How to Stop Thinking Fearful Thoughts—and What to Think About Instead

So you’ve decided that, when it comes to fear running your life, enough is enough. Tomorrow morning, you’re starting a fear fast (see previous post for more on this). But you realize that, ironically enough, you’re scared of the thought of living fearlessly. And how is this fast supposed to work? After all, it’s one thing to say, “I’m abstaining from fear for seven days,” but it’s another to know what, exactly, you’re supposed to do when that first anxious thought starts plaguing you. Everyone knows that if you tell someone to not think about a hippo in a tutu, he or she is immediately going to think about a hippo in a tutu . . .

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All these concerns boil down to two key questions:
1: How do I train my mind to stop thinking fearful thoughts?
2:  What do I think about instead?

Let’s tackle Question #1 first: The best way to explain what to do when the anxious thoughts begin is to imagine turning your head away from a graphic scene and looking the other way.

For example, we’ve all been stuck in a miles-long traffic jam because of rubber-neckers who slow down to gawk at the scene of an accident. And we’ve all been that annoying rubber-necker because the impulse to look is so strong. You know you shouldn’t look; you know you’ll be a happier person for not looking—but everyone else does it, and surely it’s OK to just peek . . .

But that doesn’t work, does it? One brief glimpse, and you’re pulled in. You’ve seen too much, and you’ll be awake at 3:00 in the morning with unwanted images in your head.

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The pull of fear is at least as powerful as this. Driving past a gory accident without looking is difficult, and so is ignoring a fearful thought. Both are challenging, but both are possible. The next time an anxious thought swoops down on you, “turn the other way”—that is, turn your attention elsewhere. You can not give it even a moment’s consideration. I know that when I’m doing a typical food fast, if I give in to hunger and nibble on the corner of a cupcake, I’ll cave in and eat the whole thing (and then another one). The best thing I can do is to remember that that cupcake is off limits and walk away. Likewise, when you’re tempted during your fear fast, remember that you’ve consecrated yourself to God by giving up your “right” to engage in fear. Fear is not an option. It’s off limits.

Now, keep in mind that when you choose to avert your eyes from a car accident, it doesn’t cease to exist. As you drive by with your eyes fixed on the road in front of you, the wrecked cars and injured drivers are still there. Your refusal to acknowledge them doesn’t make them disappear. So it is with fear, especially in the beginning: when you refuse to let a fearful thought occupy your attention, you’ll sense that it’s still right there, just out of your “line of sight,” and it would swallow you whole if you gave it your attention for even a split second. There are times you’ll feel like the adolescent who stifles her brother’s taunts by covering her ears, squeezing her eyes shut, and yelling, “Lalalalalalala, I can’t hear you, lalalalala!” It’s OK. The moment will pass.

Question #2: What do I think about instead?
Answer: Whatever is right in front of you, i.e., the present experience.

The vast majority of fear is future-based. Peace, however, is always in the now. When anxiety looms, bring your attention to the task at hand, no matter what that is. If you’re having a conversation, attend to the other person and his or her words. If you’re working out, focus on your muscles and “the burn.” If you’re reading, involve yourself in the story. Come back to where you are. If you fully give yourself to your present circumstance, you won’t be able to give yourself to the fear.

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As you begin to discipline your thought life, you’ll better understand what Paul meant when he said, “We are demolishing arguments and ideas, every high-and-mighty philosophy that pits itself against the knowledge of the one true God. We are taking prisoners of every thought, every emotion, and subduing them into obedience to the Anointed One” (2 Cor. 10:5, Voice).

That’s all for now. More next week…

 

How to Stop Worrying for an Entire Year

A year ago, in mid-April to be exact, my life changed, and it’s never been the same. The Lord downloaded a nugget of truth that set me free from fear—a life-long, toxic companion that had been set on destroying me since childhood.

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I’d like to share the condensed version of the journey out of fear and into peace, but first I must say a word about fasting. I’ve taken part in fasts during my years as a believer—everything from Daniel fasts to full-blown, nothing-but-clear-liquids fasts, so the concept was familiar to me this time last year. I knew, for example, that when you fast, you don’t stop being hungry, but you choose to refrain from eating. Once you’ve committed to the fast, you have no choice: food is off limits. Mental turmoil is possible, of course—“Should I break the fast? I’m so hungry, maybe I’ve fasted long enough!”—but within the fast itself, there’s no reason for an internal struggle. The matter has already been settled: fasting = no food.

