Anxiety and Gratitude

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Mon, 10/23/2017 - 9:15pm

Philippians 4:6-7, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, October 22, 2017



            Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in America. But it’s more than that; it’s an orientation toward life. It’s also the environment of fear and worry about the future in which we all live, a kind of emotional global warming. When I had a physical recently, I learned my blood pressure is up. I told the doctor that ten points of it is due to politics, and he didn’t doubt it. Of course, you have more personal things to worry about, too: money, health, children, loneliness, employment—and even church.

            In the midst of all the anxiety that seems to be a hallmark of our culture, we hear the apostle Paul saying, “Don’t be anxious about anything.” He is reflecting the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “consider the lilies, consider the birds, take no thought for tomorrow, don’t chase after things the way the godless do, for your Father in heaven knows what you need.” Instead, Paul says in the King James, “let your requests be made known to God.” That’s a literal translation of the Greek. God knows what you need, but he doesn’t know your requests until you make them. When you ask God for what you need, you are expressing your trust in God—and I think it’s the trust more than the asking that helps our anxiety.

            Make your requests with thanksgiving, Paul says. Don’t ask with resentment in your heart, as if God has shorted you. Ask with gratitude in your heart, aware of all God has done and aware that everything is a gift. If you do that, what will happen? God’s peace, which transcends all our anxious rational thinking, will guard our hearts and keep them safe while we are in a relationship with Jesus. In verses 6 and 7, we go from anxiety to peace. Trust and gratitude are the bridge from anxiety to peace.

            I have a good deal of experience with anxiety, and I know it’s not always about worries that make sense. When you have an anxiety disorder, a primitive part of your brain called the amygdala goes into a fearful state of overdrive, even if that fear has no object at all. Your heart may race, your skin crawls, you feel jumpy, you can’t get your thinking to slow down.

I’ve never considered myself an anxious person. I’ve always been pretty self-assured and memorized the Sermon on the Mount in high school. But in my late 20’s, after we’d bought a suburban home and the commute that came with it, and I’d been transferred to a job which was not as advertised by my boss, I was under some stress. All of a sudden, I became claustrophobic. I couldn’t bear to get in the elevator in the building I was in charge of renovating. I couldn’t stand to squeeze into the back seat of a car or into an airplane at all. Occasionally, then and in later periods in my life, I had panic attacks that felt like heart attacks even if knew they weren’t. The strangest thing is that I wasn’t consciously worried; it seemed to come out of the blue.

I tell you this so you know that I understand that overcoming anxiety isn’t as easy as I might make it sound. It was a good 25 years after the onset of symptoms, after getting little help from therapy and counseling, that I tried a drug for anxiety. In one week, it did what talking and wishing could not do, and I was able to put aside little OCD habits at bedtime and the claustrophobia that had limited me for years. So my message to you from Philippians is not to stop taking your meds, or not to try them.

But there is a kind of anxiety that is not a chemical imbalance but a disorder of thinking. I’m sure I had both a genetic chemical issue and habits of thought which were not healthy. But there was a trick from scripture that I had not learned. I would tell myself, “Stop feeling anxious,” and it didn’t work. I would tell myself to stop thinking about what the fundamentalists were doing to my denomination and my job, but I just couldn’t. What I did not do was to give thanks. I did not know that gratitude is an antidote to anxiety.

The truth was right there in the New Testament, but I didn’t get it until I started reading what psychologists and even neuroscientists have been learning over the past 15 years or so about gratitude. It turns out that you can’t be grateful and anxious at the same time. If you watch MRIs of brains processing these feelings, you can see that they happen in the same area. Someone in the act of appreciating the goodness of something cannot feel fear at the same time.

Jimmy Fallon writes thank-you notes every week, but you may not have thought of that as a step toward the peace of God. A few years ago, a lawyer named John Kralik wrote a book called 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Single Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life. He had given up writing to go to law school, and law practice was stressful. The year 2007 was a particularly down year for him, and on New Year’s Eve he went up to a mountain above Pasadena to the ruins of a hotel that had burned down over and over (in forest fires like the ones burning now) and sat on the ruins overlooking the LA basin. The voice in his head was repeating the word “loser,” and at age 52 he didn’t see how things were going to get better. Then he heard a voice from nowhere. "Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have," it said, "you will not receive the things you want." A little while later, he had an idea for a New Year’s resolution: he would write one thank-you letter every day for the next year. That decision changed his attitude about life.

