Circles of clarification for the anxious heart

3 circle slideControl
The inner circle is the circle of control; because it includes the elements over which you are able exercise control and have been given responsibility. You’ll note that it is the smallest circle; there is very little in this life that you and I can actually control. For instance, I can’t control the traffic on my way to work, but I can control my response to that traffic. I can’t control the world’s economy, but I can control my spending and be fiscally responsible. I can’t control the outcome of my children’s choices, but I am able to control the instruction and discipline I give to them while they are under my authority.  God has intentionally made my circle of responsibility the smallest. His Word gives precepts and commands so that I would know what my responsibilities are and obey him accordingly. As I walk in the Spirit, and not in the flesh, I am able to do everything that is within this circle (Gal. 5:16, Phil. 4:13).

The middle circle contains the areas that touch my life, but over which I exercise limited control. A friend or a family member who is living a dangerous life style would fall into this category. Hopefully, through the years, my compassion and loyalty have won me the opportunity to speak to him about my concerns. Certainly, I have influence as a friend. Still, I have to remember, I do not ultimately control his choices or the outcome of those choices. He alone is responsible. He, too, has a circle of control.

In the areas where I feel concern, I pray, and look for opportunities to minister. But when I think I can control my friend’s choices, I become manipulative. I use tools like shame or silence. I bribe him by holding our relationship hostage. To avoid this pattern, I remind myself of my responsibilities as found in 2 Timothy.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will [emphasis added](2 Tm. 2:24-26).

Ultimately, I cannot make my friend change his mind. Only the Spirit of God can bring about repentance. In the areas where I am concerned, but cannot control I must learn to trust God. This is why prayer is a valuable replacement for worry. Every time I pray, I am trusting God to do in another’s life what I cannot do.

Even when I am not manipulative, it is easy to drift from the middle circle into the outer one. Being concerned is only one step away from being consumed. I go to sleep thinking about the situation and wake up with it on my mind. It distracts me from the important conversations around me. It interrupts my relationship with God, and it intrudes upon my relationships with others. This is the circle of worry. I can’t seem to get my mind off the matter at hand. When I am in this circle, it feels like I should be able to come up with a solution if I only worry for a little longer. That is anxiety’s lie. Without realizing it, I have drifted from being concerned to being consumed.

The three circles clarify an inherent danger when we move from the inner circle to the outer. The outer circle does not touch the inner. Which means, when I am worrying about a matter, I cannot fulfill my God-given responsibilities. My time and energies are wasted in the consumed circle and I have nothing left to spend on the areas that I am responsible for. This is why unchecked anxiety often leads to other sins. We’ve depleted the resources that God had given us to fulfill our responsibilities today because we were worrying about tomorrow. Jesus made this case in his Sermon on the Mount when he said,  “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mat. 6:34).

When something or someone is beginning to consume your mind, the three circles serve as a vivid reminder that you are not fulfilling your responsibilities. Stop obsessing over what you can’t control and give your best efforts to those areas that you can. Be faithful to do what God has asked of you.

Taken from Safe in the Storm: biblical strategies for overcoming anxiety published by Biblical Strategies, 2013.

Anxiety and the character of God

Triangle slideAnxiety is the natural result of doubting the character of God. This diagram helps you think properly about God’s character in relation to your well-being. God’s wisdom means he knows what is best for you; God’s power means he has the ability to accomplish what is best for you; God’s love means that he genuinely wants what is best for you. Reflecting upon this triad is a helpful way to overcome anxiety. Whatever storm you face, you are safe within the confines of God’s love, wisdom and power.

Anxiety will occur whenever you doubt one of these elements of God’s character. The diagram is also an excellent diagnostic tool for anxiety. It clarifies where you should focus your Bible study. For instance, if you doubt God’s goodness then study passages about his love (1 John 4:8). If you question his ability choose passages on his power (Jer. 32:17). If you question whether he knows what is best, then study passages on his wisdom (Rom. 11:34).

