ON ANXIETY: GLEANING NEW WISDOM FROM OLD WORDS

 

 

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“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

“To have and to hold from this day forward…”

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“For God so loved the world…”

Words mark the passages of our lives. The most powerful or memorable words of all – such as those at the beginning of this post – become so familiar they require no explanation. But sometimes their very familiarity can lessen their impact.

Let me pause right here to explain something for the benefit of new readers. I write this blog for a general audience. Because it is personal, it inevitably reflects my spiritual beliefs, which run deep. But I have many friends and readers who respect those beliefs without sharing them, and if you fall into that category I hope you will keep reading today, and that you will find something to take with you.

Last week I found a particular Bible passage popping up multiple times. It showed up in different devotionals that I receive from two different denominations (Methodist and Baptist), and in my Facebook newsfeed from a couple of different people.

When something or someone repeatedly shows up on my radar – especially from unrelated sources – I take note. So when I read Philippians 4:6-7 for the fourth time this week, I gave it some thought.

Here’s the New American Standard Bible version.

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.

And then, Friday night, I was having an online conversation with a friend when she shared with me a particular issue that was worrying her.

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I wanted to ease her mind. The passage from Philippians came to mind, but I didn’t want to come across as having an “abracadabra” approach to prayer, treating God like The Great Magician – you know, just say your prayers, and poof! – all worry is gone, all problems immediately solved.

In fact, my friend actually asked me that. Did these verses mean that if she prayed, God would just take away her worries? Suddenly I knew she needed more than a pat, orthodox answer. And just as suddenly, I realized the Apostle Paul had written words with a very practical application that in all my years of reading these verses, I had never comprehended.

“This is very practical advice,” I found myself responding. “In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see that even for someone who doesn’t believe in God, this is practical advice.

“First, in the process of articulating your request (or, at least your need), you’re identifying the source of your anxiety, which reduces it from a huge cloud of amorphous YUCK to something specific and finite. This step alone helps it to seem more manageable.

“Second, the verse tells you to focus on the positives and enumerate the things for which you are thankful. This also reduces fear. Either or both of these steps can help free your mind up enough for your natural problem-solving abilities to kick in and for you to think creatively toward a solution.”

Obviously, these exercises in positivity begin their work by helping us to alter our internal mental landscape. That can, in turn, lead us to solutions for the external sources of worry. It’s a tried and true approach to life. “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Or, as the Carter Family sang, “Keep on the sunny side of life.”

But much is beyond our control. And for those of us who believe in a loving, personal God, that faith brings an added measure of hope and comfort.

I come from a long line of worriers. Whether it starts as a general sense of protectiveness and concern for loved ones, or mulling over personal issues and struggles, a certain amount of worry is a knee-jerk, natural human reaction to the stresses of life. But I’ve found that if I indulge in it, over-thinking can easily cross the line into chronic anxiety, gnawing fear and downright panic.

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Next time, I’m going to follow the advice the Apostle Paul first gave to the church at Philippi, that still resonates in our stressful, harried world: first, prayer, putting your fears, hopes and needs into words; and then, thinking with gratitude about all that is good in your life, and in the process, remembering that everything changes and the current difficulty will pass.

It’s still a winning formula.

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