Equip you to hand anxiety and overcome it with joy

Key Scripture

Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 63: 5 (MSG)


I am so stressed out right now.

Have you ever said that? Of course you have, or at least something like it.  We’ve all been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.  Singer Shawn Mendes describes what it feels like to be stressed out in his song entitled “In My Blood:”

I’m looking through my phone again, feeling anxious

Afraid to be alone again, I hate this

I’m trying to find a way to chill, can’t breathe, oh

Is there somebody who could

Help me, it’s like the walls are caving in

Sometimes it feels like the walls of life are caving in.  Most often they aren’t, but we sure do worry about the crumble, so much so that it gets tough to breathe at times.  In fact, Ariana Grande described this challenge to Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show.  She said the song “Breathin’ is about breathing…when you’re anxious.  I was having lots of [anxiety attacks].  We were in the studio…and I was like, ‘Ugh, I can’t breathe.’ And they were like, ‘We’re going to write this song.’…Okay, I still can’t breathe, but we’ll write it.”  So she writes and sings a song that gives voice to our human experience as anxiety hits…

      Feel my blood runnin’, swear the sky’s fallin’

      I keep on breathin’

      Time goes by and I can’t control my mind

      I keep on breathin’, mmm, yeah

Ariana Grande illuminates the central battleground for stress–the mind.  She says, “I can’t control my mind,” and therein lies the problem.  When it comes to anxiety, the battle is for our mind.  Our mind feels like a stallion running wild, refusing to be saddled, much less bridled.  How do we overcome this type of anxiety? Can joy really overcome anxiety and push it out of our life? We’re beginning a series looking at some of the obstacles of life that we all face and how to overcome them.  The first obstacle we will consider is anxiety. In our training session today, we’ll consider:

  1. The Battleground for Anxiety: The Mind
  2. The Cause of Anxiety: Worry
  3. The Cure for Anxiety: Ongoing Choices of Joy
  4. The Result: Joyful Peace

The Battleground for Anxiety: The Mind

Ariana is right when she sings about the mind spinning out of control with anxious thoughts.  We have a million colloquial expressions depicting this: “I’m scared out of my wits; I’m worrying myself to death; I’m so stressed out I can’t think straight; I’m so stressed it feels like my head’s about to explode.”  We have all these idiomatic ways of depicting the battle in our brains.

The battle lines are clear.  The “father of lies” (John 8:44) leads a demonic army.  He wants control of our minds.  He will hiss, whisper, roar, and do anything he can to muddle and befuddle our minds.  His goal is to appeal to what the Bible calls the flesh.  The flesh is, plain and simple, the desires inside of you that are opposed to all things related to Christ and His purposes in the world.  Galatians 5:17 says, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.“  The flesh and the Spirit are at war with one another and the enemy wants to bend and turn our minds toward the desires of the flesh.  He gains ground in our minds, our hearts, and the world when we give in to the desires of the flesh.   

It is true that if the Spirit of Christ dwells in our hearts, then the enemy can’t possess us and ultimately claim us as his, but he can severely oppress us and use us for his catastrophic purposes in the world.  The battleground, you see, is for the mind. “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law” (Romans 8:7-8).  We cannot allow the enemy to set our minds on the flesh.  All kinds of evil and a boat load of stress await if we do.

On the other side of the battlefield stands Jesus Christ, our conquering High King.  He leads us into battle and calls us to put on the “helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6:17).  He knows that to be successful in battle we need a mind saturated with the plans of our High King to seek and save the lost and to renew all things.  We need redeemed thinking, thoughts that are directed towards our High King’s battle plans and “saved” from all that is hostile to God.

Now let’s connect our minds to the battle we face with anxiety.  What do we do when stress invades our mind?  Whether it is just feeling stressed out or an all out panic attack, what do we do? How do we put on the helmet of salvation and save our thoughts from stress and worry?  To begin with, we have to identify what is causing the stress, so let’s start there.  In any battle, you have to find the supply lines and cut them off.