So, back to my story … During a visit with my sister, I realized just how much of my life revolved around fear. I prioritized each day according to what would most effectively reduce fear and/or guilt (which is closely tied to fear). I also realized that I felt stressed much of the time and that 95% of my stress was fear-based, e.g. the fear that I wasn’t going to have enough time to finish a project, or that I was going to make a wrong decision, or that I wasn’t good enough to do this or that. I fretted about events that hadn’t even happened and woke in the middle of the night feeling condemnation (also a product of fear), anger (you guessed it—also related to fear), or panic.

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Before you write me off as a complete lunatic, let’s jump to the good part of the story: on the way home from my trip, the Lord challenged me to a fast—but rather than a typical fast, this would be a fear fast. For seven days, fear would be off limits. If I committed to the fast, I’d have no choice but to abstain from even the briefest fearful thought. A couple of young women who have taken the fear fast challenge since then have told me that they were “afraid of not being afraid,” and that’s exactly what I thought, too! Fear can become such a constant companion that it feels downright irresponsible to forgo it, as though fretting about the future is the mark of maturity. We act as though worrying about something brings about change—surely if we play out every possible scenario regarding a potential problem (the more horrifying the better), we’ll avert disaster or at least have a bit of control over what happens, right?

Anyway, I took the challenge.

And ohmygosh, what a difference it made in my life.

The seven-day fast turned into a lifelong discipline. The fear didn’t magically go away, but I immediately felt liberated by having forfeited my “right” to fear. The matter had been settled: fasting = no fear. Each time I sensed that old, familiar feeling—each time my thoughts began to turn toward fear—I reined myself back into the present moment. If I was eating a meal, I focused on the food in front of me; if i was carrying on a conversation, I gave my full attention to the other person. I stopped giving any attention whatsoever to fearful thoughts. Sometimes I could almost hear the fear: “Pay attention to me!!!!” but little by little it became easier and easier to devote my mind and time and energy to worthwhile things. Fasting fear has completely altered my perspective and eliminated nearly all the stress I used to feel. It’s made me a kinder and more patient person. I’m a better wife now. I’ve learned how to enjoy the present instead of always jumping into the “big, bad” future. And I feel more contentment with whatever state I’m in than ever before.

Fearfulness was far more than a bothersome character weakness—it was venomous. If you’d like to hear more about the fear fast, stay tuned because I’ll probably devote the next few blog entries to this particular journey. But for today, for this moment, I just want to say thank you to my Father because “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, 
out of the mud and mire;
 he set my feet on a rock 
and gave me a firm place to stand” (Ps. 40:2 NIV).

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Blissfully Thankful

Gratitude and joy go hand in hand. Today, I was overcome with thankfulness that God has allowed me to work from home—which means that I look at this all day:

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instead of this:

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In the middle of my prayer, which went something like “Wow, thank You! Wow!”—I realized that I’ve never felt joy without being thankful, and I’ve never expressed gratitude without feeling joy. Maybe this is why Paul blessed the Colossians by saying, “May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father” (1:11–12, NLT).

I also decided that this is what joy/gratitude feels like, even when you’re 52: 

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When a Loved One Hits Bottom

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Are you feeling the pain and distress of watching an adult child or a friend make terrible choices? Maybe you’ve scrambled to fix their problems, you’ve given advice, you’ve bailed them out more than once, you’ve prayed more times than you can count—only to find out a week or month or year later that they’ve once again hit bottom.

C.S. Lewis says, “It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in … every family since the world began. … In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

We assume that the proud man is the one who struts around like a peacock, but that is a caricature. Pride is usually far more subtle. When a woman, while in the company of friends, rolls her eyes at the way another woman is dressed, she is saying, “I am superior to her.” When a man monopolizes a conversation, his message is, “I matter more than you do.” But the ultimate pride is the belief that we are the gods of our own lives, a belief held by not only atheists but many individuals who give God a nod of recognition each Sunday while continuing in the illusion that they are capable of managing their own affairs.

“Pride precedes destruction; an arrogant spirit gives way to a nasty fall,” says Proverbs.* Dismissing the instruction of God in favor of going in one’s own direction inevitably ends in disaster. Therefore, when your loved one is suddenly crushed and it’s too painful to watch, remember that this might just be that turning point at which they realize how small and vulnerable they are. Humiliation as a result of hitting bottom is not at all a bad thing when it compels a person to finally look up and acknowledge, “I can control nothing; I am weak and broken. I need a Savior.”

16:18, the Voice

Why I Stopped Praying for Clarity

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When we pray, “Give me clarity, Lord,” we are actually saying, “Let me see clearly where I’m going before I get there.” If God answered that prayer, simple faith would become unnecessary.

