By Shawn McMullen
Nineteenth-century physician, psychologist, and philosopher William James observed, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
While there are many approaches to combating and even preventing stress, choosing one thought over another is one of the most effective—and seemingly one of the most challenging. When we’re preoccupied with a problem or probability, it’s hard to choose not to think about it. It’s almost like saying, “For the next five seconds, don’t think about an elephant.” (How did that work for you?)
When it comes to managing stress, the key is not to avoid thinking about the problem (or potential problem) altogether, but rather to choose the way we think about it.
The apostle Paul reminds us that prayer is the Christian’s first line of defense against stress. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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” (Philippians 4:6, 7). With Paul’s words as background, here are a few things we can remember when choosing one thought over another in stressful situations.
God saw it coming and permitted it. God is omniscient. Nothing—past, present, or future—escapes his notice. No matter the trial we face, God anticipated it and in his infinite wisdom allowed it to transpire. We may not understand why God permits certain things, but the mere fact that he does helps us to know that the circumstance—and our response to it—have a purpose.
God is in control. Much of what happens to us is out of our control. But thankfully, nothing is out of God’s control. He can heal sickness, restore relationships, and renew hearts. He can lead us from tragedy to triumph. As the psalmist wrote, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” (Psalm 40:2). That’s not to say he always will. We don’t have that promise. But simply knowing Almighty God is in control of every circumstance in our lives gives us hope and helps us rest in times of trouble.
A few things matter; many things don’t. Often we find ourselves stressing out over inconsequential things. Is a 15-minute traffic delay a hardship? Will we be ruined if there’s no 2 percent milk in the dairy aisle? Should we let one careless comment end a lifelong friendship? We choose one thought over another when we choose to see inconveniences for what they are, and nothing more.
There’s always Heaven. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said. “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Life on earth is filled with trouble and heartache. But one day we’ll live trouble-free in the presence of the Lord. Knowing a day is coming when “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4) helps us to endure the hardships of this world—and to choose one thought over another even in the darkest of times.
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