The Cause of Anxiety: Worry

We begin to feel stress or anxiety because of one word: worry.  We worry about a future event that may or may not happen; we worry about a present stress-inducing life circumstance that is currently happening; or we worry about the consequences and implications of a past event that has happened.  One way or another, we worry. 

(1)        Future Worry

When it comes to worrying about the future, my wife calls it future tripping.  She didn’t make the term up, but I’ve found it to be a really helpful jolt when she reminds me to stop tripping over future obstacles that may or may not present themselves in the days and months to come.  I remember future tripping during one particularly rough patch in the life of our church in San Diego.  I remember driving by a homeless camp in San Diego and looking at all the tents lined up on the sidewalk downtown.  Mentally, I said to myself, “You know, I should probably go look for a tent just in case our family ends up homeless and on the streets.”  That is future tripping at a really high level!  I’m fairly confident every human being I know would have vigorously refuted the insanely irrational future trip I was falling into for a host of reasons, but that is just it: I didn’t give them the chance to refute it.  I coddled the worry in my mind and kept it all to myself.  Such is the way with worry.  It is like mold and mildew.  It breeds and multiplies in dark, isolated areas.  It can’t survive or thrive in the light.

Mark Twain describes future tripping in a poignant way, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”1 Most of us can relate.  We worry and stress over so many things that may or may not happen and the result is stress.

(2)        Present Worry

Sometimes, however, life slams us.  It’s not that we’re worried about something happening in the future–something is happening right now and it’s eating us up. We can’t stop thinking about it.  According to the pundits, the most stressful life situations are moving, a major illness, work, marriage/divorce, death of a loved one, and money.  The result of our worry over these situations that collide into our lives is the same as the result of our future tripping: stress!

(3)        Past Worry

Then, finally, there is all the time we spend worrying about the past and the things we’ve done or said  that we wish we wouldn’t have done or said.  In some cases it isn’t even something we did—it’s something that happened to us.  The consequences and implications of the past are owning our present.  We can’t stop spinning and turning it over and over in our mind.  We’re not sure if we’ll ever recover.  Same result: stress!  Some of you are getting stressed out reading this, so let’s get on with the cure…

The Cure for Anxiety: Ongoing Choices of Joy

All the while, our commanding officer says things like, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34); “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). Anything? “Yeah, right,” we feel like saying.  How is that even remotely possible?  We’re struggling with not being anxious about everything and He says don’t be anxious about anything.  It feels like we’re operating in different galaxies.

The bridge between the galaxy Jesus is inhabiting (one of peace) and the one it feels like we’re inhabiting (one of stress) is joy.  Remember our definition from last week: joy is the ongoing choice to see Jesus in all of life.  When we’re worrying (which is leading to stress), we have to practice the art of a mental hard stop.  Have you ever been in a meeting where one member says up front, “I have a hard stop at 10 A.M.”  We’re going to need to make an ongoing choice to take a hard stop when it comes to worrying, but to do that we need to learn ONE Biblical Hard Stop Principle.  

(1)        Take Every Thought Captive

The key Biblical Hard Stop principle when stress attacks and worry settles in is to make the ongoing choice to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).  These instructions from God always seemed ethereal to me.  Yes, but how might one do that?   Then I read something by Martin Luther and it clicked.  Luther said, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”2 Bingo, I get it now. We cannot keep worrisome thoughts from entering our brains anymore than we can keep a bird from flying over our heads, but we can keep that worrisome thought from nesting in our head.  If we’re honest, we often provide the twigs, the straw, the leaves, and anything else the bird might need to make his little nest of worry as permanent as possible.  The first step towards joy is a hard stop when our minds drift into worry.  We’re going to shoo it away.  How do we perform a mental hard stop and take our thoughts captive?

(a)        By Replacement Thoughts

When the worrisome bird flies overhead the best way to chase it off is by replacing it with another thought.  “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).  I don’t know anyone who would put worry in any of these sterling thought categories Paul unfurls in Philippians 4:8.  Over and over again, God commands and exhorts us to make an ongoing choice to take every thought, not just a few, and bend them toward things that will help us:

  • “Set your minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2).
  • “Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)
  • “Set their minds on things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).

