Issue 2 Fall 2013

Mind Your Heart

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Shortreads

The Cure for Anxiety

Steve L. Porter


What Jesus has to say about worry

Recently I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount and I had to stop and chuckle. I got to the passage where Jesus is teaching not to worry about food, water, and clothing (Matthew 6:25–34), and I noticed for the first time that the editors of the New American Standard Bible entitled that section: “The Cure for Anxiety.” That’s quite a claim. I thought to myself: Does Jesus possess the cure for anxiety? If so, a lot of psychologists and drug companies are in trouble!

 

As I continued reading with that title in mind, I saw more clearly that Jesus does present a way of making worry a pointless hangover from a former way of viewing our lives. Jesus’ central point is this: “Do not worry … for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (6:31, 32). The idea is that our Father knows what we truly need, he highly values us, and he competently cares for those he values. As we learn to immerse ourselves in that reality—to seek first God’s rule in our lives—anxiety will be a diminishing concern. It’s not that things won’t go wrong (that is never promised). But in light of our loving, competent Father’s care, even in the face of life’s severest challenges, we can relax.

Nonetheless, we all worry. If not about food, clothing, and water, then probably about mortgage payments, what people think of us, how our kids will turn out, our health, and so on. Jesus, it seems, was well aware of this. In the midst of his teaching regarding the cure for anxiety, Jesus exhibits his own psychological realism: “O ye of little faith,” he says (6:30). Jesus knows that immersing ourselves into the rule and reign of God is easier said than done. All of us, to varying degrees, are firmly habituated to seek all sorts of other ways of caring for ourselves as a means of dealing with worry rather than a firm and utter reliance on the resources of God’s kingdom. So it turns out that the psychologists and drug companies are not out of business yet, even amongst those who know of Jesus’ cure. For we too are of little faith, and we need all the help we can get to grow into a deeper, more constant confidence that God is with us and for us in a manner that makes worry pointless. There is much theory and research within contemporary psychology that can help us understand the way forward in developing the kind of trust and dependence that the Christian life requires.

This is one of many examples where the interplay of psychology and theology can assist us in minding our hearts. Throughout church history, Christians have engaged the best psychology of their times to more fully understand how to address the emotional, relational, cognitive, and developmental issues that arise in human life. In light of this long history of reflection, here at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought we are extremely excited about our 2013–14 theme “Psychology and Spiritual Formation.” In this issue of The Table, you will find a variety of thinkers and scholars interacting with just a few of the fascinating ways in which the Christian wisdom tradition and contemporary psychology can be brought into conversation to further our understanding of what it means to become conformed to the image of Christ as we seek to be Christ to those who are in need.

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Shortreads

Loved, Safe, No Need to Fear

Phileena Heuertz


The power of contemplative prayer

What drives you? Why do you do the things you do? In essence, who are you? Our sense of self is shaped by many factors—family dynamics, culture, and religion to name a few.

Biological Needs for Security

One of my teachers, Thomas Keating (the founder of “Centering Prayer”), reminds us that our biological needs actually have a big influence on who we are—or perhaps more accurately, who we’re not.

From the moment we’re born we experience primordial needs for affection, security, and control. It’s perfectly natural. We need positive reinforcement that helps us know we are loved, safe, that there’s nothing to fear.

The Innate Need for Love

As infants we have an innate need to experience love—without it, we wither. If we don’t feel safe, our development is further impaired. And without some sense of control, the world is something to fear. But like Scripture teaches us, at some point it’s time to grow up. Problem is, we often don’t know how. So we cling to what Keating refers to as our “programs for happiness.”

As adults, our basic childhood needs for affection, security, and control now entrap us—we are held captive to gratifying our needs. Satisfying our needs has become a program in our minds that betrays us. We are adults, behaving like children, begging people and circumstances of life to help us know we are loved, safe, and don’t need to be afraid. And so we unconsciously take from the world around us to feed a need that God alone can satisfy. And time and again, people and circumstance fail us, disrupting our happiness. We are slaves to our programs for happiness and need to be set free—free to make a conscious choice for God, self, and others.

The Peacemaker

Take me for example. I am the only daughter, the middle child between two brothers—a classic setup to assume the role of peacemaker in the family, which I did. I tended to the needs of my immediate family as a child, then the needs of my immediate circle of friends as a teenager, and then the needs of my co-workers in my young adult years. I didn’t think twice about it. Nothing wrong with being a peacemaker. It’s a good thing. But the motivation behind it was often distorted. Unconsciously I was habitually satiating my need for affection. I needed to be needed to feel loved. A subtle form of exploitation—using someone else to gratify my need for affection and desire to feel loved.

Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative prayer cuts to the heart of our unconscious motivations. By yielding our mind, heart, and body to God in regular contemplative practice, these deeply ingrained programs for happiness loosen their grip, allowing us to grow up.

When we let go—through prayer—into the God who alone can meet our every need, we are freed from our compulsions to satiate our own needs. From a place of liberation, we can then give and receive freely. Being transformed through contemplative prayer, we take on the mind of Christ—we live more often from a place of knowing that we are loved, safe, and have no need to fear. We receive from the Source and from the Source we give to the world.

Who are we? We are not our needs for affection, security, and control. As Jesus so desperately tried to help us realize, we are children of God—totally loved, totally safe, without need to be afraid.  

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Shortreads

I Want to Know God and the Soul

John Coe


Guarding one's heart as the path to life

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23). In these words, the Old Testament educational literature makes a sweeping indictment against the educational model of the twentieth century. It is good to know something about science, history, geography, math, and literature. But the central task of a robust, wise education, parenting, and of life itself is to mind one’s heart: to guard it, to care for it, to search it out with God, to understand and open to the truth of its pains, sins, virtues, and need for change with oneself, God, and others. For from the heart all the issues and ways of our lives will pour forth. Augustine sums up this wisdom well in his Soliloquies, where he dialogues with Reason:

Reason: What do you desire to know?

Augustine: I want to know God and the soul.

Reason: Nothing more?

Augustine: Nothing at all.

This is where theology, psychology, and philosophy meet in the most important of all discussions. God help us transform our university, our preaching, our families and our journeys through this life.

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Shortreads

The Effects of Forgiveness and Resentment on the Heart

Everett Worthington, Jr.


Dr. Everett Worthington discusses the two main types of forgiveness, and he gives practical advice about how to forgive.

