I felt defeated.
Worry took up a lot of my time, as job concerns, a mortgage, church demands, family issues—especially teenagers—all took their toll.
I had tried to quit worrying. I read articles, had conversations over coffee (worrying about whether my budget would allow a latté instead of a plain decaf), and determined to handle my concerns differently. Each time, my resolution worked—for a while. Soon, however, the old patterns reappeared, and my thoughts became more concerned with the situation than the solution. Like yo-yo dieting, I would stop worrying only to sink back deeper than before.
I worried even when there was nothing concrete to worry about. It had become a habit.
Try, Try Again
My failure to conquer worry wasn’t from a lack of knowledge. I’d memorized Phil. 4:6–7 as a child and listened to countless sermons on the passage.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The passage was usually summarized like this:
- Worry is a choice (and we’re not supposed to choose it).
- We should bring everything to God in prayer.
- God will give us peace.
So when the tires on our family car were as thin as balloons, but we couldn’t yet afford to replace them, I decided to try the formula once again as a counter to my twin worries of finances and safety. Based on these admonitions, I chose not to worry about the car. I prayed about my concerns. I asked God for peace.
But peace didn’t come, and soon I began to worry again.
Why didn’t it work? If the instructions were true, I could only see two conclusions: Either I wasn’t doing my part (stop worrying, start praying), or God wasn’t doing His part (provide peace).
My theology told me God doesn’t lie, so I figured He would do His part. That left me. I must not have been trying hard enough. Now I really felt guilty. The worry was my fault, but I felt helpless.
Missing the Obvious
One summer afternoon, I reread Phil. 4:6–7 to see what I had missed. I looked at each word carefully, trying to discover what I was doing wrong. Then, by accident, my eyes wandered on to verses 8 and 9:
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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Suddenly, the light came on.
Somehow, I had never seen the connection between these two sets of verses. Yet here was a logical progression of thought that finally made sense: Verses 6 and 7 tell me what not to do; verses 8 and 9 tell me what to do instead.
Worry took a lot of time and mental effort. My mind would be filled with concerns for hours at a time. When I tried to stop worrying, I had time available. Until I filled my mind with something different, new thoughts of worry just crowded in.
I found a helpful analogy right in my own front yard. In some parts of my lawn, the grass is thick and green. In other areas, it’s sparse and dry. There are even a few places where the grass is missing entirely.
When I mow the lawn, I notice that where the grass is healthy, there are no weeds. Where the lawn is sparse, there are a few. Where there is no grass, the weeds flourish.
Every time I notice the weedy spots, I think, “I really need to pull those things.” So I do, but within a few weeks they’re back—and I’m pulling them again. One day it hit me: I don’t have to pull weeds where the grass is thick. Instead of spending all my time pulling weeds, maybe I needed to invest time making the grass as healthy as possible. The more grass I had, the fewer weeds I’d have to pull.
The same applies to worry. Worry is like the weeds. God’s peace is the grass. Instead of just focusing on eliminating my worries, I needed to cultivate God’s peace.
Changing Your Mind
So I had a new challenge: to cultivate a mind characterized by peace. But how could I do that? I was an expert at growing worry, but I had a brown thumb when it came to growing peace.
Romans 12:2 held the key: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This verse didn’t tell me to behave differently; it said to think differently. My pattern was to focus on the negative, reviewing everything that could go wrong in a situation. I had to learn new ways of thinking.
When my son was little, we would occasionally bake a cake or cookies together. One time I said, “The recipe calls for two cups of sugar. Let’s put in two cups of salt instead.”
“No way,” he said. “The cake would taste awful.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. There’s no way the cake will taste good with that much salt in it.”
He knew the ingredients we put in would determine how the cake turned out. That applies to life as well. What we watch on television, listen to on the radio, or talk about are the ingredients for our attitudes. Our attitudes come from our thoughts. Our thoughts come from our inputs.
Just as I care for my lawn by providing water, nutrients, and insect control, I can care for my mind by providing the right thoughts. Reading Phil. 4:8–9 was like reading the ingredient list on a bag of grass seed. It told me exactly which thoughts to plant to grow a peaceful mind, thoughts that were
true: consistent with God and His Word
noble: worthy of respect
right: just and holy
pure: morally clean
lovely: pleasing and gracious
admirable: highly regarded
excellent: top quality
praiseworthy: deserving of high recognition.
But what if this didn’t work either? I was comforted to see that God’s instruction included a promise: God’s peace will stand guard—not only over our hearts, but over our minds. “The peace of God…will guard your hearts and your minds” (v. 7). Instead of listening to Satan’s lies, my job is to plant thoughts focusing on God’s truth. God’s job is to make them grow into peace.
Practicing, Not Perfect
Now came the test. How could I apply these verses to the areas that concerned me the most? I picked several problems that led me to worry, prayed about each, then selected an alternative to focus on.
I didn’t know where the money would come from for unexpected car repairs. I asked God to free me from worrying about it and asked Him to handle the situation. When my thoughts slipped back to worry, I consciously focused on what was true: God promised to supply all our needs and had been faithful to do so in the past.
I stewed about the impact of management decisions where I worked and realized that I often talked with coworkers who were the most negative about the organization. My worries were being fed by these conversations. My prayer was for God to handle the situation in His way and for me to trust Him for the results. When tempted to worry, I made the effort to focus on what was noble and admirable—and spent my time conversing with those who were more realistic about the situation.
I worried about my family members’ safety when they were out alone at night. So I asked God to protect them and focused on what was true and pure. God loved them more than I did and never left them alone. That allowed me to make good choices about things that were not true, such as changing the channel when my TV choices centered too much on violence and fear.
My thinking didn’t clear up immediately. Redoing a lawn takes some time and effort. Once it’s done, maintenance is a whole lot easier. When a weed invades a healthy lawn, it’s obvious. But if a weed appears in a larger patch of weeds, it just blends in with all the rest, and I’m overwhelmed with the task of dealing with them all. In the same way, a thought of worry is more obvious when my mind is filled with peace. As my thoughts became more peaceful, worry became a trigger that reminded me to analyze my thinking. Whenever I recognized anxiety, I filtered my thoughts through the grid of Phil. 4:8–9.
Do I still worry? Yes.
But now I’m sensitized to the fears that pop up in my mind, and I have practical, biblical tools for replacing those thoughts. When we fill our minds with what matters most, our minds are not at the mercy of what matters least. My job is to tend the garden of my mind. God is responsible for the harvest of peace.