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Mar 15

Helping People Overcome Worry

This article appeared in The Journal of Modern Ministry, Volume One, Issue One.  http://jofmm.com/

by Lou Priolo

Worry is the acceptable sin. Everybody does it-so how can it be that bad? Counselees often use terms to describe this problem that help them feel less culpable-words such as, nervousness, apprehension, distress, or uneasiness.  But God calls it sin.

Worry is a sin for several reasons.

1. God forbids worry. The Holy Spirit commands us in Philippians 4:6 to “be anxious for nothing.” Jesus said in Matthew 6:34, “Do not worry about tomorrow.”

2. Worry shows a lack of faith in God. “And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin; yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? (Matt. 6:28-30 NASB emphasis added).”

3. Worry damages the body. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Cor. 3:16-17). Worry is known to cause such physiological effects as upset stomach, fatigue, diarrhea, high blood pressure, hives, hormonal changes, ulcers, irregularities and palpitations of the heart, and even heart attacks.

4. Worry wastes valuable time. We are commanded to “walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). Worrying consumes an inordinate amount of time that could be better spent thinking about and doing those things that are eternally profitable.

What Is Worry?

Worrying is not the same as exercising foresight, preparing for the future, making plans, or taking appropriate precautions. All of these are biblically-legitimate activities.

What, then, is worry?

1.  Worry is a good emotion (concern) focused on the wrong day.

Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt. 6:34 NASB).

It is one thing to be concerned about a problem you are facing. It is quite another to be worried about how that concern may adversely affect you at some point in the future. It’s fine to determine how you are going to deal with your concerns or to develop a God-honoring plan to keep potential adversity from happening. It’s wrong to anxiously focus your attention today on what may go wrong in the future, as though the Lord were not going to provide for or protect you.

2.  Worry is experiencing unnecessary distress in the face of imaginary

suffering.

Worry is fear in the absence of actual danger. It is overestimating the possibility of danger and magnifying the degree of potential adversity. Worry is often accompanied by imaginary pessimistic and foreboding outcomes that have been distorted beyond all likelihood.

One of the most common manifestations of this kind of worry is what I call false prophecies:

“I just know I’m going to have a panic attack when I see all those people.”

“I’ll go crazy if I have to spend the rest of my life by myself.”

“My wife is going to get killed in a car crash if she visits her parents for the weekend.”

“I’ll never convince the human resources director to hire me.”

“There’s no way I’ll be able to handle the responsibilities of motherhood.”

“I won’t be able to adequately provide for my family.”

“I just know that I’m going to fall out of the chair lift!”

I sometimes remind my counselees, “You’re not a prophet, so stop making prophecies. If you’re going to speculate about the future, you ought to do so with biblical hope.”

3.   Worry is anticipating future suffering without anticipating the grace

God has promised to those who suffer.

Worry is thinking about your future as though God will not be there to take care of you. One of the most common manifestations of this kind of worry is what I like to call despairing prophecies.

“I could never face anything like that.”

“I would be devastated if . . .”

“I would just die if . . .”

“I wouldn’t be able to handle anything like that.”

“I would be shattered if . . .”

“That would be a tragedy.”

“That would be unbearable.”

“That would be the most awful, horrible, terrible, unbearable, catastrophic calamity that could ever happen to me!”

There was something in Paul’s life that caused him considerable distress and for which he prayed three times that God would remove. God said no. So rather than worrying about how this “thorn in the flesh” was going to adversely affect him, he relied on God to provide him with all the grace he would ever need to see him through it. Paul even boasted about how God would be glorified through his infirmities rather than fretting about how they would mess up his future.

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor. 12:8-9).

4.   Worry is the by-product of an undisciplined mind.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7 emphasis added).

The Greek term for sound mind in this passage has to do with self-control-especially in one’s thoughts, decisions, and judgments. The term may be rendered as “to have right thoughts about what one should do” or “to let one’s mind guide one’s body.” Defeating fear is a matter of learning how to control one’s thoughts. That’s where the Anxiety Journal comes in.