I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m going to talk like a psychologist for a minute. I’m not always like this. Sometimes, I’m an actual human. I experience injustices like we all do, and I respond emotionally. When I talk about those experiences to my wife, children, or friends, I use terms like injustice, transgression, unforgiveness, resentment, bitterness, grudge, and vengeance imprecisely. But, when I speak as a psychologist, I distinguish among those terms because those fine distinctions can help people deal with injustices and feelings of resentment and bitterness.

“I Forgive You”

If a person says the words, “I forgive you,” instinctively you know that saying is not doing. The person could be setting you up to stab you in the back. So, when you hear those words, you immediately try to discern his or her internal state. This should suggest that forgiveness is something that happens inside a person’s skin—within their own inner psychology. The internal experiences that we call forgiveness can be manifest in relationships—and we might think that they should be manifest in relationships—but the saying should not be equated with forgiving.

Read Jesus’s words about forgiving: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors … For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:12, 14-5; RSV). We often forgive people who harm or offend us—perhaps even seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven—i.e., every time). But we are dismayed when, the next time we see the person—or even think about the person—we still experience resentment, anger, anxiety, or bitterness, and perhaps even hold a grudge. In short, we feel unforgiveness. How can we forgive and still experience unforgiveness? Those seem incompatible. Yet, as we all know, somehow we often find ourselves snared in that paradox.

Decisional vs. Emotional Forgiveness

Actually, there seem to be two types of forgiveness, masked by the poverty of English language as one word. What I call decisional forgiveness is a sincere behavioral intention statement that says, “I have decided to treat this offender as a person of value, whom God loves—even if the person has rejected God.” Thus, we can choose to forgive and reorient our intentions toward the person. Yet, decisions can happen fast relative to the change of our emotions. A person can forgive (decisionally) and yet experience incomplete emotional forgiveness. Emotional forgiveness occurs through the emotional replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love for the offender. Replacing emotions is usually slow work.

A person who feels resentment is stirred up emotionally and thinks negatively toward the offender. But, when a person holds a grudge, usually the person is not just feeling negative toward the offender but either is plotting vengeance or payback, or is hoping (scarcely admitting that to himself or herself, or even to God) that bad tidings will befall the offender.

To Forgive Is Human

The ability to forgive is part of the imago Dei, which though corrupted by the fall is still part of common grace—just as rational thinking, self-control, and love are available (albeit imperfectly) to all humans. To forgive is human, yet redeemed humans have divine help that can lend a supernatural impetus to forgiving. Even though Scripture admonishes us to forgive, it does not instruct us how to do it, other than to rely on the power, grace, and mercy of God. The how-to of forgiveness is more a product of God’s general revelation. We can study the book of nature—and that is just what Christian psychologists try to do—to find out how we might better forgive.

Reaching Toward Forgiveness

Forgiving is like building a pillar of concrete to support a structure. God supplies the “concrete” of lasting forgiveness. But Christians (and others) can supply wooden forms that shape the concrete into a pillar. The forms I teach are called the REACH Forgiveness method. REACH is an acrostic in which the five letters stand for five steps (see my Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope, InterVarsity Press, 2003).

 

mind your heart reach only

 

mind your heart acorn

R stands for RECALL THE HURT—without blaming the offender or focusing on how much impairment one has suffered due to the offense. Rather, recall the hurt in a way that will allow EMOTIONAL REPLACEMENT—that’s the E. To emotionally replace the unforgiveness by positive other-oriented emotions, try to respond empathically, seeing things from the other person’s point of view. We have all offended and hurt others, yet we rarely think, Today, I’ll ruin someone’s life. Rather, we have good intentions, but they just go wrong in the enactment. The same is usually true of people who hurt us. Usually they started out thinking they could help, but it didn’t work out that way. Sometimes, of course, people do want to harm us, so then sympathy is more appropriate. We can feel sorry for a person who could get to the point of intending and enacting harm. Perhaps we can even muster up compassion or agape love for that person.

A is an ALTRUISTIC GIFT—not a purely self-interested gift—of forgiveness. It’s okay to want to forgive someone because holding the grudge is making us miserable. This is similar to wanting to know Jesus because it is a blessing to us. But we have found that, when people also want to forgive others to free the offender from blame—to loose a spiritual stranglehold they have on the offender—then (ironically) people are even better able to forgive than when their primary motive is their own freedom from grudges.

C stands for the COMMITMENT TO THE FORGIVENESS YOU EXPERIENCE. We coach people to make a statement—even if it is just to write a forgiveness statement that no one ever sees except the writer (e.g., “Today, I have forgiven x, for doing y to me”). These statements help to solidify forgiveness.

Another reason for performing some public expression of forgiveness is so we can H, HOLD ON TO FORGIVENESS when we doubt that we have forgiven. We do often doubt our own forgiveness. When we see the recently forgiven person, we often experience a rush of anxiety and anger. We doubt that we’ve forgiven because of those emotions. When you burn your hand on a stove, and later move your hand near the stove again, your body will react in both anxiety and anger. It’s not that you haven’t forgiven the stove. It’s that your body is responding exactly like God designed it—to use the emotions of anxiety and anger to warn you of potential harm. Often that anxiety and anger is interpreted by people who have forgiven an offender as the failure of complete forgiveness. But that is misleading. We must remember the fact of our forgiveness.

Now consider a special case of forgiving: forgiving oneself. This is a special case, since it often mixes being an offender (someone who has done a moral harm to another or hurt another, even unintentionally) and being a forgiver. We can also forgive ourselves by applying the REACH Forgiveness model to ourselves. Of course that self-forgiveness needs to occur after we have responsibly sought forgiveness from God and tried to repair the social damage done by amends making.

The Negative Effects of Unforgiveness

Holding grudges and self-condemnation are not good for us. And this has been shown by numerous psychological scientists who have produced and reviewed much research. The results are clear. Unforgiveness, resentment, holding grudges, and bitterness are not good for our physical health. Neither is self-condemnation. Those sources of stress put people at risk for cardiovascular diseases and events (like strokes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, etc.). These emotional states can also compromise and dysregulate (i.e., impair) our immune systems resulting in lack of ability to fight off physical diseases of many types. And they elevate cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is good in responding to immediate stressors, but when it stays high—as it does when we are chronically unforgiving or self-condemning—then it affects virtually every physical system in our bodies. This includes shrinking our brains, affecting digestion, sexual drive and performance, circulation, and immune system.

