Monday, July 6, 2015

Anxiety: The Divided Heart

Last week we began a series about the difference between the life we are promised in the Scriptures as Christians and the actual lives we live.  God has promised us abundant, joyful, fulfilling lives, yet we live in poverty, misery, and worry.

God has not let us down. The gift we have been given has been stolen from us. Jesus gave us this promise in John 10:10 

“The thief comes to kill, steal, and destroy.  I come that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” 

Who are these thieves that rob us of our joy?  We are looking at seven—the “seven sinister sisters”--fear, anxiety, hopelessness, laziness, jealousy, perfectionism, and individualism. 

This week we are talking about anxiety.  Fear and anxiety are not the same thing. They are both emotions and they both come about due to a threat, but beyond that, their similarity ends. 

Let me illustrate the difference. Suppose you are working in your backyard one day, and you see a rattlesnake. Your first reaction ought to be fear. Your glands shoot adrenalin into your system. Your heart starts pumping, your palms get sweaty, and panic starts to take over. You explode with energy, and you either kill it or run. Psychologists call this the “fight or flight” response.  Either kill it or get out of its way.  Fear in this case could save your life.

But the next day, you have to return to the backyard and finish your work. As you do, your glands give you another shot of adrenalin. You are afraid, but there is nothing before you, only the memory of the snake. What if there’s another rattler?  How do you know there’s not? What precautions should you take to prevent it? Your body experiences the same physical responses you felt when you saw the snake, but now there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t kill a snake that isn’t there, and you can’t run from a snake you can’t see. So you go around the yard thinking about the snake that only might be there. Even when you finish your work, and go in the house you still think about that snake.

What you feel the next day may seem like fear, but it is not. It is anxiety. Fear has a definite object. Anxiety is generalized and vague. Fear prompts us to act. Anxiety keeps us from acting.  Fear is a good motivator as long as it has a direct motivation, and fear is only for a short time. But anxiety is a de-motivator, and can last for a lifetime.  Fear protects and preserves. Anxiety destroys and unnerves.

Christian psychologist Dr. Archibald Hart has written an excellent book on the physical side of anxiety. He explains that anxiety is the result of adrenalin in our system. Adrenalin is the chemical that gives us almost superhuman strength in emergencies. But over time, if we try to run on adrenalin all the time, it tears us down. It breaks down the brain chemicals that give us our sense of wellbeing—serotonin and norepinephrine. We get nervous and jittery. We can’t sleep. We obsess and fret over things. Our hearts ache and we get upset over nothing. When we cannot fight or flee we turn into worriers.  

Anxiety is a subtle and dangerous killer. Often we don’t even realize we have it. Many Christians have it all time, but they just think it’s normal to worry. Unlike excitement that comes from pleasure, which builds us up, our worry and anxiety is tearing us down. 

The Bible talked about anxiety two thousand years before psychologists discovered it. The Bible uses two different words for fear and anxiety. Fear is phobos in Greek, and refers to the sudden reaction of threat. The Greek word for anxiety is merimnate, which derives from the word for partition or divide. When we are anxious, we have divided thoughts and hearts. One part of us is trying to live in today, while the other part is worried about yesterday, or tomorrow. We are carrying two or three times the burden we should in our minds. We cannot enjoy or be productive in this day, because our minds are stuck somewhere else. 

A friend of mine spoke about getting some terrible news about one of his children. Afterwards, he had to get in his car and drive to the drug store. He thought about his child, and suddenly realized that he had passed the drug store and was on the other side of town. He had not been paying attention to where he was going. His anxiety about his child had occupied the space in his brain that should have been given to navigating and driving. 

Anxiety distracts us from life. We cannot pay attention to our business, because we are thinking about our worries. We all have anxiety, but when it affects our daily enjoyment of life, then our anxiety has overcome us.  

