by Dianne E. Butts
“Please help me, God,” I prayed silently. Tension squeezed the muscles in my upper back, crawling into my shoulders, climbing up my neck. I smiled weakly at the others filling the room.
Relax, I coached myself. You can do this. I buried my icy hands beneath my Bible.
“Welcome to Bible study,” the group leader said. “I’m Joan. Would you introduce yourselves?” she asked, turning to the lady on her left.
“Oh Lord, I need You to get me through this,” I prayed. My heart rate steadily climbed, as if someone was twisting the volume knob on a radio. Louder and louder it thumped in my ears.
“Lord, calm me,” I begged. As the introductions progressed around the circle, panic increased in my body. I began to shake.
“Please, Lord, give me Your peace.” I waited, but felt no answer.
“Oh, God,” I prayed desperately, I don’t want to leave, but I don’t think I can stay. What should I do?!”
I labored to breathe. My chest ached. My head swirled. Had I waited too long? If I stood up now, could I make it out the door?
Panic swarmed around me like a cloud of angry wasps. I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I forced my wobbly knees to straighten, mumbled, “Excuse me,” and slipped out the door.
In the hallway, I searched for a quiet place where I could be alone. Finding a stairwell, I plopped down on a step and threw my books on the floor. Though my heart still pounded, I could feel its pace slowing; my breathing came easier. The ache in my chest eased but I felt it starting in my head. A familiar wave of deep fatigue washed over me. Frustrated, embarrassed, and angry, I sat alone in the stairwell and waited for the physical symptoms to dissipate.
While I waited, twenty-year-old images floated in my mind, like the one of a sunny summer afternoon when I was eighteen. After work, I stopped at the grocery store on the way to my apartment. Tired, I hustled through the crowded store, then pushed my basket to the end of the shortest line with the emptiest carts.
I must have hurried more than I realized, I thought. I’m out of breath. A young mother with two squirmy kids fell in line behind me.
I wish the cashier would hurry up, I whined silently. My stomach felt queasy, and I wanted to go home. Suddenly, I felt shaky. My hands and arms trembled and I still couldn’t catch my breath. I felt my heart racing.
Maybe I’m coming down with the flu or something, I thought. I sure feel weak. I leaned on my shopping cart. Just hang in there long enough to get these groceries, I told myself.
But as the moments passed, my heart pounded harder and harder; I began to feel dizzy. I’m afraid I’m going to pass out, I thought. What’s happening to me?
I wondered if I should tell someone. I glanced at the young mother behind me. Could she help?
How could she help me? I thought. Even I don’t know what’s happening!
I noticed it was almost my turn at the cashier, but I felt too weak to buy my groceries. I wasn’t sure which I’d do first: pass out or throw up.
What should I do? I thought desperately. I have to get out of here! I spun my cart out of line. The mother glanced at me, confused.
“Forgot something,” I said, shoving my cart down the nearest aisle. I tried to appear calm, but the sweating and shaking continued and I still struggled to breathe. Finally, I abandoned my half-filled cart of groceries and left the store.
What happened in there?! my mind screamed as I slammed the door of my car. Am I having a heart attack? Am I losing my mind? I slumped back against the seat. My heart rate slowed, my breathing eased. But I felt sapped of all my strength. I turned the key and drove myself home.
In the months and years that followed, I experienced similar episodes, sometimes in restaurants, movie theaters, airplanes, and at office parties — any place crowded where I felt I could not easily escape. Whenever possible, I avoided places and situations that triggered the symptoms. When avoiding was not possible, I forced myself to endure them.
I sought the help of several counselors, but none of them understood what was happening to me. A nearby church offered Christian counseling, but while I became interested in and curious about God, the struggles with my strange symptoms continued.
In the mid-eighties, almost a decade after my first attack, I happened on to a TV talk show. When I heard a guest use the term panic attack, I knew immediately what she meant. I listened as others described their struggles. Astonished, I learned I was not alone. In the following months I found several magazine articles about others who suffered symptoms similar to mine. What we struggled with even had a name: anxiety disorders.
While I found comfort in discovering others also experienced what I had lived with for years, I still suffered the sudden onset of a rapid heart beat, shaking, sweating, and shortness of breath. Many well-meaning Christians interpreted these symptoms as fear.
“Fear is not from the Lord,” they told me. “If you had more faith, God would heal you.”
“Fear is sin,” others said, “and if you’d confess your sin to God, He would take your anxieties away.”
Purpose of Problems
But as I studied the Bible, I discovered it is possible to have great problems in our lives that are not a result of sin or insufficient faith. John, one of the biblical writers, told about a man who was born blind.
“[The] disciples asked [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”‘ (John 9:2, 3). Then Jesus healed the man, giving him his sight.
According to Jesus, sin did not cause this man’s blindness. Jesus didn’t heal him because he had faith, and it wasn’t a lack of faith that delayed his healing until that day. The man was born blind so that Jesus’s power to heal people would be displayed.
A Better Plan
I also learned from my Bible study that though God is able to heal me of my problem, He may choose not to.
One day Jesus received a message from two sisters, Mary and Martha, saying their brother, Lazarus, was sick. In response, Jesus said, “‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where he was two more days” (11:4-6).
Because Jesus delayed, Lazarus died.
Mary and Martha wanted Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, but Jesus had a better plan. When Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ tomb, He raised Lazarus from the dead! This darkest moment in Mary’s and Martha’s lives was necessary to teach them, and all those watching, that Jesus even has power to give life.
Because of the blind man’s story, I now know my struggle is not caused by sin or a lack of faith in God. And like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, I’m discovering that sometimes God uses our problems to work in ways we don’t expect.
After all these years of dealing with anxiety disorder, I still get embarrassed and frustrated. I continue to pray every day, asking God to keep me from experiencing the symptoms. While I have full-blown panic attacks less frequently now, I do still struggle with them — like that day at Bible study.
Does this mean God has not answered my prayers? Not at all. It only means God’s answer is different from what I expected. But I can accept that. I’m learning that while God doesn’t always help me out of my problems, He does always help me in them.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.