Resentment and chronic self-condemnation often lead to rumination—replaying those old memories over like B-grade zombie movies in the late-late show of the mind. Rumination is related to many types of psychological problems: depression, anxiety, stress-related problems, anger control, and psychosomatic problems.

And these negative emotional stressors wreak havoc on relationships. Blaming others and finding faults can set couples, families, friends, or work relationships into a downward spiral of blame and resentment. And frequent self-blame and complaint can tire relationship partners and exhaust caregivers.

Finally, holding onto bitterness, resentment, and self-condemnation have severe effects in our religious and spiritual lives. Anger at God has a distancing effect, sending people who have dwelt comfortably as Christians for years into times of angry or lonely wandering. In a recent meta-analysis, our team of researchers found religion to be highly related to forgiveness of others but not so much to forgiveness of self. Spirituality, understood as a personal, close relationship to God (and other things like nature, humans, or transcendent experiences), was more closely related to self-forgiveness but less to forgiving others. The Lord wants us to forgive and not to hold resentment, grudges, and unforgiveness—toward others or toward ourselves. And He is always there, eager to work in us when we ask for forgiveness, and the help to forgive others.

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Interviews

Finite Sufferers: The Human Condition

An Interview with Todd Pickett


Dr. Todd Pickett discusses literature, spiritual growth, Christian psychology, and more.

The Table: Your work is deeply connected to human growth and formation. In your experience, how do people grow?

Todd Pickett: A book length response could only begin to do this question justice. I’ll say two things, however. First, we are relational beings, and we must be loved into change. Most of our sin and dysfunction has come from our defensive strategies, trying to secure ourselves in the absence of the deep belief that we are loved. And since only God can love us perfectly, that relationship is the deep center of our growth. Second, we need to see or construe the world truly at the deepest possible level, inscribing our worldview into our very bodies through the habits and practices we perform before God and within our communities (e.g., the church).

The Table: Your background is in Classics and English literature. What has a study of human thought and writing, old and new, taught you about the human condition?

TP: Finite sufferers. Those are the words that come to mind when I think of the human condition as framed through narratives—tales, novels, and poems. I think it was Kierkegaard who said we are finite creatures with an ability to imagine the infinite, whose pursuit of the ideal is always complicated and frustrated by our weakness and limits. As a result, we constantly feel the gap between our lives now and what we imagine they could be (I’m pretty sure my dog Winston doesn’t experience that). Add to this that we live in a web of life, where we must “suffer”—in the old sense of the word—all that happens around us and to us, from the powerful and tenacious formation that happens to us as children to the inevitable losses we experience as we age. Nearly all narratives, therefore, are U-shaped, where a character who woke up that day expecting to carry on with their agendas suddenly must “suffer” something or a series of things that takes him or her down a different direction—a father’s ghost returns (Hamlet), an inheritance comes out of nowhere (Great Expectations), a wizard comes to town (The Hobbit). How people “suffer” these kinds of events, how they struggle down through and emerge from them, is the arc of most stories. And this is rather like life, although life is certainly more complicated than the most complicated story. Whether that suffering can be redeemed depends upon the larger story of which I see myself a part. That’s where the paschal, metanarrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection comes in—itself a U-shaped narrative.

The Table:  How can the practice of reading and reflecting on great literature form the human heart?

TP: Stories are certainly trainings in desire, whatever else they may be (and that includes the mini-stories of a poem, metaphor, or image). They appeal to our imagination (the almost unconscious way that we “image” the world), which is arguably the basis of our desire. Stories that we feel capture us do so because they are resonating with our experience of the world, shaping how we construe the world in our deepest places—the heart.

The Table: What are some examples of literature (human or divine) that has changed you?

TP: For me, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov unpacks a world where shame and guilt drive much of human life, demonstrating that we must despair of ourselves if we are to really receive the gospel deeply. I think that’s true. In terms of more modern fiction and poetry, I would say Wendell Berry’s works show the goodness and beauty of a life lived simply and honestly, inspiring me to flee the madness of machines and consumerism. Have these works really changed me? I think that depends more on my response to the work—what I do when I close the book—than the work itself. I guess in Dallas Willard’s terms, they have given me “vision.” It remains to be seen whether I have the “intention” and actually follow the “means” by which transformation into that vision can take place.

The Table: What’s on your reading list these days?

TP: This summer I read James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, William Dyrness’s Theological Poetics, Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope, and Poetry, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, and The Physical Nature of the Christian Life (Brown and Strawn). All of these ask—from a spiritual, historical, psychological, or neurological perspective—have we not underestimated the power of narrative, image, metaphor, and symbol in the formation and deep structure of our lives? Could it be that we are formed more powerfully by these deep orientations than by conscious thought? And how can our thinking move from the so-called head to the heart, and, finally, into the body?

The Table: What religious practices or liturgies do you find most profitable in fostering spiritual growth? Spirituality doesn’t seem like a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, but are there consistent patterns of effective practices?

TP: Well, all Christians are called to the classical, biblical practices of prayer, service, worship, fasting (or detachment), chastity, confession, study, etc. But there are still choices to be made within the context of the individual. For instance, Richard Foster, in his book, Prayer, identifies at least thirty different kinds of prayer in Scripture. How do I know which practice of prayer to engage more intentionally in a particular season of my life? This is where we need to discern with the Spirit. My own calling recently has been to trust God more, to be freed from worry and the selfishness that worry causes. What is called centering prayer (to “be still and know” that He is God, Psalm 46:10) has become an important rhythm for me in that journey.

The Table: Christianity has a long history with contemplative practice. What is the role of contemplation in personal growth? What is the meaning of contemplation, psychologically and spiritually?

TP: The term “contemplation” has both general and specific meanings. Generally, contemplation is a “beholding,” a gazing upon or chewing upon something that allows it to go deeper than thought, to become an image or relationship embedded in our hearts, from which our life flows (Proverbs 4:23). It is an extension of what the Scriptures call “meditation”—as in Psalm 48:9, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.” And this suggests that contemplation is relational. It is not just thoughts about God, but placing ourselves, as it were, “before Him.” We behold Him as if He were actually here (which He is). This is Paul’s prayer, that we would know the love of Christ in a way that “surpasses knowledge”—which is a relational knowing (Ephesians 3:19). Put another way, in contemplation we are practicing the command to “be still and know” that He is God (Psalm 46:10). Like other practices, contemplative practices have developed from seeking to understand how we might carry out certain commands of Scripture. Christian practices of contemplative prayer, then, are simply ways we make ourselves available to the Spirit, whose work it is to give us the capacity (“power”) to know God more deeply and intuitively (Ephesians 3:16).

