Cultivating peace of mind

Mar 20, 2020 by

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When I arrived at my church office the morning of March 18, I began my day as I always do, with silence. I spend anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes with my eyes closed, resting in the presence of God.

But this morning was more difficult than usual. I kept thinking about the coronavirus, how long it might last, and what impacts it will have on people in our congregation as well as on our entire society and world. In other words, instead of cultivating peace of mind, I was fixated on worry.

That’s certainly understandable. Despite Jesus teaching us not to worry, worry does have its usefulness. Worry can motivate us to take action to prevent or minimize problems facing us. But there are two problems with worry: it is sometimes utterly useless, and even when useful it is an inadequate basis for life’s foundation.

“Can worry add a single hour to your life?” asks Jesus. “ . . . So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”

This is the useless kind of worry — worry that cannot change anything. Frankly, this is what most of our worry looks like. After we have taken our actions and precautions, we then still worry — to no purpose. I had a professor of pastoral counseling in seminary who once said, “The only rational response to the inevitable is to relax.”

That has stuck with me ever since. For instance, if I am late for a meeting because I am in a traffic jam, rather than fretting about it, I tell myself, “This is now out of my hands. Nothing will change through any of my actions. It’s time to relax.”

The possible effects of COVID-19 are a lot more severe than being late for a meeting, but the principle remains the same. Once I have done what I can, it is time for me to relax.

This brings me to the second problem with worry: it’s an inadequate approach to life. Even when it is motivating and useful, it tends to make us more selfish, paranoid, angry, fearful and unreasonable. This is the attitude Jesus challenges and wants to change.

Instead of cultivating worry, cultivate trust in God’s presence and grace. “For it is the Gentiles [those who do not trust in a loving God] who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:32-33).

It’s the old bit of wisdom: “One does not live by bread alone.” As essential as food is, something else is even more essential: trusting in love and goodness. We have to get the foundations of life right, or we will make life into a perpetual selfish panic.

During these unusually worrisome days, take time each day to cultivate peace of mind. Pay attention to every good thing around you and say “thank you” for each one. Step outside and look at the trees and feel the breeze. Stop reading paranoid and angry posts on social media. Call a friend. Offer encouragement and kindness. Let go of what you cannot control and relax. And every day say, “No matter what happens, our lives are in your hands, and I trust you, God.”

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.


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