Responding to Anxiety (Psalm 3)

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Big Idea: Look to him, cry out to him, give him your problems, and then go to sleep.


When’s the last time you stayed up at night worrying about something?

I don’t have to think too hard to answer that question. A couple of weeks ago, we had a tense situation unfold with someone. It was awful. It involved an angry person, lots of stress, and some difficult decisions about how to respond. I went to sleep mostly okay, but then woke up less than three hours later and was up the rest of the night. I was up from about 1:20 thinking about what had happened and trying to decide what I should do.

I don’t suffer from sleeplessness that often, but I did that night, and I’m not alone. Under stress, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are designed to help you respond to threats or challenges by keeping you awake and alert. However, they can also interfere with your ability to get a good night’s sleep. So most of us know what it’s like to lie awake at night because of stress. Stress affects sleep and can impact mood, energy, well-being, relationships, and decision-making.

That’s why we need the psalm we’re going to look at today. How should we respond when facing threatening situations? We’re all going to face times of crisis in which our stress shoots through the roof, we feel our stress responses kicking in, and we lose sleep. It may come as we face hostility from others, circumstantial problems, tragedies, or personal sorrows.

When you face these threatening situations, denial doesn’t really work. Simply ignoring your problems won't make them go away. As important as it is to stay positive, positivity will not give you what you need when you’re cornered.

So how should we respond when facing a threatening situation? This psalm is going to tell us.

The Situation

Here’s the situation.

Verse 1 says:

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.”

So the problem is a big one. He has enemies, and they’re numerous, they’re active, and they’re very confident. David is cornered, and his enemies are feeling pretty good about their chances against him.

The heading of this Psalm says, “A psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” The events are found in 2 Samuel 15-16. In these chapters, David faced the greatest crisis of his life. His own son — the son he still loved — betrayed him and led an insurrection against him. David had to flee for his life. Not only that, but one of his main advisors joined the rebellion. Nobodies taunted David and threw stones at him. David was on the run, publicly embarrassed, with his own son leading the rebellion against him. David lost everything, and his life hang in the balance. His own son wanted him dead. David faced betrayal, civil war, and the likelihood of death. He’s experiencing fear and anxiety. David was not exaggerating the threat against him. 2 Samuel 15:12 says, “And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.” David was in big trouble.

Imagine facing all of this.

We’re unlikely to face anything exactly like what David faced. You’re not a king — at least, I don’t think you are — but many of you woke up today to a battle. Some of you know what it’s like to be the victim of rumors, lying, gossip, misrepresentation, maybe even violence, bribes, and stealing. You may not face a horde of enemies, but someone close to you may have betrayed you. You may not have experienced exactly what David did, but you can relate to his feelings of despair.

I want to pause here and point out that this psalm gives us a window into what we can expect life to look like at least some of the time. The first psalms give us an introduction to the rest of them, and you can see a theme developing:

  • Psalm 1 introduces us to two ways to live, and shows us which we should choose.
  • Psalm 2 introduces us to the idea that God’s reign in this world will not go unchallenged.
  • Psalm 3 gets personal. We will experience trouble in this world. We will experience betrayal and all kinds of trouble. Psalm 3 gives us a picture of what we may experience in this world.

We can expect trouble. We can expect anxiety. So if you’re experiencing trouble and anxiety, this psalm is for you.

How to Respond

How do we respond?

David shows us how. He shows us how to do three things.

First: look to God, and not just your problems.

When I couldn’t sleep the other week, I picked up a book and read these words: “Anxiety shrinks your world. It can encroach on you and show you a false reality that life is much worse than it really is. Anxiety’s message: ‘There are only two options and they are both bad,’ or sometimes even ‘There are no good options.’”

That hit me. Anxiety shrinks your world. When you’re anxious, all you can see are your problems. Our field of vision shrinks and all we can see are the things that are making us anxious.

This is why what David does is so important. Look at what he says in verse 3:

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.