The Table: Is there a theological or psychological distinction between the mind and the heart? How should we understand the difference between these two aspects of our inner life?

TP: When we see these terms, it’s tempting as moderns to assign “mind” to the activity of thought and “heart” to feeling. However in Scripture, the heart includes the activities of thinking and feeling, as well as choice (the will). In fact, more often than not, the heart in Scripture thinks, as in Proverbs 23:7–8, where it says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” We should not draw a hard line between thought and affect (feeling) in Scripture, or in life. Both participate in knowledge. When used on its own (“mind of Christ,” I Corinthians 2:16) or in conjunction with heart (“your hearts and minds,” Philippians 4:7), the term “mind” may be highlighting one’s deep belief, one’s intuitive as well as reasoned perception of the world, which includes the appropriate feelings or affect (like trust) that deepen our discernment.

The Table: What understanding of the human heart must we have to engage in intentional, thoughtful soul care?

TP: The heart is the place of deep belief, our “unconscious theology,” where what we really believe lives. With this in view, Proverbs 4:23 urges us to “watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” In other words, we should know what is in our heart because our lives simply flow from that—for good or for ill. While we may sincerely believe the truths we hold, still there are beliefs that lie at a deeper level still. For instance, I may believe in God’s providence, that He is in control and seeks my good. However, my anxiety may tell me that this belief in God’s providence does not go all the way down in me. I may find I don’t trust Him with my whole heart. That’s good information, and something that may become a calling for me, whether for a season or for a lifetime.

The Table: How do you understand the integration of psychology with spiritual formation?

TP: Among other things, psychological study and therapy attends to our relational histories, how these have formed us, and how they affect, even unconsciously, our view of God and relationship with Him. If Christian spirituality is about my spirit living in dependence on and communion with God’s Spirit, then the wisdom psychology brings to our relational dysfunctions is crucial. Our memories, wounds, fears, addictions, or attachments—all of which are aspects of our psychology—also have a direct affect on our relationship with God and others. And usually to some degree, these operate on us below the surface of our normal awareness. Psychological study and therapy can bring much of this to light in helpful ways that open us to the Holy Spirit’s deep work of healing and sanctification in us.

The Table: Who are your spiritual mentors?

TP: I’ve been undoubtedly blessed by my colleagues at the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology, whose words and lives continue to mentor me. I’ve also had two spiritual directors in the last ten years who have been crucial to my ongoing formation. And, of course, there are a host of authors.

The Table: What is the proper posture or disposition of a person seeking spiritual transformation?

TP: That’s easy: humility, springing from the awareness of one’s need. I can do nothing apart from God (John 15:5).

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Shortreads

The Heart of the Scriptures

Frederica Mathewes-Green


How does the Bible speak of matters of the heart?

Surprisingly, the Bible treats the heart as the place where we do our thinking—we think in our hearts, not our heads. For, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19)—those thoughts are not always noble. What else does the Bible have to say about the heart?

  • “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:51)
  • “The word of God…[pierces] to…the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12)
  • “Out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19)

In our culture we regard our ability to reason as one of the highest aspects of human personhood, but forget how often we employ that faculty in less-than-noble pursuits. The biblical Greek word for thinking actively, like when you’re thinking something through, is dianoia, and it often includes selfish fantasies, plotting, and scheming:

  • “The imagination [dianoia] of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21)
  • “He has scattered the proud in the imagination [dianoia] of their hearts” (Luke 1:51)

So if the heart is where humans do their thinking, where do they feel emotions? The strongest emotions, as well as the deepest thoughts, are said to arise from “the inward parts,” the bowels and kidneys, as we might refer to “gut feelings.” That sounds coarse in our culture, though; so modern English translations usually substitute something more polite, located higher up in the body.

  • Psalm 16:7 in original Hebrew: “I will bless the Lord who has given me understanding; in the night also my kidneys instruct me”
  • King James Version, 1611: “My reins also instruct me” (reins being an archaic term for “kidneys,” as in “renal function”)
  • Revised Standard Version, 1952: “In the night also my heart instructs me”
  • New American Standard Version, 1971: “My mind instructs me in the night”

Apparently, over the centuries, everything’s been rising. Maybe in a hundred years we’ll read, “My hat instructs me”!

But it’s not a matter of substituting “bowels and heart” for “heart and head,” for the Scriptures don’t share our view of emotion as an equal-and-opposite alternative to reason. Our assumption is that people tend toward one function or the other, and we deplore the waves of emotion that undermine reason, or the coldness of solitary reason that stifles the heart. But the Scriptures don’t view them as opposed or parallel faculties.

In the Scriptures, having emotions is not a function or action, parallel to dianoia thinking. A specific emotion, like anger, might prompt a biblical character toward an action, but the person wasn’t engaged in a distinct process of emoting at the time, as opposed to thinking. He just got angry, and acted it out in a particular way. He probably was thinking, actually. He was thinking about something that made him mad.

This makes sense when you think about it. Reason and emotion actually are not separate. When we feel an emotion, it is because of a thought we’re having—often enough, a completely logical thought. And we all know how our emotions subtly influence our reasoning. These are two aspects of a single process, not opposites or alternatives.

Here’s another difference. The Scriptures’ use of “heart” is much broader than ours today. The heart was seen as the center of a person’s entire being. It was the place inside where thoughts, emotions, memories, fantasies, will, and desires all bubble together as in a cauldron. (While the deepest thoughts and feelings are registered in the “inward parts,” the usual source of both is the heart.) The heart includes both good and bad elements; as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The heart is the home of our inner self, and the place where Christ must rule.

