Anxiety can paralyze you. How many nights have you spent lying awake stewing anxiously over a conflict? Have you ever had a sudden change of circumstance leave you bewildered and unable to move?
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians offers a simple three-fold pattern for how we can faithfully move out of our anxiety and into action. Doing so brings you to a place where you can experience both the peace of God and the God of peace.
1. Release anxiety by turning to God in prayer
‘Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Phil. 4:6-7
So when you are anxious the first thing to do is to turn to God in prayer. Specifically, call out to God with the concern of your heart. How would you like the situation to change? What is the outcome you are hoping for? What do you need from God or how are you hoping God will intervene? Consider these questions and then with thanks in your heart turn to God and actively speak your requests. Pour out to God how you are feeling and why as well.
The promise of scripture is that when you become transparent before God with those needs, God will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. You will no longer be facing your problem alone. You will have the power of the Holy Spirit with you now in your struggle.
Letting go is hard to do.
I will be the first to admit, that when I am anxious, particularly if it is due to a conflict, then I tend to ruminate for hours having imaginary conversations with people involved in the conflict. Or, I just ruminate on a thousand possible outcomes. I call this ‘analysis paralysis.’
You can use those imaginary conversations as your trigger for having a real conversation with God. When these thoughts arise, consciously chose to turn to God. You may need to ask God to help you break through that struggle with a request like, “God I am so tired of running around in circles in my mind. By the power of the Holy Spirit, help me turn my thoughts toward You. This is why I am anxious… Could you please…?”
Your mind will likely want to go back to the problem. However, this frequently becomes easier as you actively chose to turn away again and again.
The bottom line is to stop relating with the problem, and start relating to God. In this first step, you are striving to let go of the problem.
2. Fixate on what is good.
‘Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.’ Phil. 4:8
Fixating on what is good is frankly easier said than done, especially when you are angry, worried or bound by fear. If you turned to God first in prayer as Paul suggested, then you will have an easier time with this step. You are now trying to actively occupy your mind to prevent it from going back to negative thoughts and emotions.
I intentionally chose the word fixate even though this word is not in the text. The word used in the text is dwell. In other words, this is now where you are supposed to live. You are mentally and emotionally taking up residence somewhere else. I chose the word ‘fixate’ simply to emphasize that you need to be as obsessive about focusing on the good as you were about the negative.
Some practical ways to focus your thoughts are:
- Saturate your mind with scripture. You may even need to read outloud if your mind continues to wander
- Play Christian music
- Read inspirational material, such as, devotional guides or biographies
- Journaling. If you do this make sure you journal on what is good rather than using this as a place to go back to ruminating on your anxiety. For example, make lists of things you are grateful for or ways you have seen God at work.
3. Take action obediently
“The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.” Phil. 4: 9
When you are overwhelmed by anxiety you will be tempted to shut down and isolate, or act in ways that are sinful. Either one only exacerbates your stress and aggravates your situation. What can you do to live as a disciple despite your fear? Can you volunteer? Who do you look up to in faith and how do they behave? Make a list of positive alternatives for what you can do with your time even when you are feeling miserable.
I have heard it said, “When you are in the dark, do what God told you to do while you were in the light.” This might be as simple as continuing to be at worship, attending a bible study, or taking part in a small group.
Trying serving. Serving others can often times take your mind off of your own problems. Serving others can also put your problems into perspective. For example, serving a meal at homeless shelter, might cause you to realize that the anger you are feeling over a conflict at work is a small things. In fact, a conflict at work, means you are blessed enough to be someone with a job. Who has a greater need than you right now? What can you do to meet that need?
WARNING: Don’t get this pattern backwards!
This three-fold pattern basically moves in the following order:
- First, Emotions and God
- Second, Our thoughts
- Third, Actions and others
I find when I am stressed that I tend to invert this order.
I look for human help and try my own way first. When that doesn’t work I rethink things. And then lastly I finally fall apart and trust God.
My prayer for you if you are in a difficult place is that first and foremost you will turn to God in prayer. I pray that when you do so, that you find in that place the peace of God. May you turn your mind toward those thoughts that would enrich and encourage you. May you have the mind of Christ — the mind of a servant. Lastly, from that centered place of a mind that has been fixed upon things that are above and not below, may you will act with integrity to build the kingdom and honor God.
Peace be with you even in your darkest hour. God’s grace is sufficient for you needs.
The Practical Disciple