Taken from Safe in the Storm: biblical strategies for overcoming anxiety published by Biblical Strategies. Available in Christian bookstores and with online retailers.

Help for the anxious

SISFirst Peter 5:7 is one of the sweetest verses in the Bible. Peter recorded this truth for people who were under severe persecution. He writes, “Casting all you anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” We all have the desire to control things that we cannot, and we often forget how deeply God cares for us. If I had authored the verse, I might have chosen a different quality of God to emphasize. Something like his perfect wisdom or his unlimited power. Logically, it would make more sense to think that even though I am not in control, an all-wise, all-powerful God is. But the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire Peter otherwise, and I’m glad he did. When it comes to anxiety, he chose to emphasize the compassionate, softer side of God. When I am fearful, I find comfort in this truth: I’m not alone in my struggle, and God cares.

The challenge, of course, is that anxiety can wake you up at 3:00 AM. The silence in your house echoes the message: No one’s here and no one cares. In these times we feel so very alone. We stare into the darkness trying to find a reasonable solution to the trouble we’re in. The alarm clock interrupts our thoughts, but not our sleep, a shrill reminder that this is the time we should be waking up had our anxious thoughts not awakened us earlier. As we enter into the day, all those around us seem to interact quite naturally with one another. They laugh about their weekend. They complain because it’s Monday. They tell stories about their relationships or listen to others who do. We smile and exchange formalities as if we’re part of the group, but our anxious thoughts are all our own. They whisper deceitfully: No one knows, and no one cares. But the Bible tells us this is not entirely true. It may be true that the smiling people around you are clueless to your difficulty. It might even be true that some of them, if they knew, wouldn’t care. But God knows, and he cares. This is why the first principle of overcoming anxiety is belief. You and I must learn to believe God’s Word, not our feelings.

We live in a world where feelings reign supreme. Listen attentively to the conversations around you, and I’m sure you’ll agree. Every day, people are making life-changing decisions from a feelings-foundation. Statements like, I feel like this is the best decision for me, or I just don’t feel like I love him anymore are commonplace. This mindset has even drifted into our spiritual conversations. I often hear people say I feel like this is God’s will for me or I just had a feeling that it was the right thing to do. Because our feelings are personal, deeply felt, and sincere, they are easy to believe. But that doesn’t mean that we should believe them. The root word for “believe” occurs 241 times in the New Testament. Nearly half of those times it is used by the apostle John. He directed us to believe the Father, his promises, his Word, and his Son. But not once did he say we should believe what we feel. This is the necessary starting point for victory over feelings of anxiety. It’s time to ask yourself: what do I really believe?

Excerpted from Safe in the Storm: biblical strategies for overcoming anxiety, p. 9-10. Available at Christian bookstores and online retailers.

Getting victory over anxiety — Part 2

When we choose to battle our anxiety we soon realize that it isn’t simply a battle with anxious feelings, but also with anxious thoughts. You will not see victory over the ingrained habits of worry without addressing the way you think (Phil. 4:8).

I refer to this second principle as: change your mind, not your circumstances. Most of us have very little control over our circumstances. You didn’t determine the family into which you would be born. Whether heart disease or cancer may run in your DNA is something over which you have no control. The downward pressure of the economy on your 401K is something outside of your control. Sometimes an employer’s decision to keep you or release you may not even be tied to your performance.

While you cannot change those circumstances you can change the way you think about them. God encourages us to do so (Phil. 4:6-8).

Here are a few ways you need to change your thinking.

You need to change how you think about worry (Phil. 4:6).

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:5, 6).

The phrase “do not be anxious about anything” is in the imperative mood. Simply put, it is a command. That means we shouldn’t see it as optional. Most of us wouldn’t get up in the morning with the intention of breaking 5 of the 10 commandments. But the command, “do not be anxious about anything” is one we don’t take quite so seriously. We need to.

