Many Christians struggle with worry and anxiety. I do, because I struggle from time to time with a depressive illness, the main symptom of which for me tends to be anxiety (triggered often by some apparent moral dilemma). So dealing with anxiety is something I know a little about. How do we overcome it? Now people with a potentially depressive illness (depressive or anxiety symptoms that last more than a few weeks or month) should go and see their doctor. It may be that they have clinical depression and need medication. Medication can help dramatically. However, whether struggling with the anxiety of clinical depression or simply the more ordinary anxiety life’s experience may throw at us, we need to learn how to handle anxious thoughts and how to overcome them.
Sometimes it feels that it is impossible to overcome them.
Often we say something like: ‘I do trust the Lord to deal with my problem but I can’t stop worrying about it.’ I understand this because I have similar struggles. I guess many of us do. It is why we have instruction from the Lord about worry in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6) and other exhortations such as ‘be anxious about nothing but in every situation let your requests be known to God…'(Phil 4:4-7)
Now most of us are probably good at going to the Lord and telling him about the problem. We ‘take our burden to the Lord’ as the old negro spiritual says. The problem is we don’t ‘leave it there’. We tell him about it, perhaps at length, but as soon as we finish praying we begin to think of it all over again. We continue to fret and obsess over it as we did before. We are still worrying. Still anxious.
There are two issues here I think it may be helpful to say something about; strengthening our trust and rejecting worry. Finally, I will say a little about a third matter, reaching decisions.
We may tell the Lord about a matter, we may even say we are trusting the Lord, yet lack any real confidence he can or will help. Our faith may be too weak. The way to strengthen it is to fill our mind with all that we know to be true about God. Focus our thoughts on him and his activity. That is why when exhorting against worry Jesus reminds us that we are in the hands of a Heavenly Father who cares and knows what we need. He tends and cares for every aspect of his creation and we matter more to him than any of the rest. We are so important that he numbers the hairs of our head, that is how dedicated he is to us. We can trust a powerful Father who cares like this (Matthew 6).
And there are so many other ways the Bible teaches of God’s trustworthiness. Fill your mind with them. Sing hymns in your heart (or even aloud ) that stress God’s care and compassion for his people. Remind your heart repeatedly that he is able to do ‘exceedingly abundantly’ above all we ask or think. His power is without limit. A little faith mantra I often say to myself is ‘the Lord is my trust’. Sometimes when I lack energy it is, ‘the Lord is my strength’ or if I lack sense about what to do in a situation, ‘the Lord will give me wisdom’.
When my sins loom large, I remind myself that God’s great concern was not to judge me, but justify me. The activity of the Godhead is focused on forgiveness and removing accusation. If God justifies who is he that accuses. The accuser, whoever he is, Satan or self or whoever,has no rights, no authority. God has the authority and he declares us righteous (Roms 8). When, as believers, we recognise sin we confess it and he forgives. We then put it away from our minds for good; that is what God does with it. I have found when plagued by guilt that the great word to fill your mind with and luxuriate in is ‘grace’. Block out accusation with the word grace. The only sure antidote to guilt is grace. Keep ‘grace’ as a big word in your mind.
Anxiety often seems to be tied into a heavy spirit. Perhaps that is why Paul, as he exhorts us to be anxious about nothing, does so in a context of urging us to rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4-7). Sometimes there is little in our life situation about which to rejoice. We can always, however, rejoice in the Lord. Fill your mind with thoughts of his goodness and glory. Recall bible truths and words about which you can rejoice. Sing songs in your heart and head that are full of gospel joy. Sometimes, if my mind is tired and needs rest but my spirit is low I just sing a simple children’s chorus, ‘Joy , joy my heart is full of joy’. When the heart is sad… rejoice in the Lord and says Paul, again I say rejoice. He is our joy. Delight your heart in him. Whatever the need assert that he is able to meet it. He will supply ALL your needs according to the riches of his limitless resources. Is anything too hard for the Lord?
At this point we may wish to speak to ourselves and say, ‘The LORD is able, I will be anxious about nothing, absolutely nothing, absolutely, absolutely nothing‘. I have put ‘Lord’ in block capitals for in my mind I am really stressing the word ‘Lord’ he who loves me is all-wise and all-powerful . This is an assertion of faith and in anxiety situations if we say it repeatedly to ourselves fear will gradually subside as faith fills and furnishes the mind.
We have told the Lord the issue and strengthened our faith by looking at him and seeing who he is. Now comes the next stage; putting the issue that plagues us out of our mind. Now some issues do require thinking through and then action. We’ll come to that. It’s not that kind of thinking that constitutes worry and anxiety. It is fretting. Letting things go round and round in your head and never putting them away. We must here in faith take steps to ‘lead every thought captive’. If the issue keeps trying to impose itself we use mind-blockers (the helmet of salvation… the shield of faith… God’s battle armour).
For example, supposing the fear of dying has gripped our mind. When it wishes to raise itself in our mind and we see it coming we may say to ourselves something like, ‘The Lord will give dying grace when that time comes I refuse to think any more about it‘. We then deliberately focus our minds on another task. If other tasks still leave room for our minds to wander and worry we block our mind with faith thoughts. Allow your mind to think over the great truths of the faith. Think about some people you can pray about. Look at things around you and thank him for them. In fact learning to look at what is going on around you and concentrating on it can be a great means of displacing anxious thoughts. Or perhaps just saying in your head, ‘the Lord is good’ or ‘I trust the Lord’. If your mind is tired you may not be able to think beyond that. Sometimes (when lying down to sleep perhaps) you may think no more than one or two words. The Lord! Jesus! Grace! He is able! Just some positive faith thought that closes out the anxious thought.
If possible think no thought at all. Try to hold up a mind-hand and blank all thought. Let the mind rest. Sure from time to time the unwelcome thoughts will slip through. Just put up the shield again or apply some of the faith assertions we have thought about or some of your own you find work for you. Thought-blocking like this is faith in action. I’m not saying there is no struggle but victory is possible.
Again, see in the Psalms how the various writers handled their thoughts (and emotions) and trained them. The point is: you talk to self and do not let self dictate to you.
Sometimes anxiety arises over decisions that have to be made. If a decision has to be made set apart a time to think about it. In the middle of the day if possible. As a general rule, don’t make decisions when the mind is tired or weak. In big decisions the advice of others may well be useful: Scripture sees wisdom in a number of councillors. The big thing I would say is once a decision is made act on it and do not go back and revisit it again and again. It is this that creates anxiety. Many of the things that promote anxiety are about small matters the consequences of which probably don’t matter a great deal. Keep a sense of proportion. Ask the Lord for wisdom and having thought through the matter and reached a decision abide by it. Refuse the impulse to revisit. When inclined to do so apply the methods of blocking discussed above.
This post makes no pretence to be exhaustive. It is just what I hope are a few helpful pointers in the battle with anxiety. It is a battle the Lord will enable us to win as we put on his armour.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7a | ESV