The need for safety is as old as our need for food, water and air. I want to tell you a story that illustrates this need and then give you a little exercise to alleviate anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by whatever distresses you—to bring a sense of safety in a given moment where anxiety is high.

In the Old Testament of the Bible there is a dramatic story of a man named Nehemiah. He was a man who identified with one’s need for safety. He was exiled from his hometown of Jerusalem along with many other Jewish people. While he lived in a distant kingdom (Babylon which is currently Iraq), Nehemiah was given responsibilities with the king. He was the cupbearer. Yes, this meant that he tasted the king’s beverage before the king so as to keep the king safe—a dangerous job.

It was important for him to look happy and content while with the king so the king wouldn’t be depressed or something. If Nehemiah looked too unhappy, the king might feel bad and then Nehemiah would be blamed for getting the king down. Talk about learning to be fake right? Nonetheless, he had to be very aware of his outward expression of what he was feeling inwardly.

The problem with this is Nehemiah was feeling very sad and overwhelmed by the stories he heard about Jerusalem. You must understand, Nehemiah was a patriot at heart. He loved his Jewish country and Jerusalem represented his homeland both spiritually and geographically. The ancient text tells us he sat down and wept when he heard how bad it was. As you can see, nothing has changed even today. He had heard Jerusalem was broken and unsafe. The people left there were in grave danger as well. With this in mind, he still had to do his job with a smile on his face yet he felt moved enough to do something about Jerusalem—even at his own peril.

He made plans to present to the king regardless of the risk. One day, as he was serving the king, he couldn’t hide his feelings anymore and the king confronted him. The Bible says he was very much afraid and prayed under his breath and told the king all that was on his mind. Because the king respected Nehemiah (he was faithful) and with God’s hand on him, Nehemiah was given official letters sending him with supplies to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. Whew! He was safe. Well actually, his peril was just beginning.

Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem on a horse and was immediately confronted with the governors of the area who were strongly opposed to what Nehemiah was going to do. He surveyed the area, gathered the people to organize them, prayed often, gave them many pep talks and got started on the work. As soon as they started, these governors mocked and ridiculed Nehemiah and the workers. They even accused Nehemiah of rebelling against the king. It was rough. Nehemiah clung to his confidence in his God saying, “the God of heaven will give us success!”

While there was progress on the walls and the gates, the evil governors, threatened the lives of the workers saying they would be killed or attacked at anytime without warning. The Jews who lived nearby came and told them ten times over, they would be attacked at every turn. Fear was high and the workers were exhausted. They told Nehemiah that the piles of rubble were so huge, the strength of the laborers was giving out. Fear and exhaustion are not happy bedfellows to anyone with high stress.

Nehemiah gave more pep talks and posted guards everywhere while the work progressed. At one point, the laborers had to carry a weapon with them while they worked and half of them had to serve as security which only slowed the progress.

Although this would seem to be enough stress for our courageous friend Nehemiah, more problems presented themselves. The men and their wives told of how their families were hungry and many of them had to mortgage their homes and property to buy enough grain to feed everyone. A famine was threatening the land making food not only scarce but way more expensive. The king taxed them mercilessly as well.

Despite all of the opposition and difficult times, the rebuilding of the wall was completed and at that moment, when the enemies heard about it, they themselves lost confidence and became afraid. Nehemiah and his people now had the safety of the wall surrounding the whole city. It provided a refuge for them and was a powerful symbol of strength.

All of us have our moments when we are overwhelmed with various perceived threats. Anxiety is high. Stress is higher. In this story I find a few instructive details to encourage us. Nehemiah found strength and courage in his God. In the moments where fear was greatest, he prayed and placed trust in the God he prayed to. He also found ways to connect with people he trusted and shared in the work. Finally despite the threats, he continually refocused his efforts on the building of the wall which would bring safety.

In a few days, I will present an exercise that will help provide for you a sense of safety and peace when you are feeling most unsafe or overwhelmed by whatever distresses you.

Written byScott Hendrickson, MACP