Wired to Worry, Equipped to Preach

Wired to Worry, Equipped to Preach

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Mature Worried ManA friend may be writing a letter to me that I might not like. Although we’ve talked repeatedly, there are tensions between us that are still not resolved.

Yesterday another acquaintance said my friend is composing a letter to me. He gave no details, just “He’s writing something for you.”

Oh boy, what does that mean?

Has he seen my faults so clearly that he can now spell them out in more convincing detail? Or has he finally seen things in himself that he wants to admit to me?

The first possibility leaves me with this little nagging worry because no matter how old I get, I still don’t enjoy it when people uncover my faults.

By God’s grace, I have gotten better at this. I can usually listen politely when confronted. And in most cases I can sincerely accept legitimate aspects of others’ criticism, apologize for what I’ve done wrong, and agree to ways I need to change.

But deep down inside I still don’t like it.

Criticism pricks my pride, my self-righteousness, my self-image. And so I’m tempted to worry when I know correction is coming my way.

We’re Wired to Worry

Worry involves a complex interaction in our brains. Sensory information is transmitted to the thalamus, which reroutes it to the limbic system and neocortex. These two primary players then begin a complicated dance.

The amygdala quickly searches its memory banks to attach an emotion to the anticipated experience. When the triggered emotions are unpleasant (“Being criticized is uncomfortable and embarrassing, and I don’t like it!”), the amygdala sends out a variety of warning signals to put our body on alert. Our stomach may tighten up, our pulse may increase, we can start to sweat.

If the threat is big enough and we react before the rest of the brain fully engages, we can succumb to “amygdala hijacking,” which can cause us to speak or act impulsively and sinfully.

But usually the neocortical area of the brain steps in to guide us toward a more analytical and appropriate response. Our prefrontal lobes in particular team up to perform an incredibly sophisticated risk/benefit analysis of possible reactions.

The right prefrontal lobes are the seat of negative feelings like fear and aggression, while the left lobes keep those raw emotions in check. To put it another way, the right lobes are like radar antenna tuned to pick up every sign of possible danger and the left lobes are like a calm and experienced radar operator who sees the signals and says, “Relax, it’s nothing to worry about.”

Before man’s fall into sin, all of this sophisticated circuitry worked flawlessly because everything God created was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). But sin corrupted our parents spiritually, physically, neurologically and socially, and they passed these defects on to us.

So now instead of providing us with consistently calm, accurate and reasonable analysis and guidance, our sin-tainted brains sometimes give us flawed conclusions and impulsive reactions.

One manifestation of these defects is our inclination to worry excessively. For example …

Worry

Zits, May 17, 2015

People with an inclination to worry quickly or excessively can create a lot of stress for themselves as well as the people around them.

This inclination can involve a complex interplay of many factors, including past experiences, sinful desires, unbelief, irrational thinking, fearful emotions, bad advice and unwise reactions. For the purposes of this post, I’d like to focus on one particular interaction: the tug-of-war between the left and right prefrontal lobes.

In very simple terms, if the right lobe is overly active, or the left lobe is not doing its job, our brains will send out a steady stream of danger signals, leading to a constant state of anxiety. Every noise, every moment of silence, every sound and every report can trigger a new concern or fear.

At best this is distracting. At worst it can be spiritually, emotionally and relationally crippling.

Preach to Your Emotions

I’ve found that the best way to counteract this tendency is to preach to my myself.

Instead of listening to my emotions (mulling them over and over and coming up with increasingly dire scenarios), I reason with them, even preach to them.

In neurological terms, I order my left prefrontal lobe to get its feet off the desk, dig into my memory bank of Scriptures, sermons, books, counsel and life experiences, and start the analytical reasoning process God designed it to do.

One of the simplest ways to approach this process is to use the SOG plan (Self-awareness, Other-awareness and God-awareness). Here’s how I’m currently applying it as I anticipate receiving a letter from my friend. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call him John.

Note: Since this is not actually a great worry, I really don’t need to give it this much detailed thought. But for the sake of illustrating how to respond to major worries, I’ve included extra examples of how to preach to ourselves.

Self-Awareness

Here’s how I reason with myself.

What am I feeling? “Tense. Preoccupied. Anxious.”

Why? “Because I think someone might be planning to criticize me.”