You might well ask why this difference of viewpoint matters. It’s because, when we agree with the cultural assumption that human beings are composed of two opposite functions, reason and emotion, it damages our witness. If human beings don’t have anything but reason and emotion, there is no way God can communicate with us. All our claims about God can be ascribed to emotions. We often hear people say, “You can’t reach God with your mind, only with your heart.” But, as those terms are defined today, it means that any claim of contact with God has no rational basis and is merely emotional. Something like St. Paul’s conversion cannot be claimed as real in an objective, “true for everybody” sense. It’s real only in a subjective, “true for me” sense. Maybe he just had an emotional crisis and hallucinated the whole thing. No prophets heard the voice of God. Moses thought he saw a Burning Bush because of he was lonely and discouraged. When the whole population of the Hebrews drew near the smoke-shrouded mountain, and saw lightning, heard thunder and “the sound of the trumpet growing louder and louder” (Exodus 19:19), it was a case of mass wishful thinking.

When we agree with our culture that all experiences of God are solely emotional, it seriously limits our ability to speak the truth of Jesus Christ in the public square.

But the New Testament offers us a different understanding of the composition of a human being, and, as a result, a different understanding of human contact with God. I began to glean this after I became Eastern Orthodox, twenty years ago. When I started reading Eastern Christian writings, from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Slavic countries (reaching back to the first century), I had the feeling that something here was really different. It was hard to pin down just what it was. One thing I noticed was that a Greek word, nous (pronounced “noose”), kept popping up. It would appear just like that, un-translated and undefined. Apparently translators thought there was no accurate equivalent in English. It was a concept we just don’t have.

This was in the days before Google, so to figure out what it meant I kept writing down whatever I thought the definition was, as I read along. At one point I had six definitions. But eventually I grasped that it means the human faculty that understands, discerns, or comprehends.

This is something we do with our minds, all right—when it appears in the New Testament, it’s usually translated “mind.” But it’s not active dianoia thinking, like thinking through a problem. It’s the receptive faculty of the mind.

You can picture the human mind as having two gears, forward and reverse. Forward, dianoia, is when we’re thinking something through, actively reasoning. Reverse, nous, is when we are grasping or comprehending something. This is our faculty of discernment, comprehension, understanding, perception, awareness. It’s how God can make contact with his people, can convey something to them directly, and it has nothing to do with their emotions.

Forty years ago I had a miraculous conversion to Christ, kind of like St. Paul’s. I was a new college grad, hitchhiking around Europe, and at that time calling myself a Hindu. But when I was touring a historic church and stood looking at a statue of Christ, I suddenly heard a voice speaking to me—not with my ears, but interiorly. It spoke with such authority that doubt was impossible. What the voice said was, “I am your life.”

When I tried to describe this to people afterward, the best I could describe it was, “It was like there was a little radio in my heart that I never knew was there. Suddenly it switched on and I could hear a voice.” When I met the word nous in Eastern Christian writings, at last I had a name for it; the nous is that “little radio.” And every one of us has one. We are made that way. Because God wants to be in communion with his people.

Let’s look at how the word is used in the New Testament. When Christ appeared to his apostles, after the Resurrection,

  • “He opened their nous to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45)

He didn’t render the apostles better at thinking logically about the Scriptures, but opened their understanding. Suddenly they could see his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection foretold throughout the Old Testament. St. Paul says,

  • Christians “have the nous of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16)
  • “Be renewed in the spirit of your nous” (Ephesians 4:23)
  • “The peace of God which passes all understanding” is actually “The peace of God which overflows the nous” (Philippians 4:7)
  • “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous” (Romans 12:2)

The nous is not a special spiritual faculty; it is how we perceive everything. It is how the mind receives and assimilates information. If you open the door and it’s raining, your senses of sight, smell, hearing, and touch all transmit their perceptions to the “central office,” the nous. You then process that incoming information and discern that it is raining.

This first-hand, direct experience of something, which we register by means of the nous, precedes thoughts and feelings. To put that another way, after we perceive something we may well have rational thoughts and feelings about it, but the actual perception came first. After you realize it’s raining, you may have some rational thoughts (“I’d better take an umbrella”) or feel some emotions (“I get sad when it rains”). But both came after that primary perception of rain. The perception itself was not due to your thoughts or feelings, but was derived from objectively real phenomena. If God communicates with us, we are likely to have a number of thoughts and emotions afterward! But that doesn’t render the experience itself unreal.

As if the heart-mind confusion weren’t enough, we also have a linguistic tangle because, in English, we use the word “feelings” to mean two different things. We can “get a feeling” and perceive something, or sense something. Maybe we have a “gut feeling.” That would be “feeling” in the sense of the nous. The old Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker had to learn to “feel” the Force; he had to learn how to perceive and tune into something that, in the movie’s world, was objectively real.

But, unfortunately, we use the same word “feelings” when we mean emotional reactions—hurt feelings or sad feelings. Star Wars villain Darth Vader should have resisted his vengeful feelings. For Luke “feelings” are perceptions, and for Darth “feelings” are overwhelming emotions. Same word, different meanings; no wonder we’re confused.

But if everyone has this capacity to hear God’s voice, why don’t we? Because the nous is fallen. Just like everything else in Creation. It perceives inaccurately. How many of the conflicts between people are caused by simply not understanding each other accurately—misreading what others say and do. Your damaged, darkened nous might tell you that someone is looking at you funny, when they’re not looking at you at all. The devil makes a playground of this. St. Paul says of nonbelievers,

  • “Their very nous … is corrupted” (Titus 1:15)
  • “[They live] in the futility of their nous” (Ephesians 4:17)

The nous doesn’t much want to hear God’s voice. It would rather keep itself distracted with a ceaseless stream of incoming sensory data—images, sounds, physical experiences, favorite foods, and so on. When people say that you need silence to hear God’s voice, it doesn’t mean that you should try to be vacant and empty (which would be a spiritually dangerous, actually). But we need quiet at times of prayer because all the busy-work our nous wants to chew over keeps it filled to capacity, and not sensitive enough to register the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). If you were at a noisy party and someone asked you a very important question, you would want get away someplace quiet to think about it. That’s why we need silence, when we pray. We’re trying to listen, to learn how to listen.

I didn’t know all this when I joined the Eastern Church. I thought it was just a matter of changing to a different denomination. But to my surprise, the Eastern Christian tradition turned out to be not merely an ecclesiastical institution or set of theological doctrines, but an active science or program of inner healing. In the Christian East, we are seen as sick with sin, rather than merely guilty of it; sin pervades us and our world. Like air pollution, it damages everyone, including the innocent, and gives power to the evil one. Sin is death.

