Many counselors consider worry to be the common cold of emotional problems. To begin with, most of us like to think of ourselves as concerned and caring individuals. Concern is a healthy emotional activity that consists of three phases. It begins with the awareness of a present need, then involves consideration of available solutions and finally takes some kind of action.
For most of us, the problem of worry usually begins in the second phase. While we consider the available solutions, we also tend to become more aware of all the terrible things that might take place and then we start to feel as if all of those things already happened. Our perspective becomes distorted. Our concern has slid into worry.
What exactly is worry? It is the feeling of dread and involves spending great amounts of time dwelling on a real or imagined problem. Worry is almost always assuming the worst about something that has not yet happened. Worry isn’t just a contemporary problem. People have struggled with worry since the beginning of time. That is why the Bible has much to say about it. God knew that it would be a problem and in His perfect wisdom He gave us examples of the problem and supplied us with a practical solution.
One of the classic examples of worry is found in Numbers 13. The children of Israel have been freed from the helplessness of slavery and now they are at the edge of the Promised Land.
When the 12 spies return, they report that the land is just as God said it would be. Yet in the next verse, several make the observation that there are some large walled cities there and some of the people are big and strong. Yet, Caleb says “Let’s go for it.” He knew God’s promises and character and he kept his focus on what he knew to be true rather than allowing himself to be sidetracked by the “what ifs.”
It’s too bad that the rest of Israel did not follow his lead. In phase two, they took their eyes off God and instead focused their attention on the negative possibilities. They didn’t just cast a glance at the possible problems, they started staring at them. In verse 31 they made a negative interpretation of the report and by verse 32 it became a gross exaggeration.
By this time they were emotionally paralyzed and the decision had already been made. They were not going in. They all started to complain. At this point someone had a great idea, “Let’s all go back to Egypt. Remember how happy we were in Egypt?”
In this one example we can see the effects of worry on our lives. First of all, worry magnifi es our problems and then distorts our perspective so that we can’t think logically. Then worry tends to hinder us from taking constructive action. The energy we have wasted on worry cannot be used to help us solve the legitimate problem that first attracted our concern.
Worry also makes us more impatient and makes us want to take things into our own hands. If we don’t catch worry in the early stages and apply some sound Biblical principles, we then become more vulnerable to fear and depression. Just as worry led to the children of Israel spending 40 years in the desert wilderness, worry has kept many Christians in an emotional wilderness.
As for the solution, in Matthew 6:25-34 Christ gives us three things we can do to help prevent worry. The first is to cultivate a divine perspective and make sure your spiritual values are in control. Remind yourself of some of God’s many promises. Write verses like Psalm 37:1-9 and Philippians 4:4-9 on three by five cards and carry them in your pocket.
The second piece of advice is to accept what can’t be changed. There are three categories of circumstances. Things we can change, things we can’t change but can influence and things that we can’t change or influence. Most of us worry about things we can’t change and we get so worn out worrying that we don’t have any energy left to figure out if we can even influence the problem.
The third way to prevent worry is to live one day at a time. Someone said that “Yesterday is a canceled check, tomorrow is a promissory note, today is cash, spend it wisely.”
What happens when we realize that we’ve allowed worry to slip past our guard? We’re looking for all of the giants in the promised land. We’ve thought of all kinds of terrible things that could happen.
First of all, take out those three by five cards with the promises on them and read them. When you come to the Philippians 4:4-9 passage, hold onto that card. In this passage Paul has given us the plan for victory.
We start by taking our eyes off the problem and turning our focus on God—His character, His promises, His love for us—and rejoicing and praising Him. There’s a great story in II Chronicles 20 in which the children of Israel are surrounded by enemies. They are out-numbered. It looks hopeless. They feel helpless. In verse 17 they are told “You need not fight in this battle; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.” Then in verse 22 we read that when they began to sing and praise the Lord, then he provided the victory.
Please note that I didn’t say to ignore the problem or to pretend there are no problems. The only way to escape the worry trap is to start by reorienting our perspective.
The next step is to continue choosing not to worry and to discuss the issue with God in prayer. Seek the divine perspective. Many have changed the motto “Why worry when you can pray?” to “Why pray when you can worry?” In prayer, God can help us to identify and clarify our worries. We can weed out the outrageous and irrational fears from the legitimate and rational concerns. We can identify the real issues.
Our next step (verse 8) is to look at our worries in light of what we know to be true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and of good repute. We are to fill our minds with that which is healthy. When we take even a few minutes to focus on God’s promises, it is diffi cult, if not impossible, to feel like things are terrible and to feel overwhelmed. Instead we are able to move back into the healthy response of concern and begin to work on some healthy alternatives.
The last step is in Philippians 4:9 and involves practicing what we know to be true. It is the step of making realistic plans and then acting on those plans. If we can change the situation, then what specific changes can
we make? If we can influence the situation, what are the ways in which our influence can be applied? If we decide that we can’t change it or directly influence it, then obviously we can still pray about it, and turn our attention and efforts and energy into concerns that we can change or influence.
Oliver is the director of the Center for Healthy Relationships. He can be reached at GOliver@jbu.edu.