How did the psalmists maintain their hope and joy even while being honest and realistic about their troubles? Their secret had to do with prayer and self-talk–what they said to themselves and what they said to God.


Why Prayer Doesn’t Always Help

So far we’ve learned that anxiety is designed to drive you to take action. If there’s no action to take right now, throw the weight of the problem onto God’s shoulders.

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

A good example of this is Hannah in 1 Samuel. This kind of prayer can calm your inner turmoil. Before Hannah prayed, she was so upset she couldn’t eat. After she prayed, her anxiety was gone and her appetite returned even though her hard circumstances hadn’t changed.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you cast your cares on God and moments later they are right back on your shoulders. They are like double stick tape—hard to throw away.

So what’s the trick to praying in such a way that you actually feel the burden lift? The answer is in the psalms, and it rests in what kinds of things you say to God, and what kinds of things you say to your soul. The psalmists frequently alternate between prayer and self-talk.

Speaking to God:

“Vindicate me, O God … Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? Send forth your light and your truth … let them bring me … to the place where you dwell” (Psalms 43:1-3).

Speaking to Self:

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God” (Psalms 43:5).

We all talk to ourselves—all day every day. And if you’re a believer, you speak to God many times a day. The key to praying in a way that calms your anxiety instead of making it worse has to do with which things you say to God and which things you say to yourself.

Our natural impulse with self-talk is to grumble to ourselves about our troubles, as if we needed a reminder of how many things are going wrong. No solutions, nothing constructive, only an ongoing rehearsal of all our problems.

Never talk to yourself about your troubles. Talk to God about your troubles and talk to yourself about God.

The author of Psalm 43 talks to God about how he was feeling, how he was being mistreated, and what he was suffering and makes his specific requests. Then he talks to his soul about God, directing himself to put his hope in God.

Psalms 102 and 103 provide a clinic on how to combine self-talk with prayer.

In Psalm 102, the psalmist talks to God about his troubles.

“My bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass… I lie awake… my enemies taunt me” (Psalms 102:3-8).

And he makes a specific request.

“Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress” (Psalms 102:3-8).

In Psalm 103, he talks to his soul about God.

“Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–who forgives … and heals … who redeems … and crowns … who satisfies.” (Psalms 103:2-5).

The Importance of Self-Talk

There is a reason God included examples of self-talk in the inspired book of prayer (Psalms). Most of us underestimate the impact of what we say to ourselves.

A thousand voices constantly fight for your attention. Most you filter out. But one voice always gets through. Your own. We all listen to our own self-talk.

In the words of Paul Tripp, “No one is more influential in your life than you are because no one talks to you more than you do. You’re in an unending conversation with yourself … interpreting, organizing, and analyzing what’s going on inside you and around you.”[1]

Self-talk is one of the primary ways your brain wires itself. What you say to yourself generates neural networks and builds the physical structure of your brain. Those networks solidify your beliefs and steer the direction of your life.

How Healthy Is Your Self-Talk?

So given how much is at stake, it’s worth asking, “How healthy is my self-talk?” Tripp goes on: “What do you regularly tell yourself about yourself, God, and your circumstances? Do your words to you inspire faith, hope, and courage? Or do they stimulate doubt, discouragement, and fear? … How wholesome, faith-driven, and Christ-centered is the conversation that you have with you every day?”

We would do well to take those words to heart, because the way you talk to yourself can do violence to the Holy Spirit’s work in you. Or it can be an instrument of his work.

Joy, peace, and hope are all the work of God.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

If the Spirit is working to produce joy in your heart, pouring any unnecessary cold water on your joy with your self-talk vandalizes the Spirit’s work. The same goes for hope, peace, or any other virtue the Holy Spirit is producing in you.

What do you say to yourself when you do something dumb? When someone in your family hurts you? Or your boss is unfair? When you suffer a loss? Get sick? Fail at something? Do you say things that fortify your faith? Do you affirm biblical truths and remind yourself of crucial attributes of God? Or do you stoke the fires of anxiety?

