Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why We Need to Think

I've been working my way through messages from this year's Desiring God Conference, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. One of the sanctified uses of an Mp3 player is filling your mind with edifying and wise thoughts while in the car, or when you're exercising, or when you're walking from point A to point B - time when you would otherwise just be daydreaming or obsessing about all the things you need to do. I've learned that my attitude in life is far more healthy if I redeem some time in this way each week. The craziness of the average day is not likely to produce much encouragement in my heart, so I need to deliberately feed myself with something encouraging that lifts my spirit or helps teach me more about how to fight the daily battle effectively.

To that end, part of what I love about this year's DG Conference is that it is not aimed directly at intellectuals or students. It is intended, like John Piper's book of the same name, to encourage all Christians to think and to use our minds to the glory of God. We aren't all called to be scholars, but every one of us does need to make use of our minds in living the life of faith.

As I was listening to Al Mohler's message, he made this point: "We as Christians must recognize that there is a crucial distinction between the regenerate mind and the unregenerate mind. ... [T]here once was a way we thought that we can no longer think." (See Romans 1:21)

In other words, we as Christians have learned something earthshaking that changes everything about life. We can't afford to act as if things haven't changed. We are aware now of a whole new dimension to life - the spiritual dimension - that changes why we live, how we treat people, and where we find strength and hope. If we don't consciously change the way we think so that we plan and decide and act based on this new understanding, then for all our spiritual rebirth we will be ineffective and frustrated. We will fail to embrace the tools God has given us to flourish in our Christian life, and we will continue to pursue a mindset that invites temptation and leaves us vulnerable to the life-destroying effects of sin. Christians must consciously think like Christians in order to thrive. I highly recommend Mohler's message and Piper's book as good ways to encourage that in ourselves.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2

Sunday, October 10, 2010

How to Confront and Avoid Anxiety

As the last post explained, Battling Unbelief taught me to start focusing on God's promises and to put my trust in Him to keep them. If you want to overcome anxiety, you can't start by trying to ignore problems or by exerting "self-control" to stop being anxious. You have to find your peace by knowing the problem is being taken care of. You will always have problems and uncertainties to deal with in life, but anxiety comes from thinking we have to deal with them ourselves. God has promised us we don't have to. Jesus specifically said we shouldn't be anxious about tomorrow or about our needs, because our Father in heaven will take care of it all. (Matthew 6:25-33).

The first step is to believe God means what He says, and reject any feelings to the contrary. If you had a friend you deeply trusted, you would believe his or her word over the word of someone less reliable. Faith means showing God the same trust. We need to remember that our feelings and the circumstances around us are not in any way as reliable as the God who created us and who upholds the universe. I gradually began to respond to situations that made me anxious by resisting the anxiety and directing my thoughts to God's promises instead. I would focus on God's words instead of my thoughts and feelings, and on remembering that the fulfillment of these promises depends on God, not on me. Instead of driving faster or sitting up at night worrying over the next day's work, I needed to trust that things were in God's hands and He would take care of them.

I struggled with applying this because it seemed too easy - it seemed like I was just being lazy and putting off my own responsibilities onto God. Part of the deception of anxiety is the idea that everything really depends on what we do. But that is not a life of faith. The life of faith acknowledges that we are dependent on God, and that we can't succeed without Him. Jesus told His disciples: "...apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5). Paul tells us that our very salvation "depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Romans 9:16). And he told the Galatian church that if they received the Holy Spirit by faith, it was foolish for them to think that having begun by faith, they were now being perfected by their own work. (Galatians 3:1-7). The Christian life is a practice of depending on God by faith from beginning to end. We trust Him, and He shows His glory and faithfulness by always giving us what we need.

The more I practiced this, the more I discovered that I wasn't slipping in my responsibilities just because I was depending on God instead of my own anxious efforts. On the contrary, I began to be more faithful and more productive, and God proved His words true time and again by causing things to turn out well even when the circumstances looked anxious. My faith was strengthened by trusting God to keep His word, and I had a lot of freedom from the stress and tension I had carried around before. It wasn't a one-time cure; I still had to remember to practice this the next time a new anxiety came up. But living by faith has made me more productive and given me more peace of mind than ever before.

Anxiety Is Dangerous - And Avoidable

After somehow managing to successfully not post during the whole month of September, I want to jump back in by following up on the last post on how Martin Luther addressed anxiety. Since anxiety saps the joy out of many Christians, I want to share two realizations that have changed my life and explain how they helped: 1) anxiety comes from wrong thinking about God; and 2) anxiety is optional - it isn't a normal and necessary part of human life.

Regarding the first, I used to beat myself up when I was running late or when I didn't think I had put enough effort into something. I would pummel myself with thoughts about what was going to happen if I didn't pull out all the stops and somehow redeem the situation. This tended to put me in a high-stress, anxious state of mind that bordered on panic. Mercifully, a couple of years ago I began to realize that this practice of anxious self-reproach was accomplishing nothing. It wasn't helping me change my behavior. All it was doing was making me stressed and tense. I didn't know how to break out of the pattern, though, because it seemed irresponsible and apathetic to not be anxious and worked up when I was in a bad situation.

Part of the problem was that I had been unconsciously trying to use anxiety as a motivator - if I worked up enough stress and worry over something, hopefully it would push me into giving everything I had. By God's grace, I started to realize this and how useless it was. It was more than useless, too, because it left me stressed and irritable. In fact, Jesus warned that the cares of this world can choke out the Word of God and keep us from being fruitful. (Matthew 13:22-23). Anxiety is actually counterproductive. So instead, I started working on applying some things I learned from reading Battling Unbelief, a book by John Piper (you can also read the sermons he preached on this).

Piper introduced me to the surprising concept that anxiety was not just bothersome, but actually a form of distrust in God. Anxiety comes from not believing that God will faithfully watch over us and provide for us. It comes from believing that we have to take care of things ourselves or they won't get taken care of. So Piper calls anxiety a form of unbelief, a lack of faith in God's character. The cure for unbelief is faith - putting your trust in God to do what He has promised. This brought me to the second revelation: anxiety is unnatural for a Christian. It's a weakness of faith, and if we focus on building our faith, anxiety can be dispelled. Here's what happened when I tried applying this.