A bad experience does not predetermine the future. It can certainly feel this way at times, and when it feels like one bad thing after another comes our way it is hard not to draw the conclusion that we are destined for failure and sorrow. Anxiety insists that an unpleasant event will inevitably become the new norm for life. False Generalizations, as they are called, insist that the same bad things will happen again and again. Fighting back against this interpretation will mean believing that God is more sovereign than our predicted patterns.
There are many scenarios where false generalizations may play out in our lives. Eric believed that one bad date meant every date was going to be a disaster. Stacey had one night of sleeplessness, which she was sure meant every night was going to be like that. She preconditioned herself to believe that she could not sleep and began to have panic attacks as bedtime approached. Damian got choked while eating some chips one day, and now every meal has become a terror. He is certain that every time he eats he will likely choke on a piece of food. In each case the individuals involved had drawn a conclusion about the future based on a past event. Sometimes it is not a singular event that leads us down this path but a perceived pattern. We have a similar bad experience several times and we conclude this is the new norm. I will always feel this way, or life will always be this way. Whenever we conclude that a bad experience will become the new normal, then we have entrained anxiety’s false generalizations.
Jacob knew something about this personally. In Genesis 42 we read the account of Joseph’s brothers arriving in Egypt to seek food for their families in the midst of the famine. They do not recognize their younger brother Joseph whom they had sold into slavery, but who now sits in authority over much of the land. Joseph, desirous to see his youngest brother, convinces the men that they must bring young Benjamin to see him. At this news Jacob is distraught and begins to draw definitive conclusions about the future based on the past. We read:
And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” (Gen. 42:36)
This is a type of generalization. Joseph had been taken away, but Simeon was not yet gone nor was Benjamin. Jacob was making a prediction based on his anxiety.
It is, of course, understandable that we would contemplate the future based on the past. Experience is an important teacher. So, if one cloudy day I forgot an umbrella and got rained on, then the next cloudy day I will likely remember my umbrella. The problem comes when we attempt to draw definitive conclusions based on bad experiences. In such moments, anxiety is once again attempting to predict the future. It is arrogant in its assertion that it knows the outcome. But we do not definitively know the future.
God, however, does know the future. Furthermore, He knows the future because He has written it. We must remember that our God is sovereign over all experiences and even perceived patterns. He determines our steps (Prov. 16:9). He numbers our days (Ps. 139:16). He causes the rain and the sunshine to fall on us (Matt. 5:45). He is Lord over all and no pattern, no bad experience, no prediction can determine our future apart from His will. We must learn to trust this sovereign Lord.
So, how do we take our predictions about the future and let go of them into God’s sovereign hands? This is, of course, much harder than simply telling ourselves the right information. Faith in God over and against our biased generalizations is not easy. It’s helpful, however, to practice looking at our lives through God’s lenses. This requires us to note the scenarios we are anxious about, observe the false generalizations we are making, and to filter them through God’s sovereign control and compassion. An example may help.
Evelyn was worried about getting sick. Her last battle with a cold turned into a serious illness that sent her into the hospital for over a week. Now she is constantly fearful of getting sick because, any sickness will surely mean a repeat experience. As I sought to help Evelyn we engaged in a confrontation exercise that sought to identify the fear, analyze it, and turn to God with it. It looked something like the following:
What is my current fear? I am afraid to go to the grocery store because I may contract a virus from touching the shopping cart that will infect me and cause me to get so sick that I end up in the hospital.
What type of false filter am I using, and how do I know? Jumping to conclusions/false generalizations. I have gone shopping plenty of times and nothing bad has happened. I am assuming the worst and basing that conclusion on one bad experience. Instead of drawing conclusions based on the countless positive experiences, and instead of trusting God, I am believing my own worst fear is the most likely outcome.
How does God speak to my situation? God determines whether I get sick or stay healthy. The man born blind was made that way in order to display God’s glory. I can trust God that whether I stay home or go to the store He is ultimately in control of my health. He cares for my body and my soul and will do what is best for me. If I get sick it is for His glory. If I am healthy it is for His glory. I can go to the store without fear because God is in control.
Now this exercise does not automatically lead to relief of fear. It is not as thought Evelyn did this exercise when fearful and then stood up as anxiety washed away in response to her analysis. Yet, the persistence in the exercise began to infiltrate her thinking. She began to see anxiety as this other thing that came upon her but which she could resist. She could separate herself from her anxious thoughts and respond to them with the truth about God and, overtime, she felt different. She began to move past anxiety with greater ease because she saw God more clearly. As she understood His sovereignty, she saw the threat of her anxious thoughts as less real.
Anxiety tells us that it knows the truth and that it has a good grasp on reality. God is bigger than our anxious fears and our false interpretations. He can be trusted because He actually has control. Anxiety cannot control, nor accomplish anything. It is not as powerful as it says it is. God is the Sovereign Lord. Analyze your fears and turn to Him with them. He can be trusted!