This powerful biblically-based tool is something you can use to help worriers bring their thoughts under the Spirit’s control. It has been more effective in the long run, safer, and in many cases faster acting than any antianxiety medication on the market. Its components are prescribed in the fourth chapter of Philippians.

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 understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.  Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:6-9).

Biblical Praying

There are three ingredients to this antidote for anxiety. The first is biblical praying (verses 6 and 7).

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 understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

This is not your run-of-the-mill kind of prayer.  It is highly specialized. In fact, Paul uses three different words for prayer in this prescription. They are prayer, supplication, and requests. Prayer is the most frequently used New Testament word for this activity. Supplication is a more specific term for prayer about something one urgently needs. Request has to do with the details pertaining to one’s supplication.

This prayer also contains one of the key components for conquering worry. It’s the phrase “with thanksgiving.” Your counselee’s prayers must not simply contain petitions for what he needs or wants. They must also include expressions of thankfulness to God.

I’d like to suggest three areas of thanksgiving-or perhaps it’s better to say three tenses of thanksgiving.

1. The Past. For what can I thank God concerning previous answers

to similar prayers?

2. The Present. What is there in these present circumstances for

which I can thank Him?

3. The Future. How can I thank Him for what He might be doing in

the future?

Biblical Thinking

The second stage of our anti-anxiety treatment is biblical thinking. Take a close look at verse 8.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things.

To knock out despair, your worrier must change his cognition. To turn down those intensely disturbing feelings, he must rearrange his thought patterns. To overcome fear and worry, he will have to discipline his mind. He will have to replace his anxious thoughts with thoughts that reflect biblical hope. He will have to replace thoughts that are theologically inaccurate with ones that are accurate, especially when it comes to how he thinks about God. His fears about the future that are unrealistic must be replaced with “whatsoever things are true” (i.e., things that conform to reality).

Let’s reconstruct a few of those false prophecies we looked at earlier.

“I just know I’m going to have a panic attack when I see all those people.”

Wouldn’t it be more biblical to think something like this? “The Lord promises to give me all the grace I need to respond appropriately to any contingency.” Or, perhaps something like this might be appropriate. “If I have a `panic attack,’ I’ll just have to have one. This is my parents’ anniversary (or similar event where the counselee’s attendance is nonoptional), and I’m not going to selfishly allow my fear of having a panic attack keep me from honoring them.”

“I’ll go crazy if I have to spend the rest of my life by myself.”

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to think, “I’m more likely to go crazy if I don’t learn how to get my anxiety under control. To live the rest of my life by myself is not a sin. To make an idol out of being married is.” Or how about this angle? “I’d rather want what I don’t have than have what I don’t want-a marriage that is not God’s best for me.”

“My wife is going to get killed in a car crash if she visits her parents for the weekend.”

How’s this for a biblical alternative? “My loving, omnipotent, sovereign Heavenly Father is able to protect  her from harm.”  Or, maybe something like this reminder would help. “The Lord has protected her many times before in answer to prayer.” Would this approach do well with your counselee? “I will not allow my selfishness to keep her from enjoying herself.” Possibly this one will get to the heart of the matter. “The Lord is the one who gave my wife to me. If He chooses to take her from me, then He will sufficiently supply all my needs as He always has.”

The possibilities are really endless. When it comes to rearranging our thought patterns, there truly is “more than one way to skin a cat” biblically. The more Scripture your counselee includes in his amended thought patterns, the more potent his spiritual tranquilizer will be. If practiced consistently, the process of changing thoughts from anxiety-oriented propositions to thoughts containing biblical truth should produce remarkable results in a relatively short period of time.

Biblical Action

If your counselee wants to conquer anxiety, it will not be enough for him to simply pray and meditate. As Paul explains in verse nine, he must do certain things as well.

“The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”

I’m going to suggest two categories of biblical actions that are helpful in knocking out anxiety. The first has to do with the anxiety itself. Any direct biblical action that can be taken to help prevent what is being worried about from occurring will qualify. The question to ask is, “What can I do (what actions can I take today) to keep what I’m worried about from happening tomorrow?” These actions include such things as studying what the Bible says about the particular concern, getting godly counsel, or formulating a biblical plan of action to solve the potential problem.