When we worry, we ought to repent and ask forgiveness from the Lord for it. We need to acknowledge the truth that he had provided a way out, we just chose not to take it (1 Cor. 10:13).

As we think the same thought repeatedly, we develop the habit of thinking it intuitively. It just naturally happens. After a while it begins to feels like it’s something that is happening to us, but really it is just the habitual way we have grown accustomed to thinking about challenges. We worry, as opposed to trust God.

This is so important to understand. We are still responsible for our thoughts when we break God’s command about anxiety. We don’t get a pass, just because they have become habitual.

To gain victory, you will need to change how you think about worry. It wasn’t something that just happened. It was something you chose to do.

You need to change how you think about prayer (Phil 4:6).

When it comes to anxiety, most people see prayer as a last-ditch effort. Usually, we try to handle the difficulty on our own. But, it begins to feel overwhelming. We start to worry. When all else fails…we pray.

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:5, 6).

There are three additional words in this verse that shape out the way we should think about prayer: supplication, thanksgiving, and requests.

The word supplication speaks of one’s neediness. We come to the Lord with a spirit of humility that acknowledges our great need. Not just our struggle with the thing we’re worrying about at the moment, but our daily need on the Lord for all things. (Go here for a helpful article on learning to pray with 24/7 dependence

We need God, not just relief from our circumstances.

Thanksgiving means that we express our gratitude to the Lord through prayer. When you only make your prayer about the thing you’re worrying about, you strip out of your prayer a tremendous resource: a grateful heart. If you don’t feel thankful, revisit the end of verse 5. It reminds you the Lord is at hand. God has not left you alone in your struggle. Start by thanking him for that.

Notice that your requests come last in this listing. This is by God’s design. You need to develop more fully your pattern of prayer. Another way to say this is: Prayer should be your pattern, not your panic button.

When you are praying in a more complete way, you will find that prayer becomes your replacement for worry. When you worry, you try to figure life out on your own. When you pray, you invite God’s strength, wisdom, and sovereign love into the equation.

Getting Victory over Anxiety – Part 1

Anxiety. Most of us have felt it at one time or another: the fear of future events that may or may not come to pass. We’re nervous. We’re anxious. We worry.

Jesus spoke about anxiety in his sermon on the mount. Six times he used the word anxious. Each time he encouraged us to trust our heavenly Father (Matt. 6:25-34)

Three other Biblical passages are very helpful when developing a plan to battle anxiety (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6; Psalm 37: 1-5).

Peter wrote to a group of people who were suffering. They were being persecuted for their faith – even to the point of death. They had every human reason imaginable to be anxious.

Yet, in less than a dozen words he reminds them what to do with their anxiety.

Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)

If you like to fish, the word casting brings an image to mind. You feel the weight of the lure bouncing at the end of the rod. You make the cast, and begin retrieving the lure. That may work for fishing, but it is ineffective with anxiety. You’re not to retrieve the anxiety once you cast it. The Biblical word means to cast away. You’re supposed to give it to the Lord with no strings attached. You don’t retrieve those anxious thoughts so that you may start to worry over them again (I’ll talk about what you should do tomorrow).

There is a principle tucked in this verse that we have a tendency to forget. When it comes to anxiety we need to believe God’s Word over our feelings. When you experience difficulties that lead to anxiety, you might feel like God doesn’t care. Those feelings may be intense. You might feel confused: unable to understand how you can suffer if God really cares.

Yet, God’s unchanging Word stands opposed to what we feel at the time. It explicitly states: “God cares for you.” This isn’t blind faith that cast one’s anxieties on an invisible God; rather, it is reasonable faith to place one’s confidence in the unchanging Word of God instead of one’s ever-changing emotions.

So when feelings of anxiety begin to consume your thinking, learn to cast those anxieties upon the Lord. Remember, he wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it…God cares for you.