Many therapists treating anxiety and depression use a similar technique, assigning clients to write thank-you letters. One study that just came out this year of 300 clients coming to a university mental health facility had half the clients assigned to write just one letter expressing gratitude. They found that those clients were doing better than the control group 4 weeks later and also at 12 weeks later. Just from one letter! Gratitude journals have become quite a fad; maybe you’ve seen them advertised. All the mindfulness people are promoting them. It all goes back to this idea from Paul and Jesus, that being aware and grateful for God’s provision can bring you peace in your heart.

Gratitude, though, goes deeper than being grateful to particular individuals who have given you things. It’s really a basic attitude, the spiritual core of your life. For us as Christians it means gratitude to God who is, as we sing every week, the one from whom all blessings flow and the one who gave his own Son for us. Paul asks in Romans, “Would he withhold anything from us if he did not withhold his Son?” Sometimes when we receive a gift from another person, we feel a sense of obligation to them, to pay them back somehow, and we may feel that the other person has a certain power over us because they can afford to give to us. But when we acknowledge God as the source, we know that God is already powerful and we are already obligated to God as our creator, but there is no sense that we can really pay God back or that God is somehow less wealthy because he spent part of his wealth on us.

I read an article in Clinical Psychology Review (2010) arguing that therapists have to get beyond the idea of thank-you letters or gratitude lists and move to a “life-orientation” concept of gratitude. This means that your basic orientation is to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have. It means noticing and appreciating the positive in life. It includes feelings of awe at creation and a sense of abundance. As far as I can tell, these are secular psychologists, but they are saying that our well-being depends on living with a sense that we have been given much, and cultivating a spirit of gratitude. This does, they say, bring about structural changes in the brains of depressed and anxious individuals.

In Philippians, what goes hand in hand with gratitude is trust in God to provide and care for us. Instead of being anxious, we are told to ask God—but not to ask anxiously, as we so often do—Please, God!—but to ask with gratitude both for what God has already given and for what God will give in the future. As I said earlier, trust and gratitude are the bridge from anxiety to peace.

On this anniversary of our church’s formal founding in 1765, I want us to take this lesson to heart not just as individuals but as a church. Most churches today live in anxiety all the time—anxious about the church’s future, about money, about young people, about survival. Paul is telling us that we don’t need to live that way—Paul, who is writing from a prison cell! We ought to experience joy and peace rather than worry. We need to have our eyes opened to the abundance of what God has gifted us with. If we can stay aware of what God has already done for us, we can live in that spirit of grateful appreciation of the now rather than worry about the future. If we do, the peace of God will guard the church and guard our individual hearts, and those who come to the church looking for peace in their lives will know they can find it here.

At this moment, we are surrounded by miracles. Just look at this wall and garden on the west side of the sanctuary. An Eagle Scout’s idea blossomed into a real project, which is a gift to the church in itself. But what is especially miraculous is that a landscape architect decided to do the work for the church for free out of appreciation for what the church has meant to him—someone who is not a member and does not worship here. Some of the stone was donated to the church by a college kid who was parking his Jeep here, and some of it was sold at a fraction of its value. The person bringing in heavy machinery and doing earth-moving decided to do it for free, and to bring in fill for free. Many volunteers have come and worked as a gift to the church. The man who trimmed all the hedges decided to donate all of that to the church. None of these people are church members! I’ve never heard a story like that.

On the third floor, a retired man from outside the church heard about our idea of putting year-round apartments up there. He appreciates the church for its openness to the community, for the international work, and for the coffeehouse. He offered to do the demolition for free. Not only that, he went and asked a person with a small foundation to make a donation of $150,000 and a loan of $100,000—and that person said YES on the spot. Another donor had offered a matching gift of $150,000. There are other donations I can’t tell you about yet, but the fact is that God is orchestrating things so that people from our community are providing funds for projects we could not afford. That has been true on a smaller scale about the international student ministry, year after year, with people not connected to the church saying, “Here, we believe in what you are doing. Take this gift.”

With such miracles around us, how can we not be overwhelmed with gratitude? And how can we be anxious for the church’s future or about our next pastor? Instead of being anxious, let us trust God to provide; let us take a posture toward life of gratitude for all that is. In the famous words of Dag Hammarskjold, “For all that is, thanks; for all that will be, yes!”