Few sins are as disgusting as ingratitude. A study of God’s dealings with mankind would surely demonstrate how strongly God thinks that this is indeed the case. We humans agree with his assessment—as long as we are observing a lack of thankfulness in the lives of others! However, we often appear fairly unaware of the depth of this problem in our own personal lives. If we can learn to see through the eyes of God, hopefully we can be moved to a consistent repentance of this sin of ingratitude and can become people of grace and thankfulness.
The fatal plunge of the first century world into degradation and perversion began with a loss of thankfulness toward God. Romans 1:21 makes the genesis of a downward spiral into disaster very clear: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts became darkened.” I have not written an article on gratitude simply because this makes us happier people or better people; I have written it because a scarcity of gratitude will most surely lead to our missing heaven. Our failure generally to appreciate the magnitude of the subject’s importance demonstrates just how effective Satan has been in deceiving us. Had our mother Eve not lost her appreciation for God and his wondrous grace, she would not have taken the fatal bite of forbidden fruit. Let’s not underestimate for a moment the vital nature of the study of this topic. It is paramount to our spiritual growth, gracious demeanor and to our eternal destiny.
Why do we lose our gratitude so easily? Several reasons come to mind rather quickly. One, we often have a shallow grasp of our own sinfulness. A good study of Romans 1-3 should help us deepen our convictions about the magnitude of our sin. Here, Paul is the Spirit’s tool to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8). When I ponder sin, I think to myself, “The Best of Us Is a Mess.” And we really are a mess in comparison to Jesus Christ. However, we all too often measure ourselves by other people which makes us feel reasonably righteous in comparison. The more we see Jesus as he is and ourselves as we are, the more we are going to be grateful that God has reached down in mercy to such undeserving creatures.
Two, we are plagued with abysmally short memories. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle reminds us that a real understanding of God’s grace should move us to be growing continually. Peter views a failure to respond in this way as quite unnatural, no matter how common it may be: “he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” (2 Peter 1:9). The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is often true, even when the familiarity is with our Creator.
Three, ingratitude may simply trace back to a sinful heart that blocks the understanding—and therefore the appreciation—of spiritual realities. I remember times when I dealt with sin in my heart in a radical way (which for me means with much prayer, often accompanied by fasting). After such times my spiritual heart seems soft and sensitive, and the tears of appreciation flow easily. Thinking back to those moving experiences makes me marvel at how quickly the tenderness of heart can fade.
Four, a self-focused life certainly results in little thankfulness. My childhood years contributed to my self-focus. Although I was raised in a very blue-collar setting, without an abundance of money, we were comfortable, and I was given much of what I requested. In less kindly terms, I was spoiled (hopefully not permanently!). As a result, I characteristically respond to events in my life in a selfish way. When things go well for me, I think, Fine, that’s the way it should be. When things don’t go well for me, I react internally by thinking, “What is going on here?” I have served the Lord faithfully; this shouldn’t be happening to me! When I allow my sinful nature to lead me in this direction, I respond to blessings without much thankfulness and to challenges without much grace. Prayerfully, I have made lots of progress in changing these tendencies, but I must guard against them continually to avoid being an ingrate.
Five, a suspect picture of God is one of the more serious, yet subtle, culprits behind ingratitude. We develop our view of God from the most important authority figures in our lives, normally our fathers. If our fathers were beneficent, leaning toward permissiveness with us, we are likely to take God’s goodness for granted. If our fathers were distant or harsh, we are likely to view God in much the same way. And if we see him as impersonal, uncaring or demanding, we will misinterpret life’s blessings and challenges, remaining unaware of the bounty of his grace. The reality of who he is and what he does can be missed almost entirely. If we are like the one-talent man in Matthew 25, we will see him as a “hard” man (verse 24). If we are like the older brother in the Parable of the Lost Son, we will see him as a father who has done absolutely nothing for us (Luke 15:29). Astounding!
For everyone who decides to seek Jesus seriously, a study of the book of Romans is a must. When we begin to understand the God it portrays, we can be consistently motivated by gratefulness for his amazing grace. My book, “Romans: the Heart Set Free,” is a good resource for this study.
Whatever the cause of ingratitude, the cure is in taking the time to figure out life as God designed it to be, rather than life as Satan wants us to see it. Then the message will not be how soon we forget, but how often and deeply we remember the overwhelming goodness of our God. Let’s take this present season of thankfulness and truly count our blessings and live a life of genuine gratefulness and appreciation for all God has done for us.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” —Colossians 2:6-7
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” —Colossians 4:2
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” —Hebrews 12:28
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” —Colossians 3:15
Aging and death are realities of life on planet earth, and those realities are viewed by virtually all of us as negative, usually very negative. From the perspective of 1 Corinthians 15:26, death is the last enemy to be destroyed at the general resurrection of the dead. The term “enemy” pretty well sums up how we view death, right? Aging is a necessary part of the process that culminates in death. We humans don’t enjoy aging with its attendant strains and pains, and we don’t enjoy thinking about our demise. Those are facts. Yet, is there another perspective that can change how we view those facts, making them seem less negative for sure and possibly even positive? That’s a very good question to ponder, don’t you think?
In 2016, Jeanie Shaw served as an author and editor of an amazing book entitled “An Aging Grace.” Using a number of older authors, important topics related to aging are covered in very biblical and practical ways. Younger people should read the book to help them deal with their older friends and relatives, and older people should read it to help prepare themselves for the inevitabilities coming their way. In my opinion, this book should be a “must-read” for all followers of Christ.
I wrote two chapters for the book and in the first of these, here were two sentences describing my initial reaction to the request to write them. “Jeanie Shaw, whose brainchild this book is, asked me to write two chapters: one about getting old and the other about dying. (She says the topic was “heaven,” but I heard “dying.”)… My initial reaction was “What? Why me? How did I get those two articles anyway? I hate getting old and I’m afraid to die!” I think the chapters ended up being good ones and it helped me to write them. But I have continued to think about aging and death as a person now in my upper 70’s. This present article describes my most profound thoughts on the subject at this point in my life.
Our Attachment to the Physical
We are attached to this physical world and we are attached because God made us to be. We were created to enjoy life on this earth. It offers amazing possibilities – some amazingly bad and some amazingly good. David described the good part in this way:
Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12 Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 4 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Peter quoted this passage in 1 Peter 3:10-12. Loving life in this physical body and desiring to see good days, many of them, is not wrong. In fact, it would be wrong to feel otherwise. James said that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) and that includes life in this physical world. That is why we should give thanks for every one of those good gifts that we enjoy while in this body. One of those obvious delights is food, created for our enjoyment and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-5), just like all other physical things that we call good.
