I’m a thinker. I think a lot – very often, too much. And many times, if I don’t catch myself, I will get completely lost in my own thoughts… so much so, that I’ll totally miss everything else that’s going on around me (makes you want to ride with me while I’m driving, huh?). In fact, most people don’t know this, but after a big day at church or a major performance, sermon, project, or what have you, I sometimes meditate on the event for quite some time. I’m worthless in anything else. Sometimes after one of these events, it takes me hours to go to sleep – if I go to sleep at all. My wife puts up with more than you know 🙂
A few years back, I sat in a professional counselor’s office as he explained my anxiety to me. He said that instead of parallel and perpendicular lines, my thoughts look more like a big plate of spaghetti. Besides making me hungry for pasta, that really cleared things up for me. Many times, I couldn’t even trace a thought back to its origin because it had gotten so tangled in other thoughts and ideas. Since then (with that counselor’s help), I have learned to manage my anxiety a lot better. It still creeps up on me every now and then, but by the grace of God, it no longer consumes me.
There’s another kind of anxiety. One that weighs people down, and all but debilitates them. It is usually coupled with fear. Fear of what? – the unknown.
Do you remember those precious years in your child’s life when he would ask a bazillion questions every day? How about when he was insistent on playing the “Why?” game? You know the “Why?” game, don’t you? It always ends with “Because I said so.” Or at least it did in my house anyway.
I’ve only been counseling formally for a little over two years. You may be surprised to know that most of my counselees (yes, that’s a real word) present with some form of anxiety. Usually just situational anxiety brought on by a current crisis in their lives, but sometimes even more chronic. I’ve heard pastors preach about anxiety before…
This really is an excellent passage. And when exegeted properly, can give the anxious Christian powerful tools with which to combat a worry-some attitude. Allow me to list those tools quickly:
1. Pray to God. He is the One who can give the peace you need.
2. Pray with a spirit of thanksgiving. Yes, let your requests and concerns be made knows to God, but do so with a thankful heart. What has God done for you? For what can you be thankful? Being thankful reminds you that God has not abandoned you, and that He has always and will always have your best interest at heart.
3. The peace that God gives is not equivalent to understanding. God doesn’t promise to give understanding. But He does promise to give peace that passes understanding. And not only is this peace incomprehensible from a human perspective, it is also an umbrella of covering. It transcends all of your worrisome thoughts. Those thoughts may still be present, but if you follow the prescription in this passage, you will be at peace in their midst.
4. This cure for anxiety is only available to Christians. The peace that guards hearts and minds is only found “in Christ Jesus.”
BUT… these four points are not usually what we hear from this passage of scripture. It more frequently boils down to something like: “Get over it! Don’t worry! Don’t be anxious! Forget about your problems and focus on God!” Most likely, the pastors who make these kinds of statements have never sincerely struggled with anxiety. I’ve heard so many Christians beating themselves up over not being able to “just forget about it,” or to “get over it and focus on God.” If preachers only knew the damage this causes. Instead of curing anxiety, this approach actually worsens it… anxious Christians may begin to wonder why they can’t “just get over it,” and doubt their salvation, devotion to God, or belief in His Word.
If a person has a biochemical imbalance – a disturbance in the functionality of neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA’s), adrenaline, and cortisol – then a really powerful, heartfelt sermon is not going to cure it. Sometimes, medicine is necessary (only when time-limited, and accompanied by professional counseling services), and almost every time, strategic intervention is necessary. Do you have to see a counselor? No – but there’s nothing wrong with or degrading about getting some help to assist you in overcoming difficulties in your life.
If you’re struggling with some form of anxiety and just can’t seem to get over it, I want to give you a few tips… First of all, the biblical passage mentioned above, with its proper exegesis, is paramount. I pray you can use that information, and that the Holy Spirit guides you into a more secure relationship with God as you study and reflect on His Word. Scripture is first. But I do have one more practical piece of advice for you…
One thing I’ve learned about anxiety – through my own personal struggles and counseling practice – is this: Anxiety is fueled by unanswered questions. Fear of the unknown. Clients presenting with anxiety usually let their mind race with questions to which they do not know the answer. “What if…” “I wonder what ‘X’ was like…” “Why did he/she do that…” “How is ‘X’ going to affect me for the rest of my life…” These are all examples of questions that feed anxiety. While there are no improper questions, per se, there are times when questions are unnecessary, and even unhealthy.