Toxic Positivity

The importance of self-talk is no secret. Authors like Norman Vincent Peale and Tony Robbins sold millions of books about the power of positive thinking. But what is it, exactly, that you should say to yourself? Is it as simple as “Don’t worry, be happy”? Should you just try to look at the bright side of everything? “I got hit by a car. At least it wasn’t a bus!”

The positive thinking movement was big for a while, but it faded when people discovered it wasn’t the miracle cure it was billed to be. Researchers began pointing out flaws in the positive psychology research. New research showed that if you are artificially positive and you don’t face the reality of negative things, that does more harm than good.[2] The term “toxic positivity” is gaining popularity. In some contexts, negative thoughts serve you better than positive ones.

The Warm Blanket of Sorrow

Again—science catching up to Scripture.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven … a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4).

“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day … is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20).

There is a time to cheer people up, and there is a time to weep with those who weep. And notice the analogy in Proverbs 25. Trying to cheer up a heavy heart is like taking away warm clothing on a cold day.

Sometimes sadness and negative thoughts can be like a warm blanket you can wrap up in for a time to nurse your wounds. Have you ever been upset and someone tried to get a smile out of you by telling jokes or tickling you? Not helpful.

There will be a time to lay down the blanket and face life again, but that doesn’t happen through artificial positivity. It comes through hope. The sad, worried, or anxious person doesn’t need a pep talk. But he does need words of hope. Especially when the person you’re talking to is you.

Facing Reality

We must resist oversimplified solutions. Can negative emotions cause physical and spiritual harm? Yes.  Let them run unchecked, and they can kill you. But they can also be a warm blanket in a frigid storm. Optimism is good. But phony, unrealistic positivism is superficial and denies reality. Even Jesus wept (John 11:35).

God doesn’t want us to ignore reality. We must face our troubles. But there is a way to do it that will drag you down into despair and there is a way that will keep your joy intact.

Again, our guide is the psalms. Did the psalmists talk about their troubles? Did they ever! Many times in the darkest, most graphic detail. Yet so often, they were full of hope because of how they used self-talk.

Don’t Talk to Yourself About Your Troubles

The wrong kind of self-talk is also the most natural—talking to yourself about your troubles in ways that destroy faith, hope, and joy.

Something in us wants to grumble when things go wrong. It may be self-pity, anger, or a desire to excuse our failures, but complaining is the natural human response to hardship.

And for our complaining to be impressive, our troubles have to be big. So we exaggerate them in our own minds. Have you ever noticed how when something goes wrong, your mind immediately tries to connect it with something else that went wrong? You misplace your keys, that makes you late for work, and you think, That dumb barking dog woke me up early, I’m dead tired, my knee is acting up, now I’m late. This is shaping up to be some day.

What value is there in amassing evidence that we’re having a hard day? None. It just makes us miserable. But that’s what happens when you talk to yourself about your troubles. The inner dialogue tends to snowball into catastrophism, self-pity, discontent, envy, ingratitude, and a host of other soul-destroying, hope-killing, anxiety-producing attitudes.

Talk to God About Your Troubles

So should you just put negative thoughts out of your mind? No. Face reality and work through it. Go ahead and talk about your troubles. Just talk to God about them, not to yourself. It changes what you say.

Prevents Exaggeration

When you talk to yourself, you tend to exaggerate how bad things are. But you feel pretty silly overstating the matter to God when he saw the whole thing.

Keeps Perspective

When you talk to yourself, it’s easy to lose perspective. But when you talk to God, it puts your problem against the backdrop of the spiritual world and you see it in context.

“God, this problem is the biggest issue in the world! … Oh, except for your kingdom … and the work of the gospel … and spiritual warfare and eternal life and heaven and hell. I guess this problem isn’t as big as I thought.”