So there’s a sense of urgency about overcoming this creeping toxin. We don’t need only to be forgiven for our sins, but also to stop sinning and stop contributing to the misery of the world. Christ came to take away our sins (1 John 3:5)—not just the penalty for our sins, but the sins themselves. Sin is infection, not infraction. It matters, when we resist it.

Eastern Christianity is a method or program of strength-training, so we can gain power over our compulsions to sin, and continuously grow in union with Christ. It shows us how to fast, pray, and love others such that the damage of sin begins to be healed, and the light of Christ begins to spread. Though I had no idea that’s what I was getting into when I converted, it turned out to be what I had sought all my Christian life.

Now most of my work is aimed at helping Christians of all denominations understand and implement this “science” of transformation in their own lives. A significant part is recognizing that our “head-heart” division is not Biblical or true, and learning that the nous exists and needs healing. This alternative understanding of the makeup of the human person restores to us the possibility of authentic communion with God. That’s what the world is longing for.

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Blurbs

Eternity in Our Hearts

Lauralee Farrer


Stepping into eternity now.

It’s a mistake to live as though eternity happens after death. If daily life moves like clockwork, “stopping for no man,” then eternal life moves like a river under the surface.

The Greeks had words for both: kairos and chronos. Chronos is man-made, incremental and sequential, it gains value as it accumulates—as money does. Kairos is infinite, uncountable, and always fully present—it means grace, where every moment offers a chance to start anew in a fresh Eden.

We are suspended between the two times, made of dust with eternity in our hearts. We are tuned to live in kairos, each moment fecund, inexhaustible, and intended for our pleasure. What if the curse of the Fall was to be banished from grace time and doomed to live in the man-made tyranny of chronos? And how would we live if we knew that we are still surrounded by Eden, our access restored by Christ’s death and resurrection?

For more from this issue of the Table Journal, click here

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Poems

I Love the Dark Hours of My Being

A Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke


A Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

I love the dark hours of my being.

My mind deepens into them.

There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a grave
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots embrace:

a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.

 

—  Rainer Maria Rilke
“I love the dark hours of my being”
(Ich liebe meines Wesens Dunkelstunden)
The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
I,5 (trans. Anita Barrows, Joanna Macy)

 

To see other content from this issue of the Table Journal, click here. For more on Rilke’s story, see here

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Shortreads

Suffering, Mourning, and the Way of the Kingdom

(Or, One Order of Beauty Please—and Skip the Ashes) Marie Hoffman


The importance of having a correct theology of suffering

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted … to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1–3)

Consider the profoundly comforting words of Isaiah 61:3: that God will give to those who mourn “beauty for ashes.” Not intended as spiritual alchemy, the “stuff” God uses to bring about his redemptive plan is ash—the ashes of our suffering and the loss of our loves, dreams, illusions, and human omnipotence. And the process that transforms the ashes of suffering is mourning. But what happens to this redemptive cycle in a Christian culture that perceives both suffering and mourning as emblematic of failed faith or immature spirituality?

A Clinical Vignette

Polly, a young mother of two, was busily involved in all facets of her church community. She came to see me after several attempts at counseling that proved only minimally helpful. Polly suffered from depression that had deepened to suicidal ideation shortly after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia. What immediately struck me about Polly was that no one in her church community knew the depth of her despair. Her isolation was profound. And Polly’s narrative is regularly repeated: “I am desperately suffering and no one knows how much pain I am in …”

The Theological and Psychological Value of Suffering

A Christian culture of denial wreaked havoc in Polly’s life. Though Polly’s history was devoid of maternal love, she believed that one day her mother would care. Her prayers would be answered! Refusing to look at her mother’s impact on her life, she remained distracted by Christian service, her internal emptiness only marginally bearable. But with her mother’s diagnosis, hope waned. There was no place to turn, for she was the exemplar of Christian victory.

“…the ‘stuff’ God uses to bring about His redemptive plan is ash—the ashes of our suffering and the loss of our loves, dreams, illusions, and human omnipotence.”
In our therapy sessions, rather than her pain being minimized, it was witnessed. And as a result of my own suffering and mourning that had been witnessed and comforted, I was able to comfort her with what I had “received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). As Polly mourned, a necessary disillusionment with the unlikely possibility of a good mother settled in. And into that void, Polly became more receptive to the care I offered. She became known by me in ways her mother did not care to know her. Consequently, Polly became more transparent with others as well. As Polly and I mourned together, we experienced redemptive and authentic Christian relating—one person who has mourned and is comforted, witnessing and comforting another. And these authentic bonds become the very relational fabric of the present and coming Kingdom of God.

Karl Plank, a fellow sufferer, reflects on our need to mourn together as a community of believers, and on the perils of not mourning, even as we await the restoration of all things. He writes:

To approach the cross with too much faith, to stand in its shadow with certain confidence of Easter light, is finally to confront no cross at all, only the unrepentant echoes of our religious noise. Amid the creation which groans for redemption, the church must stand as if before Easter: open to its inbreaking, but unassuming of its prerogative. There, in the community of victims and witnesses, the faithful silently wait together for the Kingdom of God. (From “Procession of the Crucified: A Lenten Devotion,” in Mother of the Wire Fence: Inside and Outside the Holocaust)

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Blurbs

Self-Examination

Eric Johnson


Distinctive features of Christian mindfulness

 The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)

For millennia the Christian community has had its own models of how to “mind the heart.” And we see in Hebrews 4 three things that distinguish Christian “inwardness” or “self-examination” from Buddhist and secular mindfulness.

First, God’s word initiates self-examination. His glory, outside the self, mediated by the Word, comes to shine divine light into the soul through his revelation in Scripture and in Christ, giving clarity within.

Second, Christian self-examination is a relational, collaborative activity, in which the Christian grows in self-awareness and dependence on God.

Finally, self-examination is normed by God. We are accountable to our Lord and friend. This fact might stifle self-examination, except for the fact that he has removed all shame and guilt on the cross. So the believer has nothing to fear in self-exploration. Through the believer’s meditative reception of God’s word in communion with him in Christ, God intends to recreate the Christian mind and heart and life.

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Shortreads

Panic in the Heavens

Rebekah Lyons


How grasping our identity helps us to overcome anxiety

Anxiety crept into my world in my mid-thirties, unsuspecting and stealth, as most trials do when you are already in a freefall. The panic arrived four months after I landed on the streets of New York, having relocated from the suburbs of Atlanta with three children, two toy poodles, one husband, and our minivan.

