In modern times, we tend to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to circumstances and happenstance. And thus we think that happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way and quantity we like. If we can just get enough money and creature comforts, we’ll be happy and have a better sense of mental well-being.
And yet it remains true that many can endure difficult external circumstances while remaining inwardly content, happy, and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content and are beset with great mental anguish, anxiety, and unhappiness. Ultimately, happiness is not about happenstance or circumstances; it is an “inside job.”
St. Paul says,
For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want (Phil 4:11-12).
Note that Paul wrote these words from jail, so these are not merely “throwaway” lines.
Earlier in the same chapter he tells us the “secret” to this contentedness, joy, and mental well-being whatever the circumstances. He lays out a kind of “five-point plan” that, if worked, will set the stage for a deeper inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review St. Paul’s five-point plan. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterative list, though the substance is my own reflection.)
Here is the full text of St. Paul’s five-point plan for better mental health:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:4-9).
Now let’s examine each of the five points.
Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord – The text says, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Of supreme importance in the Christian life is to request, receive, and cultivate the gift of the presence of the Lord. Too easily, we turn inward and forget God’s presence. To become more consciously and stably aware of God’s presence is to be filled with joy and peace.
Note that although the text mentions joy (χαίρω) it also mentions moderateness. The Greek word used here is ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes), which means to be gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, or moderate. Epieíkeia relaxes unnecessary strictness in favor of gentleness whenever possible. Such an attitude is common when one is joyful and unafraid. By contrast, an unbending and unyielding attitude often bespeaks fear.
There are of course times to insist upon precision and to not give way easily. But often there is room for some leeway and for the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit, which are gifts of the presence of God, can often allow for this leeway and presumption of good will. There is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to try to control and manipulate conversations and outcomes in order to win on every point.
As we become more aware of God’s presence and thus are more serene and less conflicted within, we no longer need to shout or to win in every moment and on every point. We can insist on what is true while still expressing ourselves more moderately and serenely. We can stay in the conversation, but be content to sow seeds rather than insisting on reaping every harvest of victory.
Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God and reaping the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits are the first step toward greater contentment and improved mental health.
Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord – The text says, Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition … present your requests to God.
There are very few things as destructive to our mental health as worry. Worry is like sand in a machine. It not only hinders the working of the machine, but damages it as well.
But simply being told not to worry isn’t very helpful. In this case, St. Paul is not simply saying, “Don’t worry.”
He has already laid a groundwork for the diminishment of worry in telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. Some years ago, when I was a small boy, my Father left for the Vietnam War. During the year he was away, I spent many anxious nights worrying about a lot of things. But when my Father returned my fears went away. Daddy was home; everything was all right.
And for all of us, to the degree that we really experience that God is near so do many of our fear recede. My own experience is that as my awareness of God’s presence has grown my anxieties have significantly diminished.
Paul also says that the power of God is only a prayer away. Here, too, I and many can testify that God has a way of working things out. He may not always come when you want, or handle things exactly the way you want, but when I look back over my life and think things over I can truly say that God has made a way for me. And whatever my struggles and disappointments, none of them has ever destroyed me. If anything, they have strengthened me.
Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. Ponder deeply how He has delivered you in the past, how He has made a way out of no way, and how He has drawn straight with crooked lines.
Let the Holy Spirit anoint your memory to make you aware of God’s saving power in your life and recall how God has delivered you. These memories give us serenity when we consider how prayer is both effective and an ever-present source of power.
So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness, just goes away to the degree that we experience that God is present and that His power is only one prayer away.
And here is the second step to greater mental health: knowing by experience that God can and will make a way.
Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord – The text says, “… with thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving is a way of disciplining the mind to count our blessings. Why is this important? Because too easily we become negative. Every day about a trillion things go right and only a handful of things go wrong. But what do we tend to focus on? You bet—the few things that go wrong. This is a form of mental illness that feeds our anxiety and it arises from our fallen nature.
Gratitude disciplines our mind to count our blessings. As we do this, we begin to become men and women of hope and of confidence. Why? Because what you feed grows. If you feed the negative it will grow. If you feed the positive it will grow. And the fact is that God richly blesses us every day; we need only open our eyes to see it.
Step three is disciplining our fallen minds to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals us and gives us great peace and serene minds.
Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord – The text says, And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
As we begin to undertake these steps, our mental outlook and health improves. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that not only will this serenity be present, but it will “guard” (or as some translations say, “keep”) our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words, as this serenity grows it screens out the negativity of this world and the demons of discouragement. Having this peace allows us to see the Lord, and seeing the Lord deepens that peace … and the cycle grows and continues!
It has been my experience that not only has the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years gone away, but also the serenity I now increasingly enjoy makes all that anxiety unlikely to return. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.
Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord – The text says, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
And as this serenity, this sense of well-being, this mental health comes to us, St. Paul finally advises us to follow a kind of “maintenance plan” wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is Godly, true, good, and beautiful.
While it may be true that we need to stay up with the news of the world, be careful of too steady a diet of the 24/7 news cycle. They focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and adversarial. If it bleeds it leads. Too much of that and you’re unsettled before you know it. Limit your portions of this and focus on the greater, better, and lasting things of God. Ponder His plan, His truth, His glory, His priorities.
An old song says, More about Jesus would I know, more of his saving mercy show, more of his saving fullness see, more of his love who died for me.
Yes, more about Jesus and less of this world. How can we expect to keep our mental health and serenity on a steady diet of insanity, stinking thinking, wrongful priorities, endless adversity, darkness, chaos, and foolishness?
Do you want peace? Then reflect on the Lord’s plan for you.
So, then, here are some steps to better mental health. Recognize the presence of the Lord, call on His power, be grateful for His providence, savor His peace, and then inevitably our attention will turn more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.
Here’s to good mental health for us all!