Last year, I read a true story about a young man who asked Mother Teresa to pray that he would have clarity—but she refused. “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of,” she said. “I have never had clarity. . . . What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

Since reading this anecdote, I’ve never again prayed for clarity. I am desperate to trust Jesus more, which means I must resist the temptation to mentally jump into the future and figure out every detail of life. Now, my prayer is that the Lord would teach me to simply follow. Jesus said, “Follow Me,” which means that He leads, while we go after. It means we walk in the assurance and confidence that He knows where we’re going, and that’s all that matters.

Eyes for Only Jesus

ImageMost of us lean toward one side of the fence or the other: we’re quick to be offended at others’ criticism while accepting their praise—or, mindful of the sin of pride, we reject their praise while putting too much stake in their condemning words. But when we have eyes for only Jesus, we’re immune to both the negativity and the praise of others. Neither one can get a rise out of a “dead” man, i.e., a believer who has been crucified with Christ.

When we have eyes only for Jesus, we stop striving to be noticed—through good behavior or bad. (Sometimes we get a kick out of shaking things up and eliciting the disapproval of others because the end result—drawing attention to ourselves—is still pleasing.)

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all is to stop being our own audience. Sometimes we assume that it’s okay to assess ourselves as long as we’re being critical, but this still requires self-observation. Have you every prayed and thought, “Gee, that was quite powerful!” or “Gosh, what a lame prayer.” Neither observation is possible when we focus on Jesus—not those around us, not ourselves— but only Him.

Neither Poverty Nor Riches

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The American concept of “enough” is so warped that we equate being horribly in debt with success. We do not own our houses; they own us. Even the most affluent among us is often just a paycheck or two away from disaster. But the writer of Proverbs 30 prayed, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” In heaven’s economy, having only one’s daily bread is not considered poverty. According to the Word, having provisions for today’s needs—no more and no less—is enough. What a far cry from the American way.

Debt lays claim to not just our money but our thoughts, our time, our energy—while having a minimal amount of “stuff” frees us from being too attached to the earth. Our possessions are meant to serve us, not enslave us. There is great freedom in simple living. But surely we shouldn’t live like vagabonds! Or should we? Maybe Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head,” was on to something.

Glutton for God

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“Be a glutton for Me,” God said during my journey out of food addiction. I discovered that the greater my appetite for God, the duller my appetite for those things that were destroying me. I began to understand that it’s simply not possible to be too fixated on the Lord. I doubt that Jesus will ever greet someone at the gates of heaven by saying, “You went a little overboard in your devotion to Me.” I think He wants to be our “addiction.” I’m not talking about the sort of Bible-thumping, Scripture-ranting fanaticism that causes people to roll their eyes and accuse us of being “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” I’m talking about cultivating a love for God that adds to the lives of others, even as we discover that He truly satisfies.

When you’re addicted to something, it owns you. It calls the shots and gets the first and best of your time, energy—everything. Only Jesus deserves that. In fact, He deserves nothing less.

The Unwelcome Friend

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In the journey from fear to faith, you might discover that fear has become so familiar that you barely know how to function without it. You might discover that it has received far more attention than God has and, as a result, it’s felt more like a friend than He has. For many years, fear was a daily companion. My definition of “normal” included anxiety, fretting, and stress. I had moments of peace, but abiding in that peace was a foreign concept.

Fear can take up residence in your heart until your capacity for things like contentment, peace, rest, and quiet joy is “broken.” But rest assured that holy fearlessness is possible, and that peace can occupy your thoughts and fill up those moments that fear once filled.

Never forget that to truly fear God is to fear nothing else.

When in Doubt . . .

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While overcoming an addiction (mine was compulsive eating), it’s very easy to disregard the voice of God just long enough to do what you want to do. Addicts are experts at rationalizing and selective deafness. Therefore, with a compulsive sin, you’ve got to err on the side of restraint. The only way to secure victory is to make it a rule of thumb that when you’re not sure about whether God is saying yes or no, the answer is no. That part of you that is addicted is conniving, manipulative, and indulgent, and you can’t give it the benefit of the doubt—ever. It will attempt to shout down the promptings of the Holy Spirit: “I want what I want—now!” It never, ever has your best interests at heart.

But Your Creator does. He knows when one cookie, one drink, one flirtation, or one quick look through the clearance rack will lead to one more free-fall into a pit of shame . . . remorse . . . self loathing. Overcoming addiction means allowing God to call the shots. So, in those moments when you can’t seem to hear what He’s saying, you must refrain.

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