January 14, 2018
*CALL TO CONFESSION (Psalm 32:3-5, GNT)
Psalm 32 says, "When I did not confess my sins, I was worn out from crying all day long. Day and night you punished me, Lord; my strength was completely drained, as moisture is dried up by the summer heat. Then I confessed my sins to you; I did not conceal my wrongdoings. I decided to confess them to you, and you forgave all my sins." Since God is always ready to forgive us, let us make our confession to God.
*PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of Mercy, forgive us the times we are afraid to be honest with you about the things we have done wrong. Forgive the times we get anxious about our mistakes and let our guilt run our lives. Forgive us the times we get bogged down in our worry and fret more than we trust. Teach to rely not only on your providence, but also your forgiveness, so that we do not waste our lives dwelling in guilt, but instead help us surrender our lives to your will and your service. Amen.
*DECLARATION OF FORGIVENESS (Psalm 32:1-2, GNT)
"Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. Happy is the one whom the Lord does not accuse of doing wrong and who is free from all deceit.” Through Jesus the Christ, your sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God!
Genesis 3:8-10, NLT
8 When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. 9 Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”
So all your loyal people should pray to you in times of need;
when a great flood of trouble comes rushing in,
it will not reach them.
7 You are my hiding place;
you will save me from trouble.
I sing aloud of your salvation,
because you protect me.
8 The Lord says, “I will teach you the way you should go;
I will instruct you and advise you.
9 Don't be stupid like a horse or a mule,
which must be controlled with a bit and bridle
to make it submit.”
10 The wicked will have to suffer,
but those who trust in the Lord
are protected by his constant love.
11 You that are righteous, be glad and rejoice
because of what the Lord has done.
You that obey him, shout for joy!
Luke 15:20b-24, NCV
“While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for his son. So the father ran to him and hugged and kissed him. 21 The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get our fat calf and kill it so we can have a feast and celebrate. 24 My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!’ So they began to celebrate.
Philippians 3:9b-14, NLT
I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!
12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. 13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God!
Anxiety Antidotes: Keep Calm & Receive God's Mercy
Thursday I was headed to Cedar Rapids. I remembered before I got too far that I hadn't put gas in the car on Wednesday, so I did that. I had been up for a while in the middle of the night to finish reading my lesson, so I woke up and dressed at the very last minute. That's why I was buying breakfast at a drive thru to eat on the road. Then the call came that our group meeting was cancelled. I didn't have the laptop with me. I didn't have any other study materials with me. The church calendar was at home. No one was expecting the office to be open, so I went home. I wrote all my excuses in a message to Mike as Personnel chair, and then I worked on financial reports and other documents for Session. An hour later, Mike called.
Now before I get to that call, let me point out to you all the things I could feel guilty about in that opening illustration. I do guilt really well.
Mike's phone call was to make sure I was home, because of the ice coming down and how slippery the roads had become. In the midst of that was this exchange, "So, I don't have to feel guilty?" "No, you don't have to feel guilty." Well, that's the point of today's message among various forms of anxiety; you don't have to spend your life feeling guilty!
Some of you listened to this story just now and what popped into your mind was your own dirty laundry list of things you felt guilty about last week. Some of you said to yourselves, "Yeah, I do that, too." Some of you wondered what on earth I was talking about, because you didn't sense any reason for guilt at all. We all have different guilt meters, and we process our responses to situations and choices differently. But for some of us, guilt and dwelling on that guilt, is a significant source of our anxiety.
Guilt has a purpose and a function I think. I should recognize when my attitude or my behavior is inappropriate, and especially when they are offensive to God. Not everything I say or do or think honors the God I claim to worship and serve. Guilt is my conscience waving a caution flag, or it's like the referree throwing a penalty flag on the field when a foul has been committed. Guilt gets our attention and says, "Hey, you need to change something here!"
