In my last blog post, Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 1, I shared an insight that helped me deal with anxious thoughts and emotions when spiritual practices like prayer and fasting didn’t seem to work. I realized that when I prayed for God to take away my anxiety, I was often asking God to do a miracle, to suspend his created laws of nature. I came to realize that often He wanted me to respect His natural created order (i.e., my anxiety may be due to me not taking care of my body). I had to be OK if He chose to work in ways other than a miracle. In today’s post, part 2, I share a simple A-B-C process that God has used to give me greater internal peace.
In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul intuitively understood how our internal world works long before we knew anything about hormones or neurotransmitters that profoundly affect our emotional life.
In verse 6 he commands us do not be anxious about anything, something easier said than done. In the verses that follow, he tells how we can turn down our anxious thoughts and emotions.
Here’s the simple outline that verses 6-9 suggest.
Instead, re-direct your…
Redirect your attention.
He says in verse 6 that instead of fretting and worrying, we should redirect our attention…
from the problem (do not be anxious): whatever is the source of your anxiety
by prayer (by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present yours requests to God): to the Lord, who is the problem solver.
“Prayer consists of attention,” and “the quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” [Laird, Martin (2011-06-29). A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Kindle Locations 232-233). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]
for peace (and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and mind)
We must do this because often we get caught in an infinite thought stream and these thoughts and feelings become our identity because we have reinforced them through rehearsing them and ruminating over them. It’s like a video constantly playing in our minds that we can’t seem to pause. These thoughts can actually become the themes in our mind… I’m ugly, fat, skinny, she hates me, life is hopeless, my church will never grow, I can’t do anything, they are talking about me, my preaching does not connect with others, etc.
When we constantly rehearse these anxious thought and emotions, our brain actually rewires itself. It’s called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rezone itself. Those themes become rivers of neuronal networks in our brain and form much like how a river forms. A river starts as a small stream but the more water that flows into it, the deeper the channel the water creates and the wider its banks grow until it becomes a river.
The only way to divert the river’s flow is by starting another small channel that comes off the river. Over time the new stream digs a deep channel and widens its banks until it becomes the main river and the former river becomes a stream.
Our brains work in a similar manner. When we re-direct our attention, our brain creates new networks that reflect more healthy thinking. And as we continue to redirect our attention from the problem to the Problem Solver, we create new networks that diminish the power of those anxious ones (make that river smaller). As we do that, God sets His peace like a sentry over our minds and hearts.
The key is to keep redirecting, even when the anxiety comes back. Repeatedly redirecting our attention is crucial. The re-zoning process takes time.
Redirect our brain/thoughts.
Next Paul speaks directly about our thinking.
Phil. 4.8 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.
When he writes, think about such things, he means a deliberate, prolonged contemplation. Intention is crucial… to deliberately choose to think a different way. And to do that we must be aware of what we are thinking about. This is easy to do, but hard to remember to do. Often our inner mental chatter goes on and on without our conscious awareness. Our minds are often stuck on autopilot.
Yet, as we repeatedly redirect our thoughts/brain to such things, God will create a new river of truth and joy and peace in our minds. He will transform our minds (Romans 12.2).
Martin Laird gives one of the most helpful metaphors about our anxious thoughts and emotions, weather around a mountain.
Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. (Ps 125.1)
Mt Zion symbolizes God’s power, blessing, and protection. So, when we trust in the Lord and redirect our thinking and our attention, we are like a mountain and how it responds to weather.
A mountain has weather around it all the time. The mountain does not become the weather. It simple observes it. In Christ we are like that mountain with all kinds of external and internal weather around us. Now we may prefer certain kinds of weather, but we are not the weather.
Your anxious thoughts and emotions are not you. They are simply the weather.
The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured … When the mind is brought to stillness (what Paul calls thinking on these things) we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. [Laird, Martin (2006-06-07). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-293). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]
So, paying attention to our thoughts is essential to spiritual and emotional well being.
Without paying attention to our thinking, we become captive to the changing weather patterns of our lives, our emotions, moods, thoughts, experiences, anything, everything that we have little awareness of, this constant chatter. These thoughts can blind us and victimize us. We can let them become us, or convince ourselves that they are us when in reality they are just the weather in our minds.
We must see our thoughts and emotions like weather and remind ourselves that we are hidden in Christ in God… our rock, our fortress, our sure foundation. We are like Mt Zion.
As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Re-direct our conduct.
The Apostle Paul then writes in verse 9, Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me put it into practice.
Ultimately, as we pay attention to and redirect our thinking from anxious thinking to that which is good and wholesome, we will develop Godly character and virtues which will show up in conduct.
So, the next time anxiety strikes, heed the counsel of the Apostle Paul.
Don’t fret. Instead, re-direct your…
What has helped you deal with anxious thoughts and emotions?