2. A TOTAL SOLUTION
A friend recently noticed ants in his kitchen.
At first it was just one or two, and he ignored them, assuming they'd crept in from the garden through an open window. But then they got more numerous. Spurred to action by the complaints of his family (the ants had found the cookie jar), he began going around and squashing them with his thumb. This worked for about three hours. It soon became clear, however, that the ants were reproducing themselves more quickly than he could squash them. Further, by the following day they were clearly organized, and were marching in lines toward any available food source.
My friend was forced to move vulnerable food into the refrigerator. Soon the refrigerator was stuffed to capacity, and he had to resort to balancing the leftovers in the middle of dishes of water, rather like a castle with a moat around it. In no time these fortifications occupied every counter. But to no avail. Still the ants came. The kitchen simply had too many specks of food around it. It could not be kept clean. For one thing, the children could not be relied on to sweep up every crumb after themselves, and my friend did not have time to follow them around with a dustpan and a can of disinfectant.
Within a week the ants seemed to have taken over the kitchen. They were coming out from every crack in the baseboards—too many places to stop up with wet plaster or tape. They hid their nests deep in the wall cavity. My friend could not reach them without first removing all the kitchen units and digging up the floor. He had only one option left—the only option guaranteed to work. He covered the area with a powerful ant poison. By the next weekend, every ant was gone.
Flattery will get you nowhere
As my friend discovered, problems need a total solution. The easiest thing—the least troublesome or costly measure—may be next to useless. And so it is with worry. All kinds of knee-jerk reactions recommend themselves when we're feeling anxious. Sure, you may kill a few ants. Sure, you may keep a few shelves ant-free. But long-term, nothing's really changed. To win, you've got to deal with the problem at its source. Everything else is a waste of your time.
Take flattery. You flatter others if you want to keep them from hurting you. So people with fragile egos, and people who are afraid of others criticizing them, use flattery as a means of self-protection. It functions like a bribe. You tell the other person what you think he or she wants to hear in the hopes that this will neutralize the hostility he or she may harbor towards you.
Of course, if you do that, you are playing mind games. At best, flattery is a short-term fix. If the other person really is hostile, flattery won't keep the hostility at bay for very long. And if there is no hostility, then you are sowing the seeds of your own undoing. For how can you secure the lasting good opinion of others by telling them lies? Insincerity shows. Consequently, someone who might otherwise have thought well of you will be driven into suspicion and resentment. Worry reaps its own reward.
Not surprisingly, the Word of God denounces flattery over 30 times.
Job says, "He that speaketh flattery to his friends, even the eyes of his children shall fail" (Job 17:5). And, "Let me not, I pray you, accept any man's person; neither let me give flattering titles unto man. For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my Maker would soon take me away" (Job 32:21,22).
The psalmist records the sinfulness and foolishness of flattery in Psalm 5:9: "For there is no faithfulness in their mouth... they flatter with their tongue." Also: "They speak vanity every one with his neighbor: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak" (Psalm 12:2).
The wisest man of history, Solomon, admonishes us: "He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips" (Proverbs 20:19). "A lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it; and a flattering mouth worketh ruin" (Proverbs 26:28).
It doesn't take much size to criticize
This old saying is true. Criticism, as a solution to worry, leads the worrier up another blind alley. Criticizing others seems to help us, for three reasons:
• First, when we criticize we feel good. We get to feel we're standing on the moral high ground—a position where everyone else will look up to us.
• Second, when we criticize we project our misery onto others. If everyone else is miserable too, we feel less conspicuous. It also takes our mind off our own problems, at least for a short time.
• Third, when we criticize we create the illusion that we have overcome the thing that worries us—by condemning the same thing in someone else.
Of course, criticizing is childish. It brings only temporary relief. And—tragically—it further focuses our minds upon negative thoughts, and the mischief that inevitably follows negative thinking only adds to our worries and intensifies the depression.
It is true that "what Peter says about Paul tells more about Peter than it does about Paul." Or, in the words of the little couplet:
Things that thou dost in others see
Are the most prevalent in thee.