Further, God made us to want to remain alive as long as possible. The Bible is full of examples showing that his righteous people fought hard to remain alive. Finding anyone who wanted to die at the moment is nearly impossible to do. Those who can be found were looking for an escape from intense suffering, although Paul seemed to be an exception in Philippians 1:21-23. But a closer examination of that context shows that although he knew death was better because he could be with Christ, he went on to say that he wanted to remain alive in order to fulfil his purpose of helping others. Add to that the fact that he had seen both a resurrected Jesus and the spiritual world beyond (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). He thus was given a perspective that we have to work hard to develop and then keep – by faith, not sight.
Paul knew that his purpose was to use his life to help others know and love God. Life on earth is a preparation for heaven, and finding purpose is a large part of that preparation. Discovering the answers to the biggest questions in life is a part of the process. Three of the biggest questions are these: where did I come from; where am I going; and what am I doing here? Humans instinctively search for the answers to these questions because of our very nature. We are made in the image of God and this makes our searches for meaning inevitable, because they actually comprise our search for him.
He wants us to search for our origin, which is him. He wants us to search for our destiny, which is with him. He wants us to search for our purpose, because it is our way of having fellowship with him in his mission for saving the people on this earth. Having a purpose of representing him to those people means that we want to live and not die until he knows that our purpose has been fulfilled. Acts 13:36 nails it: “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep…” Thus, wanting to stay alive and enjoy life is our designed nature. It is not necessarily a sign of being unspiritual or too attached to this world (although it can be).
That being said, a part of the right mixture is the anticipation of heaven and an “other-worldly” absence of the fear of death. Before Christ’s death and resurrection, even spiritual people in the Old Testament era were “held in slavery by their fear of death” for their entire lives (Hebrews 4:14-15). We should now view life and death differently than those who lived before the cross. Picture it this way – imagine a person who loves their job and has a very strong assurance of job security. Although they look forward and anticipate their retirement greatly, they put their heart into their job on a daily basis and do it excellently. The faith-filled disciple of Jesus is very similar in how they view life, their purpose in it and their future. They are comfortable both with the present and comfortable anticipating the future, including death. They are in all ways quite like the child described in Psalm 131:2: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Such a person ideally accepts both aging and death with peace and not with fear or mere perseverance with gritted teeth. But just how do we reach that ideal?
The Worst Story Ever Told
We reach it by really grasping the big picture, the biggest possible, as fully as is humanly possible – the greatest story ever told. Just what do you think is the great story ever told? Common answers are good but often incomplete, such as God’s love or Jesus on the cross bearing our sins, and other variations or additions to these two. The biggest picture goes much deeper and must start at the dawn of creation.
Adam and Eve were created perfect in just about every way, and they were certainly sinless. Once sin entered the world, a slowly developing whirlpool for humanity had begun and there was no stopping it. The rate of its swirling might have seemed to have paused at times in history, but not for long. Ultimately, it would pick up speed and pull every human being into its deadly vortex. The consequences of sin are many, but death is at the center – both spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death (separation from our own bodies). Once banned from the Garden that housed the Tree of Life, the original pair began to age and head toward physical death, and that sentence of death had to include all humans from that point forward (Genesis 3:22-24). We each die spiritually because of our own sins, but we die physically because of that first sin in the Garden and banishment from its Tree of Life.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
God by his nature is both all-knowing and timeless. He sees what we call time all at once – past, present and future. Before he created the world with humans as its apex, he knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew what the pain of rebellion was going to do to mankind and do to him. His plan was clearly in place long before it was implemented. That plan was destined to become the greatest story ever told. The Creator was going to take the form of a creature in order to die and save his creatures for eternity. Who could ever have imagined such a story?
It is true that other religions have mythology that includes gods taking human forms, as shown in Acts 14:8-18, but no other religion would dare imagine that a god would die for his sinful, rebellious creatures. All religions have this in common: they teach that we should be good and do good. Christianity is totally unique in teaching that we cannot do this without Divine intervention enabling us to do it, and that intervention began with God becoming human to die for all of the sins of all humans of all time. Mind-boggling! Unbelievable! The greatest story ever imagined and the greatest story ever told!
Christianity is absolutely unique. That uniqueness explains why these two statements are true of Christ’s religion and true only of his religion:
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Once a group of theologians were discussing world religions and the question of whether Christianity was unique, and if so, why? C.S. Lewis, famous author and teacher of the last century, entered the group’s discussion late. Upon hearing the topic, he stated quickly that that the answer was simple: grace! The idea of grace is amazing, as the popular song puts it, but beyond amazing when you consider what made saving grace possible – God becoming man and dying for his creation that grace might abound! It was the only answer for the dilemma of sin and God knew it and did it.
Embracing the Near-Inconceivable!
Once I started grasping this big picture more fully, I would no longer want to eliminate my aging and death even if I somehow could. How could I possibly desire to rob the world of the greatest story ever told, which was the only way to save humanity spiritually? I believe I am now looking at that process differently than when I wrote those words in the book I mentioned back in 2016, saying that I hated aging and was afraid to die. I keep applying myself to understanding my purpose in this last part of life. I must still be alive for a reason. God is not yet done with me. A part of that reason is for me to keep trying to better understand and explain to others how to embrace life’s “end game” and all that it brings to us and to our friends and family whom we leave behind.
I have a deeper sense of peace about life’s final chapter, a sense that I could often best describe as a peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In this article, I have tried to explain what simply must be considered the greatest story ever told. I pray that it helps your understanding of why aging and death are to be embraced, even joyfully. God knows that we need to help each other through that portal into an eternity that is quite literally inconceivable until we enter into it. The famous Christian song says, “I can only imagine,” but actually, you cannot. The Great Beyond is quite greatly beyond our wildest imagination. Near the end of the Aging Grace book, I wrote these words, providing an apt way to close this article:
Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
With that, I close. I’ll see you there, maybe soon!
1 Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
In this verse, Peter gives us a command, one that is absolutely essential for spiritual and emotional health. But he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it. No doubt some approach comes to your mind as you read the verse, but more might be involved than would immediately register with you. This article describes in detail an approach that has proved invaluable to me in my decades-old walk with God. Read it and see if it can be helpful to you.
Journaling – what exactly is that? Here is the first definition found when Googling the term: “Journaling generally involves the practice of keeping a diary or journal that explores thoughts and feelings surrounding the events of your life.” As you look further at those online entries, you will find many emotional health experts describing the benefits of journaling. You will also find that a number of famous people practiced journaling as an important part of their lives. David writing his Psalms would be a familiar example. So, clearly journaling is something good and perhaps very important to us humans. But as the title suggests, doing it with God is a higher level, raising something good to something great. In this article, I want to share examples of journaling that have blessed my life and at times, helped me climb out of a deep pit spiritually and emotionally.
