I memorized Philippians 4:4-9 more than 20 years ago when I was on bed rest during my pregnancy with my son Aaron. I had lost three babies before him—and one after him—so pregnancy for me was an obvious cause for anxiety.
If truth be known, I am actually a professional worrier, so passages like this one sometimes feel like they were written specifically for me: Hey, Angelika! Quit worrying, start praying. Be thankful; guard your heart and mind.
But I have also found this passage frustrating because it sounds so trite. Bobby McFerrin could have written its soundtrack: “Don’t worry, be happy.” If only it were that easy.
To be fair, when Paul wrote this letter, he wasn’t addressing people with debilitating mental illness. His words were meant to be an encouragement to a church facing persecution: Don’t be anxious. Pray. Focus your thoughts on positive things and learn from me and each other. In this sense, I have learned much from Paul on my journey with mental health.
My journey began in 2009 while sitting in the dentist’s chair. I don’t have a fear of dentists; I actually really like mine and trust him completely. In his office, it’s routine for patients to put a pair of clear glasses on, to protect our eyes. But on this particular day, when the assistant put those glasses on me, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart was pounding, trying to leap out of my chest. My arms and legs were tense. I had a death grip on the arm hold of the dentist’s chair. And in my head I was saying to myself, “What is the matter with you? You’re fine!” Only my body didn’t feel fine at all.
What I learned later was that I had experienced a panic attack brought on by anxiety.
The dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically brought about by an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”
People often experience a general state of worry or even fear before confronting something challenging, like a test, an interview or even a dentist appointment. These feelings are easily justified and considered normal.
Anxiety as a form of mental illness occurs when a reaction is out of proportion to what might be normally expected in a situation. My experience was anything but normal. I felt like I was dying, but clearly I wasn’t. That panic attack was the first of several that I would have in the months to follow.
Over time I stopped sleeping. I developed claustrophobia. I felt closed in when driving my car. I couldn’t sleep in our bedroom because the window was too small. Soon I stopped sleeping at all. My anxiety became so severe that my body began to shut down. My stomach stopped producing acid and I couldn’t digest my food. I lost nearly 10 kilograms in a month.
My doctor helped me a lot. She helped me understand that mental illness is treatable—just like cancer or diabetes. She gave me medication that enabled me to sleep. She encouraged me to visit a naturopath, who helped me solve the problem with my digestion.
I also met with a Christian counsellor who helped me examine the cause of my anxiety in the context of my faith. This was paradigm-shifting for me. She helped me to re-imagine God as one who loves me deeply, rather than one who is waiting to test my faith at every turn. She gave me practical tools that I still use when I feel anxiety creeping into my life again.
I learned that mental illness runs in my family, so I come by this quite honestly. It has been a long road back and it’s not like I’m completely free of anxiety. I will always live with a tendency towards it.
I also have to acknowledge that my experience is unique to me. Some may have similar stories, but I know that others experience mental health challenges quite differently. I was never hospitalized or medicated for my anxiety. But for some, psychiatric wards and medication are a necessary part of the journey towards mental wellness. But my story serves to tell us that this can happen to anyone without warning and sometimes with what appears to be no obvious cause.
I share my story in light of the text in Philippians because this has been a significant passage of Scripture for me, one that I have both wrestled with and found profoundly encouraging.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
The painting above was created by Linda Klippenstein, who uses her talents to engage people with social issues in life. This painting is entitled “Hear my prayer,” and this is what she says:
“The kneeling figure here is crying out in prayer. Broad, aggressive strokes made with a pallet knife communicate the turmoil in which the figure sits and pleads. It seems to be a harsh, even violent reality. Yet in the midst of the turmoil there is light—streams of light. It is these that invoke the conversation: the plea is being made, it is also being heard, and God is responding. . . .
“I see myself in this painting. When I go back and read my journals from this period in my life, they are filled with prayers begging God to heal me. My thoughts were dark. My body was in pain. My spirit was filled with fear. I often felt unheard. Sometimes I had no words. I identify with the writer of Psalm 88: ‘O Lord, the God who saves, day and night I cry out before you . . . for my soul is full of trouble. . . . Why do you reject me and hide your face from me?’ ”
Still, I began to realize that being in prayer was making the difference. It is the act of prayer itself—the petitioning, listening, waiting, trusting—that begins the journey towards peace that guards your heart and mind. When I put into practice the tools that my counsellor gave me, and accepted God as my lover, not my judge, those prayers began to change. They moved from a focus on illness to a focus on wellness.
What are you thinking?
“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things . . . and the peace of God be with you” (Philippians 4:8,9b).
When you live with mental illness, the last thing you need is a cheerleader telling you to think positively. It’s right up there with someone telling you not to be anxious. Who chooses anxiety? Who chooses to think negative, fearful, angry thoughts?
Sometimes it was desperately hard to turn my mind away from the negative and towards the positive. For those whose thoughts become truly dark and even harmful, it may mean medication and extensive counselling to move towards wellness.
When I was going through the worst of my anxiety, I found that it mattered a great deal what I surrounded myself with. I love reading murder mysteries and watching dramatic movies, but when I was working through my illness I couldn’t do any of that. I read fluff novels and watched romantic comedies. Even my Bible reading was limited to the Psalms, which reminded me of God’s unfailing love. In a way, my heart and mind were telling me to put Paul’s encouragement into practice! Today, I use mindfulness and meditation regularly to focus my thoughts in a healthy way.
Learn from others
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me . . .” (Philippians 4:9a).
I work for Communitas Supportive Care Society, an organization that has served people with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges since 1974. One of the most powerful programs that I have observed is that of our Peer Support Work. Those who have a lived experience of mental illness walk alongside those who are at the beginning of their journey. Peers understand exactly what the other is going through, but have the benefit of being further along the road. They can model the tools and the lifestyle that will help their clients toward wellness. Most often, it is simply the act of being with another in the midst of their chal-lenges that is profoundly helpful.
This, then, is perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from this text: I am a human being, not a human doing. While Paul’s words seem to form a task list—rejoice, pray, petition, give thanks, think positive—his encouragement is offered in the context of being: be joyful, be gentle, be in prayer, be thankful. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, paraphrased).
1. How have you, or people you know, tried to cope with feelings of extreme anxiety or deep hopelessness? What has been helpful or not helpful in these situations? Do you agree that more discussion about mental health would be beneficial?
2. Why do we tend to be reluctant to share our mental health struggles with others? Do you agree with Angelika Dawson that having a diagnosis is both a blessing and a curse? How can we help each other talk more openly about these issues? How much of the stigma attached to mental illness is due to a lack of awareness or understanding?
3. Dawson says that she has learned she is a “human being, not a human doing.” Why is that distinction important? How much of our sense of self-worth is connected to what we can accomplish? Have you ever found Philippians 4:4-9 to be trite or frustrating?
4. What questions do you have about mental health? What could the church do to encourage all of us to protect and improve our mental health?
—By Barb Draper
See more in the Focus on Mental Health series:
A living death
One way your church can stop hiding mental illness
Mental health awareness incorporates art and poetry
‘We all need counsellors’
Helping to prevent suicide
Leaders being equipped to build up the church
‘There is love in this room’
‘I am still holding out hope that I will be free of this one day’
Six steps for better self-care