Much as Jesus commanded the legion of demons to enter a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:30-32), we can command the worrisome birds that fly overhead to keep sailing with replacement thoughts that are constructive. 

Corrie Ten Boom mastered the art of replacement thoughts in a place that would worry must of us to death.  Reflecting on her time in a Nazi concentration camp, she said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed.  If you look within, you’ll be depressed.  If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” 3 Looking at God was the way forward for Corrie Ten Boom.  She didn’t look to her circumstances to provide joy—she was in a Nazi concentration camp.  She didn’t look within and grit it out.  She fixed her eyes on Jesus and that is the essence of a replacement thought.   The result, Corrie Ten Boom says, is rest—joyful rest—even in Nazi Germany.

How did Corrie do it?  We know from her account that she devoured a hidden Bible that she miraculously snuck past the guards (as the only one who wasn’t patted down) and she relentlessly gave thanks.  She, like other Christians throughout the ages, have learned the art of replacement thoughts through reading the Bible, giving thanks, sermons, praying, worship in all of life, worship music, church services, community, the sacraments, and more.

Take note, however, that constructive replacement thoughts are not always about Jesus or some spiritual matter.  Imagine you are worried about a particular loan that won’t seem to close.  Closing the loan is an outcome that is out of our control.  There are 337 different variables that could prevent the loan from closing, most of which are completely  out of your control.  A small subset (let’s say 5) of those 337 variables are controllable and well worth thinking about and thinking about well.  Making a call to set up an appraisal, checking credit history, verifying income with a pay stub—these are things you can control and do.  They would fall into excellent and praiseworthy things for you to think about and execute with excellence.  Then you entrust the outcome of closing the loan to the Lord and get back to work developing solutions, systems, structures, and strategies that will lead to loving and valuing more people.  Outcome-based thinking creates worry; process-based thinking creates settled action.

(b)        By Casting Anxious Thoughts

Let’s say the same thing in a different way and switch the metaphor from birds to fish.  A beloved verse of mine and many a follower of Jesus comes when a fisherman (Peter) uses fishing language and says, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).  Peter wasn’t a fly fisherman.  He fished with a cast net that required heaving a large mesh cast net as far away from you as possible.  Such is the way with anxiety:  we need to cast it off by heaving it as hard and as far as we can ON Jesus. 

It feels so unkind, doesn’t it?  To take something you can’t stand that is plaguing you (anxiety) and throw it on someone you love (Jesus) feels cold-hearted.  It is, however, quite the opposite.  My wife helped me realize this by telling me a simple story.  She said, “When I was a little girl, my Dad would take me out in the backyard and play catch with me.  We would throw the softball back and forth.  His goal wasn’t for me to become a professional softball player.  His goal was love. He loved me and he wanted to develop a relationship of love with me by playing catch with a softball.  Such is the way with anxiety.  God tells us to cast it on Him because he cares for us.  He loves us.  He can handle it.  It will destroy us, but it won’t harm him.”

Think of it as a game of catch with your Dad.  The good news is that as you toss the stress to Jesus He never throws it back.  The only thing He throws back our way is a lightness of being because His burden is light and a peace that passeth understanding through a soul-satisfying fastball of His Spirit (Matthew 11:30; Philippians 4:7).  The next time you feel anxious, take a hard stop and cast it to Jesus like you are playing catch with your Dad in the backyard.  

How do you do that?  Well, think about what is required to play catch. A ball and a glove.   Similarly, two things are required for this game.  Prayer and thanksgiving.  Paul lays out the rules for the “stress toss” when he says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6-7).  We mentioned earlier that we all balk when He says, “Do not be anxious about anything.”  We feel like we have no shot, but then Paul essentially says, “In every situation, play a game of ‘stress toss’ with your Dad.  Rather than stressing, toss it back through prayer and thanksgiving.”  That’s the game of life.  Plain and simple.  Hard stops.  A billion games of catch with your Dad. Prayer is the ball and thanksgiving is the glove.   Pray, give thanks, and toss the stress to your Dad.