We’d moved from south to north, suburbs to city, margin to constraint. Yet I carried a gnawing feeling that the move was less driven by the demands of running our non-profit, but more by my personal conviction that I wasn’t living this one life well.

New York was my reckless abandon. To sell almost everything, break from the comfort we’d created, and begin fresh. It was easier, in some ways, to take this route, than try to revamp our current context. All or nothing in most pursuits, this marked a pattern I began to see when looking back over my life in the months that followed. But here I go getting ahead of myself.

The panic attacks began on a flight in mid-October, when the air was crisp and cool. Fall marked my favorite of seasons, brimming with pumpkin-spiced lattes and savory scones, but this year, fall yielded fear instead, in airplanes, subways, elevators, and crowds. Within two months, I’d become crippled.

This crippling creates a much smaller, fearful version of your once creative self. Doubts and fears plague your plans, and you slowly retreat. Most interestingly, it continued to surface in surprise situations that I thought were within my safety zone. As a result, my resilience slowly faded while the anxiety grew.

For eighteen months I fought this, with moments of reprieve and relapse throughout. Toward the end, surrender arrived in a way that’s virtually impossible to describe. In a crescendo moment, I cried out desperate midnight pleas for rescue, and in grace, it came. During the weeks that followed, a truth began to crystalize:

 

We fade when we don’t know who we are.

Words began to pour on pages, conversations began to stir hearts, as I paralleled my journey with others that had walked the same road as I, seeking the very specific purpose that exists deep within. When God’s first commandment to humankind was to cultivate the earth, perhaps He knew that if we didn’t, we’d go crazy.

My greatest joy is to walk with others as they wake to whispers of their own calling. The more our lives align with what God intended when He knit us in our mother’s womb, the more our freedom replaces fear.

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Shortreads

Anger Toward God as a Spiritual Struggle

Julie Exline


How should we react when we feel angry at God?

Have you ever felt angry at God? If you have, rest assured that you’re not alone. In one large survey, about two-thirds of Americans said that they sometimes felt such anger.1 Studies suggest that when people focus on specific negative life events—for example, economic or family hardships, serious illness, psychological upheaval, physical pain, or bereavement—about half of those people report some negative feelings toward God. These negative feelings can include anger as well as more subtle feelings such as frustration, disappointment, and mistrust.

When Do People Get Angry at God?

In most cases, people become angry at God when they perceive that God is responsible for something harmful or unfair. These include the sorts of events that insurance companies would call “acts of God”—devastating events that can’t be easily blamed on another person, such as natural disasters. But it doesn’t take a tsunami or a hurricane for people to get angry at God. People can blame God even when another person is clearly to blame—for example, in cases of abuse, abandonment, or wartime atrocities. In such situations anger often centers on God’s seeming refusal to intervene to prevent evil or suffering: “Why do you allow people to do terrible things?” “Why don’t you stop them—or at least punish them?” Anger can also focus on disappointing events that are not necessarily traumatic, such as injuries, financial problems, or failure to get a coveted job.

Emotional Correlates of Anger Toward God

In emotional terms, is it a serious problem to get mad at God? Usually a brief flash of anger is unlikely to have major consequences for a person’s well being. Anger toward God shows clearer associations with emotional distress (e.g., depression, anxiety, physical symptoms) when it becomes more like a grudge—when it is intense, frequent, chronic, or recurring.2

Inner Conflict: Coping with the Anger

Feeling angry at God is a source of inner conflict, and many of us struggle to acknowledge these dark emotions. Many people see anger toward God as morally wrong.3 So when we experience such anger, we may feel uncertain about how to manage the feelings. Here are a few practical steps for dealing with anger toward God.

1. Admit our anger to other people.

We might be reluctant to tell friends, family members, clergy, or counselors that we feel angry at God. But a 2011 study suggests that supportive responses are crucial to resolution. A supportive response from another person may help people to approach God and work through the issues in a way that strengthens their faith.4 And yet, about half of the respondents to this study said that they also received some responses that made them feel judged, guilty, or ashamed. These unsupportive responses, in turn, were associated with further problems: continued anger toward God, more attempts to suppress and hide the anger, more “exit behaviors” toward God (such as withdrawal, rebellion, questioning God’s existence), as well as more substance use. Telling the wrong person, then, could actually create more turmoil for someone who is feeling angry at God.

2. Recognize the anger within ourselves.

Because anger toward God is often seen as wrong, it makes sense that many of us would have difficulty admitting such feelings to ourselves. We fear the shame that would accompany such an admission. For the devout believer, it might bring horror to entertain any thought of “biting the hand that feeds” by feeling anger toward one’s Creator, Savior, and Provider. But regardless of whether the feelings are right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, they are still there. And that can be scary.

“… deep down, we may hold real fears that God will punish us for being angry toward him.”

If people feel angry at God but don’t acknowledge these feelings to themselves, what options do they have? How can they manage these smoldering, potentially explosive feelings of anger without allowing them into conscious awareness? Somehow they’ll need to cover or deflect the feelings. For example, they may search for another person to blame. They may turn the anger inward, toward the self. Alternatively, they might take the path of disengagement and find that they are losing interest in prayer, church attendance, or other faith-based activities. Or they may go to the opposite extreme, engaging in marathon Bible studies or over-the-top service to their religious communities, all in order to prove their unwavering devotion to God.

With any of these responses, we can inadvertently add to our own suffering by failing to be honest with ourselves. It’s emotionally stressful to suppress intense feelings. And when we do so, the problems that torment us remain unaddressed, the wounds unhealed.

3. Talk to God about the anger.

Even if people are fully aware that they are angry, they may be reluctant to disclose such feelings to God. It may seem too dangerous. People make jokes about lightning bolts coming down from the sky; but deep down, we may hold real fears that God will punish us for being angry toward him. We may also worry that God will reject us or will withdraw blessings or protection. Even if people see God as totally loving and accepting, they may worry about disappointing God by admitting their angry feelings. They want to keep their interactions with God 100 percent positive and praise-filled, with no hint of trouble or complaint. The problem is that once the anger is there, it’s likely to cause more trouble if it’s left unacknowledged. And when big issues—elephants in the room—are left unaddressed, relationships often become tense or distant.