Anxiety narrows our vision so all we can see are our troubles. Talking to God about your troubles widens your vision back out to see the full picture.

Prevents Giving Up

When you talk to yourself, your problems seem hopeless. But not when you talk to God. You can’t very well tell God, “This situation is hopeless. Not even you can handle this one.”

Cognitive Restructuring

Talking to God about your troubles protects you from all the cognitive distortions that anxiety typically causes.

So talking to God about your troubles will win half the battle. It will keep you from the kind of thinking that destroys hope. But it’s not enough to just avoid destroying hope. We need something that will increase our hope, joy, faith, and inner peace.

That’s where self-talk comes in. Talk to God about your troubles and talk to yourself about God.

Talk to Yourself About God

When you isolate an anxiety and bring it before the Lord, ask yourself, “What are two or three truths about God’s nature that are relevant to this problem?” Then use your imagination to contemplate those attributes. This will shift your attention from your problem to your Father.

But don’t stop there. Imagine yourself having an experience of those attributes that fills you with joy. Or hope. Or peace. Imagining that will create neural pathways that will make those responses easier when you experience the attributes you considered. The more vivid your imagination, and the more frequently you do it, the stronger the neural connections.

Shift from Inward to Upward

The instruction manual for how to pray in times of stress, the Psalms, teaches us to shift from inward thinking to upward thinking. No book of the Bible speaks more about human sorrows than Psalms. And no book in the Bible is more densely packed with statements about what God is like. Pick any psalm and list every truth about God stated or implied. You’ll rarely have less than ten and often more than twenty.

Compare that to your own prayers. How many attributes of God do you mention in a typical prayer? No wonder the psalmists were so full of hope.

It’s fine to talk to God about your problems, but never without giving yourself plenty of reminders about what God is like. Try this. For every one thought about your troubles, five thoughts about God.

Psalm 103

The author of Psalm 103 gives a clinic on how to talk to yourself about God.

“Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name” (verse 1).

No matter what kind of self-talk is creating anxiety, if you shift from that to praising God, it will shut off the spigot of stress hormones.


“Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (verse 2).

Much of our anxiety comes from forgetting God’s benefits. So the psalmist reminds his soul of several of them.


  • Do you have thoughts of self-condemnation? What attribute will help with that?

“he forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” (verse 3).


  • Thoughts that your life is hopelessly ruined?

“redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion” (verse 4).


  • Afraid you won’t be happy because of some loss?

“satisfies your desires with good things” (verse 5).


  • Thoughts that your best days are behind you?

“so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (verse 5).


  • Thoughts about how life is unfair?

“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (verse 6).


  • Thoughts about God being mad at you?

“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever. He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (verses 8-14).

Use Your Imagination

So you use your imagination to contemplate the fact that God forgives sins and heals. And imagine yourself feeling crushing guilt to the point of despair, and then feeling forgiven, clean, and 100% certain everything is now okay between you and God.

Imagine it until you feel it.

Then the next one. Imagine yourself feeling like you’ve ruined your life beyond repair. Then envision God lifting you from that pit and restoring your life better than it was before.

Imagine it until you feel it.

Keep going through the list. That’s how you talk to your soul about God. The stronger the anxiety, the more of God’s glory your soul needs to see. It’s great to affirm, “God is good all the time.” But don’t be satisfied with just one attribute.

Hard Work

None of this will be easy. Everything in your natural anxiety response will resist this. It’s a wrestling match.

“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” (Psalms 13:2).

A literal translation would be, “How long must I set counsel in my soul?” When your mind insists on flying off into irrational fretting and you constantly have to impose counsel on it to rein it in, it can be exhausting. The psalmist asked God how much longer he would have to wrestle. That’s a question you ask when it seems like it’s going on longer than you can handle.

Difficult as it is, the wrestling match is worth it. By the end, the anxious psalmist is full of joy.

“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me” (Psalms 13:5-6).

Has Your Counselor Perished?

