One Saturday night our house was assaulted by an odor so indescribably noxious we had to evacuate. We figured it was a gas leak and called both the gas company and the fire department. As it turned out, a skunk had gotten very close to our house.
I made a few phone calls, but no exterminator would come to look for a skunk, so we figured the problem would go away on its own. Most of the odor faded away, and what lingered we got used to. It didn’t bother us — until a visitor would enter and say, “It smells like a skunk around here.”
A week later I was on the road when my family called to say the skunk had struck again. I had to find someone who specialized in the ways of the skunk — a “skunk whisperer.” The man discovered that we had two live skunks and one dead one permanently residing in the crawl space under our house. It cost a lot to get the skunks removed. But it was worth it.
You cannot get rid of the skunk odor without getting rid of the skunk.
Our sense of smell has a unique power to evoke emotion, and in our inner lives, our feelings are like aromas. Our positive feelings — joy, pleasure, gratitude — thrill us like the scent of freshly baked bread. Negative feelings — sadness, worry, anger — can make us want to evacuate our lives. When they hit, your mood dips, you lose energy, God seems distant, prayer seems pointless, sin looks tempting, and life looks bleak. But our feelings never descend on us at random.
As a general rule, our emotions flow out of our thoughts.
Discouraged people tend to think discouraging thoughts. Worried people tend to think anxious thoughts. These thoughts become so automatic that, like the lingering skunk odor, after a while we don’t even notice we are thinking them.
We get used to what is sometimes called “stinking thinking.”
This can happen to anyone. The prophet Elijah had reached a high point of his life when he defeated the prophets of Baal. Then one event — the opposition of Jezebel — plunged him into fear. Look at his thoughts: he felt worthless (“I am no better than my ancestors”), hopeless (“he ran for his life”), isolated (“I am the only one left”), and unable to cope (“I have had enough”). He actually wanted to die (“Take my life, Lord”).
But God is the great healer. He had Elijah take a nap and eat a snack, then He did a little divine cognitive therapy to replace each of these life-killing thoughts. He gave Elijah an epiphany (“the Lord is about to pass by”), filled his future with hope because God would accompany him (“go back the way you came”), revealed that he was not isolated (“yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel”), and infused his life full of meaning because God had a mission for him.
Elijah thought his problem was Jezebel, but there will always be a Jezebel in our lives.
The real challenge is between our ears.
The way we live will inevitably be a reflection of the way we think.
True change always begins in our mind.
The good news is that if God can change Elijah’s thinking, He can change ours. What makes people the way they are — what makes you you — is mainly the way they think. Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think (Romans 12:2 NLT). Becoming the best version of yourself, then, rests on one simple directive:
Think great thoughts!
People who live great lives are people who habitually think great thoughts.
Their thoughts incline them toward confidence, love, and joy. Trying to change your emotions by willpower without allowing the stream of your thoughts to be changed by the flow of the Spirit is like fumigating the house of the skunk smell while the skunks continue to live in your crawl space. But God can change the way we think! We will look at two ways we can open ourselves up to His work: learning to monitor what happens in our minds, and then resetting our minds to a better frequency. It is time to go after the skunks.
Learn to Monitor Your Mind
Our thought patterns become as habitual as brushing our teeth. After a while we don’t even think about them. We get so used to bitter thoughts or anxious thoughts or selfish thoughts that we don’t even notice what we are thinking about.
One of the great barriers to a flourishing mind is sometimes called mindlessness. My body is at the breakfast table with my family, but my mind isn’t. It is ruminating over my problems — a repetitive, anxious, dull, low-grade obsession with tasks and problems. I am absentminded; my mind has gone AWOL. Other people can tell I am not fully present because my face is less alive and responsive. I talk less, and when I do say something, it is superficial and terse. I don’t do this on purpose. It simply becomes a habit of my mind.
The spiritual life begins with paying attention to our thoughts, which is why the psalmist prayed, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23-24). God knows our thoughts better than we do, and He will help us learn what is going on in our mind from one moment to the next.
As I monitor my mind, I will encounter many thoughts that are unwelcome visitors: I get anxious. I catastrophize. I envy. But I will also begin to recognize what kind of thoughts the Spirit flows in. The apostle Paul gives us a great framework for understanding which are the thoughts and attitudes that come from the Spirit. He writes, “The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
Take any thought, especially thoughts that feel weighty or that you find yourself turning over and over in your mind, and ask, What direction do those thoughts lead me in? Are they leading me toward life — toward God’s best version of me? Or in the other direction?
I received a letter a while ago containing a criticism of me. When I read it, I could feel a twinge in my belly, that core Jesus talks about. I thought, Someone sees junk in me. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It will never change. Lots of people see it. I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, because there was truth to my thoughts. But they did not lead to life.
Then I had another set of thoughts, in which my negativity was turned not toward me but toward the writer of the letter: He has bigger problems than I do. I’m a pastor. Who is he to criticize me? Then I became defensive and withdrawn, and again I went into a downward spiral.
But there is an alternative. I could say, “Holy Spirit, would you help me? Would you give me the right thoughts?” When I do that, thoughts like these come: Yes, what you’re feeling is hurt, and part of that hurt is nothing more than wounded vanity. We can deal with that. I still love you with all your junk. Your well-being with me is not at risk. The man who wrote this may see a flaw in you, but nobody really thinks you’re perfect anyway, except your mother. It will actually be better for you not to have to pretend. Here’s a chance for you to grow.
This is grace. Even though there are elements of pain in these thoughts, they do not paralyze me. They bring energy. They are true, and they give me ground to stand on.
I realize that if I can keep my mind centered on these thoughts, right feelings and actions are likely to flow out of them.
The prophet Isaiah said that we will be kept in perfect peace if our mind is stayed on God. This is living in the flow of the Spirit.
One of the simplest and most powerful ways to monitor your mind is called the experience sampling method. Program a watch or iPhone to beep at random intervals through the day. When it does, write down (or make a mental note if you’re a spontaneous non-journaler) where you were and what you were doing.
Do this for a week, and look for those activities and people that most help you live in the flow of the Spirit. How can you add those? What are the activities and relationships that most block the flow? How can you change or diminish those?
Learn to become aware of the flow of thoughts in your mind without trying too hard to change them. Toddlers who are beginning to walk consistently learn from their falls, but without judgments that paralyze them. (“Fallen again! What a clumsy oaf I am! I’m crawling the rest of the day. I don’t deserve to walk.”)
Learning to walk in the Spirit takes at least as much grace and strength as learning to walk on two legs, and the Spirit will always help lead us toward God’s best version of ourselves.
Much like Elijah, we can be tempted to think we are the only one really faithful, the only special or gifted or entitled one. This is related to that old temptation “you will be like God,” for when we think of ourselves as god-like, we become obsessed with our own success and happiness and need to prop up an inflated sense of our competence and worth. Then reality hits, and often when this idealized me crumbles, what is left is a deflated, “shattered” me. Like Adam and Eve, we want to run and hide. We think that we have nothing to offer and that everything is awful. But the Spirit wants to liberate us, both from thinking as if we are God and from thinking as if we are nothing.
There is a God; it is not you.
He wants to help you be the real you, the best version of you. He wants to help you become you-ier.
So you move to the next step.
Excerpted with permission from The Me I Want to Be by John Ortberg, copyright Zondervan 2014.
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Are your thoughts typically more negative than positive? Do you ever experience mindlessness that prevents you from being present in your relationships with others? Start developing healthy habits for your mind! If you don’t know where to start, pray this simple prayer: Holy Spirit, would you help me? Would you give me the right thoughts?
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