Living free: Part 2
Winning over worry
By Jeff Brawner
Imagine a gathering of world-class worriers — an assortment of anxious people all brought together to do what they do best. What would their combined efforts accomplish? The same results we “amateurs” should expect: nothing.
Jesus knew how to put our anxiety into perspective. “Who of you by worrying,” He asked in Matthew 6:27 (NIV), “can add a single hour to his life?”
Since Jesus’ day, modern science has discovered a number of things worry can do — all of them negative. It is even possible to develop a case of “terminal worry.” Dr. Charles Mayo of the world-famous Mayo Clinic wrote, “Worry affects the circulation, the heart, the glands and whole nervous system. I have never known a person to die of overwork, but I have known a lot of people who died of worry.”
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can win our war with worry and live free from the stranglehold of anxiety.
To begin, we need to know where our worry comes from.
Some people tend to be so naturally apprehensive that they seem to have worry in their genes. Yet, worry is not a natural behavior. It is learned, practiced and perfected. Harvard expert Dr. Edward Hallowell wrote, “Worry is a special form of fear. To create worry, humans elongate fear with anticipation and memory, expand it with imagination and fuel it with emotion. The uniquely human mental process called worrying depends on having a brain that can reason, remember, reflect, feel and imagine.”
No wonder studies reveal that highly creative people tend to struggle most with worry. A fertile imagination can all too easily assess the future in debilitating and destructive ways.
If worry is learned, who are our teachers? The answer is usually close to home. For example, in an article on worry, author Stacey Patrick recalls his mother constantly trying to prepare him for the very worst that could happen in a given situation. “If you ever get caught in an avalanche,” she counseled, “dig up!”
It is important to equip kids to approach life with perception and preparation. However, teaching them to worry never results in confident living.
Worry isn’t only “taught,” it can also be “caught.” Worry is contagious. When Moses sent in spies to scout out the Promised Land, Numbers 14 tells us that the negative news brought back by 10 of them started an epidemic of worry.
Circumstances can heighten our tendency to worry. Dr. Hallowell goes so far as to say that worry can be calculated:
+ decreased power =
In other words, worry often results when our needs seem greater than our resources. As believers, our needs will never exceed our resources because of God’s sovereign power and limitless resources.
A biblical game plan
In Philippians 4, Paul outlines a biblical “game plan” that can help us beat worry before it beats us.
Step 1: Pray strategically.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6,7).
It may sound simplistic to recommend prayer as an alternative to worry. But there are some dimensions to practical, pragmatic prayer that enable us to defeat anxiety.
1. Be truthful. We have to pray what’s within us; not what we wish were in us. Have you ever prayed for a missionary or a ministry because you felt you should, while what was really on your mind was your job ... or your singleness ... or your bank balance?
It’s when we pour out to God what’s really on our mind that He shapes our hearts and our prayers.
2. Be tenacious. Persistence is the essence of petition or supplication. It suggests determined, even desperate praying. It means making prayer “Plan A” and having no “Plan B.”
3. Be thankful. An attitude of gratitude not only grows out of a humble heart, it is an outright expression of faith. “God, I thank You because You always hear me when I pray.”
In times of crisis or disaster, the president or the governor calls out the National Guard to secure the situation. When we pray strategically, God works supernaturally to “guard” our hearts and our minds in exactly the same way.
Step 2: Think strategically.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8,9).
Some of the difficulties you face may be all in your head. I’m not saying that your concerns are imaginary. Remember, worry isn’t a reflex action; it is a reasoned reaction, the fruit of processes going on in our mind. Consequently, the way we choose to think has a direct impact on our ability to win over worry.
1. We must filter our thoughts.
Not every thought that pops into our head should be considered a “keeper.” For example, consider these observations that have come to be known as “Murphy’s Laws”:
• If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
• If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then.
• If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
While such observations are funny and may seem to have a ring of truth, embracing such limited thoughts will produce a limited life. Paul suggests that we filter each thought by asking some key questions:
Is it true? (Verifiable)
Is it noble? (Worthy, valuable)
Is it right? (Righteous, God-honoring)
Is it pure? (Unmixed, undefiled)
Is it lovely? (Greek word “to call forth ... to prompt love.” Does it lead to life-giving actions?)
Is it admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy? (Is it worth displaying?)
The answers to those questions will help us weed out undesirable and unproductive thoughts.
2. We must focus our thoughts.
“Think about such things.” Paul knows that focusing on healthy thoughts can actually help us to become the people God wants us to be. Remember Solomon’s insight from Proverbs 23:7 (KJV), that as a person thinks in his heart, so is he. Our thoughts not only paint a portrait of who we are, they create the framework of the person we are becoming.
Step 3: Live strategically.
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him [Christ] who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13, NIV).
Many people live their lives as though that verse ended differently. Consider these possibilities:
I can do all things through money that gives me strength.
I can do all things through talent that gives me strength.
I can do all things through education that gives me strength.
I can do all things through drugs that give me strength.
Living strategically begins with the realization that nothing can take the place of Christ in the last sentence of that passage … or in our lives.
George McCauslin learned that lesson the hard way. George was the director of a YMCA near Pittsburgh, where things weren’t exactly going well. Membership was dropping, finances were tight and there were some challenging staff problems. People came to the “Y” to relax and unwind, but where could George go? He was being eaten up on the inside.
It occurred to him that things might get better if only he worked harder, so he began putting in 85-hour weeks. He spent his few off-hours fretting about his problems. Of course, nothing improved.
After seeing a therapist who told him he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, George grabbed a notepad and went for a walk in the western Pennsylvania woods. He sat down under a tree and began writing a note. “Dear God, Today I hereby resign as general manager of the universe. Love, George.”
“You know what happened next?” George later wrote. “God accepted my resignation!”
To live strategically, I must learn to depend on God’s ability instead of my own. I must realize that with God in my life, there isn’t anything I can’t face … and that without God, I can’t face anything with real success.
Contentment is possible because of the strength Christ gives us. It has nothing to do with what is (or isn’t) going on in our life. Can the Lord be counted on to deliver His strength every time the stress begins to mount? Let me put it this way: Don’t worry about it!
Next time: “Winning the anger war”
Jeff Brawner is senior pastor of Bonita Valley Community Church (Assemblies of God) in Bonita, Calif.
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