“Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise.”Hebrews 10:35-36
I keenly remember the unusual, extreme anxiety that gripped my chest. The unexplained pain in my back would not ease. The desperately itchy rash covering my body had not subsided with the recommended medications. I was alone, pacing my house, praying, with no answers to handle the pain and itching and helplessness.
As I paced, a shock wave of electricity started to burn its way from my neck down through my left arm, causing it to curl and stiffen up until I couldn’t move it. The searing sizzle continued down my left side to my leg, which also curled up, then across to the right leg, which instantly froze.
I collapsed into a chair. I couldn’t move, and all my muscles were tightening up to complete rigidity. I had just three fingers of my right hand still moving and I used them to dial 911.
This began the story of the last eleven years of my life, with no answers from the medical professionals. Doctors varied from saying something was seriously wrong with me to telling me I had a self-created mental problem.
I had no answers and no hope medically. I was getting weaker and sicker and helplessly wondered if I was dying. I had to hope in God or give up and die.
A friend who knows my story recently asked me, “What do you do when you are anxious?” I’ve been gripped with incredible fear and anxiety–sometimes because of my own foolish choices, sometimes because I knew I was under specific spiritual attack, sometimes because of physical factors that were beyond my control. Even then I had to wait on the Lord.
In all cases, I discovered that I don’t successfully deal with anything. God enables me every moment of every day!
But I do have responsibility to control my mind. If I allow myself to continually dwell on negative things, I spiral farther and farther down into very real despair.
I learned to pay attention to the physical issues that were going on in my body like moon phases, sugar levels, insufficient sleep, too much stress, medication side effects and withdrawal, adrenal fatigue, etc.
But more importantly, God graciously taught me how to deal with the mental, emotional and spiritual part of anxiety, which are much more powerful and can exacerbate or relieve the physical challenges.*
Putting these instructions into practice, however, has required some very hard work for me–excruciating agony with God. So what I write here does not come from a place of easy fix.
The Battle for Our Minds
In Romans 12, Paul tells us we are in a battle for our minds:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.Romans 12:1-3
This passage offers some practical instruction for battling anxiety.
1. Present Your Body
First, we must present our bodies a living sacrifice to God, knowing that it’s a reasonable service of worship to Him. After all, we are the temple of Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16).
When you consider the subject of chronic illness in our body and tie it to Romans 12, you see the idea of presenting our bodies in a whole different light. Usually we think this means presenting a strong, energetic, healthy, perfect body, like the Old Testament sacrifices demanded (Num 19:2). But Paul presents a different idea:
When you consider the subject of chronic illness in our body and tie it to Romans 12, you see the idea of presenting our bodies in a whole different light. Usually we think this means presenting a strong, energetic, healthy, perfect body, like the Old Testament sacrifices demanded (Num 19:2).
But Paul presents a different idea:
“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”II Corinthians 12:9-10
Over the last eleven years, I have learned that God can get far more glory through my weakness then He ever could when I was strong, fit, and active. Whatever I try to do for the Lord now is done only in His strength and grace because I KNOW I have nothing on my own to offer. If someone says they gain any blessing from my ministry, I know it was God, because I know how weak and frail I’ve felt as I reached out to offer encouragement.
This leads to the second idea that is presented in Romans 12.
2. Be Transformed
We are supposed to be transformed.
Don’t we wish that would happen? Insta-perfect body . . . Bring it on!
But this is not the transformation Paul tells us to strive for. The way we are transformed is by renewing our minds–the way we think.
Our way of thinking has to change dramatically so that when God is done with us, we think His thoughts after Him, we have His mind on what it means to live one day at a time (sometimes one hour or one minute at a time), we trust Him (II Cor 2:6), and we no longer lean on our own understanding (Prov 3:5-6).
This is significant because we know that nothing about chronic illness and all the ensuing struggles, questions, aches, pains, agony, and uncertainty makes sense to our human way of thinking.
The word “transformed” comes from the Greek word metamorphoō. Metamorphosis, anybody? And what is metamorphosis? It’s the process of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly.
This change doesn’t happen instantly. The caterpillar has to build a cocoon, then it changes its form, and then it has to literally eat and dig its way back out of that cocoon. As it fights its way out, the fluids are forced all the way out to the tips of its wings so that once it’s fully out of the cocoon, every part of its body is completely developed and ready for flight.
Renewing our minds and changing the way we think requires that same kind of struggle, because we are bound and determined to think after the flesh. We have to change the way we think. By God’s grace, we can.
That brings us to the next principle, found in verse 3 of the passage:
3. Focus Beyond Yourself
We are not supposed to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to.
- Our minds cannot be focused on ourselves.
- We cannot believe that we in ourselves have the ability to do anything and get lifted up with pride as a result. Jesus said, “Without Me you can do nothing”(Jn 15:5).
- We must think soberly, recognizing the gifts and abilities God has given us and using them for His service.
The rest of this Romans passage goes on to talk about all the different gifts God has given to the body of Christ. The idea is, we’re supposed to start thinking about those abilities and considering which ones God has given us and which ones we’re supposed to use for Him.
I know what you’re thinking: “I’m sick. What can I do?”
When you’re chronically ill, it’s easy to think you can’t do anything worthwhile for the Lord. But you can! They can be simple things like sending notes to folks to tell them you’re praying for them, making a phone call, or praying. These blessings are invaluable to the receiver when God times the delivery. Thinking about ways to help others is one way to switch our minds from what we are worrying about.
*If your anxiety is a result of a physical condition (brain damage, hormonal imbalance, etc.), appropriate medication may help but should not exclude obedience to these biblical instructions.