Just don’t!

[I will pause until early August from posting. Thank you sincerely to all who read here]

Do not therefore be anxious about tomorrow’s things
for tomorrow will be anxious about itself. – Matthew 6:34

Among the ancient Desert Fathers, there was a deep concern for addressing temptation or dark thoughts — what we might call now ‘negative ideation.’ And one of the ‘thought fields’ they were most concerned with was worry — over things like health, money, security, others’ opinions, the future. They knew that worry has the unique ability to steal the precious and limited energy we are given for the here and now and spend it elsewhere. On the past or the future, on imagined scenarios and exaggerated fears. Generally, on all things out of our control.

Such energy and attention theft leaves us quite vulnerable and ill-equipped to do what God is asking of us in the present moment.

The same Desert Fathers offered some remedies to unruly thoughts. First, they were unanimous that one should never do battle with toxic thoughts in the moment by debating with them directly. The danger of entering into a cycle of ruminating was obvious. Rather, they argued that it was best to catch thoughts on their first appearing and respond to them very simply with brief inspired counter-thoughts drawn from Sacred Scripture that redirect your attention. If darkness draws your attention, don’t stare into the darkness but turn back on it the light of truth.

They called this practice antirrhêtikos, which means something like “talking back” or “speaking against.” It was what Jesus himself did in the desert when Satan tried to tempt him away from his mission (see Matt. 4:1-11). If you recall, Jesus took up brief biblical passages that turned his focus from the father of lies toward the Father of Lights.

This is also one of the key reasons that the ancient spiritual tradition was so insistent on every Christian memorizing Scripture passages. Not primarily for apologetical debate, but for prayer. One of the most cherished biblical texts among the ancients used in time of temptation was Psalm 72:2, which turns our focus from present troubles to the God who is always ready to save us when we cry out:

O God, come to my assistance;
O Lord, make haste to help me!

This particular ‘arrow prayer’ became so revered in the ancient monastic tradition, it eventually made its way into the opening of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Now, it’s important to note this technique was not, for the Fathers, the only way of dealing with such dark or troublesome thoughts. Among other things, they counseled what came to be known as the “baring of thoughts,” the revealing of temptations/negative thinking openly and honestly to an ‘elder’ to bring to light any distortions in need of correction.

To deal with anxious thoughts, quotes from Matthew 6 were numbered among the most powerful “talking back” weapons used. In fact, Matthew 6:24, 6:32 are among of my favorite antirrhêtikos:

Your heavenly Father knows
you need all these things.

Do not therefore be anxious about tomorrow’s things
for tomorrow will be anxious about itself.

By reciting them in response to my worry, I give back to God the future which seems to be threatening me, as God alone dwells and presides in that future. I am not, nor can I ever, be there. But the moment I renounce my worrying and choose trust, I give God back my future. Only then can he work there with full freedom before I arrive. However, when I worry I snatch my future out of God’s hands and take it into my own inept, pathetic and powerless control.  

So next time the moment you start to fret about what is coming, at once ‘talk back’ to that worry by stealing a line from Jesus’ words. And give your future back to God.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or what you will drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air:
they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not of more value than they?
And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin,
yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory
was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’
or ‘What will we drink?’
or ‘What will we wear?’
For it is the gentiles who seek all these things,
and indeed your heavenly Father knows
that you need all these things.
But seek first the kingdom of God
and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
Do not therefore be anxious about tomorrow’s things
for tomorrow will be anxious about itself.

5 comments on “Just don’t!

  1. Judy says:

    I needed to hear this today! Tell the family hello. Have a good break. If you get the chance, sometime email me an update on what everyone in your family is doing these days.

    • Christian Mier says:

      Thanks I appreciate this article. May God help us with our anxieties 🙂 I’m struggling right now with a good bout of anxiety.

  2. K,Lay says:

    Such antirrhêtikos was simplified from various fitting verses to the Jesus Prayer.

  3. Antirrhetikos sounds very much like the modern idea of fighting back against Automatic Negative Thoughts with a sort of automatic positive thought identifying and dismissing the error. Doing it with Scripture seems like it would work better.

    Of course, a lot of saints also used the short aspiration prayers, which only took a breath to say, and that would seem to be a similar idea. If you can’t talk back in a sophisticated way, you can just say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” and let Him handle it.

    All that said, it seems to be best not to waste too much brainpower or emotion on intrusive or dark thoughts, because it stimulates the brain that the bad thoughts are “important” and should be remembered. We want to dismiss them and not have to think about them.

    So keeping it short is probably best, unless you’re giving yourself a good talking-to.

  4. Jim Brennan says:

    I’m an alcoholic in recovery always looking for spiritual aids for the 12 step program. This came to my inbox this morning and I’ve been sharing it with my recovery group. Rave reviews and many prayers of gratitude for you and this powerful reflection. I’ll keep tuning in.
    Thank you! God continue to bless you and work through you!

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