Jesus gave us the best advice we could ever have about anxiety in Matthew 6, “Take no thought about tomorrow.” In Matthew 6: 31-34

 “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

"Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Worry and anxiety steals today from us, by focusing on the past or the future. When we are robbed of today, then our tomorrow is stolen in the process. It steals our attention from what we are doing now, and forces us to focus on what may never be.

Have you even taken a trip with someone who required a lot of attention? For example, an elderly relative or a small child.  How much attention could you give to what you were doing while you were worried about them? You cannot, because you have a divided heart. You are either paying attention to one or the other. 

Worry wears everyone down in time. It burns us up from the inside.

During World War II the army hired psychologists to look at the state of troops in combat, particularly in regard to “shell-shock” what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress. What they discovered was that the maximum a person could withstand in continual battle field conditions was twenty-one consecutive days.  Every soldier, no matter how balanced or fearless, would experience shell-shock after twenty-one days of fighting. They had to have time off or they would burn out. So, the army learned to rotate soldiers in and out of battle.

A continual state of heightened adrenalin is poison to your system. We need time to recuperate if we are to survive. This is what Paul addresses in Philippians 4: 6-7 

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

  The word for anxiety is our old friend merimnate. It means to have a divided heart, which means to care over things we don’t need to care about at the moment. 

Paul isn’t saying that you can avoid being anxious. Everyone is anxious sometimes. In Philippians 2: 2, Paul feels anxious about the Philippian church. He admits in 1 Corinthians 7: 32-34, that a married man is more anxious than an unmarried man, because of his responsibilities for his family. No one is suggesting we’ll just saunter fearlessly through life-threatening situations without any worry. We must deal with worry. We must learn to lay our anxieties aside and get on with life.

“Be anxious over nothing.” Many people are anxious over exactly that—nothing! Is what we are worrying about anything worth worrying about? Whenever we are anxious, we should first decide what we are anxious about. What’s really stressing us?

Second, ask if what you are worrying about is in your control or out of your control. Is it really within your power to prevent all calamity, or is your worry really taking on a responsibility that belongs to God. It is sensible to take precautions against disaster, but anyone who assumes they can stop all of life’s disasters is fooling themselves. Most of our worries are about things we can’t control.

We can’t control the past. We can’t control the future. We can only control our now, which is this moment. This is the only responsibility we have. To make good decisions today.

We can’t change the past. Shame, regret, unforgiveness, and guilt are all just different words for anxiety about the past. The past is gone, and it is like a ghost. Don’t be afraid of ghosts. They cannot affect us now unless we let them. Christ’s forgiveness on the Cross set us free from worries about the past.

We can control only a small part of the present. You can’t stop a meteor hurtling to earth over your head. Neither can we stop our grown kids from making stupid decisions. We can only control the little part of the world we are in right now.

We cannot control the future. I can assure you that bad things as well as good things will definitely happen tomorrow.  But when they happen, God will give us what we need to survive. 

Paul says, “In everything, by prayer and supplication, make your requests known.”

Whenever we feel anxiety welling up inside, we must respond by slowing down and resting. Take some deep breaths. Take a moment to meditate and pray. Instead of driving faster, drive slower. Turn off the radio. Turn off the news programs, and pray instead.

The usual response I get when I suggest prayer is this, “I tried praying, but it didn’t work!”   My answer is, “How did you pray? Did you pray in calm or in panic?  Did you expect immediate results, or long-term strength?  Did you go through the steps of prayer--acknowledging who God is, recognizing the blessings, confessing your sins, and accepting His forgiveness, or did you just skip those parts of prayer and just scream, “Help!” Prayer is a concentrated act of devotion, a laying aside of worries to visit with our Maker. In prayer we step out of our worldly boundaries and commune with God on a different level. We’ll never be calm if we keep one eye on God, and one on the world. That divided heart is the essence of worry.

Paul gives us a promise that if we give God His due, and entrust to Him what is really His, then the peace of God which passes all understanding will fill us. Instead of being driven by adrenalin, we are calmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

Worry will kill you. Christ will save you.  When we bring our worries to Him, then he will lift the burden of our worries from our shoulders.

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