What does David do here? Something that’s really hard. He expands his field of vision to see not just his problems but God. God has never left him. God has not changed. When we’re anxious, all we see are the problems, which is why it’s so important for us to see what we might otherwise miss: that God has not changed. He is still our defense, our glory, and the lifter of our heads.

There’s a book called The Moon is Always Round. I love the book. The book teaches a child: What shape is the moon? It sometimes looks like a crescent, a wedge, or a squashed circle. But even when the moon looks like it’s not, it’s still always round. And just as the moon’s shape never changes, God’s goodness, even when his purposes are obscured, never changes either.

Is God still good even when we can't always see it, even after the child's mother comes home from the hospital after a stillbirth and there is no baby sister? Even when we see only a sliver of God’s goodness, and he seems absent, God is still here. He is still good. No shadow can change his fullness or goodness. He is always good, even when we can’t see it.

When we feel afraid, it’s hard to see God’s goodness or presence. But even when we can’t see it, it’s there. David helps us see beyond the clouds to the never-changing nature of God. He has not abandoned us. Even when we can’t see it, we have a shield against foes, a lifter-up of drooping heads, and a responder to prayer.

Look to God, not just your problems. But that’s not all.

Second, cry out to God.

There’s so much in verse 4:

I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill.

There’s the crying part. David cries aloud to God. It’s an audible shout. David is honest with God. He needs God’s help, and he isn’t afraid to ask for it.

We went through a crisis a few years ago, the biggest crisis of our lives. We went through a period of intense struggle. The most intense struggle lasted a year, although the whole period lasted four years.

During that period, we learned to cry aloud to God. My prayers had been polite before then. Not during this period. My prayers became desperate. I had to learn to cry out to God, even if it was messy and raw. We had no other choice. Our prayers were prayers of desperation, because we had nowhere to turn.

Paul Miller writes, “God wants us to come to him empty-handed, weary, and heavy-laden.” That’s not how we want to come to God. We want to come to God not needing him. But God loves when we come to him in desperation. You can come to God messy. You can cry out to him. He will not turn you away.

Notice what happened when David did this: “he answered me from his holy hill.” David was still on the run. Absalom was still trying to kill him. Circumstances had not changed. But David already knew that God heard, and that God has answered.

David wasn’t done praying. In verse 7 he prays:

Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.

We don’t just pray once. In periods of crisis, our desperation will last awhile, and so our prayers of desperation will also last a while. You can cry around to God, knowing that he will hear you.

Look to God, not just your problems. Cry out to God. He will hear you. But there’s one more thing.

Finally: Lie down and go to sleep.

Read verses 5 and 6:

I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

When we look beyond our problems and see God, and then cry out to him and know that he hears us, we can begin to experience something remarkable. We’re no longer carrying the problems ourselves, and we can go to sleep.

My friend Tim Kerr puts it this way. 1 Peter 5:7 talks about “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Tim told me to picture casting something into a pool. What do you do when you throw something in the pool? You’d better let go of it. If you hold on to it, you haven’t really cast it. But what do we do when we cast our anxieties on God? We continue to hold on to them still. But we don’t have to do this. When we cast our anxieties on God, we can let go of them. We don’t have to carry them anymore. And so we can go to sleep knowing that God is carrying the problems, so we don’t have to.

As Jared Wilson put it years ago, “The gospel frees you to chill the heck out.” Go to sleep. You don’t need to carry the stress. God is present. God is your shield, glory, and the lifter of your head. You don’t need to carry it yourself because you’ve got someone much better equipped to carry the load.

David doesn’t write this as a theoretician. David writes this in the middle of the worst crisis of his life. And yet he moves from anxiety to sleep as he brings God into view. It’s not easy. It’s not automatic. I know from experience that it’s a process that we need to repeat over and over again in the middle of trouble. But it’s what we need. Look to God, not just your problems. Cry out to him. And go to sleep.

We’re all going to experience anxiety. That’s life in this fallen world. But we have somewhere to turn. We can turn to the one who is good, who is present, who is so for us that he gave his own Son to save us from our sins, and who promises that he is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). Look to him, cry out to him, give him your problems, and then go to sleep.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada