If I was asked to name what I think is the number one issue that Christians struggle with today, without hesitation I would say it is anxiety.
Over the past fourteen years I have had many conversations with people who struggle with this in some form or another.
Whenever I speak on the topic or share my own struggles with anxiety it always elicits a response from folk.
And I will also say this – we do not need any more sermons telling us we are to not worry or that we should not be worrying.
Of course it’s true we are instructed by Paul in Philippians 4:6 to “Be anxious for nothing” and to bring all our cares, concerns and worries to God. (Peter says a similar thing in 1 Peter 5:7.) In both a straightforward and simple way Paul outlines how this is to be done:
- Take all your worries, stresses, cares and anxieties…
- Tell your Father God about them and give them to Him.
- Do this with thanksgiving…
- And He will give you His peace. (Phil.4:7)
But to return to my point, this is where many sermons leave the subject and the person struggling with anxiety is left with a sense of failure and guilt because they really have tried to “leave it all with God” only to see their worries return after a brief respite of peace.
In order to really help people pastorally we have to move beyond spouting clichés like “Why worry, when you can pray?” or “Give it all to Jesus” and encourage them into some practical steps that will not only grow them spiritually but also enable them to experience God’s peace which is beyond our human mind’s ability to explain or rationalize.
What follows then is based on my own experience as a person who struggles with anxiety but who has also sought God’s strength and enabling to grow through it. I call it “Lessons from a chronic worrier.”
- Pray: you must begin here; I cannot emphasize this enough. Bring your worry or care to God and be specific about it. You could pray a brief prayer along these lines, “Lord, I’m struggling with__________ right now. Please help me and restore your peace to me.” And be thankful – thankfulness ultimately enables us to find God’s joy in the journey. It is interesting to note that regularly in Scripture thankfulness is associated with us bringing our concerns to God. A notable example of this is Psalm 116 and is an excellent one to read when worry and anxiety begin to overwhelm you. Max Lucado has said that “it is impossible to pray and worry at the same time.” A helpful application of this which I read recently said that every time you have the worrisome thought, pray about it. “It doesn’t matter if you have to do it 50 times in one day – it means you have prayed 50 times that day!” I have found this to be encouraging and liberating advice!
- Fill your mind with Scripture: Search your Bible for specific Scriptures that address the topic of worry, write them down and return to them again and again. I have many of what I call my “go to Scriptures” which I read over and over and they have become a great source of comfort and peace to me. Among them are: Phil.4:6-7; Isaiah 41:10; 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 55:22 and 2 Timothy 1:7. I have also found the YouVersion Bible App to be a tremendous resource for finding relevant Scriptures and it also has some excellent devotions on worry, fear and stress.
- Rest in the love of God: Ephesians 3:16-20 is Paul’s prayer for them that they might know the incredible depth and vastness of God’s love for them. There is great comfort in being able to rest in the truth that God made you who you are and also loves you for who you are – worries, cares and all. I think enormous damage has been done by teaching that either implies or stridently affirms that God only loves believers. To affirm God’s love for all people does not undermine the individual’s need for saving faith in Jesus and His finished work at Calvary. Instead, it assures us of the Father’s love, compassion and grace for each one of us. To be able to rest in this love is a lifelong journey and is vital to our personal experience of learning to love God for Himself.
- Music: It has been shown repeatedly that music has the power to alter the patterns of our brains and this also enhances our ability to experience rest, serenity and peace. During one particularly difficult time in my life I found myself returning to many of the old hymns I had sung in worship services at church as a young man. Listening to them just before going to sleep at night became a great source of comfort and helped me to cope with the panic attacks I was experiencing at the time.
- Rest: Christian psychologist, Arch Hart has written extensively on the importance of regular rest as an important means of dealing with anxiety. (See his books: The anxiety cure and Adrenaline and stress.) As he succinctly states, “we live our lives at a high octane pace but our bodies are built for camel pace.” In other words, we need regular times where we take a break from our work and super-charged lives. This is especially needful in the Christian church. It has become my practice to take a weekly Sabbath where I spend 24 hours away from my work – I do not read my emails or deal with ministry related issues unless it is an absolute emergency. I also try to take regular holidays and I am grateful to Karen who keeps me accountable with this! I am beginning to try and incorporate “mini-Sabbaths” into my day as well. For example, not looking at FaceBook first thing in the morning, disciplining my exposure to social media and even turning the news off from time to time. I find it to be an excellent way to disconnect from the constant flow of information we are bombarded with and it also gives my mind a much needed Sitting quietly on the bench at the front of our house for 30 minutes from time to time, just watching the world go by, is also becoming a source of healing and refreshment for me.
- Cultivate the habit of realistic optimism: There is no doubt that a positive or optimistic outlook assists us in coping with the worries and cares of life. But this does not mean that you deny reality. Genuine optimism is not afraid of the truth – it embraces it – but it is also able to rest in the truth that God really does “work all things for our good.” (Romans 8:28). Arch Hart says that “once we appreciate life for what it really is, we discover a new thrill in being alive.”
Through personal experience I have discovered the above principles, diligently applied by me and in cooperation with the inner working of God’s Spirit to be life changing, especially in recent times. I was asked recently if it is possible to really know God’s peace and my answer was unequivocal – “Yes, for I have found it to be true in my own life.” What is required is for us to diligently apply the principles God gives us, in faith that He will do what He has promised us He will do.
To quote Arch Hart again:
“Faith (in God) will seek the right solution. Faith is our helper and healer because it puts us and keeps us in touch with God.”
My sincere prayer for you is that as you apply these principles in your own life, you will come to know both the help and healing of God and above all, His peace.
Pastor Rob Furlong.