We don't get very far into the story of God and humanity, before the first foul is committed. God created human beings and placed them in paradise. They had everything they needed, and the only rule was, "Don't eat from this one particular tree." So what did they do? They ate that fruit from that tree. They made excuses and played the blame game. But that doesn't absolve them; they each made the choice to take that bite. What happened? They experienced guilt for the first time, and guilt made them afraid of God for the first time. It was the first major breach in an otherwise loving and trusting relationship. Loss of paradise isn't about losing the beauty or the providence of creation as much as it is about losing that level of total confidence in our relationship with God. With disobedience came guilt, and with guilt came the question, "Will God still love me?"
When a child or a student, a friend or a spouse does something they know will upset their parent, teacher, friend or mate, isn't that the ultimate anxious thought? Will they forgive me, will they still like me, will they still love me? As I consider my own thought patterns as well as those of the many people I have listened to over the years, I think those questions underly many guilt related forms of anxiety.
Psalm 32 isn't one I read very often or know very well. You may not have recognized it either. But as I was planning out the worship for today, I not only chose it as a reading, but used a few verses earlier in the call to confession and the declaration of forgiveness. Psalm 32 reminds us of several things related to guilt. It actually starts by telling us that we should be happy, because our sins are forgiven. It points out dramatically that we are going to suffer if we wallow in our guilt rather than making our confession to God. It praises God for salvation and instruction. It declares that those who trust God are protected by love, and those who obey God will rejoice! Do you notice the choices offered there. Every human being has these same choices: whether or not to trust God, whether or not to obey God. No one else can be blamed or held responsible for what we each choose. That choice is entirely ours to make. I love how bluntly the psalmist encourages us to choose God. V. 9 "Don't be stupid like a horse or a mule, which must be controlled with a bit and bridle to make it submit.” Well there are times we might be that stubborn, but there are consequences, aren't there?
In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve dealt with their guilt by hiding from God. We have a lot of ways we hide. Max Lucado notes that we numb it, deny it, minimize it, bury it, punish it, and avoid mention of it. We redirect it, offset it, or even embody it. Consider these with me, but just briefly. Society is filled with addictive behaviors to numb guilt and pain, but most of these become harmful when repeated in bulk. Denial can lead to lying, and that leads to worse problems. Minimizing or making excuses to ourselves and others may make us feel better for awhile, but then we don't make the changes that need to take place. When we bury or suppress our guilt it festers inside like an infection, getting worse rather than better. Some people punish themselves rather than admit their mistakes. We might beat ourselves up emotionally, or some people cause themselves physical harm. Some people play the blame game rather than take responsibility for their actions. Others go to the opposite extreme and push themselves toward the impossible goal of personal perfection. Still others take the guilt so deeply and so personally that "I did a bad thing" becomes "I am a bad person." Guilt turns to shame, and that is a trap no one should live in. All of these responses to guilt can be painful or harmful. None of them are appropriate or healthy. They are NOT the way God wants us to live, but when we get stuck in them we will probably need some help to get unstuck.
Help can come from counseling, from spiritual direction, or from participating in an accountabilty group. You won't be surprised that I recommend it have a spiritual dimension to it. Sometimes you need someone other than yourself to help you redirect your thought patterns to a healthier way of thinking, and a more God centered way of thinking. My clergy coach does that for me. Sometimes my daughter does that for me. Sometimes friends. Sometimes God does it directly. Tuesday, a flood of thoughts went through my mind, and God kept pointing out how unhealthy they were. So each of those thoughts was mentally stamped "Not ok" and sent on its way by turning my mind to something else.
Here's that point I promised to keep repeating to you for a few weeks. Whether it is guilt or something else, you don't have to get stuck in your negative thought patterns. You CAN change the channel and think about something else. In fact you might literally imagine yourself reaching to turn the radio dial or hit the button on the remote. So, here's one spiritual practice you might want to start this week, especially those of you who journal and those of you who love lists! Start writing down somewhere a list of alternatives to negative thinking; name those other channels you can turn to when your thoughts get stuck in an unhealthy mode. Mine, of course, includes music, Bible verses, laughing at a variety show, playing a game, working, making up a story in my head, counting my blessings. What's on your list? Going for a walk? Chatting with friends? Reading? You need to have those alternatives ready at a moments notice, because....dwelling on the negative is only going to make it worse.