A Resistant Learner
My wife has journaled with God for decades, writing out her prayers on a daily basis. I resisted following her example for years, believing that I was more in touch with my emotions than she is and that prayer walks were quite sufficient to unload my burdens to God and find his solutions and directions. But eventually, my life became more complicated and the burdens overwhelming. On one memorable occasion, Theresa and I got into a spat that wasn’t pretty, and it was mostly me (nearly all me, to be totally honest). It was on day one of a three-day marriage getaway. She kept asking what was wrong with me and I honestly didn’t know. The next morning a long prayer walk didn’t put me in touch with what was eating at me, nor did the one the next day. I had two bad days, and I’m sure she must have had the same, having to put up with me.
The third day as we returned home, the first part of the trip was on a ferry from Nantucket to Cape Cod. For the two plus hours on the boat, I was typing on my laptop almost feverishly, pouring out my pain to God. That was one intense introduction to serious journaling with God. I discovered that journaling exposed my heart and soul like nothing else. We can be full of disturbing feelings and not be able to identify them, feeling terrible and not really knowing why. Times like this occur when too many different disturbances in our personal universe are crammed in together. Praying about them or talking to others about them is helpful, for it distills them down to about the size of our mouths. Writing about them (think pen and paper) distills them down to the size of a pen point. Then the minute details start to emerge, and we begin to see the issues much more clearly.
That particular day, now many years ago, I discovered the main areas of my burdens. I not only listed the areas; I gave each one a percentage of the total burden I was feeling. Something about getting it all written down and evaluating it started freeing me up and giving me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel after all! As I prayed, God started helping me see answers to each of those five areas. My world righted itself and my wife’s better husband returned! That husband discovered that his wife’s approach to journaling was a hidden treasure that would bless him for years to come. It was a memorable boat ride and the start of my journaling with God. The truth is that I am more in touch with my emotions than my wife is and most of the time my prayer walks do accomplish what I need with God. But there are times that the victory of surrender simply will not occur without journaling with God.
The Latest Version
Let me skip to my last such victory, a very recent one. I discovered a somewhat new approach that really helped. It may help you. This year (2019) has been a difficult one for me, and for us as a couple. Although our marriage is doing quite well, other aspects of life have been seriously challenging, to the point of me becoming overwhelmed (again). Thankfully, Theresa and I almost always remain very united in facing challenges and we have this year as well. I won’t share those challenges in any detail but suffice it to say that I desperately needed a victory of surrender.
I started my trek in that direction by setting aside an open-ended period of time to write at my computer. After listing a number of my burdens with which I was in touch, it became obvious that they all fit into five total categories. They were: personal concerns; family concerns; friends concerns; church concerns; and world concerns (especially those in my home country, our current society). I ended up with quite a number of entries in each of these categories. Like Abraham, I had to face the truth before I could “faith” it. For the next two days, I re-read what I had written and added to it. I didn’t want to leave any burden hidden in the deep recesses of my heart.
On the fourth day, I highlighted everything in each category and hit the delete key. I was ready to surrender it to God, to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). However, I left the category headings in place. For the next two days, I listed the most significant items under each category again that came to mind, a much smaller number than on the earlier list. Then I hit the delete button again. The next day (day 6 in the process), I found things to be thankful for in each of the five categories and listed them – the light at the end of the tunnel! I did the same on day 7. The following morning, I awoke with a feeling of complete peace and gratitude.
Receiving and Giving Back
Perhaps you are thinking, “Wow, Gordon, that’s a long process and a lot of work!” Yes, but well worth it. You may be built differently than me and maybe you don’t get as clogged up emotionally as I do. Good on you if that’s true of you, in which case your journaling can follow a shorter route (as mine does most of the time). But I know people well enough to know that many are like me – worriers who want to fix everything wrong with themselves, others and the world in general. My shorter prayer list has well over 100 individuals on it and my longer one far more than that. When I add too many personal issues to those concerns for others, it can reach the point of my being overwhelmed, especially if I am not processing my burdens effectively and consistently on pretty much a daily basis. Life does tumble in and too much of it tumbling in at once drives me to the kind of journaling process I have described.
Interestingly, this recent experience came at an important time. God is in control, always. We had scheduled some extended time (days) with a couple who is very near and dear to us. They came at a time when they were facing a similar place in their lives that I had just worked through – that overwhelmed stage. Our first time together provided the opportunity to not only listen as they shared many of their burdens but to share this approach I had just used in working through my burdens to yet another victory of surrender. Although the thought of writing down the details of painful experiences was not a positive one initially, the brother did what I recommended. I believe the writing, combined with much talking, was both cathartic and provided directions for further healing.
God is amazing – he allows us to experience hard times for at least two big reasons. One, to fight for our own spirituality and to grow though that fight. No pain, no gain. Two, to then share with others our challenges and how we found answers. We get help and we give help as a part of what the New Testament describes as “One Another Christianity.” For me, journaling with God is an essential part of his brand of Christianity. Although sharing my burdens with others is always an essential part of the process, sometimes only deep journaling with God will enable me to completely offload those burdens. I suspect the same is true for most of us.
“You unbelieving and perverse generation”, Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long will I put up with you?” – Matthew 17: 17
Addressed to Jesus’ disciples who had been following him and listening to him, Jesus expressed frustration that they were missing something important, specifically who Jesus was and faith in his power to heal. In a later private moment (verses 19-21), Jesus explains that the disciples simply lacked faith. Something was missing, and they were slow to understand.
Sometimes I carry with me a nagging sense that I am missing something. It’s almost like I don’t have my keys, phone, or wallet, but it is deeper and spiritual.
The root of this nagging is that I am aware that I am filled with biases and prejudices. I have grown up and lived in an upper middle-class family in the United States. My economic “normal” is not normal to either most of the world nor the setting of the New Testament scriptures. I am also a privileged white man, having been able to attend excellent universities and learn to read, write, think, and work using my mind. I have not experienced class, gender or race discrimination nor have I had to wear out my body with hard labor. I am healthy, spared from disability and major health challenges (so far). In lifestyle alone, I am out of touch with 99% of the real world and the audience of Jesus’ teaching and the early church.
Additionally, I am shaped by my parents, my upbringing, and my personality. I have bents and prejudices, often struggling to relate to and “get” people who are different than me.
Consequently, I fear that when I read scripture I often practice eisegesis, that is, reading into the text my upper middle class, western views, and my introverted, perfectionist personality. There are a lot of ways to get it wrong, miss the point, and simply lack faith. What is one to do?