Your problems are real. And they may be huge. But they are not the whole story. Anxiety narrows our vision so all we can see are our troubles. Talking to yourself about God widens your vision back out to see the full picture. You never have the full story until you’ve considered God.

The psalmist said, “My soul is downcast within me, therefore I will remember you” (Psalms 42:6). Much of our anxiety comes from simply forgetting about God.

“Why do you now cry aloud—have you no king? Has your counselor perished, that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labor?” (Micah 4:9)

What would it do to your perspective if you caught yourself during out-of-control anxiety and asked yourself, “What’s the matter, soul? Has your Savior died?”

We all go through times that trouble our souls. But does your reaction suggest God is dead, or that he’s more real than ever?

The less you understand why this hardship is happening, the more important it is to fix your attention on God’s nature. As the saying goes, “When you can’t trace God’s hand, you must trust his heart.” When you can’t make heads or tails out of what God is doing with his hand, trust his kind, fatherly affections.

If your thoughts are running away with you and you can’t get them to stop, try thinking of one attribute[3] of God for each letter of the alphabet. And after each letter, stop and thank God for being that way toward you.

Inspiring Hope

The author of Psalms 42 and 43 wrote in a state of severe anxiety. Three times he states that his soul is “disturbed.” The Hebrew word is hamah, which refers to a commotion, disturbance, or uproar. It’s used of snarling dogs and the roiling, foaming tumult of a stormy sea. And all three times he directed his soul to hope in God.[4]

You can’t reason with your nervous system. It doesn’t work to tell yourself, “Stop being so stressed. This shouldn’t bother you so much. Just chill.” What does work is to tell yourself truths that inspire hope and joy. The goal is not positive thinking. The goal is inspirational thinking—thinking that sets your soul on a track that leads to hope.

You know what kinds of thoughts trigger anxiety. But causing anxiety isn’t the worst of it. Those thoughts also damage your soul.

“This will probably be a disaster.”

“I’m such an idiot.”

“This situation is hopeless.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“Everything’s going wrong today.”

“My life is a dumpster fire.”

Those thoughts are like hitting your head against the wall. Keep doing it, and eventually you’ll get brain damage. And you’ll weaken your soul’s ability to trust God.[5]


Hope-inspiring self-talk has the opposite effect.

“His mercies are new every morning.”

“You have laid your hand upon me.”

“God’s grace will be sufficient for me.”

“If God didn’t withhold his own Son from me, surely he’ll help me with this.”

Each time you have thoughts like that, you strengthen your spirit and prepare it for joy. That’s the sort of thing the writer of Psalms 42-43 was talking about when he told his soul, “Put your hope in God.”

Hope in God

Are you stressed about an upcoming event? Maybe a visit to family or a hard meeting at work? Something coming up that’s got your stomach in knots? Anxiety is telling you, “Something bad is about to happen.”

But if you’re a believer, you can say, “Something good is about to happen to me.” And that’s not wishful thinking. It’s always true. For the child of God, every event is a good gift from God. Not always pleasant. But definitely good because God only does good things.

“All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant” (Psalms 25:10).

From Anxiety to Hope

The book of Lamentations describes how the author when from the extremes of anxiety to joy and hope.

The author believes peace itself had rejected his soul.

“My soul has been rejected from peace” (Lamentations 3:17 NAS).

Anxiety and depression are often companions.

He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light … surrounded me with bitterness … He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone … So I say, ‘All that I had hoped from the Lord [is gone].’ my soul is downcast within me” (Lamentations 3:2-20).

After two and a half chapters of that, he goes from the extremes of anxiety and depression to being full of hope. How? By calling to mind truth about God.

“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:21-23).

He called to mind the creativity of God’s love—new every morning. The phrase translated “call to mind” is literally “I bring back into my heart.” He contemplated it and meditated on it until it penetrated his heart and gave him hope.

Give It A Try

Try contemplating that attribute when you’re worried about the future. New every morning, every month, every year—God never runs out of new ideas.

