The Apostle Paul’s Antidote to Worry

April 20, 2017

Human beings comprise bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits. What’s going on with us psychologically has an effect on our bodies, as those tied up in knots in stress can affirm. Spiritual turmoil can put our emotions in a spin. And physical illness can cause depression. We’re a bundle of entwined happenings. All this to say that anxiety has many causes—physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual—and therefore can be tackled from all these angles. We can also say that no problem is purely a spiritual one (or a physical one, or . . .). Our multi-faceted nature is a wonder: complex and beautiful.

Isn’t it wonderful that the Apostle Paul knew this, so when he addressed worry and anxiety in Philippians 4:4-9, his Spirit-driven encouragement was right on target.

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I love the promises of God’s presence and power in our lives, especially when we are in situations that muddle our minds and rob us of peace. God’s indescribable inner peace is able to “stand guard” over our hearts (our center of meaning and identity) and minds (our thoughts). If we follow Paul’s example in dealing with worry, we are assured of God’s peace. So how do we get there?

First of all, Paul’s alternative to worry is prayer that is conducted in a spirit of gratitude. “By prayer…with thanksgiving, tell God what you need.” Sometimes we fret over things without ever really articulating what it is we desire to happen, so of course we fail to make our petition.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but it is so compelling and apropos, hear it again. Martin Luther struggled with worry and depression throughout his life. This is well documented in his writings. He was having a particularly bad week, and granted, there were several threats on the horizon that he obsessed over. The story goes that his wife Katherine came to breakfast wearing all black, appearing in deep mourning. Martin inquired about who had died, and Katherine stated flatly, “God has died.” Alarmed at her tone, Martin protested that God indeed was not dead, to which she retorted, “Well, Martin, the way you’ve been moping around in helplessness and worry all week, I thought God surely had left us!”

So Paul’s first word of advice is, “Okay, stop spinning in your head about this, and ask God for what you need. Spit it out!” In a way, this prayer begins with a confession: “Lord, I am sorry I didn’t come to you first with my worry.” The Apostle makes no promises about specific answers to prayer, but Paul does claim that asking with thanksgiving is met with God’s peace standing guard over our hearts and minds.

Second, choose new thoughts you want to dwell on. As a diversion from the worries, pick subjects that are good and true and pure. I believe that each of us gets to choose what we think about. Self-awareness helps us recognize what we are thinking and how we are thinking. We can actually turn to ourselves and say, “Self?! What’s that you’re thinking? How are you feeling about that? Is it worth all the lather you are working up?” We have the capacity, given to us by our Creator and empowered by his Spirit, to discern if our thoughts are spinning in circles or if the cogitation is constructive. Paul says, go search in your mind (or in nature or in a good book . . .) for those things that are worthy of praise, excellent, and commendable, and dwell on them! In this way a negative (worry) is displaced by a positive (commendable thing). When I get in a worrisome mood, I turn on favorite music really loud and dance to it. Or I take a turn in my garden or walk the labyrinth a short distance from my home.

Third, by praying and by diverting our attention, we can cultivate the ability to banish thoughts we don’t want to dwell on. It takes a little practice, and diversion really helps here, but just because a thought enters one’s mind doesn’t mean it has to set up shop. We can usher it out the back door as fast as it came in the front. This, by the way, is what is required in dealing with temptation. A thought flits by, all sparkly and attractive, but we can take “custody of the eyes” (or in this case, the mind), as the Benedictines used to say, and move on to something more wholesome.

The Apostle Paul attaches spiritual focus to mental health! He proclaims and I can affirm from my own experience that focused, thankful petition gets me out of my worrisome spin, diversion helps me find something better to occupy my mind, and moving on in the Spirit frees me for service.

I’m not sure if I will be able to post tomorrow . . . it all depends on finding a Wi-Fi signal at a time I can actually send off a blog entry. Stay tuned!

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