As I read more about Martin Seligman's studies in cognitive therapy this week, there was more on his research with helplessness and depression and the affects of pessimism vs. optimism. He delves into differences between someone with a pessimistic explanatory style and someone with an optimistic view. In a helpless situation, he concluded that someone who said, "It's never going to work. I'm just a failure" is far more likely to become depressed and give up than someone who has this reaction. "Well that plan didn't work in this particular situation, so let's try something else." Or this one, "I'm not very good at this way of doing it, but I'm better at this skill, so let's see if that works." Seligman defines pessimism in part as permanent, personal and pervasive. (Seligman, Learned Optimism, p. 76) When something goes wrong, a pessimist believes there is something wrong with themselves, that it affects everything and it's never going to change. An optimist, on the other hand, sees situations as just that, a temporary situation, sees outside influences as well as their own responsibility, and believes that things can change. This is a much healthier approach to life.
But in his research, Seligman also found that women are more likely to be depressed than men, twice as likely he says, and he was looking for the reason why. One of his hypotheses that the research seemed to support is that women tend to dwell on problems longer than men do. Don't take this entirely as gender bias; what I'm saying is a higher percentage of men tend to react to a problem or concern (including guilt) with action, and they tend to move on quicker. A higher percentage of women think about it and keep thinking about it. We analyze, and we overanalyze. (Seligman, p. 75) I know this to be one of my patterns, worse in my 20s than it is in my 60s. I recognize it in a lot of other women. But as you are listening, remember, you may be a woman who doesn't do this. Good for you! You might be a fella who does do this, so keep listening! Seligman calls this overthinking ruminating. The word literally comes from the domestic animal expression for "chewing the cud." When some of us get hold of a worry or a concern, a guilty or an anxious thought, we ruminate. We chew on it, but then we don't digest it right away, and we don't spit it out either, we just keep chewing on it. But we are not like the creatures God designed to chew their cud. For us to keep ruminating on negative thoughts has very unhealthy consequences.
Seligman suggests five tactics from cognitive therapy for changing these unhealthy thought patterns. I'm suggesting they can work for anxiety as well as they do for depression. First, notice what you think when you are feeling anxious or depressed. Don't dwell on it, just notice and check to see if those thoughts are pessimistic meaning personal, permanent and pervasive. His example is a woman who yelled at her children and immediately thought, "I'm a terrible mother." Second, consider evidence to the contrary. In her case, she learned to remember all the times she had positive mothering interactions with her children. Then, third, learn to interrupt the negative self talk with the positive. "I'm not a terrible mother, but mornings are tough!" Now this is a key, don't ruminate! The crucial step #4 is to distract your thoughts; change the channel! That's where your list comes in handy. Finally #5, at some point when you aren't depressed or anxious, challenge your negative assumptions. Weed out the harsh judgements you tend to make and replant less severe truths instead. Replace, "I can't do anything right; I'm a failure" with "If I do the best I can do, that's a success!" Replace, "Everyone hates me" with "Not everyone is going to like me, but there are people I really enjoy." Replace, "It's always a crappy day" with "Some mornings are a real challenge, but I seem to feel better later in the day." Go on a truth hunt! What is true for you? Plant these truths firmly in your mind and keep rehearsing them until they become your go-to responses instead of the negative ones.
Toler also tackles the problem of guilt in his chapter on detoxifying our minds. He is realistic when he says that we can't completely eliminate a bad memory or prevent a sinful thought from crossing our mind. But neither the memory nor the thought are sin in and of themselves. It's what we do with them that matters. Toler's recommendation is "if it's a negative, sinful, destructive thought, ... clamp down on it, reject it, and eject it ... If it's a positive, holy, and productive thought, ... clamp down on it, meditate on it, and apply it. (Toler, p. 36)
Take an example our society struggles with continually. Suppose you find someone attractive, but it's not an appropriate connection to pursue. Just tell yourself, "NO" and shift gears to think about something else. I often told my daughters I could be attracted to someone, but that didn't mean I was going to do anything about it. You can turn it to a prayer; thank God for the healthy relationships in your life and focus on those. You can ask God to bring that other person healthy, happy relationships, too. Appreciate other people for their skills, their hard work, their great ideas, don't get stuck on looks. Pay attention to the ways various media sources keep promoting unhealthy thinking. Do you need a break from violent dramas, from romance novels, from news reports, from certain websites or other media? Then stop reading or watching the things that drag your mind in the wrong direction! Find a better way to fill your time. Get an accountability partner to help you stick to your resolve. Take it to God in prayer! Don't ruminate on the thoughts that lead you astray, interrupt them with something positive!