It’s ironic (at least from the perspective of people who believe in an all-knowing God) that people think that they can hide their feelings from God. Doesn’t this all-knowing God already know our thoughts and feelings? Are we ever really able to hide anything from God? Better to pray with the Psalmist, “Search me O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23).

Resilience

Several studies have taught us that people who report the strongest, most resilient relationships with God tend to endorse two types of attitudes: First, and most crucially, they see it as wrong to exit the relationship with God: They don’t think that it’s okay to walk away, rebel, or reject God. Second, they do see it as morally permissible to assert themselves with God—to raise complaints or to ask God tough questions.5 There is a clear parallel here with human relationships: When we go through a rocky road in a marriage or a friendship, it’s often best to work through the problems openly and honestly—together.

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Shortreads

Mindful Awareness: Your Wise Advocate Within

Jeffrey M. Schwartz


How mindfulness rewires our brain

Think for a moment about your inner monologue. What is the quality or character of your thoughts? If you introspect for a while, you start to realize that many of the interior attachments you experience are not really you. But as soon as you recognize that the anxieties and thoughts of compulsion, self-condemnation, or false shame you might be experiencing are foreign intruders, their control over your life begins to fall away. This is the power of mindfulness. The goal is to ensure that your true values are in the driver’s seat of your life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is readily describable as a clear-minded third-person perspective on your inner experience. It is a way of focusing attention on your inner experience that accentuates your capacity to recognize whether your current state of mind is wholesome or unwholesome. This kind of attention brings into focus an important question: Are the thoughts I am experiencing in-sync with my true values?

Mindful awareness is experienced as direct contact with reality, in effect, as standing face to face with what’s really there. One important aspect of real mindfulness is that it bridges the gap between judgmental and non-judgmental self-awareness. You need the non-judgmental aspect to access the content of your interior life. If you’re trying to filter or judge what comes in, you won’t be able to get the data on what’s happening with your interior awareness. This means that you won’t be able to find out what’s going on inside of you, and the foreign intruders will actually go unchecked. To ignore or minimize the presence of these emotions will lead you to fall back into the same unhealthy responses that have become locked into your brain as habit loops.

Look Inward, Observe Your Thoughts

The power of mindfulness allows us to break the grip of these habits. When you observe intrusive thoughts, you have to be in an assertively judgmental frame. It is very important to note that we are using the term judgmental here positively, in the sense of making a clear-minded, discerning assessment of the contents of your mental life. The key is to ask yourself whether these thoughts are in line with my true values, or whether they are deceptive brain messages taking me away from my real goals?

For example, when you’re feeling agitated, mindfulness trains you to place a label on that thought. Placing a label on the thought is what it means to take a third-person vantage point on your own thoughts: you’re looking from the outside to see what’s going on inside. When you give the thought a label, you give yourself a chance to discern whether it is wholesome or unwholesome. If the agitation is arising from a selfish motive, you can step back and reassess whether this thought is in line with your true values.

This kind of assessment is judgmental in the good sense of the word because it involves both recognition and discernment. You often have little to no direct control over the impulses, sensations, or desires you experience. These kinds of experiences are largely just the result of how your brain has been wired earlier in your life. But you do have control over how you respond to theses mental states. This is when you start to realize that these thoughts and feelings are not who you really are, and you don’t have to let them take over!

Case Study: Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder

Having spent decades successfully using methods like this with people with obsessive–compulsive disorder, I am a strong supporter of the power of mindfulness. OCD is a fertile field for using this practice, because the thoughts are so intrusive. OCD sufferers don’t know where their thoughts are coming from, and there is a tendency to identify one’s self with the intrusive thoughts. This propensity is quite maladaptive and often causes great suffering. In reality, these thoughts are foreign invaders caused by faulty brain wiring and intrude without permission. When you relabel the thoughts as false brain messages, you begin to break their control over you. This is a powerful way of using mindful awareness therapeutically.

“Mindfulness sharpens the capacity to inhibit pre-programmed habitual responses.”

At bottom, mindfulness is clear-minded awareness of what is happening inside of you, and this kind of practice is readily attainable by anyone. It’s especially important when you experience intrusive thoughts and unhealthy impulses. Everyone has the capacity to look inside themselves and see what’s going on. The goal is to assess the situation and make rational decisions based on your true values.

Your Wise Advocate, the Holy Spirit

Remember that as Christians, we aren’t in this alone. In the words of our Savior: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). In the context of mindfulness, we think of the Holy Spirit as our Wise Advocate, our loving friend within who wants what is best for us. Your Wise Advocate is your helper, comforter, advocate, counselor, encourager, strengthener, and friend. When confronted with unwholesome impulses, your Wise Advocate helps you in the process of making sound judgments. The Wise Advocate does not sympathize with harmful behavior, but constantly asks this question: Are these thoughts in line with what God created me to be? Is this behavior in line with my true goals? In this way, mindfulness is always good!

Change Your Brain

How does this affect the brain? Mindfulness rewires your brain! Mindfulness sharpens the capacity to inhibit pre-programmed habitual responses. The more you connect with your Wise Advocate, the stronger your awareness of the connection becomes. You will begin to reflexively recognize and dismiss unhealthy thoughts, and control your habits to use them more effectively. Your brain becomes your ally instead of your foe.

On top of this, mindfulness training helps modulate emotional function of the brain. It doesn’t eliminate emotional activity; rather, it enhances your ability to direct and control emotional expression. People who practice this form of awareness exhibit a higher connectedness in areas of brain related to executive and emotional regulation. And thanks to brain imaging technology, we can actually see how this kind of training affects the brain. The practice of mindfulness enhances a person’s capacity to use the uniquely human prefrontal cortex in the brain. This is the part of the brain that serves executive function, which allows us to make clear-minded decisions quickly and under pressure. Mindfulness helps to form and strengthen these connections. This kind of effect is called self-directed neuroplasticity: using your mind, to modify your own behavior, to change your brain.

The end result is increased life functionality. You can plan more clearly, remember things better, your decisions are more clear-cut, and you’re aware of where you’re placing your attention. Mindfulness amplifies these high-level capacities and helps you gain control of your life. You are not your brain. You can change your brain. And with mindfulness practices, you can change your life.

Steven Reynolds

Illustrator

Steven Reynolds is a Front End Developer & Designer; and an Illustrator when the mood strikes. He lives in Ventura, CA.