The Bible says to “cast all your anxiety on Jesus because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). But do you ever pray and find yourself more anxious? Often my prayers go something like this: Please, please God make my daughter take her nap. Please, please God don’t let those mosquitos get me today. Please, please God help me get an A on this paper. Please, please! I hold my breath, my palms get sweaty, and my muscles tense. I’m praying, right? Shouldn’t it be helping?
You can always tell Jesus anything you want. He loves it when you come to him. Prayer is not about learning some magical formula or getting the words just right. But there can be ways we need to mature in our prayer lives.
My “please God!” is an immature prayer, and is often an indicator of anxiety. I don’t really need my daughter to take a nap. What I need is for Jesus to care for me in my anxious moment. So I need to learn to take my prayers one step further. God, my hyper focus on getting an A in this class is revealing of some anxiety. Will you care for me right now in this anxiety? Jesus may choose to care for me by showing me kindness or compassion. He might give me perspective or show me he’s proud of me. He may remind me of his character and that I can trust him. He may offer me his presence and sit with me for a moment in the anxiety. Or he may give me direction for how to write my paper. The way Jesus cares for us may be different every time, but our job in prayer is to bring the anxiety to Jesus and invite him to come care for us.
It’s not wrong for me to pray that my daughter naps and for mosquitos to go away forever. Jesus can still answer those prayers and has total ability to do so. But maturing means growing in self awareness. And my awareness today is that sometimes my “Please God!” prayers are signs that I need to spend a little more time with Jesus who cares for me.
Anxiety drove me into the arms of Jesus. And over the years, I began to see patterns of how some ways of prayer mirror psychotherapy techniques that help reduce anxiety. Going further and studying spiritual formation, I was exposed to even more ways to pray in ways that are helpful. I was intrigued that the little bit of neuroscience that had informed my early graduate work helped me make sense of new discoveries about the brain and how it’s shaped by anxiety and reshaped by various forms of prayer.
But the phenomenon of highway hypnosis reveals that there are many, many ways in which you are not the boss. You are so not the boss of you, in fact, that your conscious mind can take a full daydream holiday while you’re driving and some other part of you will manage that unbelievably complex task quite well.