Let me illustrate by going back to Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom. Instead of stressing out in a Nazi concentration camp, she learned to pray and give thanks and it made all the difference.  She and her sister Betsie were demoted (if that is even possible in a Nazi concentration camp) to Barracks 28, a place none of the prisoners wanted to be because the mildewed and dank straw beds were filled with fleas.  “‘Fleas!…  And here another one!’ I wailed.  ‘Betsie, how can we live in such a place!’  ‘Show us.  Show us how.’  It was said so matter of factly it took me a second to realize she was praying.  More and more the distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsie.”4

Marinate in Corrie’s words.  Prayer became a way of life.  Prayer and the rest of life became one and the same thing.  The thin veil between prayer and the rest of life was being torn away.  Betsie played an ongoing game of stress toss with her Dad. Always. About everything.

How could they live in such a place with fleas crawling over them and biting them all day and night?  How would they ever sleep?  Many of us have trouble sleeping on our cushy pillow top mattresses.  Can you imagine the stress we would be under in this environment?

Suddenly, it hit Betsie.  “‘Corrie! He’s given us the answer! Before we asked, as He always does! In the Bible this morning.  ‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus’ That’s it, come!  That’s His answer.  ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do.  We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!’ I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room…”.5 So they began the game of tossing their anxiety over fleas and all the deplorable conditions through prayer and thanksgiving.  They thanked God for their treasured Bible.  They thanked God for the crowds of prisoners because it provided more people to hear God’s word and be drawn into an everlasting hope in Christ.  Then Betsie threw a curveball of thanksgiving that Corrie didn’t see coming.  She thanked God for the fleas.

Corrie threw down her glove.  She was taking her ball and going home.  “The fleas!  This was too much.  ‘Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.’ ‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’ she quoted.  ‘It doesn’t say, in pleasant circumstances.  Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.’  And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas.  But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.”6 

Months later, Corrie realized Betsie was right.  No other part of the concentration camp had anywhere near the freedom from oversight as they had in Barracks 28.  Guards hovered and oppressed in every other area.  They couldn’t figure out why they never stepped foot in Barracks 28 and never even interrupted a single one of their illegal Bible studies.  Until one day Betsie overheard a guard say she wouldn’t go into Barracks 28:  “That place is crawling with fleas!” 

The fleas.  The very thing Corrie resented were the very thing God used to bring so many women to freedom in Christ through the freedom to read His word in flea-infested Barracks 28.  The fleas gave them the freedom to bring women around the light of his word like “waifs clustered around a blazing fire.”  Betsie and Corrie learned to give thanks even for things that didn’t seem worthy of thanks.  If you just can’t muster up the thanks for some of the “fleas” in your life, then at the very least begin to give thanks for Christ’s presence with you working redemptively in and among the fleas.

Now, let’s apply this to a particular anxiety-inducing flea in all of our lives: sleepless nights.  What do you do when you’re so stressed you wake up in the middle of the night (often at the same time!)?  The single most transformative thing in my life for sleepless nights has been thanksgiving.  I went through a period where I struggled mightily to sleep.  Everyone seemed to recommend medication and I’m not anti-medication.  I was so desperate at one point I took a few sleeping pills and then some melatonin.  They didn’t help. I just felt like I had been drugged the next day. 

Then I encountered a person in the Bible who handled anxiety and sleepless nights in a different way.  His situation seemed far more anxiety producing than mine, if I was honest.  He was holed up in a cave in the Judean wilderness running from his son who was trying to murder him.  For the record, having one of my kids hunting me down would stress me out.  He was waking up in the middle of the night and he finally decided to spend those hours giving thanks instead of tossing and turning. “IF I’m sleepless at midnight, I spend the hours in grateful reflection” (Psalm 63:5 MSG).  Grateful reflection.  Over and over and over again.  