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
Using Micah 6:8 as my guide, and speaking first to myself, I propose the following:
- Act Justly
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 10:17-19
There are several biblical teachings that are very clear: sin, repentance, forgiveness, discipleship, and evangelism. We find unity in these. There are also other very clear biblical teachings about how we should act and interact with others, specific to the imperative of Micah 6:8 to act justly. In sum, it requires compassion and others-centeredness.
In the Old Testament, acting justly primarily referred to concern and care for widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 above, Psalms 68:4-5, and many others). In the New Testament, the dominant example is the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Today, acting justly can be extended to those who are needy, suffer persecution, prejudice, and injustice. And it can be further applied to those who suffer physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Spiritually, acting justly is having eyes of compassion to see the need of others to learn and feel the love of God and to experience his kindness and grace. So many people live tortured lives, ravaged by guilt and all the unhealthy ways of masking it. It requires getting beyond myself and mere appearances to have the eyes of Jesus when he saw the crowds as harassed and helpless, and then engage all the messiness to love them and show them Jesus.
Acting justly requires compassion and others-centeredness, antidotes to the greed, comfort, and selfishness with which I struggle. My wife, Maureen, and I have adopted a child and cared for aging parents, with my dad living with us his last three years. Additionally, we strive (quite imperfectly) to live a lifestyle focused on discipleship and evangelism, desiring to love and serve others. While Maureen is an evangelistic extrovert and a natural Good Samaritan, I am not. For me it takes intentionality, self-denial, and the decision to experience emotional and mental discomfort. But it helps me to “get” people who are different from me. I am a work in progress but striving to act justly gets me beyond myself and enables me to both better read, interpret, and practice scripture and to be more compassionate. I want to be and do better.
- Love Mercy
“If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8
To love mercy is multifaceted, and my scholarly friends can do more with this, but for me it encompasses a disposition of love and forgiveness.
One way I have sinned and have observed others sin is to propagate a strength of conviction with pride and anger. As important as it is to be rooted in God’s word, hold to Jesus’ teachings, and to defend the gospel, my disposition should be one of love and forgiveness. I think of Jesus’ tenderness and clarity with the woman caught in adultery (John 8), and his amazing words on the cross of “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
I think that 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 is a major text that I can fail to understand and live. I am so self-centered and performance-oriented that I can value outcomes and my reputation over godly behavior and a spiritual disposition. I judge by mere appearances and deem that others do also, valuing personality, talent, powers of persuasion, and results over a character of love and forgiveness. I can judge myself this way, and others as well.
Ego and self-promotion, resentment and bitterness, anger and fear can all dominate my disposition and affect how I read, interpret, and practice scripture. I simply miss the example of Jesus and the most excellent way.
- Walk Humbly with Your God
“The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12
Acting justly is a lifestyle and is what I do, loving mercy is how I am, but walking humbly with my God is at the core of who I am. When I see God for who he is, and me for who I am, I am better able to read, interpret, and practice scripture. I am humble, grateful, teachable, persuadable, and ever aware of my sin and need to learn and grow.
Humility is beating my chest and acknowledging my (often hidden) sin and not looking down in judgment on others with obvious sins. Humility is a willingness to learn and be persuaded. Humility is avoiding name calling and the marginalizing of those with whom I disagree and finding ways to learn from them. Humility is saying “I don’t know” when I don’t. The older I get the more I realize that there are many issues, even biblical ones, where I am just not sure. There is mixed evidence and room for differing opinions. As I wrote above, in the major issues, I am clear on what the Bible says, but even then, I submit to God as the ultimate judge.
In the months and years ahead, we will grapple with a myriad of issues like leadership structure and function, gender roles, evolving to reach the next generation, and other issues yet to surface. We will struggle to understand God’s word in its setting and culture and then how to apply it faithfully today in our setting and culture. I propose that first we must act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Then we will have meaningful dialogue within lifestyles of service, dispositions of love and forgiveness, and strong, spiritual walks with our God, manifesting in a deep humility.
Service, love, forgiveness, and humility: in that milieu God can use us as his noble vessels and show us to the world as disciples of Jesus by the love we have for each other. Less will be missing and we can better “get” God, his word, and others.
Family, we need to talk. This won’t take long but it is important. I’ll be brief and try to avoid that lecturing tone that no one appreciates.
In the early 20th century, Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach developed the famous inkblot test, which soared in popularity in the 1960’s. Supporters of this test claim that when subjects are shown specific inkblots and name the first thing that pops into their mind as they attempt to identify the shape they see, it reveals much about their personality and emotional functioning. In short, just a quick glance can make known a person’s true identity and many other things about them. Whether that works in the field of psychology has been the subject of much debate in the ensuing decades.
But our society seems to be devolving into a Rorschach mentality. We see one image, one short video clip, one Tweet, one soundbite, one quote and we know all we need to know. Within a moment we know the truth of a situation and can safely jump to judgment. She is evil. He is a thug. She is a moron. He is a bigot.
A Case in Point
This has become the norm. This was proven again with the recent flap over the Covington Catholic school boys in Washington DC. One picture circulated the web, and everyone knew exactly what was going on. Within hours the young man’s face was spread around the globe and he was found guilty in the Rorschach test of public opinion. Twitter had spoken; this was worthy of being covered as global news. It was seized upon and pushed by a media that is desperately playing to the pay-for-clicks reality of their profession, and so will thrust forward any headline that sounds sensational and will satisfy the appetite of a society that feeds on the confirmation bias of stories that support what they already wish to believe. Yes, we have become a society that sees what we believe—even if it’s not there.
Let me tell you what I’m not doing. I’m not taking the side of anyone in this incident. This is not even about that incident. The Covington controversy is just another example in a disturbing trend. I’m not telling you what to feel, and you may feel a lot in cases like this. I’m not saying that we should not stand up to injustice or unfair treatment when we see it.
What I am saying is that as Christians we must let our minds and actions be trained by the word of God and not by the society around us. Were the young Catholic boys guilty and deserving of public shame? Were they guilty of everything they were initially accused of? It certainly seems now that the situation was much more complex than first thought. Just as many rushed to demonize them, it is true that many rushed in to defend them before they knew all the facts. I must also admit that these young men were given the benefit of the doubt by many people much quicker than if it was a different group of young men in their shoes. But how others would or would not have been treated in a similar situation is not the point either.
It’s Not Just the World’s Problem
What I’m talking about here is the rush to judgment and punishment. Before we even know the facts, the verdict was in. It was decided by many that their lives should be ruined. Sadly, we can’t just pin this one on the “world.” I went on social media and saw numerous examples of disciples of Jesus Christ from across the country spreading this story and calling the young man from Covington Catholic, “disgusting,” “horrible,” “racist,” “atrocious,” and more. (Let me point out that while this incident is an American controversy, this is not just an American issue.)
