Defeating Out of Control Anxiety
I Was Finally Free To Pray When I Roped In My Runaway Mind
by Roger Barrier
I am cursed with a runaway mind. Some call me a worry wart. Others brand me as overly anxious. I'm constantly wondering "What if?" Maybe I inherited the tendency from my mother. More than likely, though, I did it to myself. Maybe it doesn't matter where I got the tendency.
One Saturday night I found myself sitting in tears behind the couch in our den. Sunday morning sermons were fast approaching, and I was in no shape to preach. Something was wrong. My emotions were frayed. I had four ulcers. I had high blood pressure. I had to cry out for help.
The first call I made was to the head of our church's counseling center.
"I've been waiting for this," he said. "I've already arranged for you to see a counselor who specializes in executive-level stress."
During our fourth session, my new counselor mentioned my tendency to worry. He predicted that, unless I got help, my out-of-control mind could one day destroy my ministry. Ministerial stress is bad enough, he said, without adding self-induced anxiety to it.
"You have what I call a runaway mind," he began. "Every thought initiates a physical circuit of chemical changes in the brain. The more we think the same thought over and over again, the deeper we entrench that circuitry. I like to think of it as a racetrack with horses going around and around. The more we worry, the harder it is to stop the horses."
My counselor equipped me with all sorts of mental tricks for dealing with anxiety. One was to worry as hard and as much as I wanted for ten minutes-but only for ten minutes. After that I had to put my worries into an imaginary file cabinet and move on. This has often brought relief.
A second approach was to imagine the most idyllic scene. Immediately I pictured an oak near a stream in central Texas. Now, when my mind fills with anxiety, I mentally go to the shade of that tree. The water is cool, and the breeze is steady. In my mind I've erected hammocks, napped on pallets, enjoyed picnics, and read books under that tree. When tension strikes in the ministry, a few moments under that tree quiet my heart.
Aided by such techniques, my runaway mind began to come under control, and I got through the crisis. But I soon discovered willpower alone isn't enough.
Slowing the pace
We live in a society of frantic activity. Pastors often seem to be the most hurried, harried people I know. Seventy work hours per week were normal for me when I began pastoring. My fatigue and worry increased daily. My near-collapse showed me my pace could not last forever. Fortunately, I had wise leaders who helped slow me down.
As a result, we developed a plan limiting every minister at our church to a fifty-hour work week (including Sundays). The plan includes time compensation, because stress is cumulative. If some weeks require more than fifty hours, the ministers must balance with fewer hours over the next several weeks. In addition, our pastors must be home seven nights out of every fourteen. Each of us must take off a full twenty-four-hour day each week. It took several months, even years, for some of us to adjust. But we did it.
Soon after implementing the plan, several of our ministers' wives quietly thanked me. They were seeing more of their husbands than they ever thought possible.
As my pace slowed, my overactive mind slowed, too. My runaway thoughts were easier to corral.
Spirit to spirit
Slowing my work life was one thing, but quieting my mind was another. It's hard to listen for God's still small voice when I'm thinking about tomorrow's lunch appointment, or next Sunday's sermon, or the balance in my checkbook, or Deacon Jones's surgery that I forgot. On and on go the thoughts. I can travel from my driveway to the rings of Saturn in seconds.
I found some help when I discovered that our brains run at different speeds. When we're in a deep sleep, for example, the brain runs at zero to three cycles per second (the delta wave). As it speeds up to four to seven cycles per second (the theta wave), the brain moves toward increasing levels of wakefulness. The alpha wave, at eight to thirteen cycles per second, is best for our creative and contemplative side, for communing with God and hearing him speak.
Most Americans, however, spend the bulk of their waking hours in the beta-wave level of brain activity. This speed (fourteen to twenty-five cycles per second) is perfectly suited for baking casseroles, going to meetings, and solving problems. However as we approach the levels above twenty-one cycles per second, we find ourselves operating in a hassled, hurried, frenzied state. I do some of my best worrying here.
Part of the problem is the rapid-fire sensory images of our society, which overload our circuits. Remember when television commercials lasted a full sixty seconds? Now they last for fifteen with four or five visual images flashing at us per second! The visual and auditory bombardment reminds me of the radio jamming during the Cold War. No wonder we can't hear God's voice!
The journey out of extreme beta-wave living began when my wife and I were sitting at a red light in Pittsburgh. She asked, "Have you ever heard a sermon about the human spirit?"
I hadn't, and I didn't know much about it. So we began to study the Scriptures. I was intrigued by Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14:15: "I will pray with my spirit... [and] with my mind; I will sing with my spirit... [and] with my mind." And in 1 Corinthians 2:10·?13, Paul writes how the Holy Spirit expresses spiritual words to our human spirit -- the Holy Spirit to our spirit.
The study changed my life. I discovered that the human spirit is our organ for God-consciousness, the seat of our communion with God, the deepest part of our innermost being. In this I discovered not only the power to survive but also the energy to thrive in the ministry! It gave me access to spiritual power like never before.
Paul encourages us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take every thought captive for the glory of Christ. That is essential advice for controlling a runaway mind. But to shut out the distracting noises, I had to acquire new skills to focus my listening habits. I began by sitting quietly in meditation for minutes at a time. Soon minutes turned to quarter hours, then half hours, and occasionally an hour. I concentrated on praying slowly through the Scriptures. Then I would sit quietly and listen for God's Spirit to speak.
