They said it would be cold, but not this cold. My fragile American body was not prepared for it. I didn’t really grasp how cold winter could be without indoor heating. The funny thing, is that I left the balmy July weather in my Upper Midwest state to travel to South Africa, which, if you recall, experiences winter in July. The Southern Hemisphere really messed with my favorite time of year.
I traveled to Pretoria, South Africa and then Butha-Buthe, Lesotho with a team to educate about HIV and AIDS, while sharing the hope of the Gospel. The whole process of going on this trip consisted of one miracle after another. Suffice to say, I knew I was supposed to be there, but…
It was so COLD.
OK, selfish confession moment: those of you who have spent anytime in the Midwestern United States know that summer weather is a precious commodity. I was pretty grumbly about leaving the beautiful weather to only experience more winter in the lower part of the globe. I like warm. I like warm weather; I like the warm sun; and, when it is cold outside, I like my warm home while covered in warm blankets and drinking something warm. Yup. I know I’m pretty spoiled.
The group that had gone the year before told us the kind of weather to expect. What I didn’t realize was that they had gone not in July, but early June, and the weather would only get colder. Additionally, our training grounds in Pretoria consisted of dorms that not only had no heating, but also had cracked and gaping windows, allowing all of the cold winter air inside.
Unfortunately, having to do training out in the cold one night led me to getting a pretty bad illness. It was a terrible head-cold with a fever, which plagued me for a couple days. There was nowhere to go to get warm so that my body could heal. We had a few gracious moms on the trip that, as any good mother would, dumped their prepared, toiletry bags filled with cold meds at my bedside. Yet, I had little ease of symptoms.
My bad attitude about the cold quickly turned from grumbling to anxiety. A full-blown panic attack. All the “what-if” questions made their rounds in my head. What if I didn’t get better? What if I would be sick for the rest of the trip? What if I had to go to the hospital? What if? What if?…
Curled up as tightly as humanly possible in my sleeping bag, only letting my mouth and nose experience the chilling air of the dorm, my heart pounded. It was the middle of the night, and the anxiety was keeping me up. I knew I needed to sleep to get better. Yet, sleep evaded me. My top bunk in the frigid dorm sat right next to the cracked window. I peeked out of the sleeping bag enough to peek out at the night sky, begging God for help.
Vary rarely, I experience the voice of God so crisp and clean and true. I knew in that moment, I heard Him speaking to my heart. He knew what I needed in the middle of my panic attack. He said 5 words: “You know what to do.”
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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. Philippians 4:6-7
My mind quickly jumped to one of the few verses I had memorized. Philippians 4:6-7. “I need to thank You,” I responded to His voice. I knew I needed to take a moment to give gratitude to God for all His blessings, even in the middle of my not-so-pleasant situation. I took a deep breath and began finding all the things I could thank God for in the moment.
I thanked him for the trip. I thanked him for the team members. I thanked him for the training. For the new relationships. For the unique wilderness I had never seen before. I thanked him for the bed and the sleeping bag. I thanked him for that cracked window.
To be honest, I can’t remember what happened next, because the only thing I remember is waking up the next morning completely refreshed. I had fallen asleep in thanksgiving!
I always go back to this moment, not just because of how clearly I heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, but also because of the very valuable lesson I learned from it. Sometimes peace feels illusive. Our minds spin a mile a minute and our bodies react physically. However, the Bible is clear on how to attain peace even in the dark and cold circumstances, Philippians 4 gives us the clear path: prayer with thanksgiving.
Prayer reminds us to put our trust in God. Thanksgiving reminds us of His faithfulness to us, and all the ways he has already fulfilled His promises. Prayer and thanksgiving, coupled together, activate the peace of God in our lives. That peace literally guards us from being frozen in place by our own spells of anxiety and the enemy’s attempts to chill our lives.
The opposite is what led me to the anxiety attack. Worry and grumbling, coupled together, often lead to bouts of unrelenting anxiety. Worrying is like prayer to what you fear. Grumbling is like giving thanks to the negative. When our hearts and minds are focused on these two activities, we shouldn’t be surprised when fear and depression take over. Thankfully, it’s never too late to apply the lesson from Philippians 4. It can take some work, but if you can press into prayer and thanksgiving instead of worrying and grumbling, your emotions and body will follow suit. You can remove yourself from the frozen paralysis of anxiety and quickly find yourself in the warmth of God’s peace.
Like a hot cup of coffee on a winter morning, the peace of God warms our insides with hope. This peace is not necessarily a feeling, and it is certainly not a change in circumstances. This peace is supernatural. It’s God’s own peace in us. Upon leaving earth, Jesus said He would leave His very own peace for us to posses even in the midst of troubles. You, dear friend, may not always feel like you posses this peace, but it is yours. And thanksgiving is the path to activating it.
The good night of sleep I got that night in South Africa made all the difference for my illness. The rest of the trip still had challenges, but at least I wasn’t sick. It was easily the most life-changing trip I’ve been on, and looking back I can see how this instruction on thanksgiving was a big part of that. However, I dare say that this lesson is one that can be applied to even the “small” moments in life – not just the extraordinary ones. We can say “it is well with my soul” even in the cold.