Rather than worrying about how he is going to cut down the entire forest, encourage the worrier to determine how may trees the Lord would want him to chop down “today.” Tomorrow is another day with another section of trees to cut. “Do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34 NASB). If each day he prayerfully plans to axe a limited number of trees, the worrier will find it possible to address his concerns without anxiety. He may even discover that the Lord has been on the other side of the forest bulldozing trees down much faster than he ever could.

The second kind of action that can be taken to thwart worry has to do with getting one’s mind off the worry and onto more profitable things. Is there any biblical action the counselee can take that will indirectly help by temporarily replacing anxious thoughts with thoughts that are more God-honoring and productive? How can he engage his mind with wholesome activities such as fulfilling his daily responsibilities, reading a good book, or listening to uplifting music? Even a game of tennis or golf could force him to think about something more pleasing to God than worry.

To help your worrier become more proficient in using this antianxiety treatment, teach him to use an Anxiety Journal. The Anxiety Journal is a worksheet on which the counselee can work out his anxieties in written form according to Philippians 4:6-9.  The directions are given in the second person to facilitate its use by photocopy machine.

After thoroughly unpacking Philippians 4:6-9 to the counselee, encourage him to do an Anxiety Journal for every anxious thought that he cannot dislodge from his mind quickly (say, five minutes or less). If time is short, encourage him to write down only his anxious thoughts in a small portable notebook at the moment they occur. Then ask him to fill out the Anxiety Journal later that day or the next (maybe during his personal Bible study time).

Review the counselee’s Anxiety Journal with him weekly in session. Be sure he is filling out the worksheet correctly and completely. Look for theological inaccuracies. Help him see additional items that can be added to his prayer, his thoughts (don’t forget to reinforce these with Scripture passages), and his action list. The goal is to train him to respond biblically by using this hard copy (the journal) until his entire response to anxiety producing circumstances becomes habitual. Don’t be surprised if you see an immediate decrease in the number of journals your counselee brings in week after week. This probably means he’s growing. Don’t be surprised either if you find that helping others with this project helps you to knock out some of your own worry.

Directions For Using the Anxiety Journal

An Anxiety Journal is a worksheet on which you can work out your anxieties in written form according to Philippians 4:6-9:  “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 understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.  Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.

Photocopy as many journal pages as you think you’ll need in a given two-week period. If all goes well, the frequency of your anxieties will diminish so you’ll use fewer copies in subsequent weeks.

At the top of each sheet, underneath the words  “My Anxiety (what I am concerned about),” describe the exact nature of your anxiety in the first person (e.g., “I’m afraid that if I go to the shopping mall, I’ll have a panic attack.”).

Underneath the words “Biblical Prayer,” write out your personal prayer. Be as specific as possible with your requests. Most importantly, express thankfulness to God for as many things as you can-especially those things that are connected to your concern. (Remember to thank in terms of past, present, and future.)

Underneath the words “Biblical Thoughts,” write out how you are going to think about your concern so as not to worry. Reconstruct your thought patterns to reflect biblical hope and theological accuracy, especially when it comes to trusting in God’s sovereignty and goodness, and His other Fatherly attributes. Use Philippians 4:8 as a guideline. Your reconstructed thoughts do not have to be a verbatim quotation from Scripture. A personalized application of a biblical principle or directive will do nicely.             Write down the appropriate Scripture references next to each thought for future study, meditation, and/or memorization.

Underneath the words “Biblical Actions,” write out the specific action you can take that will either address each concern on a day-by-day basis or focus your mind on more noble matters. The two questions to ask yourself are, “What can I do (what actions can I take today) to keep what I’m worried about from happening tomorrow?” and “What can I do (what actions can I take at this moment) that will engage my mind with more profitable thoughts than worry?”

Anxiety Journal

My Anxiety (what I am concerned about) ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Biblical Prayer ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Biblical Thoughts

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Biblical Actions

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