about what might happen tomorrow can cause us so much anxiety. We have not yet been given the graces that we will need to cope with what may – or may not – come. Those graces will only be given to us when we need them. Are you someone who worries about giving speeches or going to parties? Then these words spoken by our Lord to His disciples may be of some comfort to you: “When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20).
Do you remember how God gave the Israelites exactly enough manna for each day?4 He wanted to teach them to trust Him and to rely on His promises. In a similar way, God only gives us the ‘daily bread’ that we need each day. He wants us to live in the present moment, not worrying about what is to come. Everything that is good comes from God.5 He is the one who provides for us each day. “Therefore,” said our Lord, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Mt 6:34).
God Wants Us to Have an Eternal Perspective
God wants us to trust in Him and in His love for us. In the First Letter of Peter we read, “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Pet 5:7). But we are human, and at times it is hard not to be concerned about what the future might bring. Jesus responded to such fears, saying, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. … But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:25, 33).
God realizes that food and clothing are important human needs, but He does not see these things in the same light that we do. Instead, He calls us to a greater perspective. God wants us to see that what is most important in life lies beyond this passing world: Salvation, eternity, and heaven. What we ‘need’ in God’s eyes is not necessarily what we want, or even what we think we need.
Because of this, we sometimes fall into the temptation of trying to control God in our prayer. It’s almost as though we only think He is ‘God’ when He does our bidding. We may cry out to Him, asking for something that we are certain is essential for our welfare. Then, when things don’t go as we hoped, we complain. We say that God doesn’t care, or that He doesn’t listen. Perhaps we wonder if He even exists. We don’t want to admit that God is our Father, and He doesn’t have to say “yes” to us all the time. When we pray according to our will and not according to God’s will, His answer has to be “no.” God will not give us things that would not be good for us; He will only give us those things that will help us draw closer to Him. After all, the greatest good and authentic happiness will only be found when we are united with God in heaven for eternity.
Many of the things that cause us to feel afraid or anxious look different when we try to imagine them from God’s point of view. I once lost out on a job that I was positive would be the perfect solution to all of my worries about money. Back then, I was a single parent with two small children. I was working as a freelance musician, and I was in desperate need of a steady income. I didn’t get the job because they said I was over-qualified; they didn’t think that I would make a long-term commitment to the position. I was devastated at the time and thought their decision was horribly unfair. But in hindsight, I can see that it was the best possible thing that could have happened to me. Getting that job would have solved my short-term money problems, but it would never have satisfied me in the long run.
Ironically, I didn’t even believe in God at that time, yet even then He was acting in my life. His answer to my worries and concerns was, “Wait, I have something much better in store for you.” And He did. I continued to struggle to make ends meet, but somehow I always managed to pay the bills. Several months later, a contractor named Henry hired me for an orchestra gig. He was (and is!) a wonderful man who was to become my husband. Best of all, it was through meeting Henry that I came to know God and was received into the Catholic Church. Although it may take a while for God’s plan to unfold, in hindsight we can often see that His plan for us is always best.
God’s perspective, after all, is eternal; His love for us is so great that He will only bring about what is good in our lives. His mission is not to provide us with a comfortable life, free of all worries and concerns. His mission is to get us to heaven. He could answer our prayers to win the lottery or to become rich and famous, but He knows that wouldn’t make us happy. In fact, money can do exactly the opposite. It can tempt us to rely on ourselves instead of God, drawing us away from Him rather than bringing us closer. Jesus warned the disciples about the temptation of money, saying, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:23-24).
We can see that we need to be careful about what we pray for. We might be better off with less money, a different job, or another girlfriend or boyfriend. “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26)
The Gift of Prayer
Even though we may choose to trust in God and in His plan for us, fear is instinctive. It can catch us off guard, inspiring a “fight or flight” response within us. But the only “fight” that we engage in should be with God at our side. And the only “flight” that we make should be into the comforting embrace of His loving arms. Prayer is our means to reach out to God, to tell Him our worries, and to ask for His help. St. Paul wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).
Prayer is one of the most important weapons in our battle with fear. If our prayer is made in faith and if we strive to do God’s will, He will always hear and answer us. The promise is certain: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mk 11:24).
Jesus did not come to earth to take away our temptation to fear. He came so that we could realize how very weak we are and how much we need Him. There is an old saying, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” What this means is that although we may be tempted to fear, we always have recourse to God through prayer. We can count on Him to give us the grace and strength we need to meet the challenges of life with courage. He is the only One who can calm every fear, who can remove every anxiety. He is the only One who can bring profound and lasting peace to our hearts. We know that exams will always have to be written and the rent will always need to be paid. But with God at our side, everything is possible.6
We can also turn to our Blessed Mother Mary and ask her to intercede for us with her Beloved Son. “Because she gives us Jesus, her son, Mary is Mother of God and our mother; we can entrust all our cares and petitions to her.”7 Because she is our Mother, we can tell things to Mary that we would never tell anyone else. And because she has a mother’s heart, we are confident that she will understand. We trust in her love and her care, and we ask her to envelop us within the folds of her protective mantle.
In closing, I leave you with these words of St. Paul of the Cross. He said, “When you notice that your heart is moving away even the tiniest bit from that inner peace that comes from … the divine presence in the soul, stop and examine what the cause of this anxiety might be. Maybe it is some worry concerning your house or children, or some situation you cannot change at present. Bury it in God’s loving will.”8 Be calm and trust in God. Remember that nothing can happen to you without God’s permission. He loves you so much that He always has your greatest good at heart, and He will never abandon or forget you.
“Let nothing disturb you, nothing cause you fear. All things pass; God is unchanging. Patience obtains all. Whoever has God needs nothing else; God alone suffices.” ~ St. Teresa of Ávila
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Cf. Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, “Mental Health and Mental Illness,” June, 2003; Invited Submission to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology; available from http://anxietycanada.ca/english/pdf/kirby.pdf; Internet; accessed 14 January 2013.
2 Cf. Acts 3:1-10.
3 Cf. Rom 8:28.
4 See Ex 16:13-19.
5 Cf. Js 1:17.
6 Cf. Mt 19:26.
7 CCC, 2677.
8 Esper, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, 13.