It would seem that Christians often jump to judgment as quickly as the world does. These young men were tried in the court of public opinion and many of us piled on because something in the story triggered us. Those triggers may be real, but does that give us the right to behave like the world around us? Others may have been unjustly treated in the same manner or far worse in the past. Okay, but does that justify ungodly behavior now? Those boys were insensitive or displaying bigotry. Maybe, but does that behavior now push someone outside of the bounds of God’s mercy and love or is it okay to judge and hate in that situation because you’ve “seen that look before.”
Let’s slow down for a moment. Now, I know not all of us are guilty of doing this. It’s safe to say that most of us are not guilty. But we cannot pretend that this proclivity to rush to judgment is not a problem in the body of Christ.
As is often the case, more information came in and indeed things do seem a little more complicated than first thought. It was a chaotic situation and there is likely plenty of blame to go around to everyone involved. That’s not always the case, but it was in this situation. There, are many times when people have prejudged a person or situation, ruined their lives, and then cared very little when the facts turned out differently than initially thought.
My point is not to get into the complicated details of any one situation. The details of this case and which side subsequently rushed to judgment are frankly irrelevant. I could easily offer less controversial examples to make the case. Just this morning, a picture of LeBron James sitting on the end of the bench alone during a game with a three-chair gap between himself and the next teammate was all we needed. Within hours, the picture was everywhere. LeBron is hated by his teammates. I’ve already seen at least four news stories this morning on that picture and observed it having been shared on social media by at least a dozen people that I know. Never mind that LeBron has a special padded chair for previous injuries that sits at the end of the bench, or that a teammate was sitting next to him but was checking into the game. Never mind that just a few minutes later, teammates were next to him. A narrative was created around one still shot and the Rorschach mentality was in full effect. This is a trend in our culture that we as disciples seem to be slowly allowing to creep into our own hearts.
And that’s my concern; that many Christians have seemingly embraced the emotional Rorschach effect that has gripped much of the world.
Are We Still Listening to the Bible?
Have we forgotten that Proverbs 18:17 guides us that the first one to state their case seems right, until someone else comes forward with another viewpoint? Have we minimized the call to be ministers of reconciliation? Have we failed to come to grips with the truth that “the one who has shown no mercy will be judged without mercy? Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13 ISV).
Have we lost sight of 1 Peter 1:13 (ISV) which says, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep a clear head, and set your hope completely on the grace to be given you when Jesus, the Messiah, is revealed.”?
Peter suggests three important reactions that should be practiced by followers of Christ until it becomes habitual. First, he says, prepare you minds for action. Don’t get taken off guard. Things will happen unexpectedly. Seemingly shocking things will come across your screen. Will you fly off the handle or have you trained yourself to respond in a thoughtful and kingdom-focused manner?
Second, keep a clear head. Don’t get swept along by the emotional outrage culture of today. Train yourself to look at things from the viewpoint of the resurrection rather than those whose hope is rooted solely in what they perceive as justice and comfort in the present age. Being called to love your enemies, for example, means that there are bigger things at play than just giving into anger and disgust at those who we feel deserve it. And by the way, it is never okay, for a Christian to pile on in attempts to destroy someone because we disagree with them. Jesus called for Roman soldiers who were humiliating and oppressing fellow Jews to be treated better than that (Matthew 5:41).
Finally, he says, set your hope completely on the grace given to us in Jesus and the coming resurrection. That must be our focus. The world has different priorities. The priority of disciples is to demonstrate the kingdom of God in every action we take, every word we say, and every post we make. If our responses look and sound just like the world’s, then where is the alternative hope of God’s kingdom? We’ve all flown off the handle before and responded emotionally at times, God knows I have. But we’ve got to do better. We must strive to display God’s kingdom and not our emotions or preferences. That doesn’t mean that we don’t ever confront injustice or evil. That’s not what this is about. This is about the rush to judgment and our role in the world as image bearers.
The next time we see one of these controversial stories in the news, let’s take Peter’s advice. Be prepared for this. Keep our heads. And carefully and prayerfully think about how we can display the kingdom of God to all sides and not just become a water carrier for the various non-kingdom agendas of the world. Let’s put down the Rorschach mentality and pick up God’s word to let it guide us.
Rabbit Hole! – Stop! Cease! Desist! Flee! Avoid at all costs! The old saying, “going down the rabbit hole” essentially means to follow negative thinking patterns until we are swallowed up in the quagmire of negative thinking. This depth of negative thinking produces negative feelings, then negative behavior and can ultimately take us down into the pit of depression. Just telling ourselves or others to stop it doesn’t get the job done. Saying “You shouldn’t feel that way” is an exercise in futility, and in some cases borders on cruelty. They already know it’s wrong and that they should stop it. Therein lies the challenge of stopping such thinking patterns.
As a Man Thinketh in His Heart…
On a positive note, if we can reverse the pattern and think positive thoughts, we can enjoy positive feelings and positive actions. Interestingly, we have often misused a passage of Scripture to demonstrate this positive pattern. While the positive thinking principle is accurate (the reverse of rabbit hole thinking), the passage used doesn’t mean quite what we think.
As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he and so will he become – a biblical truth based on Proverbs 23:7, or so we assume. Here it is in the classic wording of the King James Version: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). That is only half the verse, and the KJV is not the best translation to begin with. Here is the more accurate New American Standard Bible rendition of the whole verse: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is. He says to you, ‘Eat and drink!’ But his heart is not with you.” The verse thus describes a deceptive person who says the right things to your face but in his heart harbors malice. The context demonstrates this point very well. Read it. Philippians 4:8 is a far better verse to use in explaining the accurate principle, and we will examine this verse and its context in the next segment of this two-part article.
But back to avoiding the rabbit hole – how can it be done? We really need the answer, don’t we? If we are honest with ourselves, many of us are plagued by negative thought processes, especially about our own lives and those of our loved ones. We are raised in a society where negative thinking far surpasses positive thinking. Bad news sells, and that is what the media thrives on – to an alarming degree. Many of us grew up in families where negative thinking was the order of the day (most days).
What – Me Paranoid?
Having a negative thought is one thing; dwelling on it causes that thought to multiply into a whole host of other similar thoughts. If we catch ourselves quickly enough, we can stay out of the rabbit hole, but that’s much easier said than done. Once in a ministry staff meeting in a foreign country, I was describing the dangers of negative thought processes, and made the statement that we often play out bad scenes in our minds that are based on no more than our own fears and imaginations. One brother quickly said, “I don’t just play out scenes; I play the whole movie over and over in my mind!” My wife has often told me that I imagine worst case scenarios and then experience the same emotions that would accompany the real thing had it actually occurred. Sadly, I think she is right. I have frequently been a rabbit hole thinker for most of my life. I can say that such thinking patterns ran in my family, which is true, but that doesn’t make it less damaging.
