Yesterday, worry formed a knot in my stomach. At first, it exasperated me: my day wasn’t stressful at all. But justified or not, I felt afraid.
It wasn’t the first time. Sometimes I worry about specific problems; sometimes, I just feel nebulous dismay. But throughout my life, anxiety has robbed me of wholeness:
- Self-doubt kept me from fully using my gifts.
- Post-partum anxiety stole my joy in early motherhood.
- My nerves locked my husband and I in unhealthy communication patterns.
- Fear shamed me about my relationship with God.
I don’t want to be afraid; I want to trust God with every difficulty. And so, for years, I told myself to stop worrying.
I prayed Philippians 4 repeatedly, confessed my fear to friends, and journaled obsessively. Snap out of it, I repeated to myself, ashamed I did not trust God more.
A better person wouldn’t worry so much, I told myself. A more faithful Christian would find freedom.
The other morning, I saw my fear differently. After initial exasperation, I began to sit with the dread and try to learn what it might teach me. Because if I draw near to it, worry can actually help me come near to God.
Here are the ways I’m learning to bring my fear to God.
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I Shift My Expectations about the “Renewing of My Mind”
I once assumed that peace came through self-discipline. Paul counsels us to be completely transformed by the renewing of our minds. When I felt afraid, I assumed I’d failed to do so, and needed to try harder—and harder—to achieve transformation.
But as Dr. Thomas Constable points out in his commentary on Romans 12:2, transformation is “a lifelong process,” not an instant achievement. I won’t will myself into a renewed mind—I’ll grow into it throughout my life.
Now that I realize I’m not going to “achieve” trust perfectly today, next week, or next year, my expectations change. Instead of viewing the knot in my stomach as a failure, I see a mini-workshop on peace and freedom. I’m not called to be perfectly fearless. I am called to use what I’ve learned so far to strengthen my “peace” muscles.
For years, I stayed stuck in anxiety because I assumed I’d failed before I even tried. Now, I know a knot in my stomach is my signal to begin training.
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I Get Curious about My Fear
The weird thing about telling myself to snap out of my fear is that not only did it make me feel more anxious, but how much it blinded me. I ran away from fear rather than asking simple questions like why am I afraid? or what could I do to feel better?
The other morning, I practiced curiosity instead of shame.
It was a little bit like playing Christian Battleship: I’d ask a question, and ask God for insight, with every question getting closer and closer to the source of my fear. First, I realized I was worried about wasting my precious time. Then, getting more specific: about getting enough done today. Then I realized I actually felt ashamed by how peaceful and lovely my life has been this year. The quiet contentment I’d experienced felt too easy. I did not feel like I deserved to live in peace.
Being curious about my fear helps me understand what’s going on underneath the dread I feel. The next step—noticing the lies I’m telling myself—helps me draw closer to God’s wholeness.
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I Notice My Skewed Thoughts, Values, and Beliefs
Through therapy and reading about practices like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I’ve discovered consistent patterns behind my fears.
Some days, I fall into the trap of “catastrophizing”: assuming the worst-case scenario is the most likely one. Other days, I tell myself I should feel, react, or experience something I’m not—setting myself up for frustration, shame, or resentment.
The more I learn about fear, the more I’m reminded of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. There, Satan twisted God’s word into lies. In the same way, many of my fears—longing to use my time wisely, for instance, aren’t bad in and of themselves. The problem is my twisted way of thinking.
As Matthew Elliot puts it in Faithful Feelings, "Emotions are a faithful reflection of what we believe and value," but sometimes what we value isn't in line with God's love. As we're honest with ourselves about the roots of our fear, we can discover why we’re struggling to trust Jesus—and have more information about how to think and act differently.
The other day, realizing I felt ashamed of my peaceful life moved me to gratitude and repentance. I affirmed that God wants good things for me despite my fear. I am allowed to experience that goodness with a grateful heart.
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I’ve Learned to Get Counsel about Entrenched Patterns
“All that is fine and good, Heather,” you might be saying. “I know my thinking is messed up, but decades of trying hasn’t changed anything.”
I’m sending you a hug, because the same was true for me. If changing our thinking were easy, we’d all feel victorious now.
I wasn’t able to change my skewed thinking alone. Instead I needed two years of therapy.
Anxiety runs throughout my family, and I also grapple with trauma from childhood. Therapy helped me learn how to set appropriate boundaries with people I love, grieve losses from my past, and learn more about how my family of origin shaped the way I react to the world.
Sometimes, our fears are rooted in past experiences that are hard to address without help. Getting wise counsel can help us replace old ways of toxic thinking for more peaceful, Christ-like ones.
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I Practice Practical Habits to Calm My Mind
The biggest shock of learning to trust God more is how simple the process is—once I actually try it. It’s not about trying harder, controlling every thought, or getting a brain transplant. It’s about investing in habits that promote peace in my ordinary life.
For me, rest and a lack of hurry are key. I turn down more good opportunities than I say yes to, say no to my kids when they ask me to overschedule us, and simplify every single task I can. I also commit to a weekly Sabbath where I avoid email, housework, and deadlines.
Peace has also looked like prioritizing sleep. I read how to address my mild insomnia, began avoiding alcohol and caffeine when I’m especially stressed, and take ten or twenty-minute naps when I’m over-tired.
Quite honestly, sometimes I’m embarrassed by how little I do. I’m not a noble volunteer, an adventurous mommy, or an industrious job-seeker. But my very quiet life means I can listen to God and respond with trust and joy. I’m simply not too cranky to pay attention.
Your access to a simple schedule will look different than mine, but we can all prioritize rest without guilt or shame. Reach for every moment of peace you can, and ask for help when you’re struggling.
Our culture wants to tell us that working harder is always the answer. But God’s model for us is Christ, who chose to relinquish divine power for human limits, and who took power naps in the midst of storms.
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I Remember: Transformation Is in God’s Hands, Not Mine
Quite honestly, if there were a pill I could take tomorrow to trust God perfectly, I’d swallow it without asking about side-effects. God’s way of renewing my mind is frustrating, slow, and hard to track in a spreadsheet.
It’s also the actual method God uses.
The bright spot is this: it’s not up to me to change. It is God working in me that can do more than I can ask and imagine.
Realizing I don’t have to try hard has made the wait bearable. If I sense I’m afraid and not trusting God, I know I haven’t failed. Instead, I simply tell Jesus about it and ask for help discerning one small thing to seek peace now—period, end of sentence.
Yes, we’re called to intentionally engage in the process of renewing our minds. But quite honestly, I think most of us overestimate our own importance in the process. Yes, we must pray—but remember that it’s not your words that trigger God’s power. Yes, we can practice spiritual disciplines, but keep in mind that they aren’t Jesus-y vending machines. Yes, we will yearn to be whole—but remember that you’re called to not worry about tomorrow. Stay relentlessly present and curious about this holy moment you’re in.
Perhaps the best way to begin trusting God with your whole mind is to begin with this struggle, and this shame: that you are an imperfect creature, prone to fear, who desperately wants to be saved.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
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Originally published Friday, 21 February 2020.