Five Steps to Better Mental Health – According to St. Paul

072414-pope-2In 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!

12 Replies to “Five Steps to Better Mental Health – According to St. Paul”

  1. Wonder if St.Paul , who very likely would have met Bl.Mother, atleast in her hidden last years in Ephesus , had somehow foreseen the Rosary prayers !

    In spite of having been in the ‘habit ‘ of reciting the Rosary ( good way to start the morning ) , only lately and thanks be to prayers of whoever all too – may the Lord bless all such , have come to recognise more,
    the greatness of those prayers – ‘Hail Mary ..’ placing us with Angel Gabrieile, BlMother, The Holy Trinity , into the moment of The Incarnation and all that follows …to bring its grace and goodness more into the depths of our own hearts…… into family lines that too possibly need to be set free, from the effects of the many ways of the enemy – it could even be likely that , the role of The Mother somehow has a way of reaching in , to the enemy ‘s legalistic claims and hidden volcanoes of trouble that we may not fully recognise and accepting her role would be the way of what is true , noble , pure, lovely ,

    also for the good of all around .. near and far .. for us too , to be transformed , like those hidden volcanoes under ..for good alone…. by The Spirit of life ..

    to transform what could be ( destructive ) volcanic moments , such as when faced with someone who might seem to be on the controlling / maniplulative /envious side etc ; , instead of fuming and dwelling on the ugly , bringing the persons and oneself , right into THE moment …with one Hail Mary .. or more…thus , to be set free …to be grateful …and pretty soon , one finds , the day has plenty of moments to dwell on what is pure , noble , true…. hopefully, helping to bring same to others too !

    Thank you for the reminder , for the precious prayers and to all , a very Bl.Feast of Sts Anne and Joachim – pure, noble lovely , true !

  2. Do we need to stay up with the news of the world? Well, some people may have to. I used to teach about political and economic issues. It would have been a neglect of my job not to keep myself informed about those matters but I didn’t need to keep informed about everything that the media decided to report about. Since I retired I spend very little time reading newspapers or watching the news programmes on television. Not only are these often negative, they are nowadays usually presented in a very biased and one-sided manner. That biased and one-sided manner is usually that of the liberal metropolitan elite. These people are biased against not just the Catholic Church but against traditional morality in general. When complaining to the BBC when one of its (atheist) presenters stated that the words ‘priest’ and ‘paedophile’ were almost synonymous I was told that the only thing that mattered was whether or not the statement would have misled the listeners to the programme. In other words, truth was of no importance. In that case, why bother listening to the BBC.
    On the topic of the presence of the Lord, may I recommend, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ by Brother Lawrence.

  3. Wonderful post, Monsignor. Thank you for helping me….as if God speaks through you!!
    May He bless you abundantly, and I hope to meet you in person one day.
    As I am one of your lambs.

  4. This post is like God directly responding to what I had in mind while I was reading the same chapter Philippians 4 .Yesterday when I read this chapter, thought Lord I need more clarity on this, I wish someone could explain this to me. The most wonderful God has done it through your post. Praise the Lord!!!!

    Thank you so much for this post

  5. Here is some psychological trivia that you may find interesting: Around 23 years ago, social psychologists (finally) began to publish research showing that daily religious exercises that engendered trust in God contributed to what is known as “learned optimism”—learned optimism is an essential element in mental health and is at the core of what is “resilience”. A key feature of this trust was engendered by preaching that gave specific prescriptions for daily activity. Sethi and Seligman** actually recorded and analyzed the sermons of dozens of preachers/priests/ministers/rabbis, and then interviewed members of their respective congregations. As I recall, at least three of the steps (2, 3, 5) mentioned above were indirectly measured in the sermons and the belief frameworks of the congregations (although the actual content of the sermons was only coded and not published or quoted). Sethi proposed that literal and prescriptive preaching inspired a positive attitude toward daily religious devotion, and as devotion increased, optimism increased. The fundamentalist/conservative protestants had the highest levels of optimism (shocked?) along with Orthodox Jews and Muslims. The Catholic congregations that were in the sample were as a group closer to middle of the road such as Methodists and Lutherans, and their optimism was ho-hum. Liberals in the sample were the Unitarians and Reformed Jews and as a group they had the poorest optimism.
    **Sethi, S. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1993). Optimism and fundamentalism. Psychological Science, 4, 256-259.

  6. To much to fully take in, in one reading. I plan on reading and meditating on this over weekend. very good stuff. Thanks

  7. so very encouraging! We can make choices to have better mental health. Thank you!

  8. Thanks, Father, for a meaty post that is an answer to something I have been pondering closely in the past year. The more I mediate on Sacred Scripture, the more I am delighted and amazed at how mentally healing it is. I have always been attracted to this particular passage, but your explanation really brought it to life. If we would all ask ourselves, how am I spending my time?, we might discover ways to apply this passage to great fruit. For sure that applies to me.

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