I believe this is part of what Paul meant when he testified to "praying in his spirit." I still pray with my mind, working through a prayer list and consciously considering the things for which I pray. But when the list is complete, I quiet my mind and begin to pray in my spirit. Again and again, God prompts me in my innermost being to pray for people and situations that would normally never come to mind. The most precious times in my life are when God speaks Holy Spirit to my human spirit.
The calm in the storm
I no longer need to find a special place to quiet my mind and listen for God. The practice has become a habit I can enjoy at any moment.
Several months after I began the practice of gaining control over my mind, I was leading a particularly difficult elder meeting. My anxiety increased with the tension in the room. Opposite viewpoints were being expressed, and with force. My mind was awash with worry about the outcome. I felt nervous and uncomfortable. I had been here before.
Suddenly, I quieted my mind like I had practiced and sought God deep within. Right in the middle of the fireworks of that elder meeting, the peace of God washed over me and calmed my heart.
I was amazed at what God had begun to do in my life.
Later, I began to see how God could speak to me for the sake of ministry. A young mother in our congregation was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm. I stopped outside her hospital room and prayed for ministry wisdom. As I was praying I had an impression deep within my spirit that she was going to be fine. I sensed that God told me she would survive with no complications and be able to raise her children.
She was awake and conscious when I entered. "Surgery is scheduled for Monday," she said. "The doctors must wait for the swelling to go down. There is no guarantee that the artery will hold until then." Fear filled her eyes.
I relayed carefully what I sensed God had told me moments before. Then I stepped out and said, "This sickness is not unto death. Whether the doctors need to operate on Monday or not, you are going to be fine. Be at peace."
I prayed for her healing and recovery with no "ifs, ands, or buts." Over a decade has passed since then, and she has watched her daughters grow up and marry.
The above story is unusual. Usually I have no idea what God intends to do when I pray for the sick. It is not that I do not ask; God seldom tells me. But occasionally, deep in my inner spirit, I sense his peace, and then I am able to pass it on to someone else.
God's voice patterns
Over the years I have developed a checklist to help me distinguish when God is speaking to me. I don't want to be led by my own imaginings. I certainly don't care to be fooled by Satan's temptations, accusations, or deceit.
The following list is not complete or foolproof. No one point, of course, is sufficient in itself to prove or disprove the voice of God. But these principles have helped me discern more accurately the voice of God.
God tends to speak gently.
Remember how God spoke to Elijah? God was not in the whirlwind, earthquake, or the fire. "And after the fire came a gentle whisper," and God spoke in the whisper. Whenever the voice within me drives and demands like a pushy, used-car salesman, God is not speaking. Many times I have discovered that my drivenness to minister for God has more to do with my own agenda than the prompting of God. Either self or Satan tend toward compulsive clamor and loud demands. God is never pushy; he seldom urges sudden action without giving us time to reason through the issues.
God's voice produces freedom.
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." How often I hear, "God gave me this heavy burden to reach this city for Christ." I used to pray for big burdens like that, but not anymore! The city needs to be reached for Christ, but the burdened attitude may be more of a hindrance than a help. Satan loves to put people into bondage; God loves to set us free.
God tends to speak while we are consciously seeking him.
I remember shaving one morning when I heard this voice tell me that the way to expand our church was to buy the six neighboring houses, bulldoze them, and use the land for parking. What a disaster that turned out to be! Remember the tenth commandment: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house.” Later, while listening for God's Spirit, I sensed his leading in another building matter. This time I followed the promptings, and God opened several doors for us to purchase and pay off many acres of land. Both self and Satan often inject thoughts or impressions into my mind when I'm not seeking God. But God's voice usually is heard when we're diligently listening for it.
God speaks with truth.
I often say in moments of despair, "I'm no good" or "Nobody loves me" or "I can't do anything right." These are half-truths that come from either self or Satan, but not God. In marriage counseling, I often meet Christians convinced that God has told them to marry a nonbeliever. That runs counter to God's Word. Whatever voice or prompting they hear is not God; God will never, and cannot, contradict his Word.
God convicts of specific sins.
John 16:8 teaches that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. When God convicts us of sin, the sin is usually specific: "Yesterday at 4:00 pm. you did such and such." I know exactly what I did and when I did it. Self or Satan, on the other hand, brings a haunting guilt not tied to specific sins. I've often felt accused or had a nagging feeling of guilt. Why do I feel so guilty? I think. I don't know; I just feel guilty. These feelings are not from God's Spirit. Often they are from the Accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10).
God does not confuse.
When the trumpet of God sounds, it does not play confusing melodies. When I finished seminary, I began looking to pastor full time. While I was headed out the door to fly to Denver to candidate at a church, the phone rang. The call was from a pulpit committee in Tucson. While talking on the phone, I had a deep impression that I was to pastor the church in Tucson.
I hung up the phone, turned to my wife, Julie, and said, "We are going to pastor in Tucson."
"I know," she replied. "God told me the same thing while you were on the phone."
Within two weeks, we had moved to Tucson, and we've been there ever since. Since then, I've felt that clarity in other settings. When I feel confused or uncertain about something major, I tend to wait until God's will can be discerned more clearly. Satan, not God, is the author of confusion.
Today my runaway mind is under much better control than fifteen years ago when I was crying behind the couch. I still worry more than I'd like. But I no longer wonder whether I will survive ministry. I have fingernails again. My ulcers are gone. My blood pressure is down. I know how to relax.
Just ask my wife.
· Buy "Listening to the voice of God" by Roger Barrier and David L. Goetz