[Now please note: this is what I have learned from two specific thinkers in CBT. CBT doesn’t strike me as a standardized orthodoxy, so these observations might not be true elsewhere, and as I am only a neophyte, it might not even be true here.]
I was reading in Philippians yesterday and chapter 4 really jumped out at me because it seemed that Paul in the First Century had figured out CBT. This will begin a long-running series on Psychotherapy in the Bible. I’ve had the thought before, but decided “here” was as good a place as any to start. If you have other passages that speak to this question, please let me know and I’ll (eventually) write about them. I’d be interested to collect these from other traditions, literature and philosophy. So if you’re a Shakespeare scholar, send some passages my way. Or if you know about parallel passages in the Koran, please let me know.
5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4, ESV)The sections starts off with “reasonableness,” and moves immediately to anxiety. The alternative to anxiety is prayer with thanksgiving. The immediate consequence of this thankful prayer is the peace of God. And this peace itself becomes a defense of both the heart and the mind.
One of the major ‘irrationalities’ that cause anxiety is the desire to control. What if I fail that test? It’s Friday night and I’m out of town; what is she doing right now? I don’t know everyone at the party; what if they don’t like me? I’m speaking in five minutes; what if I say something stupid? What if the plane crashes? Everyone has the temptation to fall into these anxious thoughts. What does Paul advise? Pray. Give it to God.
What does that do? It helps you realize that it’s in God’s hands, anyways (everything is, after all). Kneeling before the Throne Room of the Universe, one feels humble; not the big shot who has something to prove. And then when one rises from prayer, and walks out of the Throne Room, one realizes that one was just in the THRONE ROOM OF THE UNIVERSE. What problem could possibly concern Heaven? And what problem could possibly concern one of its citizens?
Also, we can’t forget the thankfulness. No matter how bad things get, every Christian can open his prayer with: “Thank you Father, for life and breath and salvation.” Though every once in a while you get a man like Job, most can go a lot further than that prayer. Most can be thankful for family, health and even wealth. Most have some hint of nature (sun or stars or sky if nothing else) that they can be thankful for.
Paul tells us to pray a lot. He tells us to practice this set of thoughts and attitudes. And when we do this, we’ll be armored from further assault to both heart (emotions) and mind. Exactly in agreement with CBT, Paul says that something you practice by conscious effort (prayer) will be a guard against future perturbation of mood (“heart”) and thought (“mind”).
So let’s imagine our first character, overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety for an upcoming exam. He is anxious probably because he’s grasping onto his pride and playing out the worst case-scenario in his mind, over and over again. He’s imagining getting the test back, with a big “F” on it, and his having to take the course again, and lose his scholarships, and be ridiculed by friends, and have to go home and tell his parents, and not get into medical school, and, and, and… Now let’s let him pray:
Father, I thank you for life and breath and salvation. I thank you that you have given me the opportunity to study at this wonderful school, that you’ve given me friends that believe in me and a family that loves me. Thank you for this beautiful day, the warm sun and calm green trees. I lift up this exam to you. I have been diligent in my preparation; I have studied what I have studied and done all that I can. And so now I pray that you give me success. Passing this exam will ultimately help me serve your children by entering medical school. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done: I trust that you will be with me and will do what’s best for me, be it to fail this exam or to pass. Amen.If our young friend prays this prayer (or others like it) for 15 minutes a day, he’ll have a lot harder time stressing out about the exam. It’s in God’s hands. He’s accepted the possibility that he might fail, but he’s not worried about that either. On top of it all, he began with gratitude; even this alone will put him in a better mood than when he started.
The pattern of Philippians 4:5-7 is brilliant and powerful:
1. Begin with being reasonable.
2. Don’t worry.
3. Instead, pray and be thankful.
4. This will guard your heart and mind.