Every day in my role in Student Life at Boyce College, I enjoy rich conversations with students and staff about the nature and dynamics of spiritual life. I only wish that I had an hour at the end of each day to reflect on all that I learned. Today, my late afternoon conversation with an enjoyable young man turned to the topic of anxiety. I shared with him three major ways we can move away from anxiety.
Turn your anxiety to gratitude. Gratitude and anxiety are mutually exclusive. When my heart is filled with gratitude, I cannot be controlled by anxiety. And when my mind is whirling with anxiety, I cannot be focused on gratitude. Thankfully, having a grateful spirit is not always as difficult as it often seems. A grateful heart is usually a choice, not just an emotional reaction or a spontaneous spiritual high. Gratitude must be chosen and cultivated. As we finish up dinner each night, one of our children regularly asks that we “do something fun.” With four children, what we decide on is often not his first choice. Sometimes I have to encourage him to enjoy what we’re doing together instead of moping about all the fun ideas we’re not doing. In those moments I am urging (and I hope training him) to turn discontentment to gratitude.
Turn your anxiety to prayer. From prison, Paul encouraged the Philippians to morph their anxiety into prayer (Philippians 4:6). Anxious thoughts should become instant prayers. The language of anxiety should be translated into the language of request. Through the course of an average day, we don’t often put our anxieties into words. But if you’ll mentally verbalize your concerns, you’ll find that you can easily hijack the language and steer it toward prayer. “I’m worried about our financial security because of my husband’s job” is channeled into “Heavenly Father, please provide for us financially and help us to trust you with my husband’s job.” What’s the effect? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Turn your anxiety to service. One of the best ways to forget about yourself is to serve others. Turning your attention to others’ lives, stories, interests, and needs detoxes you from that addictive focus on your own busy schedule, overwhelming responsibilities, insufficient sleep, physical hardships, difficult decisions, relational conflicts, financial pressures, and future uncertainties. It’s not that others’ trials are more difficult than my own — sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. It’s that others’ lives are more important than my own. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Service can distract us (in a healthy way) from our natural preoccupation with our own challenges and concerns.
Anxiety comes in many different shapes, sizes, and forms. But we are all tempted to be anxious in one way or another, to one degree or another, in one circumstance or another. Anxiety is as poisonous as it is common, as it undercuts trust in God, draws us into ourselves, and leaves us fearful and grasping. Choosing gratitude, prayer, and service is a pleasant cure.