So often we find ourselves in circumstances outside our control. We speculate the outcome based on past experience and current information, often attempting to make accurate predictions of what will happen next.
Last Spring (2013) I was in Kenya for the presidential election. Tensions ran high as people remembered the bloodshed from the previous election. In December 2007, tribal divisions corresponded with candidate choices, and violence erupted as the ballots were counted. Thousands were killed and misplaced. This time, factions were again very visible, but the vast majority longed for a peaceful outcome. As missionaries, we were told to “pray for the best and prepare for the worst,” stocking up on food, water, and batteries, setting potential evacuation routes, and planning alternative forms of communication.
For many, the uncertainty of the outcome was closely linked to anxiety. Worrying is a natural response when feeling uncertain. Sometimes the anxious ruminations become a habit, as even the small “unknowns” trigger our imaginations to consider countless possible outcomes. But no amount of worry will improve a situation; the only likely repercussions are the negative effects on ourselves—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Writing from a prison cell, Paul boldly instructs the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians, 4:6 NIV). It is hard to imagine never being worried. Yet Paul offers a good way to respond to the concerns in our hearts and minds: prayer. Research has repeatedly shown prayer to be beneficial to emotional and physical well-being. One study (Whittington and Scher, 2010) looked at specific types of prayer, and identified three that produce positive effects in areas such as self-esteem, optimism, meaning in life, and satisfaction with life: “adoration (pure worship of God without reference to specific events or needs), thanksgiving (thanks to God for specific positive outcomes or circumstances), and prayers of reception (prayers focused on opening oneself up to closeness with God).”
Paul gives a third recommendation for dealing with our anxiety: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (vs. 8). Rather than focusing our thoughts on the possible negative outcomes, considering the positive can quickly reduce anxiety.
Thankfully, when the elections did take place, our prayers were answered and the amount of violence was drastically reduced compared to the previous event. Although there were riots in “hot spots” and we had to be careful where we went, no drastic evacuations were required. Kenyans from different tribal backgrounds were able to go back to working side by side. What could have been an ideal opportunity to let worry creep in became an even better opportunity to see God at work.
Where do you find your thoughts go when facing daunting tasks or difficult situations? Try bringing your worries back to God in prayer, receiving his peace, and re-focusing on the good around you, whether a smile on someone’s face, a good deed done, or a beautiful piece of creation. When struggling to find that peace and overcome anxiety, also remember that we are called to encourage each other in the difficult times. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from those around you.