The Apostle Paul commands this in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done. Anxiety, an inner mental and emotional state, often feels like we’re being pulled in a zillion different directions in our soul and in our mind. Anger and regret about the past and fear and uncertainty about the future breed it. An old English word for it captures its essence: strangulation. Anxious thoughts and emotions often seem like a incessant video playing its strangulating messages over and over and over in our minds with seemingly no way to press ‘Pause.’ What do we do when we can’t turn it off? I think I may have stumbled upon how.
For years I struggled with turning off the anxious worry video replaying in my mind. I tried every spiritual practice in the book: prayer, Bible reading, Scripture memory, fasting, confession, spiritual warfare, and even more of the same. But often the anxiety still remained. I wondered …
• What’s wrong with me?
• Do I have some hidden sin?
• Is God punishing me?
• Am I not doing the spiritual disciplines right?
• Has anxiety hopelessly trapped me forever?
I struggled with it until I learned this insight that is slowly changing my life: I had subtly missed how God usually works.
First, I believe that all truth is God’s truth, including science and the laws of nature that he himself created, whether those laws be gravity, electromagnetism, physics or the biology of how our bodies and brains work.
What I realized, however, as I unsuccessfully dealt with my anxious thoughts and emotions through increased spiritual practices, was this: Often I expected God to bypass his own created laws of the universe about how my body and brain works when I prayed/fasted/quoted Scripture/etc. for relief. I realized that I was asking God to suspend his created laws of nature. And what do we call it when God suspends the laws of nature? A miracle. I was often asking (or demanding) God to give me a miracle to end my incessant and distracting anxious thoughts and feelings.
I do believe God works miracles. But He more often works through his designed nature of things. For example, I have no problem NOT praying for God to miraculously transport me to work from my home without driving, à la a Star Trek transporter. Most of us never ask God for something like that. Yet, when I asked God to relieve my body of its anxiety, I was actually asking him to bypass how he created my body and brain to work.
Consider this example.
Let’s say my annual review is coming up soon and for the next two months I incessantly worry about, rehearse all the worst case scenarios, and daily ruminate about how bad my review will be. The result is that the fight-flight part of my brain, the amygdala, sensing threat, signals my adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. For short periods of stress and danger cortisol is a good thing for our survival and response to danger. After danger passes, however, it will settle back to a healthy blood level. However, since I’m continually worrying for two months, my body has become stuck on an high level of cortisol and other blood and brain stress chemicals. And in those cases it takes days or weeks for those levels to drop to a healthy level. Only when those levels come down will the feeling of anxiety go away.
Yet, as I pray for God to make the anxiety go away and plead for him to give me peace, will he do the following?:
“Ah, Charles, I hear your prayers and see your predicament. I will answer your prayer. I choose to suspend my established laws about the biology of your body and brain and give you an instant miracle of no anxiety. I immediately eliminate all the cortisol that has built up for the past two months. I now force your amygdala to go off-line. I fill the thinking center of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex, with positive thoughts about your meeting with your boss. Additionally, I now force your mid-brain to produce an extra boost of the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine and flood your nucleus accumbens, your brain’s pleasure center, with that chemical to make you feel perfectly at peace.”
And poof! I feel great. No more worry. No more fear. No more anxiety. At perfect peace.
Were God to do that, bypass his created laws of biology by instantly lowering those chemicals to remove my anxiety, we’d call it a miracle, on the order of transporting me to work through the Star Trek transporter (well, maybe not that extreme). God could have done it that way. But most of the time He will not suspend the laws he himself created that work in our bodies and our brains. He often works through his established natural order.
In order to get relief, I had often subconsciously prayed for a miracle. Yet, I’m learning that every answer to prayer does not have to circumvent his natural laws to make it a God thing.
When I prayed for relief from these emotions, I was not taking into consideration that God may have simply wanted me to respect his biological laws of nature and slowly change my thought life in response to whatever was fueling my anxiety. And by doing so, he would gradually bring down those unhealthy chemical levels, thus reducing my anxiety.
I’m learning that debilitating, difficult and even pesky emotions may not actually have spiritual roots or direct spiritual solutions (i.e., just pray more and have more faith). Rather, they may lie in a lack of understanding of, a lack of cooperation with, and a lack of respecting how God designed our bodies and brains.
God made hormones that flow through our blood stream and neurotransmitters that traffic in our brain. Both profoundly affect our emotional and mental well being. And our thought lives affect how much they flow in our bodies and brains.
So, as I began to learn this insight a few years ago I began a quest to understand how our brains impact our walk with God, life in general and leadership. I even have a book coming out next year on this subject that shares my journey, Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry.
When the Apostle Paul commands us to not be anxious, what he says following that statement indicates his intuitive understanding how God designed our bodies and brains, far before science had any idea.
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 …
1. 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,” Martin Laird says in A Sunlit Absence. “The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.”
by 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.
2. Redirect Your Brain/Thoughts.
Next Paul speaks directly about our thinking.
“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.” — Phil. 4:8
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 (Rom. 12.2).
In Into the Silent Land, 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.
“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.”
3. Re-Direct Your 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?
Charles Stone is the senior pastor of West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada, the founder of StoneWell Ministries and the author of several books. This post was originally published on CharlesStone.com.