I’ve played this game of anxiety toss so many times since learning it from King David and it has been a game changer.  Two words.  Grateful reflection.  Sometimes the game goes on longer than others, but more often than not I’m back snoozing fairly quickly.  Even if not, grateful reflection seems like a far better way to spend a few hours than stressing about not getting enough sleep and pondering all the ways my lack of sleep is going to mess up my day!

Stress toss takes trembling courage.  If we have the trembling courage and the child-like faith to play stress toss with our Heavenly Father, then He promises that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  The Greek word for guard is a military word that refers to a garrison of soldiers on duty.  Our prayers trigger the God of angel armies dispatching a garrison of troops to guard our minds and keep our anxious thoughts from coming back and setting up camp.  Joy has overcome anxiety through prayer and thanksgiving and now has a heavily fortified position in our hearts and minds!

The Result: Joyful Peace

Once our thoughts are captive, we want to govern and rule them well. We have already shooed off the attacking worrisome birds with a constructive replacement thought and now the task is ongoing governance.  “A mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).  Picture a Sea-Doo.  Many Sea-Doos come with two keys.  One has a governor; the other does not.  The governor controls the speed so kids like mine don’t go flying over the handlebars at 60 MPH and skidding across the water.  Such is the role of the Spirit.  When our thoughts feel like they are being flung over the handlebars of life, the Spirit governs them and restores life and peace.  Thus, our task is to make a million choices to fuel, fan, and flame the Spirit in our lives because through the Spirit it’s really possible to experience a settled thought life full of joy and peace.

Some of you are objecting.  “I can’t do this.  I’m a worry wart.  It’s just who I am.  I worry.  I’m really good at it.”  No, your identity isn’t bound up in worrying, it’s bound up in Christ.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  Let’s learn to think in new ways, with a transformed mind that begins to worry far less than before.  True, you may start out as a 9 on a scale of 10 when it comes to worrying and your spouse or sibling may start out as a 2 on a scale of 10.  By temperament and make-up, you as a 9 naturally worry far more than the 2, but you can improve from 9 to 7 on the worry scale.  You may never be a 2 (until heaven when you are a zero!), but your mind can be transformed (the Bible calls this sanctification).  The renewal of your mind can happen.  Your thoughts can be governed by Jesus and His Spirit.

The gospel is good news because Jesus didn’t worry like us and He didn’t allows stress to paralyze him.  He wasn’t a 2.  He had zero worry.  He was perfect in every way.  He faced the most stress-inducing situation imaginable in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before going to the cross, causing him to sweat blood.  But what did He do? He played stress toss with His Father.  He prayed when His disciples slept.  Rather than being paralyzed by worry, He prayed and for the “joy set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).  Joy overcame anxiety on Calvary and is offered to us.  When anxiety attacks, let’s set a hard stop and make the ongoing choice to see Jesus in all of life with a game of stress toss. On repeat!

Discussion Questions

  1. What impacted you the most from the training session?  Why?
  2. What is causing the most stress in your life right now: a future event, a present event, or a past event? Discuss.
  3. Read 2 Corinthians 10:5.  Discuss Martin Luther’s analogy with birds and how this helps you take your thoughts captive.
  4. Read Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:2; Hebrews 3:1; Romans. 8:5.  We discussed Biblical Hard Stop Principles when anxiety strikes.  One of those involved taking your thoughts captive by replacement thoughts. Have you done this?  What are your challenges in doing so and what helps you in doing so?
  5. Read 1 Peter 5:7 and Philippians 4:6-7.  Discuss the game of stress toss and the role of thanksgiving and prayer.  What are the challenges of this game for you?
  6. Read Psalm 63:5 and discuss how you handle stress when it wakes you up at night?    
  7. Read Romans 12:2.  Where do you place yourself on the stress scale with 10 being a panic attack and unable to function due to stress?  What is one thing you are committing to doing to see joy overcome your anxiety?

Stephen Phelan is a beloved son of God, husband to Bradford, dad of 4, crazy about his family in Alabama and former church family in San Diego, pastor of a mortgage company (what???), and joyfully astonished by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.

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