My therapist’s lamp-lit office felt a little too warm, the heat cranked up to combat the biting Midwest winter. By our original timeline, Isaac and I would have been married already. Instead, my ring finger remained conspicuously bare, and I was spending an hour in therapy each week, trying to understand why I felt plagued with anxiety.
I’d been on the cusp of engagement before. It was the spring semester of my senior year of college, and my boyfriend of two years had a ring burning a hole in his pocket while fear burned a hole through my heart. A gnawing uncertainty gripped me, and weeks before graduation, I finally faced the unsettledness. We broke up, and college ended in a whirlwind of confusion and hurt.
As time passed, I became more sure that I made the right decision, and I found myself telling people that my lack of peace was how I eventually knew what to do. I staunchly believed things would be different with the man I was meant to marry. Surely, I would have peace—clear, serene, tranquil peace.
Two years later, Isaac and I went out for a morning coffee date and ended up spending the entire day together. From there, it felt easy to say yes to more dates and then to be his girlfriend. The fears and incompatibilities of previous relationships weren’t issues with us—this was different, in all the best ways. We’d planned to get engaged in the fall. I was brimming with excitement and relishing my peace.
But when August rolled around, something ruptured. My giddiness disappeared. My mind grew murky. Just like that, my peace evaporated. This felt too familiar, and I became convinced it meant something was wrong. There must be some fatal flaw lurking in our relationship. I just had to uncover it.
My hesitation clouded everything, and the weight of the unmade decision took over my thoughts. Every spare moment, my mind drifted back to this agonizing puzzle: Why didn’t I feel peaceful anymore? What changed? What was God trying to tell me? Most days, I could feel my quickened pulse in my throat, like I’d had too much caffeine and was left with nagging jitters.
Isaac and I slowed things down and let go of our timeline. We joined a premarital class at church and read a book about marriage together. Some weeks we dove into the anxiety, trying to get to the bottom of it, and other weeks we let it go and tried to simply enjoy dating. Several close friends suggested that I go to therapy, but I put it off for months. Going to therapy felt intimidating and defeating like somehow I’d failed.
After a brief respite over the holidays, anxiety came roaring back in the new year. I finally caved and scheduled a therapy appointment. During that first session, I sobbed as I told my therapist I felt like God was trying to send me some kind of coded message. I felt peace a few months earlier but now it felt like he was messing with me, and I was quickly losing faith that I’d ever be able to figure it out. I didn’t want to walk away from Isaac, but I couldn’t move forward either.
* * *
Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to know. I wanted to know our plan for the day, the week, and that year’s vacation. What are we going to do, exactly? I wanted to know how to prepare and what was expected of me. I didn’t want to make mistakes.
Growing up in church, verses like “Do not be anxious about anything,” and “God is not a God of confusion but of peace,” were repeated like mantras in my world. “I prayed about it, and I have peace,” was a familiar part of our communal vocabulary. Teens in my youth group used that line of reasoning to justify asking someone out or signing up for a mission trip.
Although I don’t remember anyone teaching it to me explicitly, my young heart interpreted those messages as meaning that I’d feel peaceful if I was doing what God wanted me to do, and I gulped that message down like a cold drink on a humid summer day. Now I had a foolproof formula, it seemed, for knowing God’s plan for my life. It spoke to what I wanted most—safety, security, and assurance that I was doing the right thing.
My quest for peace sent me on all kinds of decision-making detours in college and throughout my twenties. Especially when it came to big decisions—where to go to school, where to live, what job to take—I took long meandering journeys, all the while searching for that elusive sense of calm I’d come to equate with how I’d recognize God’s will.
* * *
My therapist sat down across from me, balancing her notebook on her lap, and we picked up where we left off the week before. I’d been seeing her for a couple of months now, and I was beginning to doubt that we’d ever get to the bottom of my anxiety.
As she began to ask questions, I could feel my frustration mounting.
“How did I end up this anxious?” I blurted out suddenly. “It doesn’t make any sense!” She looked up from taking notes and met my eyes.
“I think it makes perfect sense,” she replied, her voice full of compassion.
My whole body tensed as my therapist continued talking, weaving together threads she’d picked up from my story over those past weeks. Tears began to roll down my cheeks.
“Somewhere along the way, you started believing it was all up to you,” she said.
I couldn’t stop nodding as I reached for tissue after tissue. For the first time in months, I felt like maybe, just maybe, God saw me. Maybe he was listening. If he cared enough to show me these themes I’d never seen in my life before, then maybe he cared enough to help me move past this anxiety.
Over the next several months, my therapist and I continued to dig into this fear that it was all up to me—a lie that had taunted me from the shadows for years. I was terrified of making the wrong decision, and, deep down, I wasn’t sure God would be there for me if I did.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t want to make a decision either,” she said during one session, her eyes glistening with tears. “You have to get to a place where you believe God is with you.”
I began searching scripture and my life for evidence of God’s presence, for proof that he was with me. Looking back now, I can see that he was showing up all over the place. He was there in therapy, in conversations with Isaac, in words from friends, and in Bible verses and quotes from books that came at just the right moment.
Over time, my fear that there was something wrong with Isaac and me as a couple dissolved. The nerves still lingered, but by that point, I knew it wasn’t about us. I told Isaac I was ready to move forward, and on a cold night in December, more than a year after the anxiety began, he proposed. I was grateful to find that I did feel much more peaceful after we got engaged, but when anxiety
occasionally tried to sneak back in, I did my best to fight back by reminding myself of all the ways God had shown up.
If we insist on always feeling serene before we act, I doubt many of us would move toward hard, but important, things like creating art, dealing with conflict, or advocating for the marginalized. When God commanded Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he didn’t require Moses to feel good about the arrangement. And from Moses’s laundry list of objections, we can assume that he didn’t. But God promised to be with him, and eventually, Moses moved anyway, in spite of his doubts and fears.
There may be legitimate reasons to be afraid—Pharaoh could have had Moses killed for his audacious request with the flick of his wrist. But if God is asking us to move, then it’s worth the risk; it’s worth doing things that scare us.
Today, nearly six years into marriage, I stared down at my ring as the late afternoon sun sent specks of light dancing across my keyboard. My ring will always be a reminder of God’s faithfulness—how he helped me move forward in spite of anxiety and how he has revealed his presence time and time again in our marriage.
I am slowly coming to accept that making big decisions may never feel great for me. So many things are filled with risk, unknowns, and potential for disappointment and heartbreak—a cocktail I may never be able to swallow without feeling the burn. I still stall out on decisions much longer than I’d prefer, and I still tend to think that it’s all up to me. But that lie is more familiar to me now. And each time I hear its worn-out cadence echoing through my mind, I try to push it back, yet again, with God’s promise to be with me.
I hope that, with each passing year, I feel more settled in the knowledge of his presence and that I feel his peace more deeply, but even if that’s something I always have to fight for, it’s worth the struggle. I will do my best to choose to believe it and to keep moving—no matter how I feel and no matter what happens—because I am never alone, and it is not all up to me.
It never was, and it never will be.
Cover image by Victor.