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Sing when you're Afflicted with Anxiety

Last year when I was just coming out of a period of prolonged depression, and pronounced and unexpected anxiety (which is something I had never experienced before) I was involved with a discussion where someone suggested I read a book entitled “Respectable Sins” by Jerry Bridges, which describes many of the emotions that we have been discussing in the light of the Psalms as “sins” including anxiety. Now before my illness I might have done the same, and had preached, slightly glibly, on worry, more than once. But in the light of my illness I saw anxiety or worry not as a sin, but as an effect of being a limited mortal being living in a fallen world… Maybe I was making excuses for myself, but actually I don't think so and have come to believe that to describe those who cope with chronic anxiety as “respectable sinners” is, for me, pastorally and morally repugnant… God repeatedly tells his people not to fear, not because they are miserable sinners in this area, but because anxiety is a natural condition of mortal creatures in a corrupt world… But one which limits what we were created to be.

In Psalm 55 we find the Psalmist feeling that he is at the end of his tether. Much time has been wasted trying to identify the exact context for this Psalm in the light of David’s lifestory, akin to Psalm 51 and the adulterous affair with Bathsheba: was it the conflict between David and Saul, or between David and his son Absalom. We do not know.

Whatever the situation the Psalmist was in BIG trouble, beyond his human resources to cope. If this is David we are talking about, then the man who slew Goliath had no shortage of courage, and the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm had a close walk with God… so us lesser mortals should not feel guilty when we face certain situations with worry.

What follows below is another of my paraphrases of the psalms, and, for the first time, not a reblog... We don't often turn to this psalm, probably, I believe because:

a) the idea that anxiety is a sin is prevalent in the church;
b) some of the language used about enemies sits uneasily within the context of cosy, comfortable Christianity and seems slightly at odds with Jesus' instruction to love our enemies;
c) it is all over the shop structurally... which is a perfect picture of the mind and prayer pattern of someone suffering from anxiety,  with thoughts and emotions flying all over the place like a ball in a pinball machine (which is another useful analogy in that everything comes crashing to a halt at the slightest "nudge").

Within the psalm we hear the Psalmist:
1) Begging God to listen to him ("Listen to my prayer, O God…") perhaps fearful that even God has given up on him... 
2) Exhibiting Paranoia ("I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked") The aphorism “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you” could have been written for this situation. A real situation of tension has produced a situation where the psalmist trusts no-one.
3) Displaying Physical Symptoms of Anxiety... The NIV translation isn't alf vivid enough with its "My heart is in anguish within me..."
4) Desiring Escape ("Oh, that I had the wings of a dove…") How did this ever become synonymous with a cherubic choirboy who has never experienced gut-wrenching fear, singing a high pitched soprano solo... The Psalmist is actually saying "Beam me up Scotty! Get me out of here. Stop the world I want to get off." Temporary escape or retreat is at times helpful to help you gain perspective… But permanent escape schemes drawn up in the midst of anxiety can be disastrous. You can’t run away from your feelings.
5) Calling for Rescue and Retribution ("Confuse the wicked, O Lord…") Throughout the next passage there is pure hostility and hatred on show… because that is what has been experienced by the Psalmist, and at the hands of those he trusted most. Betrayal of trust is devastating because the very people you would normally have gone to in difficult circumstances suddenly become part of the problem rather than part of the solution… contributing greatly to anxiety.
This is not just the Psalmist flying off the handle; he believes that his enemies are God’s enemies… But this is not just based on personal betrayal, but what he sees his erstwhile friend/s doing to his city/community. This leaves him feeling profoundly angry… Anger is NOT always wrong, especially in the face of injustice. But impotent anger can be devastating. Therefore it is important to hand such feelings over to the God who can do something about their causes.
His reference to “confusing” the wicked could well be an allusion to the Tower of Babel, while the request to take them alive into the grave could be a reference to the judgement of God on Korah and his fellow rebels in Numbers.
But if it really was David who wrote this psalm and we look at the life of David in dealing with his enemies, he rarely enacted these feelings of vengeance when put in a position of power over his enemies. Was this because he was all talk and no action, or because he had vented his anger with God? Recent research shows that venting our anger or frustration alone actually leads to greater aggression not less in the long run. However, expressing, or working through our fears, frustrations and anger with God in prayer is akin to working them through with a skilled counsellor…. The Psalmist is practising what he preaches:
"Cast your cares on the Lord…" 

Listen to my prayers, O God, 
Please don’t turn a deaf ear to me.
hear me 
answer me. 

My thoughts are in turmoil 
and I am driven to distraction: 
Every voice I hear I assume to be plotting against me;
Anyone who looks at me I presume to be wishing me ill.
I’m buried under anguish
And feel like everyone is against me.
My heart is constantly in my mouth, and my guts are knotted up within me;
I feel the cold hand of death on my shoulder.
I quake with fear
And tremble with terror at the slightest thing.

"Oh, if only I could fly like the birds!
Soar away from the source of my sorrows –
I would fly far away to some oasis of calm;
To a place of peace and quiet, free from storm and strife.
Thwart the plans of the wicked, O Lord,
Stop their rabble rousing.
Their words and actions have divided this city,
Scarred it with violence and hate.
Night and day they prowl its streets looking for a fight;
Seeking to spoil and destroy;
Intimidating and insulting and slandering.

If this were an obvious enemy insulting me, I could cope with it;
if I had done anything wrong, I could accept it.
But it is one of my own, my friend, my trusted confidante,
We laughed together and we worshipped together.
But now I wish only death for him;
May he be buried alive for evil flourishes within him.
But I call to God, O Lord save me.
Morning, noon and night I cry out in anguish, and he hears my voice.
He rides to my rescue me in the midst of battle,
I am completely unharmed despite the hoards besieging me.
God hears from his eternal throne and brings judgement on those who do evil,
But they’re set in their ways and have no fear of God. 
My one-time companion turns on all his former friends;
he breaks faith with all his promises.
His silken speech hid the violence in his heart;
his words were like soothing oil, but they burn with hatred and violence.

Pack up your troubles and place them on the strong shoulders of the Lord;
he will support you when others let you down.
He will sustain the good and crush the wicked;
The ruthless and liars will have their lives cut short.

But as for me,
I trust in you.

Psalms 55:1-23 



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