Isn’t it true that over this past year, God gave you some gifts that he never gave you before? Hasn’t he given you new insights? New experiences with a friend? Sunsets and sunrises different from anything you’ve seen before? New appreciation of foods, new restaurants? We probably can’t even remember 99% of the mercies we received for the first time this year.

From a Bad Day to Loving God

Apply these principles all through the day. Remember the day that started with a bad night’s sleep, a sore knee, and dropped toast? How would you apply these principles on a morning like that?

First, resist the impulse to connect your problems together. Keep them separate and deal with them one at a time.

The thought process should be, I’m late for work, and my knee is … wait a minute. Being late and my bum knee have nothing to do with each other. They are completely separate problems with separate solutions.

Even if the problems are related, they might have different solutions. If you combine different problems with different solutions together, then they have no solution.

Example: Problem #1

For each hardship, pinpoint the core problem, talk to God about it, tell him how you feel, and then request something specific.

“Father, I’m late for work. I’m worried about what my boss will say. My request is that you would prepare me for the difficulties I’ll face when I show up late.”

Then you talk to your soul about how God is close by when his people face trouble and that he controls whether you have favor in the eyes of men.

Now you’ve worked through it, made your request, and you turned your attention to what God is like. The ball is in God’s court, you feel like you can trust him with it—the issue is resolved. At least for now. Your brain doesn’t think it has to hold you in a state of anxiety over that problem.

Problem #2

On to the next issue—your lack of sleep.

Speak to your soul.

Soul, consider these attributes:
1) God can supply all the strength I need regardless of little sleep.

2) He intentionally allowed me to be tired today for his purposes.

3) His purposes are always good for me.

4) He’s worthy of my wholehearted service even when it’s hard.

5) He’s full of compassion. He’s the only one who understands how hard this is for me today, and he cares.

Now talk to God about it and make your requests.

“Father, thank you for promising the grace to go through this day tired. I look forward to receiving that grace. My request is that you enable me to be receptive to it and to enjoy you through it.”

Fatigue problem addressed. It’s off your plate.

Problem #3

Next issue—the toast. Imagine God saying, “What do you want me to do about the toast problem, specifically?” You chuckle to yourself and realize that one’s not quite the catastrophe it felt like. “Never mind about that one, God.”

You realize it’s a non-issue and there’s no need to give it another moment’s thought. It sounds silly, but this is important. If you don’t go through this process, it stays in the back of your mind as part of your conglomeration of problems. Every item in your list must be handled.

Can you see the difference this will make for your anxiety?

Lingering pressure of having a terrible day where “everything” is going wrong with no possible solution.

You had three issues that have been dealt with and now you love the Lord a little more than you did yesterday. No need for anxiety.

Godliness Training Exercises

  • Speak to God in the style of Psalm 102 and to yourself in the style of Psalm 103 about three anxieties.

If you’re not sure which attributes of God are relevant, ask friends for help.

Make a goal of speaking truth to yourself about God as an automatic, habitual response whenever anxiety hits.

  • Choose a psalm at random and list every attribute of God stated or implied. Use your imagination to daydream about experiencing several of those attributes.
  • Imagine yourself feeling intense joy, hope, or peace in that experience.
  • Keep reviewing your memory verses and add the next verse in Matthew 6.



For the video of this session, click here.




[2] Wood JV, Perunovic WQ, Lee JW. Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others. Psychol Sci. 2009 Jul;20(7):860-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x. Epub 2009 May 21. PMID: 19493324.

[3] An attribute is anything that is true about God.

[4] Psalms 42:6; 12; 43:5.

[5] This is the case with most sins we struggle with. If you have a temper problem, chances are your inner monologue is dominated by angry thoughts. The same is true for greed, vengeance/unforgiveness, lust, sadness, or people-pleasing. Each unchecked thought in one of those categories pushes you further in that direction.