Those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression want to get rid of these enemies. They rob us of so much life and productivity. And that is not just my opinion. The Scriptures — especially the book of Proverbs — contain several sober acknowledgments about the contrasting results in one’s life from having a cheerful, peaceful heart versus a defeated, anxious, depressed heart.
Proverbs 17:22 reads,
A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones [i.e., saps a person’s strength].
Those of us who have had our fair share of anxiety know how true this statement is. Anxiety “dries up the bones” faster than a marathon run in August through Death Valley! If you try to fight anxiety head-on, it can drain you of energy and make you listless. And perhaps the worst thing about anxiety is being anxious about getting anxious and losing hope that things will ever be different. I’ve been there, and I never want to go back.
But therein lies the rub. What, exactly, can you do to make it unlikely that significant anxiety returns? Look at the first part of Proverbs 17:22 again:
A cheerful heart is good medicine.
We all know that. And it is widely known that a heart full of joy, peace, and happiness is extremely valuable when it comes to good physical (and mental) health. But are these just words, perhaps words to incorporate into a worship song? Our problem is not with believing the truth of this statement.
Indeed, when we read these words, they spark a longing, a hunger in our hearts to have this for ourselves. But how do we get this?
Is it really possible for our lives to be steadily characterized by a joyful heart? Can peace and joy be our default setting emotionally?
The Daily Habit-Forming Practice of Contemplative Prayer
My discovery of Contemplative Prayer
Regarding contemplative prayer, Dr. Susan Muto has observed, “It attunes me to the presence of God in a space out of which flows God’s participation in my daily life and from which I avoid distractions and sins. It is foundational to Christian character formation as it stills the heart; guards my soul; liberates from evil thoughts, words, and actions; focuses on divine grace; and evokes the power of the life of Jesus in me, which bears the fruit of virtues and overcomes vices that provoke my soul.”1
I have found Muto’s reflections to be true in my own life. I have practiced contemplative prayer for two hours a day (one hour early in the morning and one hour in bed before my normal time to drop off to sleep) for two and a half to three years.2 I mention this to say two things: (1) I was desperate to get rid of anxiety once and for all if possible, and contemplative prayer was one of the ways I sought to do that; and (2) practicing this sort of prayer each day proved to be absolutely central in my quest to replace anxiety with the peace and joy that contemplative prayer can achieve for many practitioners. One does not need to practice contemplative prayer anywhere near two hours a day to benefit greatly from it.
I love to pray, and I suspect you do too. Shortly after I became a Jesus follower in 1968, my mentor Bob Farnsley taught me the widely used acronym for prayer called ACTS — Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication — which is a wonderful tool for recalling and performing various aspects of prayer. Indeed, ACTS constituted my understanding of prayer for the next few decades of my Christian life. However, as I began to grow in Christ, I longed for more, and I started reading spiritual formation literature for help. In that literature, I found a gold mine of teaching, practices, and resources for drawing near to God and being transformed in a healthy, Christ-honoring way.
As I continued to read, I learned about a different form and purpose for prayer than the ones captured by ACTS. That form was contemplative prayer, so about two and a half years ago or so, I added it to my use of ACTS and thus both broadened and deepened my prayer life. There are two purposes for contemplative prayer as a spiritual discipline: (1) to attach emotionally and intimately to our loving God — to love God with all our hearts, to seek God for His own sake, even if we do not experience something; and (2) to transform our character by learning to center and calm ourselves, to focus without distraction on a member of the Trinity or on God in general (whichever approach helps you the most), and to see anxiety depart and be replaced by peace and joy.
Regarding the second purpose, I have some good news! According to journalist and author Rob Moll, twelve minutes of this sort of attentive, focused prayer each day for eight weeks can change the bad grooves in the brain (e.g., the anxiety-triggering grooves) enough for the change to be detected on a brain scan.3 Prayer that changes our brains and replaces anxiety with peace and joy requires deep, fully focused openness to and concentration on God.
- Personal conversation with William Roth and Susan Muto, The Epiphany Association, Pittsburgh, PA, 2014.
2 .See Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart (New York: Continuum, 2008). Some distinguish between centering prayer and contemplative prayer, but the distinction is not important for our purposes. I will use the term contemplative prayer in what follows. Also, some experts in spiritual formation claim that Keating’s earlier writings are solid (including the one just cited), but later in his journey he became more and more Buddhist in his orientation. Thus, some urge readers to be very discerning if they choose to read one of Keating’s later books.
3. Rob Moll, What Your Body Knows about God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 15.
Excerpted with permission from Finding Quiet by J. P. Moreland, copyright J. P. Moreland.
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Is your heart cheerful? Or do you struggle with a defeated, anxious, depressed heart? Today, let’s practice contemplative prayer. Let’s put the ACTS pattern of prayer in our prayer toolbox and watch the bad grooves in our brains be altered so we experience more cheerfulness! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily