An Invitation from God: Healing from Catastrophic Thinking

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

At the beginning of the summer, my book Invitations from God was released and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. That project was over. I could move on. Then my son Nathaniel, who lives in Africa, announced that he was getting married on July 29. That was ten weeks notice. He would do what he could from Africa and we would do our part here. Little did I know then that the joy I felt at this good news would soon turn into catastrophic thinking and sleepless nights. What if we couldn’t find a place for the wedding and the party the next day? What if we couldn’t get a caterer? What if we ran out of food? What if it rained? What if the numbers exceeded the hostess’s limit? On and on it went.

I don’t know if I have a proclivity toward making up worst-case scenarios but the wedding seemed to bring it on. So I began to look for the “invitation” God might have for me in the midst of too much to do. I thought back to a chapter I had written on the “Invitation to Participate in Your Own Healing.” I knew my catastrophic thinking needed healing. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Taking my thoughts and imagination captive to the truth of Jesus made sense to me. But I needed help to do it.

I talked to a counselor who had me practice reframing my catastrophic thoughts. If I said, “We can’t have a tent at the park, I’m afraid it will rain,” she would ask me to reframe this thought in another way. I would say, “If it rains, there are various places to find shelter in the park.” Then she would say, “Reframe it again.” So over and over again I tried thinking about each catastrophic thought in a different way. It was like breaking a horse. My thoughts wanted to run wild and I knew that if I didn’t learn how to tame them and offer them to Jesus they would trample me underfoot.

Participating in our healing always involves rehab. My husband has had numerous knee operations. And after each one the regimen of physical therapy follows. If he doesn’t participate in this, the healing itself is jeopardized. The rehabilitation of my catastrophic thoughts took practice. It took a renewing of my mind. This meant letting go of the notion that I was my thoughts and feelings. My thoughts and feelings are a lot like weather. One minute they are hurricane force gales, the next blissful summer breezes. So I purposely reminded myself that I was much more than the sum total of my thoughts or feelings. I am, in my deepest self, God’s beloved. There is nothing I can do to make him love me more. And there is nothing I can do to make him love me less. No matter what the weather of my soul I am constantly the beloved. Remembering my true-in-Christ self helped me detach my identity from getting things done. I was with and in God no matter what happened.

I knew that participating in my healing also meant praying in a way that didn’t amp up my anxiety. Sometimes my prayer concerns seem overwhelming. It can be such a serious business to pray. So many needs. So many people on my heart. So many requests and concerns. And all of these are part of a great spiritual battle that happens in the heavenly realms. Before I ever get started praying I can be anxious about the battle itself, and how hard I’ll need to pray.

Photo: The happy couple.

During the planning of my son’s wedding I realized I needed to pray in a way that would allow God to transform my anxious catastrophic thoughts. These thoughts were keeping me awake at night. They were taking up room in every conversation. They were sabotaging my work. And now, they were filling my prayers: “God, please help us find an affordable caterer.” “Lord Jesus, please let me get in touch with a person rather than an answering machine.” “Holy Spirit, please help me not concentrate so much on the task at hand that I hurt a relationship.” I am not saying this sort of prayer is wrong. What I am saying is that prayer is a word that describes a relationship. And during the planning of my son’s wedding I needed to pray in a way that allowed God to get at the thoughts that were impacting my relationships with everyone. I needed to let him take every thought captive to Christ and, as there are many ways to take thoughts and imaginations captive to Christ, I began to pray in different ways.

Rather than tell you exactly what I did, I want to offer several ways of making space for God in the midst of catastrophic thinking. One way of praying is to make a list of everything that you want to talk to God about. Then light a candle and put your list under it. Remember that Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for you. Ask him to pray for these things because for the time being you simply want to be in his presence giving and receiving love. When anxious thoughts pop up don’t judge them. Just put them on the paper and let Jesus intercede while you gaze at him and love him.

Centering prayer is another way to participate in healing anxious thoughts. It is a simple prayer that drops the mind into the heart and waits in the presence of Jesus. Centering prayer begins by focusing on a word or phrase from the Bible. For instance: “I am here.” Or “Speak, Lord.” Or “Shalom.” Or “Peace.” Or “Jesus.” With this word you come into the presence of Jesus. And when distractions come you don’t judge them or follow them; you return to your prayer word and wait before Jesus. (This form of prayer and other contemplative forms of prayer are explained more fully in The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook).

This summer I cooperated with the Holy Spirit for healing. I made space for God in the midst of everything else and was tutored in taking every thought and imagination captive to Christ. When July 29 came all was well. And I was well and more free to be who God named me to be — a beloved daughter.

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (MA at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) currently co-pastors Redeemer Community in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with her husband, Doug. She was formerly Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois. A trained spiritual director, she has taught courses at Wheaton College and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the early 1970s she helped pioneer student work with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She has also worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in New England and Canada and with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in the West Indies and South Africa.

3 comments

Perfect timing as I am planning my own wedding, taking place in six weeks, while at the same time trying to meet important deadlines in my PhD program. Thank you!

Jan 17, 2012 2:13PM by Sarah

This is very timely. God always provides the deepest needs of my heart--this time it is in the form of your article. Blessings.

Jan 4, 2012 10:30PM by Shauna

Thank you for these suggestions - I especially like the one with the candle and prayer list. I realized about a year ago that the way I was praying was actually increasing my anxiety rather than diminishing it. The needs in my context were so large. I took a break from vocalized, verbal prayer for awhile - but missed the intimacy with God. You provide several good suggestions for finding a middle way. Thanks!

Dec 20, 2011 6:11AM by Jerusha

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