The Bible tells us that to the impure, all things are impure (Titus 1:15). Similarly, to the dishonest, all things are dishonest. To the untrue, all things are untrue. When the worrier criticizes others, he solves none of his own worries. Instead he focuses his attention upon the miserable traits he sees in others, which mirror his own condition. Thus riveted to a destructive and negative pattern of thought, he further supplements his already overstocked supply of fears.
Paul the apostle denounces the sin of criticism when in Romans 2:1 he says, "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whatsoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things." What the worrier fails to realize is that in criticizing others he reveals to the world the very problem he is trying to conceal.
Frenetic activity fails to establish a refuge from worry
Another useless response to worry is to throw yourself into excessive activity. Work occupies the attention; it keeps the mind from straying onto painful thoughts. But it has no power to take pain away. When you finish your shift, or come home from the office, your problems still hound you. Unhappily, you now have less, not more, energy to deal with them.
Frenetic activity allows only a temporary escape. You postpone your appointment with anxiety. But you cannot put it off forever. Nor can you produce worthwhile results with your worries simmering underneath the surface. People who work to hide worry often give the appearance of being busy. Truth is, they don't accomplish much of substance. They are like worms on a hot rock, or as one TV personality put it, they are as "nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
An astounding number of people in senior positions work themselves into the ground in an effort to suppress worry. They embody the modern-day beatitude, "Blessed are they that go around in circles, for they shall be called big wheels." Feverish activity, motivated by the desire to escape rather than the urge to produce, solves nothing. It can briefly take the mind off the fear-producing thoughts that cause anxiety. But in the long run it is counterproductive. It actually multiplies problems, and thereby intensifies the very condition it was expected to solve.
There is a place of refuge from worry, as Jesus suggested to His disciples: "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while" (Mark 6:31). But that refuge does not lie in frenetic activity. People who busy themselves to forget their worries enjoy no sense of peace. Most of them could not stand their own company for 30 minuteswithout the aid of a diversion like television, radio, books, or a video. They take sleeping pills to get a night's rest, and pep pills to get started in the morning. To make it through the day, they stay tanked up on caffeine.
Self-righteous resignation embraces no virtue
Another ineffective strategy against worry is to give in to it—and to present this as a sort of heroism.
Of course it is nothing of the kind. There is nothing heroic about buckling under to something you see as inevitable. Yet it's common to hear people speak as though worries were medals won in the heat of battle—and ulcers are the badge of their conscientiousness.
They will assert, "My cross is heavy, but I am determined to bear it valiantly."
This is almost blasphemous. Wherever the biblical injunction "Take up thy cross" appears, it refers to death to sin and death to self. This is the exact antithesis of putting up with worry. The Bible never refers to any problem, grief, or dilemma as a cross, nor does it commend people with worries as though they were called to some special service. The person who really bears a cross knows no worry. He has died to sin and to self. Thus he insulates himself from destructive fears. He has peace because his mind is firmly set upon Christ.
Jesus never complained about the weight of His cross. And yet His cross, the real instrument of death, and not just a metaphor, imposed a physical suffering none of us could endure with grace.
Following His example, our Lord's disciples rejoiced that "they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:41). By contrast, people who respond to worry, fear, and anxiety with a self-righteous resignation say one thing, but live another. They delude no one but themselves. Although they claim to bring glory to God, their faces would "draw a wart on a tombstone."
Their biblical model isn't Jesus at all. It is Jonah, sulking outside Nineveh and saying, "Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:3). Or Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers" (1 Kings 19:4c). (I always chuckle when I read this passage. If Elijah had stayed in Jezebel's city, she would long since have granted his petition!)
Don't mistake this for spiritual heroism. Call it by its name: cowardice, and unbecoming self-pity. Instead of tackling the problem head on—correcting the thought patterns, and taking corrective action—the worrier sits down and moans.
Dope won't help you cope
Alcohol, cigarettes, and narcotics all lead the worrier into the same dead end.