Rabbit hole thinking is a form of paranoia, and several forms of paranoia are found in my family of origin on the maternal side. Among these forms would be hypochondria, and its accompanying twin, psychosomatic symptoms and ills. Anxiety attacks are often a part of this particular cycle. I learned early on to avoid reading about the symptoms of diseases, because I could develop them within minutes. Thankfully, I also learned how to handle this tendency reasonably well, which I won’t take the time to describe here.
And then you have the apocalyptic paranoia, in which conspiracy theories abound. The world is surely about to go up in smoke! I could say more, but I’ve already exposed enough of the weirdness of my family tree and of myself in the process! Rabbit hole thinking takes many forms and it leads to something other than reality. It is worry gone awry. In that regard, I once said to an elder’s wife decades ago that her pattern of worrying about everything didn’t make sense because the old adage says that 95% of what we worry about never comes true anyway. “Precisely the point,” said she, “just think how my worrying helps keep so much from happening!” Funny, but not really funny. Negative thinking does not come from God, and that leaves only one other choice as to its source. So, how can we stop it?
A Book That Might Help
The field of psychotherapy aimed at helping with such negative life patterns is called “cognitive therapy.” It is based on the concept that the way a person thinks and feels, then affects the way they behave. These effects of going down the rabbit hole are undisputedly accurate. How to stop the pattern is the real issue.
Years ago, a psychologist friend recommended a book written by a cognitive therapist. The book was “The Feeling Good Handbook” by David Burns. It was a long book and contained some very good insights into how humans think and process that thinking. Here are a few highlights from my reading of the book, including how we think and how to effect change in our thinking. You may find these highlights very helpful – if you are willing to spend the necessary time in seeking to first understand them and then putting his recommended exercise into practice consistently. It involves a two-part process described next.
Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking
- All-or-nothing thinking − If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure.
- Overgeneralization − You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.
- Mental filter − You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.
- Discounting the positive.
- Jumping to conclusions − You interpret things negatively when there are not facts to support your conclusion. There are two basic types of “jumping” —Mind reading − you assume the negatives that they may be thinking; and,Fortune-telling − you predict that things will turn out badly.
- Magnification − You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities.
- Emotional reasoning − You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.
- “Should statements” − You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. “Should statements” that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration.
- Labeling − Labeling is an extreme form of the all-or-nothing thinking. You may also label others, leaving you feeling hostile and hopeless about improving things.
- Personalization and blame − Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Some people do just the opposite, blaming other people or their circumstances and overlooking ways that they might be contributing to the problem.
Daily Mood Log
- Describe the upsetting event in your own words.
- Record your negative feelings about it.
- Write out your negative thoughts and estimate your belief in each one on a scale of 1-10.
- Identify the distortion in each automatic thought using the forms of twisted thinking.
- Substitute more realistic thoughts and estimate your belief in each one on a scale of 1-10.
- Final outcome – re-rate your belief in each automatic thought (1-10) and circle the phrase that best describes how you feel now:
- Not at all better
- Somewhat better
- Quite a bit better
- A lot better
While I found the book to be helpful in some cases, it didn’t seriously affect my long-term thinking patterns. I won’t blame that on the book but accept the possibility that my own failure to stick with the recommended Daily Mood Log process was the cause. I think that Burns’ approach could be helpful especially in cases where we are at a loss to figure out what is bothering us. I have written a journaling piece (just for me) with several iterations, entitled, “What in the World is Bugging Me Now?” Perhaps Burns’ approach would have helped me at least figure out the answer to the question posed in the title. I have found that prayer walks (speaking out loud to God) have been helpful in identifying the root causes of a confused psyche, and journaling has been even more helpful.
If you are a rabbit hole thinker, give the ideas I gleaned from Burns a try. They just might help you. I know that they ring true to me in principle as a way of helping identify wrong thinking. How much they help in making a permanent break with faulty thinking will likely vary from person to person. I do believe they are worth a try. However, about a year ago, I discovered another very practical approach that has helped me the most. This is described in Part 2, so keep reading!
Avoiding the Rabbit Hole — Part 2
In the first part of this series, we hopefully identified what “rabbit hole” thinking is and gave some practical solutions to consider applying, notably some ideas I gleaned years ago from David Burns’ book, the “Feeling Good Handbook.” This present article will focus on a practical technique I discovered in December of 2017 that has helped me far more than I expected at its beginning. In the first article, I was honest about my own inner struggles with negative thinking, a process that has significantly affected my emotions and my actions. But as promised, this second part will describe my discovery of what has proved to be a much more effective thinking path, for me at least.
Am I an Actor?
Like most of us, a lot of my faulty thinking is kept under lock and key, and although it definitely affects my feelings, it is observable by others fairly seldom (I think). Seen one way, I “fake it” and act better than I feel. (Don’t most of us?) Viewed a more positive way, I try to do what I believe God wants me to do in spite of how I feel. Obedience to him is never wrong. There is definitely some credence to the idea that it is easier to act yourself into a better way of feeling than it is to try and feel yourself into a better way of acting.
Of course, if we are always “acting” and not dealing with underlying negative thinking and feelings to the contrary, we could accurately be called a hypocrite, a play-actor. Folks who aren’t at least trying hard to change bad thinking and emotions can’t remain hidden forever. They don’t strike us as the “real deal.” We may not know what is wrong with them, but we do sense that something is amiss. I assume they sense the same in us when we allow ourselves to remain in a bad place for too long.
Hopefully we will love them enough to ask them the right questions and start trying to help them by essentially helping them to help themselves. Hopefully others will love us enough to ask us the right questions and start helping us to help ourselves. They, or we, may well be struggling with what we are calling rabbit hole thinking, and this thinking/feeling/acting process needs to be interrupted and solutions sought. Others can call our attention to the need for help and start the ball rolling, but gaining that help is ultimately between us and God.
A Very Helpful Passage
Of course, for years I have taught against negative thinking and in favor of positive thinking. Here is my favorite passage in that regard, one that I have preached on many times. It is chock-full of practical principles about the right kind of “mind control.”
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, 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. 9 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.
Here are a few quick reminders of the more obvious practical principles found in the passage:
- Verse 4 – Decide to rejoice in spite of the circumstances; it is a command and thus a decision that can be made.
- Verse 5 – Stay calm and trust that the Lord is nearby just waiting to help you rejoice.
- Verse 6 – Don’t be anxious about anything, but pray about everything. And don’t forget to give thanks for past blessings, for the past is the key to the present and future. If God has gotten you through your past challenges, why would he stop now?
