Anxiety and the Incarnation

By Anne Larsen

My four year old insists that I sing “Away in a Manger” every evening before bed. Yes, every evening...even in July. It actually makes a very sweet lullaby. As a kid, I loved Christmas carols and taught myself all the verses to many of them. The lesser-known second and third verses of “Away in a Manger” highlight God's presence with us. As I sing them nightly in the dim quiet, the words have comforted my soul through various trials and anxieties.

The cattle are lowing,
the poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus,
no crying he makes;
I love thee, Lord Jesus,
look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle
till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask thee to stay,
Close by me forever,
and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children
in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven,
to live with thee there.

These verses acknowledge our love for Jesus and yet the frailty of life. Our child was diagnosed with asthma days before his second birthday. He had significant difficulty breathing, particularly in the middle of the night. It took several months for the doctors to get the asthma under control. He was often sick, which made his asthma worse. During that difficult season, it was a comfort to pray “stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.” It was with fear that I nightly entrusted my boy into the Lord's hands to care for him while we slept. I couldn't control what happened while we were sleeping. Truthfully, I couldn't control what happened during the day though I liked to feel like I could. This one struggle in our family was a microcosm of the lifelong struggle I've felt between trusting God's sovereignty and my anxiety about what dreadful thing might happen. This struggle has produced anxiety and fear and grasping for control. 

At the heart of most forms of anxiety is our desire for control...to control how others see us, our future, other people, perhaps even God. We are forced to confront our own finitude. God is the one in control, and we quite frankly are not. Anxiety is difficult at best, at worst absolutely paralyzing. There are many different forms; but at the heart, they all force us to deal with who God is. Does he love me? Does he care about what I am going through? Is he powerful? Is he here with me?

In this hymn, we find Jesus' sweet presence with us in his incarnation. It brings us the answer to these very questions. Yes, he is near, right by our cradle as we sleep. Yes, he loves me. Yes, he is powerful. He is Immanuel, “God with us.”  He is God come down from heaven to dwell with man, to dwell with me. And he came because he loves me! “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4: 9).

The preciousness of the doctrine of the incarnation lies in God's loving presence with us, his ability to understand us, and his intercession for us. What greater comfort in life can we find than our Savior's tender care as he is present with us in trial. And not just any Savior, the one who has intimately experienced the brokenness and fragility of this world because he himself has walked here. He experienced what we experience. Thus he is able to intercede for us as our high priest seated in the throne room of heaven.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
— Hebrews 4:15-16

Here is our comfort...the one who loves us to the point of shedding his own blood is with us,  empathizes with our plight, and prays for us, helping us in our weakest moments of fear and anxiety. He knows we are dust, and he cares about our fears. Yet, Jesus does not desire that we dwell in fear and anxiety. He desires that we dwell in his presence which casts out all fear. It is the very love that he has for us that enables us to trust that no matter what dreadful thing may come, God himself will be with us, comforting and sustaining us.

In the incarnation, we find the antidote to anxiety. Jesus, Immanuel, the great high priest, loves us and is with us. He relates to us and prays for us. He casts out our anxieties and gives us rest.

(If you read this post and thought, “I must not be very spiritual. I have tried many spiritual things to get my anxiety under control and it hasn't worked,” you may be dealing with a more complex anxiety than this post is addressing. I call the anxiety in this post, “the anxiety common to man.” There is also a more complex anxiety, which has biological, emotional, and spiritual components. It isn't cured by dealing with spiritual issues alone. People usually need professional help to work through it. It's unfortunately not unusual; millions of Americans each year deal with significant, complex anxiety. If you are struggling, I encourage you to seek professional help from a counselor. You can get a recommendation for a good counselor through our pastors.)