Way back in the first century A. D., a man named Paul wrote a letter comforting people he loved. He wrote: “Be anxious for nothing…” (People have been struggling with anxiety for a long, long time!) In his encouragement to his friends, he went on to instruct them in a creative approach to overcoming anxiety, from a spiritual perspective, which is still—now in the 21rst century—unsurpassed in its wisdom:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians, New Testament)
Paul’s 1rst-century encouragement to his friends packs advice about dealing with anxiety that presages cognitive therapies today but also contains transformative spiritual direction. First, learn to be aware of your thoughts. Don’t let anxious thoughts simply happen, unchecked. There is a “you” behind your thoughts—or as Paul might have said, there is a “soul & spirit” behind your thoughts. When you notice that your thoughts are anxious, don’t just let the anxiety go on and on, worrying obsessively, ramping up. Notice the simple fact that… you are anxious; you are worrying. And realize that you have a choice; you get to choose what to do with your worries. This may sound simple, obvious, but realizing that there’s a “you” behind the worries who can choose what to do with them is actually a huge step and shift in your habitual anxiety. Our worries can happen automatically, tormenting us before we’re even fully aware that we’re worrying. Pausing to be aware—to realize there’s a “you” behind the worries who gets to think about what to do with those worries—is thus a significant first step in resolving anxiety.
Next, make a creative choice—rather than continuing in futile anxiety, pray to God about whatever it is that worries you. Consciously, intentionally mention the things that are worrying you to God, asking for his help in dealing with them. God numbers the very hairs on our head—he has amazing capacity for and attention to detail. There is nothing too small to “bother” God with. However petty your issue may seem—stacks of clutter that I can’t get to; 5 lbs weight that if only I’d lose…, scheduling my family’s lives & how to pay for my kid’s club soccer; meeting a deadline that I’ve procrastinated on; trying to plan the perfect vacation—if it’s big enough to cause you anxiety, it matters to God. As you become aware of your anxieties--rather than just lost in them—use your worries and anxieties as a trigger to pray to God for help in resolving them. There is no quota on your prayers; as often as you notice yourself anxious, you pray, throughout each day. This can allow for a really sweet outcome to your anxieties. Rather than swamping us, our anxieties can lead to increased conversation and closeness with God. As we learn to hold our anxiety wisely, it can leave us with an increasingly accurate awareness of ourselves as helpless creatures who need help from God and of God as an all-powerful being who loves us and wants to help.
Third, give thanks as you pray. Increasingly, literature on happiness emphasizes an attitude of gratitude as essential to our well-being. Anxiety and worrying breed an escalating sense of “I’m overwhelmed… I can’t cope... I can’t do this…” “The cup is half full; I don’t have what I need and I don’t know what to do about it.” In just that anxious mood or circumstance, it is key to give thanks as we turn to God for help. We give thanks to God because, first and foremost, God is in charge of the world and our lives and--however utterly bleak things may seem in the moment--we can trust him that, in the end, all will be well. We are given much that we don’t realize and to begin training ourselves to realize the little gifts that we’ve taken for granted is not pie-in-the-sky or a trite “Count your blessings” but an honest, realistic acknowledgement of what we have. Thanksgiving is realistic; it’s also a path to greater well-being and less anxiety. Giving thanks is a discipline that shifts our awareness to the reality that we have great resource in God, that we are not alone in our anxious struggles, and that we can learn to trust God (he will help us trust him if we ask) that all will be well in the end however insurmountable the difficulties seem just now.
Finally, there is a lovely, honest promise at the end of Paul’s instruction on anxiety: “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” With God’s help, leaning into his Spirit, we work to create a new pattern with our worries and anxieties. Rather than remaining passive before their bothersome (even tormenting) assault, we start being aware of our anxieties, taking charge of them, learning to bring them to God in prayer. As we learn to use our anxiety as a trigger and motive and reminder to pray to God for help--rather than passively allowing our anxieties to go on and on, feeling victimized by them--the peace of God will come to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Anxiety stops having the control it has enjoyed. We begin to experience an unfathomable peace we never thought possible.