- Verse 7 – God has a peace to give you that is better felt than told; you just need to claim it by following what he is saying here.
- Verse 8 – The specific type of thinking that keeps you out of rabbit holes and in the peace that God provides.
- Verse 9 – Hang around spiritual people and imitate them; God and peace will always be nearby when you follow these principles.
Much more could be gleaned from this passage, but I will leave that up to you. It is a grand passage on which to meditate – often! But again, for me the question was not in simply knowing what was right regarding my thinking patterns, but rather in how to consistently practice what I knew to be right. Based on verse 8 in the above passage, I have often encouraged the concept of quickly changing one’s mind when negative thinking first enters it. And I knew that such thinking had to be replaced with better thinking, for our minds cannot stop thinking about something. My oft-used illustration was that instead of thinking about a black cow (negatives), start thinking about a white horse (positives). But my failure to find a more complete and effective way to do this was due to not discovering a specific path to follow out of the maze.
The approach I discovered seemed at first to be too simplistic to actually work – but it did and has continued to work for the past year. I have described it to a number of individuals and a few days ago, one of them wrote to ask for the details again. He said that the approach had helped him initially, but now the details involved were getting a bit hazy in his memory. His request led me to write this article and the one that preceded it.
A Real Rabbit Hole
Last December a year ago, I was spending a few days by myself at what we call our “camp.” It is a little house across the street from a lake about a hundred miles from our main residence in the Dallas area. I found this place while renting a small guest house of a couple who are now our lake neighbors. Long ago in my writing career, I discovered that being alone in a solitary place with a good view of nature provided the most conducive writing situation possible. From time to time through the years when doing very concentrated writing, I have rented such places in remote hotels or similar locations. Finding our own such place at a surprisingly low price (it is remote!) has been a wonderful blessing. Most of my writing takes place here, and this article is no exception.
But back to the story. I was here alone doing some writing last December and in the midst of it, doing a lot of soul searching and praying. I recognized that I was not in a good spiritual place, in that negative thinking was proving almost impossible to escape, especially in a few specific areas. I’m not sure exactly what they were, but I suspect aging and death were on the list (they often are, especially at my age). I happened to walk around the back of our lake place and when glancing under a little porch, saw a sizable hole in the ground. I’m not sure what type animals are using it to crawl under our house, but for some reason, “rabbit hole” popped into my mind. It gave me a name for my recent thinking processes, and even provided a visual to use in my then newly discovered solution.
As I went on my early morning prayer walk, the pieces of this puzzle I am about to describe fell into place very quickly. Let me warn you that it may be challenging to take these pieces seriously, precisely because it all seems too simple. It is simple, but in the spiritual realm, simple rarely means easy. Here are the basics of my process.
Say It, Say It!
When negative thoughts start entering my mind, I actually say (out loud if I am alone, otherwise to myself): Rabbit Hole – Stop! Rabbit Hole – Stop! At this point, I immediately seek a diversion in my thinking. I make a quick choice as to whether I need to employ what I call “escape thinking” or “spiritual thinking” for that diversion. That choice depends on the type of subject matter entering my mind and the emotional impact it is having on me. It will also depend on my location at the time. For example, if I am out and about, diversions are readily available in what I simply look at and start thinking about. That would be the escape type thinking to simply divert me from black cow thinking and on to white horse thinking. On the other hand, if I am alone or awake in the middle of the night, I have to figure out the type of diversion needed and available, taking into consideration how much my emotions are being aroused. The more alone I am and the more emotional the subject entering my mind, the more spiritual the diversion will need to be. Here are some ideas for initiating white horse thinking in each of the two realms:
Simple Diversions (All used only after a quick reminder, “RABBIT HOLE – STOP!” and a brief prayer of surrender.)
- If out and about, just looking at other things and thinking about them can provide the needed diversion – people, houses, cars, trees, animals, clouds, etc.
- If alone and stationary, then playing games on my phone or on the computer always helps to some degree in breaking the downward spiral into dysfunctional thinking.
- I have pictured playing a familiar golf course from the past when I still played golf, but that could be done with imagined scenes from fishing or driving or walking or anything else that would help me think about something besides my problems.
- Trying to remember names of people or financial issues or a variety of other things works too, especially now with my short-term memory being more challenging. Almost any kind of thinking about details is good for aging brains!
- I’m sure with time, I will think of other ideas that I already in fact use but don’t now remember, or I will figure out new ways of diverting me from the rabbit hole thinking. You and I both can break our old, bad habits of negative thinking and replace it with something much better, even if only intended for a temporary diversion from negativity. Enough diversions enable better patterns to begin developing.
- Bible passages – either the content of some or quoting them directly (hence the value of memorizing the most appropriate verses for the things that normally get to me emotionally).
- Bible concepts – thinking of how certain principles apply or could apply to me, and how they might apply to others.
- The latter application leads into thinking of possible ideas for teaching or preaching, whether a sermon, article or a possible book.
- Another idea would be to think of Bible characters and the stories about them in the Scriptures.
- Spiritual songs – a wonderful soul-comforting builder of my faith and a readily available diversion most of the time. I keep a thumb drive in both of our cars filled with my favorite spiritual songs and my computer and headphones are always nearby when at home or at the camp.
- Obviously, simply praying can help at any time and sometimes, I must fall on my knees alone to pray more urgently and earnestly. But those latter times actually don’t come that often once our thinking patterns start to go in better directions. Waking up worried in the middle of the night may well be one of those latter times, by the way.
Not Stuffing Emotions
Neither of these diversion lists is intended to be exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of others that may be more helpful to you, but these provide some good suggestions with which to begin. I’ve been very surprised at how effective this approach has been in helping me break out of rabbit hole thinking in real time, and how effective it has been in helping my overall thought patterns change. Some might be wondering if I am advocating stuffing our feelings. It’s a question worth asking, but the answer is no. I don’t stuff my negative feelings, although some should just be diverted and forgotten. Others need more examination, and if they involve real problems, solutions should be sought. I can sense pretty quickly which problem areas are real and which are simply worldly anxieties. The former I mentally put in my “prayer box” and save them until later, usually for my morning prayer walks and journaling on my computer.
If those real problems involve only my personal thought processes, I surrender them to God and later pray and contemplate possible solutions when I open my prayer box. If those problems involve other people about whom I am concerned, I pray about them and when it seems appropriate (after seeking God’s guidance), I contact them or someone close to them to see what I can do to help beyond prayer. As you can see, I don’t avoid dealing with real problems – quite the contrary. But I don’t allow those problems to interrupt me and take on a life of their own by invading my thinking and setting up camp for the day (or days). I take charge of my thinking and thinking schedule, in other words.