Who can calculate the damage done by the many plays, TV dramas, and movies that portray the unrequited lover desperately hitting the corner bar to drink away his sorrows? When trouble comes, too many people seek comfort in some form of drug.
The idea that a drunken spree opens up an escape hatch from an agonizing situation produces pernicious results. The Japanese say, "A man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and the drink takes the man."
Solomon, the sage of the ages, speaks wisely when he says, "Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath babbling? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine" (Proverbs 23:29,30).
It is still true that "wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise" (Proverbs 20:1). Three millennia later, the only thing that's changed is the variety of chemicals at our disposal. Alcohol now comes in hundreds of different packages. So does nicotine. If these fail, we can obtain any number of more powerful narcotics—legal or otherwise.
They all have the same effect. Temporary exhilaration diverts the mind from fear-producing thoughts. Then the sufferer is unceremoniously dumped back where he or she was at the beginning—except, in many cases, with a headache. This pattern of behavior only postpones the problem and ultimately increases the pain.
Positive thinking gets you only halfway there
Some worriers resort to yet another solution—seeking to conquer worry by positive thinking.
Now, positive thinking is good. Certainly a person cannot have positive thoughts and fear-producing thoughts at the same time. The question is whether the program of positive thinking supplies us with the "fuel" we need to move forward. It is one thing to know what we ought to do. It is another thing to have the ability to do it.
In a way it is the same dilemma produced by the Ten Commandments. They showed humanity what to be and what to do. But nobody—the Lord Jesus Christ excepted— has ever actually succeeded in keeping them. There's a world of difference between reading the rulebook and living by the rules.
With all of my heart, I believe in the power of positive thinking. Let it be understood, however, that God alone is the source of positive thoughts. Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:7, "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."
Positive thinking is a counterfeit solution if it lures us into thinking that we—in our own strength and by our own resources—can bring about the shift in mental attitude necessary to banish fear and worry. You might just as well try to shoot an African lion with a water pistol as try to conquer worry with a self-inspired and self-produced positive attitude.
Positive thinking needs God. Otherwise it is like a tanker with no fuel. That is why this book refers to positive thinking only in the context of a relationship with God. Otherwise it is as useless as every other so-called solution to worry. There is no such thing as peace unless you are willing to relate yourself properly to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Apart from that divine help, a proper mental attitude cannot be achieved and sustained. Attempt to convince yourself that you can beat worry on your own just by applying the right mental technique, and you condemn yourself to failure and frustration.
And certainly don't take "the easy way out"
The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics publication National Vital Statistics Reports (vol. 48, no. 11, July 24, 2000) details the ten leading causes of death in the United States in 1998. Diseases of the heart ranked number 1, with 724,859 deaths, or 268.2 deaths per 100,000 population. Suicide ranked number 8, with 30,575 deaths, or 11.3 per 100,000 population.
Thousands of people every year resort to the "solution" of suicide. Tragically, many of those who take this route have many years of potentially happy and fulfilling life ahead of them. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds, and the sixth-leading cause of death for 5-15 year olds.
One of the most heartrending articles I've ever read appeared on the front page of the May 21, 1931 edition of The New York Times. This article dealt with the suicide of Ralph Barton. He was an outstanding cartoonist, one of the nation's best. He was highly gifted both as an artist and as a writer. Yet his life ended tragically by his own hand. In his suicide note he told about the melancholia he had been suffering. Apparently his fears nearly drove him mad. Part of the note read:
Melancholia has prevented my getting anything like the full value out of my talent, and the past three years has made work a torture to do at all. It has made it impossible for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
He goes on:
I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself. In doing so I am very much afraid that I have brought a great deal of unhappiness to those who have loved me. ...No one thing is responsible for this, and no one person but myself... I did it because I am fed up with inventing devices for getting through the twenty-four hours a day and with bridging over a few months periodically with some beautiful interest....
Poor fellow. Brilliant of mind! How tragic that a life such as his, filled with great possibilities for blessing his generation in the will of God, had to end in such tragedy! The note traces clearly the trail of failed solutions. He could have won over worry. But he never found the way to do it.