Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Discipline of Gratitude Thwarts Catastrophic Thinking

Monroe County

I'm enjoying reading Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J. P. Moreland. It's only $2.99 on Kindle! In his concluding remarks J.P. has some important things to say, for the future of the Church and its leaders. I was especially helped by his comments on practicing the discipline of thanksgiving. He writes:

"I practice the discipline of gratitude. Due to my heredity and upbringing, I have a predisposition to anxiety and depression. One way to avoid these is to train yourself to see the glass half full and not half empty, that is, to habitualize a positive, thankful approach to life. And the best way to do that involves a negative and a positive step. Negatively, learn to spot early on any catastrophizing or totalizing thoughts you have in which you take fears and so forth, blow them up out of proportion, and engage in fearful, negative self-talk. When you spot the negative thought, tell yourself that it isn’t true, that it is overstated, and seek to undermine the thought. Then, positively, turn to God in prayer and thank Him for, say, five to six things in your life, ranging from little things like the taste of coffee to large things like friends and family. I will do this around one hundred times a day, and by now, such expressions of gratitude have become a habit and they have colored my perception of life. The discipline of gratitude keeps one from becoming sour on life and is very, very life giving." (p. 225) 

In  Philippians 4 Paul tells Jesus-followers to “not be anxious about anything.” (v. 6) The biblical Greek word for ‘anxious’ is often used in contexts  where persecution is happening. For example, in Matthew 10:19, where Jesus counsels his disciples, “When they arrest you, do not be anxious about what to say or how to say it.”

When Paul counsels the Philippians to not be anxious, it’s not like he’s sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner. He’s in prison! The context is: persecution. The Philippian Jesus-followers were suffering under opposition from their pagan neighbors, just like Paul and Silas had suffered when among them (Acts 16:19-24; Phil 1:28-30).

I know what worry and anxiety are like. I have, in some especially troubling times, felt consumed by them. So I ask - how realistic is it to be told “Be anxious about nothing?” Paul’s answer, and his experiential reality, is found in his rich, ongoing prayer life. He writes: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

I have proof that this works, (following Henri Nouwen, in his book Gracias!): When I don’t pray I am more easily filled with worry, and fear. In the act of praying I enter into the caregiving of the Great Physician, who dials down the anxiety.

In everyday prayer-conferencing with God I present my requests to him. I lay my burdens before him (See 1 Peter 5:7). I have a Father God who loves me, in whom I trust. Where there is trust, there is neither worry nor anxiety. A person with a praying life grows in trust and diminishes in anxiety. A praying person discovers, experientially, that trust and anxiety are inversely proportionate. 

Paul writes that our prayers should be accompanied “with thanksgiving.” Ben Witherington writes: “Paul believes there is much to be said for praying in the right spirit or frame of mind.” This is significant for the Roman Philippians, since pagan prayers did not include thanksgiving. Roman prayers were often fearful, bargaining prayers, not based on a relationship with some loving god.

Witherington adds: “Prayer with the attitude of thanksgiving is a stress-buster.”

John Wesley said that thanksgiving is the surest evidence of a soul free from anxiety.

J. P. Moreland counsels that the discipline of gratitude thwarts catastrophic thinking.

The antidote for worry and anxiety is: praying, with thanksgiving.