When my thoughts start speeding up my heartbeat and raising my blood pressure, even a little, it’s time to say (loudly): Rabbit Hole – Stop! Rabbit Hole – Stop! And then after a quick prayer of surrender, I quickly decide what merits being mentally placed in my prayer box for later and then it’s on to a diversion that works at the time. This funny little approach has helped me put passages like Philippians 4 into practice like never before. It may seem a bit of an odd approach to you, but considering that it has helped me seriously change a lifetime habit of going down the rabbit hole for a year now, I suggest that you try it. Let me know if it works for you!
Avoiding the Rabbit Hole — Part 3
I wrote what I initially intended to be a two-part series. However, I had a hunch that something else might end up in the pipeline. Whenever you write an article giving advice and using yourself as a positive example, one thing is relatively certain: you are going to be tested, and tested soon. For decades, I have taught and written about the need to have a surrendered faith. The second book I wrote was “The Victory of Surrender,” with the first edition published back in 1995. However, I had taught many lessons about surrender prior to writing about it. A point I always made was that deciding to surrender and committing that decision to the Lord meant that a test was likely to come shortly thereafter. (Please don’t view that as a negative! It is of God for our good.) Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and temptation – right after his baptism.
That same principle works when we give spiritual advice with ourselves as the example of how it should work. Just before I posted the second article about avoiding the rabbit hole of going down the whirlpool of negative thinking, my tests came: three in one day. One only involved me and the remaining two involved other people with whom I have close relationships and concerns about. I caught myself starting to go down that rabbit hole a number of times, but then did what I wrote about. Rabbit hole – Stop! Rabbit hole – Stop! Then I used some of the diversions in thinking described in the second article. It worked, but it wasn’t easy. The things tempting me to go down the rabbit hole were emotional-laden things.
As I took these things out of my prayer box the next morning to address them with God, I decided to journal about a them. Writing is a very helpful process to use in both identifying and controlling troubling thoughts. My very spiritual wife, Theresa, has written her prayers down on paper for years, virtually every day. By her own admission, she is not as in touch with her emotions as I am and writing for her is a must in her mind. In earlier years, I thought (and said) that since I was in touch with my emotions, prayer walks in which I talked aloud to God would be sufficient. Most of the time they were. In spite of that, Theresa would occasionally remind me that she believed I was missing out by not writing my prayers down. I wasn’t a good listener.
Becoming a Journaler
Then around the time of our October birthdays, in 1998, we went to a Bed and Breakfast in Nantucket for two or three nights. It was designed to be a getaway to read a book about improving our marriage and work on making improvement a reality. Once checked in, we had a significant relationship “bump” within the first hour. As usual, it was mostly me and this one was bigger than the norm for us. It was surprisingly disturbing to me emotionally. To say it was an overreaction on my part would be a nice way to put it. We talked it through that same evening and were reasonably resolved, she more than me. The next morning, I went on a long prayer walk to figure out why I overreacted. It didn’t work; no solution was forthcoming. Nor did a couple more prayer walks the next day or two help identify or solve my confusion. I was not only perplexed; I was still disturbed emotionally.
Then came the ferry boat ride back to Cape Cod as the first segment of our return home. The date was October 29, because the large TV screen on the boat was showing John Glenn’s space shuttle blast-off with him as the oldest person ever to enter space at age 77. I did watch the launch, which was exciting, but for the next two hours I was typing earnestly on my laptop. I was doing what my wife had suggested for years, journaling with God. It was a wonderfully helpful endeavor. God used it to help me get my confused thinking and feelings sorted out. It was like a birthday of sorts, a beginning point for me becoming a regular journaler (my spell check resisted the term, but it is legitimate).
Inserting a Second Step
I have written previously about my almost daily gratitude journaling, something I started near the beginning of this year (2018) in imitation of something my good friend, Mark Mancini, said he was doing. But as I wrote after my recent testing time, my journaling was more like the one on that ferry boat 20 years ago. However, it was different, in that I wasn’t trying to sort out my thinking and feeling; I was trying to find better ways of looking at those three things that were disturbing me. Often just identifying my issues, followed by surrendering them in prayer, does the trick. I sensed that I needed to do something different and perhaps learn something new that could help me, and even help others. Ultimately, I suppose it still involves surrender, but as a third step and not a second one.
I began thinking about questions that I could ask myself that might help me look at the troubling situations more spiritually. Here are some questions that came to mind (and cautions with them):
- What are the facts here – not possibilities, assumptions, or feelings – but concrete facts?
- How might I look at these facts in a different way than normal, looking at possibilities that they are not as bad as they seem due to faulty interpretation of them on my part?
- What are the other possibilities other than the one you are quick to assume (which may well be a worst-case scenario)?
- Do I have all of the related information about these facts that might make them less serious than I might otherwise assume?
- Even if the facts are as bad as they seem to be, how might God be planning to use them for my good and for the good of others involved in the scenarios? With him, short-term pain is almost always a part of the long-term gain that he provides.
- Regarding the two issues that involve the problems of others who are close to me relationally, should I just recognize that everyone has to make their own choices and decide on their own responses, and that such is beyond my control? And, those choices and the consequences that follow are their responsibility, not mine. (I think that is about how God deals with us humans, isn’t it?)
- All in all, just how likely is it that I am weighing these situations more heavily than the facts I know right now warrant?
I’m sure you can think of additional questions, but we need to start questioning our questions a lot more than we do and doubting our doubts more than we do. If we proceed a step at a time based on what we do actually know to be factual, we can avoid coming to conclusions that are simply assumptions based on fears. Looking for the positive possibilities is a good exercise. I thought of an illustration I read years ago, written by the old commentator of yesteryear, Matthew Henry. Upon being robbed, he sought to do what I’m trying to describe here.
Here is his quote: ““Let me be thankful, first, because he never robbed me before; second, because although he took my purse, he did not take my life; third, because although he took all I possessed, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.” Almost all things we view as bad could have been worse, and if looked at in a positive light, they might well be good.
An Enjoyable Process!
The day those three challenges came, my diversions worked in keeping me from going down the rabbit hole. Journaling the following morning about those concerns that I had locked in my prayer box overnight then helped me gain a more realistic perspective about them, and then led to their surrender. Perhaps this is somewhat repetitive of what I wrote in the first two segments about avoiding the rabbit hole. Even if true, it is yet another way of looking at the principles that work to keep us out of that dreaded chasm of negative thinking gone to seed. I’ve enjoyed the process and enjoyed describing it for your consideration. Negative thinking can be diverted and dealt with successfully, and more importantly, negative thinking patterns can be replaced with much better ones. Let’s stay on God’s paths in our thinking and doing. They never lead to rabbit holes!