[This post is continued from “Asleep in the boat, part 1: When God is the cause of anxiety.”]
As I studied the story of Jesus sleeping peacefully in a storm-tossed boat (Mark 4:35-41), I realized how much I want to experience that same peace.
I don’t know exactly how to develop it, but I do know I’m sick of being worried and anxious. I want to kick the worry habit, but wanting and doing are two different things. And even scriptures urging us not to worry (Matthew 6:25-27, Philippians 4:6-7), which should soothe me, can increase anxiety because they create a new problem: a load of guilt for being unable to obey them.
Maybe you too have experienced this cycle. I mean, there are plenty of things to worry about, many of them far beyond our control. And for true anxiety addicts like me, even when life is good we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
So my prayer is that I can honestly surrender my anxieties to Jesus and, in my imperfect way, claim the true peace of Christ.
Toward that end, I’ve been trying to practice three steps I call the “reverse ABCs of anxiety”: Cry out; Be thankful; Ask for help.
Here’s what I mean…
- Cry out to God. First, I’ve discovered that willpower can’t stop anxiety, because willing myself to stop my worrying only increases my focus on it. (For example, try not thinking of the color red. Go!) Instead, the key is to pour out all my anxieties to God: my career (or lack thereof); political issues; global injustices; fragmentation in the body of Christ; my book sales and readers’ responses; ideas for future books and blogs; and all the rest. Confession is the beginning of repentance and healing, so I bare all my worries to God and nail them to the cross.
- Be thankful. Following a sermon suggestion, my wife and I started listing five things each day for which we are thankful. My wife can hardly stop at five, but I can hardly even start because doing it “on purpose” every day feels like a superficial routine to me. Yet through this practice, I’m learning that thankfulness is not based on emotion; it is based on reality – the reality that God is good and trustworthy. No matter how I feel, God is still God. So I am learning to intentionally enter a state of thanksgiving and praise regardless of my feelings. Being anxious focuses on the future – but being thankful acknowledges God’s goodness in the present.
- Ask for help to do small things. The disciples could not calm the furious winds and waves – but there was one small thing they could do: they could wake up Jesus in the boat. Like them, I can’t calm my overwhelming anxiety – but I can at least wake up Jesus. I can ask him to help me think of a new blog idea, write for an hour without distraction, or post a quote on social media. After completing that task, I can ask him to help me complete another. Trusting God becomes easier when I focus on the next small thing before me. Focusing on big issues beyond my control only makes me more anxious.
These steps are something I need to do every day, because giving our cares and concerns to God is not a simple one-time prayer but an ongoing process that continues throughout our lives. So every day, we cry out to God and lay our anxieties before him. Every day, we acknowledge his goodness by giving thanks even when we don’t feel like it. Every day, we ask for his help to complete the next small thing in front of us. And every day, we repeat the process again.
I won’t pretend these steps are easy or that I have mastered them. I still stumble and feel overwhelmed by anxiety, just as the disciples felt overwhelmed by the waves. And that kind of overwhelming anxiety tends to create more.
But I have grace on my side—the grace of Jesus, fast asleep on a cushion (Mark 4:38a). When he asked his disciples why they had so little faith, I don’t think he was chiding them. Instead, I think he was challenging them. He wanted all of his followers to trust God so deeply that we, like him, can sleep through a storm.
The storms will come—but God’s peace will guide us through.
And as I learn to practice the steps above, I’ll let you know how it goes.
You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.