Why does that bother me? “Because he may be right. Perhaps I may have done something wrong and not yet faced it. I hate doing things wrong. I hate hurting people. But to be honest, I also hate it when others point out my wrongs. It wounds my pride, exposes my self-righteousness, and makes me feel guilty and ashamed.”

What if he does point out my faults? Is there a way I can respond constructively? “Yes, I can face his observations humbly and honestly. I can look for the truth in them instead of focusing on misperceptions. I can remember that Jesus paid for all of my sins on the cross, and he does not hold them against me (Rom. 8:1; Col. 2:13-14). I can use the Seven A’s of Confession to admit my wrongs. And I can trust that God will use John’s correction to help me put off sinful attitudes and habits and grow to be more like Christ (Ps. 141:5; Prov. 27:6).”

“Oh, that helps. Even if I am criticized, there are constructive things I can do in response.”

Other-Awareness

It also helps to think about the perceived threat.

Am I certain John is going to criticize me? “No, it’s possible that John is writing me a letter of confession, or perhaps just thanking me for talking through these issues even though we still see them differently. So it’s possible my fears will come to nothing.”

If John does plan to confront me, is he likely to be dishonest or harsh? “No, John has always shown himself to be a man of integrity. He loves the Lord and is mature in the Word. Although we don’t always see things in the same way, he is a wise and deeply respected man. Whenever he’s confronted me in the past, there has always been truth in in his words.”

If John is writing me a letter, what are his motives likely to be? “I’ve never seen John act out of anger or defensiveness. So if he comes to me with something unpleasant, I know it will be because he cares about me, my walk with Christ, and my relationships with others.”

What if I was faced with someone who was not so godly, who was actually out to harm me? “God would still be looking out for me, using even malicious actions for my good and his glory (see Gen. 50:19-20, which summarizes Joseph’s response when his brothers sold him into slavery).

“Ok. This helps too. John is not my enemy. He’s actually a proven brother in the Lord. Even if he is mistaken on some matters and I don’t agree with everything he writes, I don’t need to fear him.”

God-Awareness

And now the real preaching begins.

Who’s got my back in this situation? “God!”

Really? Why would the God of the universe be concerned about something like this? “Because he loved me from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), because he sent his Son to die for my specific sins (John 3:16), and because he promises to watch over the smallest details of my life (Matt. 10:29-31).

What do I know about the character of God? “Have you got all day? He is holy and infinitely wise (Exod. 15:11; Rom. 11:33). He is merciful and kind, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:5-7; Ps. Ps. 103:8-13). The list of his perfections goes on and on forever! (Deut. 32:4)”

If God does allow me to be corrected, what are his motives? “Love. Pure love (Ps. 110:5). When he disciplines me, it’s always out of love (Heb. 12:6). And even when the process is temporarily unpleasant, he is always working for my good, which is to conform me to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28-29).”

Does God have anything to say about my tendency to be anxious? “Yes. He knows this is a struggle for me. He realizes I live in a fallen world with many difficulties, which makes me vulnerable to worry (Matt. 6:24-25). But he does not condemn me. He is very gentle and patient with me. He encourages me not to be anxious (Phil. 4:6), reminds me of his protection (Isa. 43:2), gives me countless reasons to trust in him (Matt. 6:25-34 which is beautifully exposited by John Piper), and provides practical strategies to counter anxiety (Phil. 4:4-8).”

As long as we’re on the subject, what if my worries are about someone else’s well-being? Do all of these promises apply to them as well? “Of course! God loves them far more than I do, and he has infinitely great wisdom and power to exert on their behalf. They are in better and more trustworthy hands than I can even imagine! (Ps. 62:11-12)”

Keep Doing 360’s

You can preach these kinds of words to yourself in any order you like. Sometimes beginning with a focus on God, and at other times beginning with an awareness of others’ actions or your own concerns.

All that matters is that you do a full 360, focusing on all three dimensions of awareness (God, self, and others).

And if one cycle doesn’t work, do it again and again, one 360 after another, until the perfect performance of Jesus and the proven promises of God enable you to take every emotion and thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) so that you’re able to face the challenges of the day—whether a friend’s correction or worse—with the peace and confidence of a child of the King.

– Ken Sande

Reflection Questions

  • What are you inclined to worry about? How have you processed those concerns in the past? How have your strategies worked?
  • Select a current or common anxiety, and preach a “SOG sermon” to yourself today!
  • If you have a friend who is vulnerable to worry, please pass this along so they too can learn how to preach to themselves.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2015 Ken Sande

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