Our youngest son recently graduated from high school with plans to attend college in the fall. Because of a number of vacations and other summer plans, it hasn’t worked out for him to get steady employment during the time between graduation and college departure. As such, he’s kind of broke most of the time, but he has things he wants to do, some of which cost money. I will periodically get a text message saying, “Dad, could you loan me some money for [insert item here]?” When I get such texts, I usually have two competing thoughts. The first is I love my son and want to do everything I can for him. I want him to be comfortable and enjoy life. Just give him the money! The second thought is Hold on! He needs to learn to be responsible and that money doesn’t grow on trees. Make him work for it. Those thoughts duke it out in my brain for a moment, and then after consultation with my amazing wife, we usually arrive at a compromise that enables generosity combined with responsibility.
I have found that our Father in Heaven operates in a similar fashion. He loves us more than we can possibly comprehend—I believe He wants us to have every good thing. At the same time, He knows that we must learn obedience through faith, thus creating the need for us to follow His commandments in order to receive the blessing. The scriptures record, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21). The blessings are there for the taking, but our obedience must come first.
Often people ask, “Why would a loving God permit so much suffering? Why wouldn’t He just erase all pain and distress from His children?” For those with a true understanding of our purpose in life, we know we are here to become like God. Part of that process involves choosing righteousness over evil. That choice becomes a true test as opposition is introduced. Hence, Father in Heaven permits opposition so we can grow. At the same time, He provides ways to overcome such opposition.
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Anxiety is an “opposition” faced by many people. It creates difficulty and distress in their lives. Yet Heavenly Father has provided us with means, both spiritual and temporal, to decrease feelings of anxiety and stress. As I was reading the scriptures one day, I came across a passage that looked like a recipe for anxiety reduction: “Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me” (D&C 19:23). In harmony with God’s plan, there are invitations to act followed by a promised blessing. Let’s look at these one by one and analyze how they can help reduce anxiety.
Learn of the Savior
As a psychologist, I deal with many individuals who struggle with anxiety. Some time ago, I was talking with a Latter-day Saint client. Despite daily striving to follow the commandments, she expressed concern over a recent poor choice she had made. In reality, her misstep was small and of little consequence. Yet she worried the Savior was highly disappointed in her because of her choice. That worry fueled her anxiety. As she expressed her fears, I thought of the remarkable character of Christ. I reflected on His loving, merciful, longsuffering, forgiving, and compassionate nature. I took the time to testify to my client of the Savior’s love for her and how I did not believe He was disappointed in her behavior. On the contrary, I felt He was very pleased with her and tolerant of her weakness. I then realized that part of my client’s problem was that she didn’t know, or didn’t truly understand, who the Savior is.
The first scriptural invitation is to “learn of me.” We currently have an amazing opportunity with the Come, Follow Me curriculum to have regular, directed study of the New Testament, which teaches of the Savior. When we learn of Him, we come to understand His character. An accurate understanding of the Lord’s attributes will help us appreciate how kind and forgiving He is. Understanding and feeling the Savior’s love is a calm, refreshing experience, quite different from the nagging tugs of anxiety.
Listen to the Spirit
I recently had the opportunity to do a devotional for the young women of our stake at girls’ camp. Among other things, I spoke about how we have the obligation to choose to follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost. After my talk, a young woman approached with a question. She asked me how she could avoid intense feelings of anxiety and anger, especially when she felt like she was on the edge of going into a full emotional collapse. I told her that, unfortunately, when we are right on the edge of extreme emotions, there is not much we can do to avoid falling down that hole. Being on the edge means it doesn’t take much to push us over. However, we talked about what she could do to avoid getting to the edge in the first place. One of those strategies was to develop insight about what types of situations and decisions tend to precede her anxiety and anger. The other strategy was to fill her life with the Holy Ghost.
The second scriptural invitation is to “listen to my words.” I believe that means listening to the Spirit. We cannot hear the Spirit unless we are spiritually in tune. Being spiritually in tune will decrease anxiety. I know people will say, “Brother Morgan, you can’t just pray your way out of anxiety.” If you are one of those people, I believe you. But I do not believe that you can fully manage anxiety without developing a solid relationship with the Savior and His Spirit, which includes regular practices of prayer, scripture study, partaking of the sacrament weekly and worthily, and where possible, regular temple attendance. These acts will increase the feelings of the Holy Ghost in our lives. We will feel more strongly of the “fruits of the Spirit,” which include joy, peace and faith (see Galatians 5:22). Such feelings will necessarily decrease anxiety.
Act in Faith
The third scriptural invitation is to “walk in the meekness of my Spirit.” After we have learned about the Savior and His character and then prepared ourselves to recognize and hear His words, we are invited to “walk.” Walk means action. It means doing something. We cannot combat anxiety from the comfort of our couches simply by reading books or listening to podcasts. While those can be good preparations, they are insufficient without additional action. That action can include bearing a public testimony, going into a crowded store, or visiting a ministering family in their home. Such experiences are likely to be very uncomfortable for those who experience anxiety, but that’s the whole point. We cannot achieve greater strength without experiencing a certain degree of discomfort. I believe there is a reason the scripture doesn’t invite us to “sit” or “recline” or “nap” in the meekness of His Spirit. The invitation is to walk, which implies going somewhere different than we are now.
In addition to walking, we are to do this in meekness. This suggests a ready willingness to accept the counsel of parents, counselors, Church leaders, and the Holy Ghost. Anxiety often thrives on a sense of being out of control, or sometimes a desperate desire to have complete control. Meekness is the opposite of that. It seeks true direction. It lets others have influence. It recognizes that despite our best efforts, we are still weak and need both mortal and divine assistance. When we humbly choose to engage in strategies that will help us face and reduce anxiety, we will find success commensurate to our sustained efforts.
Experience the Lord’s Peace
After we have faithfully employed the combination of learning, listening, and acting, we are entitled to the promised blessing: “You shall have peace in me” (D&C 19:23). Remember the Savior’s words during the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27). The Savior’s peace is different from the world’s peace. The world’s peace needs everything to be tranquil. It needs balanced budgets and calm seas. It needs steady employment and obedient children. But the Savior’s peace is distinctive. It can sleep during tempests. It can stand calmly while being condemned to death. It can comfort others in the midst of personal agony saying, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The blessing of the Savior’s peace is that it can endure regardless of our personal trials or sufferings. We can continue to experience opposition, fueling our spiritual growth, while still having peace that all will work out and be for our good. If you struggle with anxiety, I invite you to apply this spiritual recipe. I testify that the Lord will fulfill His promise as you do your part. God bless you to find the peace the Savior can provide.