Troubled thinking is epidemic. The most commonly diagnosed mental health problems are anxiety disorders — panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a number of phobic disorders. Not far behind are the so-called mood disorders, including depression - the number one reason for which people are admitted into psychiatric hospitals. Troubled thinking threatens to destroy people both without and within the church.
Our psychological society
Although most churchgoers may never have received a formal psychiatric diagnosis, our congregations include many who struggle with worry, depression, and fear. Whether a person is anxious about paying the bills or contemplates suicide after the loss of a relationship, a common component of most problems is cognitive. Your favorite systematic theology text may refer to this as the noetic effects of sin.
Regardless of what you call it, our mental distress typically is tied to what we think, and what we think has everything to do with how we view God. This is good news for the pastor! Too often we have been tempted to wonder whether we can really help those who struggle with troubled thinking. We may have listened to those who espouse that individuals no longer need theology. But the truth is that we really can make a difference in the lives of people by helping them to think about God. Ministering God’s Word to God’s people corporately (preaching) and individually (counseling) enables them to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the knowledge of Him that transforms every aspect of our lives, including how we think.
Who is counseling whom?
A practical example of how one’s view of God influences how he thinks is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. First, remember that Paul was in jail, the recipients of his letter were not in jail, and he wrote to encourage his readers to rejoice. This is the exact opposite of what usually happens. More often people who are free write letters to the incarcerated, trying to cheer them up. Yet Paul’s view of God so radically controlled how he thought that he not only rejoiced while in prison (Philippians 1:12–18), he was burdened that other believers should learn to do the same! Paul focuses on the practical application of three foundational doctrines. While they are foundational in nature, they are crucial for anyone who desires to think aright. All three are sure to be covered in the typical theology class, yet their implications for living are nothing short of life-transforming! Those who seek to remedy their troubled thinking must study and meditate on these doctrines.
There are three basic Christian doctrines that should replace troubled thinking: God graciously saved us, God is continually with us, and God always hears us.
- God graciously saved us (Philippians 4:4). To be a Christian is to rejoice—not just some of the time, but always. The theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is encapsulated in this simple command: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” As if he anticipated objections from the readers, the apostle adds: “Again I say, Rejoice.” Obedience to this command is possible only as we realize that our joy is found “in the Lord.” We should constantly rejoice in the God who saved us from sin! I have a friend who greets me by asking, “How are you doing?” I answer, “Better than I deserve.” I deserve eternal damnation. Yet even though I have sinned against the God Who created me, He responded by mercifully saving me—by making Him Who knew no sin to be sin for me (II Corinthians 5:21). He sent His Son to pay the penalty of my sin that I might have eternal life (I John 4:9, 10). I have been accepted in the Beloved, because I have been graced by grace (Ephesians 1:6). I will never be condemned for my sin (Romans 8:1). I always have a reason to rejoice because I am always “in Christ,” regardless of my circumstances! Soteriology is not an abstract doctrine. Thinking about the God Who mercifully brought us into His family and gave us a living hope through the cross enables even suffering believers to rejoice (I Peter 1:3-6).
- God is continually with us (Philippians 4:5). Regardless of our circumstances, “The Lord is at hand.” No matter what difficulties we face, we are assured of His presence. This thought changes everything! Paul realized that meditating on God’s omnipresence results in a “moderation” or gentle forbearance that is known to all men. Perhaps this is why the Psalmist penned, “But it is good for me to draw near to God” (Psalm 73:28). The writer of Hebrews similarly wrote, “He hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear” (Hebrews 13:5, 6). Many years ago one of my daughters struggled with fear at bedtime. Her voice would tremble as she whispered, “Daddy, I’m so afraid.” My response was always the same: a big hug and a theological review! I would ask her to recite Hebrews 13:5 and 6. (She kept the verse card on her nightstand and soon had it memorized.) I would then ask her what the verse meant, to which she would reply, “Jesus will never leave me.” Then the theological exam began as I asked, “Is Jesus with you now?” “Is Jesus with you at night?” “Is Jesus with you in the dark?” “Is there ever a time that Jesus is not with you?” “Will Jesus ever leave you?” “Do you have any reason to be afraid?” More than once I marveled how a young girl gripped by fear could so peacefully drift to sleep as she thought, “Jesus is with me.” Meditating on God’s presence really can stabilize a worried, fearful believer, whose patient steadfastness becomes a testimony to all.
- God always hears us (Philippians 4:6). The God Who saved us is not only with us, He promises to always hear us. He commands us, “In every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We are commanded to pray to Him about everything! Those who look to the Lord find help—even when struggling with anxiety and discouragement (Psalm 34:4, 5). The truth that God hears our prayers frees us to “be careful for nothing.” Quite frankly, the reason we worry is that we don’t pray—or don’t believe that God hears our prayers. A wise pastor once explained to his congregation: “Worry is a lot like rocking in a rocking chair. It takes time and energy, yet when finished you are right where you started!” Worrying really is a waste of time—especially when we could be praying to our God. Worse yet, worrying is a testimony that we doubt our Father’s ability to care for us (Matthew 6:32). Not only does He care for us, He actually invites us to cast our cares on Him (I Peter 5:7). What a blessing that we can pray to God, for praying frees us from the bondage of worry. Those who meditate on the character of God will soon find themselves replacing worry with prayer.
The final exam
Everyone meditates on something. Coveting what one doesn’t have, lamenting things that have happened, and fearing what may happen are all examples of troubled thinking. What is the result of replacing troubled thinking with meditation on God? What is the experience of a person who continually fills his mind with truth about the character of our gracious, omnipresent, prayer-answering Father? What happens as he comes to see God more clearly? He is supernaturally transformed into the image of God (II Corinthians 3:18). The believer who meditates on God receives much more than a passing grade in a theology course. He experiences “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” a peace that “shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Greg Mazak serves as associate pastor at Trinity Bible Church of Greer, South Carolina, and is the head of the master’s program in counseling at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. More information: www.trinitybiblegreer.org.