"Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength – carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength." – Corrie Ten Boom
I love that quote – it is so full of wisdom. But it also challenges me, because I know that I can allow worries about future events to overshadow my present.
While the Bible is full of instances of God telling us not to fear (he says it in various ways more than 350 times), most of us struggle at one time or other with fear or anxiety.
What is it about worry that means it affects us even after we profess that we trust in God and are seeking to serve him and look to him for all our needs?
It is reassuring that God knew that the human heart has a tendency to fall prey to worry. That's why, I think, he reminds us so often not to fear!
We can worry about so many things. How we are going to pay our rent/mortgage, what a meeting at work is going to be like, dealing with teenage children's hormones, getting enough sleep... So why is such a 'natural', everyday thing as worry so deadly for us?
Worry affects us physically. There is research that shows it can weaken our immune systems, cause depression, heart disease, muscle tension, memory loss, respiratory disorders and digestive conditions.
But worry does more than that, it also affects us spiritually. When we allow fear to overtake us it also pushes out faith and, as a result, we start to feel cut off from God's presence.
My church's monthly book study group is continuing to work its way through Joanna Weaver's Having a Mary heart in a Martha world, and we have just met to discuss her chapter on worry and anxiety. She has a great way of describing how anxiety can be seen like a fog that blocks out our view of God:
"While physical fog may seem dense and almost solid, scientists tell us that a fog bank a hundred feet deep and covering seven city blocks is composed of less than one glass of water. Divided into billions of droplets, it hasn't much substance. Yet it still has the power to bring an entire city to a standstill... So it is with anxiety. Our mind disperses the problem into billions of fear droplets, obscuring God's face."
One of the things I found so useful was how Weaver defines the difference between worry and concern. She recognises that our world is full of struggles and pain, and that there are many legitimate concerns we face every day. But while a concern is specific, and about a legitimate threat, a fear is often general and unfounded. Allowing our minds to be full of worry means that we can start to obsess about a problem and see more problems as a result (worry breeds more worries). We also can forget to turn to God – he seems to be last place we look to for the answer. With a concern, however, we look to address and solve the problem, and involve God in that process. Weaver quotes pastor/teacher Gary E Gilley:
"Worry is allowing problems and distress to come between us and the heart of God. It is the view that God has somehow lost control of the situation and we cannot trust him. A legitimate concern presses us closer to the heart of God and causes us to lean and trust on him all the more."
I can recognise how I respond when I allow fear or worry to take a hold in my heart: I feel panic literally rising and overtaking me and I cannot concentrate on anything else. The problem or difficulty blows up out of all proportion and I find it hard to talk to God – or anyone close to me – about it. I become totally irrational, can get angry or tearful and lose sleep.
So what can we do if we know we have a tendency to worry?
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7)
1. Be honest with yourself – and God
Look at what it is that you are worrying about and decide: is this a legitimate concern or an irrational worry? Then take it to God and ask for his help. If you feel you are really struggling with a particular worry then it can be helpful to share it with a close friend who can pray with you and keep you accountable on the subject too.
2. Spend time each day focusing on God
Remind yourself of who he is and what he is capable of. With a different perspective, our problems and worries can seem to literally shrink before our eyes.
3. Remind yourself of God's promises
Look at the particular thing that is causing worry and ask yourself: what can I do and what should I simply leave up to God?
If you are struggling with a particular area then it could be beneficial to do a study on God's promises specifically about that. So, for example, if you worry about finances look at what the Bible says about God providing for us.
4. Learn to 'pray continually'
If we get into the habit of talking to God throughout our day – bringing him the big and little things – then it is much harder for worries to overtake us and blow us off course away from him. Here's another great quote from Corrie Ten Boom: "Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden." In her book, Weaver describes how she consciously learned to turn every little worry into a prayer.
If you know your thoughts are mainly made up of worries, try turning those thoughts into prayers.
"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
5. Learn to be thankful
This is where a journal can be so helpful. If we record all the ways that God is faithful and how he has worked in our lives, we have a constant supply of practical reminders of how he does look after us and how he "will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:9)
There are a few of us in our book group who have spent time either writing in a thankfulness journal every day or tweeting three good things about our day each evening. Each one of us commented on how it has made us more aware of those little details that made our day special, but which are so easy to overlook without such a discipline (as our minds have a tendency to focus on the difficulties). If you know you find it hard to be thankful or recollect positives, why don't you try writing down three things you are thankful to God for each evening?
6. Actively 'take captive every thought' (2 Corinthians 10:5)
We can so easily let thoughts come and go in our minds, feeling that we have no control over them, but the Bible is very clear that we have a part to play in ensuring that what we think about is beneficial and edifying to us:
"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." (Philippians 4:8)
Have you ever stopped and reflected on what your mind has lingered on in the previous 10 minutes? It can be really revealing – and challenging!
7. Change what you meditate on
We can think that reading and meditating on the Bible is far too difficult a practise to do daily, but we are often very well versed in meditating on our problems and worries! We simply need to re-educate our minds to focus on those things that will help us rather than hinder us.
Why not try replacing a specific worry with a scripture that speaks directly to it? Each time the worry pops into your head, speak the scripture to it.
Worry is one of those things that we know the Bible tells us not to do, but we can so often struggle to be free of. Putting some of the above simple ideas into action can help us form new habits. Because worry is a habit in itself – and a toxic one at that. Learning to recognise when a worry rears its ugly head, and being equipped with some simple ways of replacing or dealing with it, can be so helpful.