Let's look back at our gospel lesson, the familiar story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. All the way home the younger son practiced how he was going to beg his father's forgiveness. "I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as one of your servants." The son was stuck in the continuing loop of a pessimistic guilt trip, "I failed you, so I'm not good enough for you to love me anymore." But his father interrupted it with a hug and a celebration of the son's return.
I know people who spend years and years of their lives wallowing that kind of thinking. "I'm not good enough; God can't possibly love me. No, you don't know what I've done!" God interrupts that pessimistic guilt trip with John 3:16-17, "God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him."
Has it occured to you yet what other guilt related thoughts you need to eject from your mind? It's the guilt you want the other person to feel, because they didn't live up to your standards or your expectations. If you know the rest of the Prodigal Son story, you know that the older brother was guilty of this. Somewhere along the last couple years I began to let go of some of my hopes or wishes for what I wanted to receive from other people. I mean, give them a break, they have enough trouble living up to their own expectations and obligations! So do I! My unrealistic expectations spoiled the friendship.
But what if they really hurt you? I mean people have done atrocious, horrific things to others. I will never tell you to condone inappropriate or evil behavior. I will tell you that if you focus on what the other person did to you, it will only continue your suffering for as long as your focus remains there. This is another area where we need to dismiss the negative thoughts and ask God to help us let them go as completely as possible, so the memory of that pain doesn't continue to bring us more pain. This isn't easy. It will take effort, practice and probably help.
Max Lucado uses the example of the Old Testament Joseph, who had plenty of reason to hold grudges against his brothers who sold him into slavery, his employer's wife who made a false accusation against him, and the fellow prisoner who forgot the promise he made to Joseph. Some of us have read another Lucado study book on Joseph's story. If you struggle with feeling like a victim, this study is for you. Hanging on to that sense of being a victim is not helping you. Whether it's coming from another individual or life in general or "the world is out to get me," these are again unhealthy ways of thinking that we can change!
Remember instead some of these classic Bible verses that put our trust and our lives in God's merciful, purposeful plans. I'm sure you have heard me use all of them many times before, but they are worth repeating and commiting to memory. They are antidotes to anxiety and guilt and depression and more.
Paul gave the Philippians his healthy realistic way of looking at the problem of guilt.
"I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith." (Phil. 3:9) Our guilt says, "I can't possibly keep all these laws. Why just today I broke three of the Ten Commandments! I'm a failure, and God can't love me." God's grace and love, says, "Yeah, you messed up. Humans do that. But I love you so much I sent Jesus to help you find your way back to me. Just turn around and come home." Paul is the first to admit he hasn't reached perfection yet by any means, but that doesn't mean he gives up striving to do his best with God's help. His advice is what we need to hear, "I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us." (Phil. 3:13-14) That's the answer of course, surrender your guilt to God's grace. Surrender blame and victimization to God as well. Lucado writes, "God's grace is the fertile soil out of which courage sprouts." and again "guilt frenzies the soul; grace calms it." (Lucado, p. 43)
In the face of all these forms of anxiety, we are learning instead to be calm.
Today, begin to replace guilt and blame with God's mercy and grace.
Keep calm and Receive God's mercy.
The books referred to in this series are as follows:
Max Lucado. Anxious for Nothing. Harper Collins Publishing, 2017.
Stan Toler. The Power of Your Brain. Harvest House Publishers, 2008.
Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph. D. Learned Optimism. Vintage Books, 2006.
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