Five Steps to Better Mental Health – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent
In modern times, we tend to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to external circumstances and happenstance. And so we think that happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way we like. If we can just get enough money and creature comforts, we think we’ll be happy and have a better sense of mental well-being.
Yet many people can endure difficult external circumstances while remaining inwardly content, happy, and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content and are plagued by great mental anguish, anxiety, and unhappiness. Ultimately, happiness is not about happenstance or circumstances; it is an “inside job.”
St. Paul wrote,
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).
It is interesting to note that Paul wrote these words, as well as those of today’s second reading, from his jail cell! So it’s not a bunch of slogans.
In today’s second reading, Paul tells us the “secret” to his contentedness, to joy and mental well-being regardless of the circumstances. He gives us a plan that (if we work it) will set the stage for a deeper inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness that is not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review what St. Paul has to say as a kind of “five-point plan.” (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterative list, though the substance is my own reflection.)
Here is the 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).
Note that the final two sentences (shown above enclosed in square brackets) are not included in today’s liturgical proclamation, but it seems like a good idea to include it in these reflections, so I do.
Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord – 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 requesting, receiving, and cultivating the gift of the presence of the Lord. We are too easily turned inward and forgetful of God’s presence. To become more consciously and stably aware of God’s presence is to be filled with joy and peace.
As an aside, note that the text mentions joy (χαίρω – Chairoo) but it also mentions moderateness. The Greek word used 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 when one should not easily give way. But often there is room for some leeway and the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit, which are gifts of the presence of God, can often allow for this; there is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to insist on controlling and manipulating conversations and outcomes and to win on every point.
The central point is that as we become more aware of God’s presence, and thus more serene and less conflicted within, we no longer need to shout others down or to win all the time. We can insist on what is true, but can express ourselves more moderately and calmly. We are able to stay in the conversation, content to sow seeds rather than insisting on reaping every harvest of victory.
Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God, and seeing the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits, is a first step toward, and a sure sign of, better mental health and greater contentment.
Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord – 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. Not only does it hinder the workings of the machine, it damages it. But simply being told not to worry isn’t very helpful. St. Paul is not simply saying, “Don’t worry.”
Paul has already laid groundwork for the diminishment of worry by telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. When I was a little 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 as soon as my father returned, my fears went away. Daddy was home and everything was all right.
To the degree that we really experience that God is near, many of our fears subside. 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 others) can testify that God has a way of working things out. However, He may not always come when you want Him or handle things exactly as you want. When I look back and reflect on my life, I can truly say that God has always made a way for me. None of my struggles and disappointments have ever destroyed me; if anything, they strengthened me.
Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. Ponder deeply how He has delivered you in the past, has made a way out of no way, and 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 should give us serenity when we consider that prayer is both effective and an ever-present source of power.
Antidote – So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness, dissipates when we experience that God is present and that His power is only one prayer away.
So the second step to greater mental health is knowing by experience that God can and will make a way.
Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord – … 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 billions of things go right while only a handful 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 comes 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 confidence. Why? Because what you feed, grows. If you feed the negative, it will grow; if you feed the positive, it will grow. God richly blesses us every day if we will but open our eyes to see it.
Step three is disciplining our fallen mind to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals us and gives us great peace and a serene mind.
Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord – 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 improve. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that this serenity will not only be present, 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 the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years has not only gone away, but is unlikely to return given the serenity I now increasingly enjoy. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.
Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord – 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.
Maintenance plan – As this serenity, this sense of well-being, comes to us, St. Paul finally advises a kind of maintenance plan wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is godly, true, good, and beautiful.
What you feed, grows – While it may be true that we need to stay informed about the news of the world, beware a steady diet of the 24/7 news cycle. The media tend to focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and/or 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, and His priorities.
And 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, less about this world. How can we expect to maintain our mental health and serenity on a steady dose of insanity, stinking thinking, wrongful priorities, endless adversity, darkness, chaos, and foolishness?
Do you want peace? Reflect on the Lord’s plan for you.
So, then, here are five steps to better mental health. It all begins with the practice of the presence of the Lord, calling on His power and being grateful for His providence, savoring His peace (which inevitably comes), and turning our attention more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.
Here’s to good mental health for us all! In times like these, we need to balance our sorrow with rejoicing in God’s ability to draw good from even the worst of circumstances.