Questions aren’t bad. But there are times when they, as mentioned above, are unhealthy or unnecessary. If you are finding your mind racing with thoughts, your eating habits are being affected, your amount of sleep is deprived, or you feel sick to your stomach often, turn your inquisitive mind into something that might benefit you by asking these questions:
1. What am I worried about? – Identify a single thing/item/problem/thought on which you are dwelling.
2. What question(s) am I asking myself about this problem? – WRITE THEM DOWN – ALL OF THEM! You need to physically look at the questions you are fantasizing over.
—> SIDE NOTE: Sometimes, Numbers 1 and 2 need to be reversed. If you can’t identify the source of the problem, list the question on which you are dwelling. Do those questions have a common theme? A common person? A common idea? A common time period? A common event?
3. Is there a way I can find out the answer for sure? – Most of the time, the answer to this question is “no.” Thinking back over the years, I had a couple in for crisis marital counseling, after a suspected affair on the husband’s part. One of the questions driving the wife insane was, “Did the other woman love him like I do?” There is no possible way that she can find the answer to this question. To constantly consider it was unfair to herself (and everyone else affected by her anxiety). If a question is unanswerable, identify it as such [write “unanswerable” beside it, or scratch it out], and move to the next question. It will not help you to project your fantasies onto unanswerable questions.
4. If I find out the answer, will it change the way I feel? – If you’re reading this blog post and you’ve never dealt with anxiety, this probably seems like a stupid question. But I assure you, it isn’t. Sometimes we worry over things that really are unnecessary. Playing off of the last example: “What kind of car did she drive?” “Does she have any children? “Was it raining, sunny, cloudy, etc?” If those questions are on the list you’ve written, then label them as unhealthy, or scratch them out.
5. If the question is answerable, and not unhealthy, then who can I ask to get the correct answer? – This is the hard part. If there are questions left on your list (and I’m sure there are), then you need to address them. Not by going to your friends and having them speculate about the answers. This will certainly make matters worse. No, go to the person(s) who can give you a correct and definite answer. Now we anxious people don’t like this part. Why? Two reasons.
(a) It means that we have to face what we are afraid of head-on, and accept the consequences. Your worst fear may be truth. But if you don’t find out for sure, then the vicious cycle of anxiety will continue. One thing that usually characterizes anxiety is the thought that, “If ‘X’ is true, then life will be horrible.” You may find out, to your surprise, that even if “X” is true, life still goes on. But you won’t find it out if you don’t ask. On the flip side of this, many times when you ask the difficult question to someone who can answer it truthfully, the answer is not what you fantasized about at all. It’s completely different, and you’ve allowed the question’s possible answers to steal your joy for a long time.
(b) It means that we have to stop being anxious. If anxiety has consumed you for some time, it has become a way of life for you. It is a sure-fire, fool-proof way to isolate yourself and your feelings from the rest of humanity. If you ask the question and get a truthful answer, that means you may have to give up your fantasizing and open up your emotions. It means you may become emotionally vulnerable. Can I tell you a secret? – I’ve been there. It’s sensational. I know it’s scary, but it really is a catharsis of sorts. When those emotions start coming out, instead of being locked inside your body among a spaghetti-like blanket of interweaving thoughts, there is great relief.
6. If you are still struggling with anxiety, go see a counselor. There is nothing wrong with getting help. If you let your anxiety nest within for a considerable amount of time, it dredges itself deeper and deeper, and eventually affects every fiber of your being – emotional, physical, spiritual, interpersonal. If you don’t get a grip on it within a couple of weeks, go get help.
Should you want to read more about your anxiety, a couple of really great books I recommend are (and IN THIS ORDER)…
Worry-Free Living. By Frank Mirth (M.D.), Paul Meier (M.D.), and Don Hawkins (Th.M.).
Telling Yourself the Truth. By William Backus (Ph.D) and Marie Chapman (Ph.D.)
The Anxiety Cure. By Dr. Archibald Hart.
Grace and Peace,