Thursday, October 23, 2014

Getting Rid of Negative Thoughts

Unless your name is Pollyanna, you have probably had some days and nights where negative thoughts took over and darkened your mood. I'm not just talking about waking up on the wrong side of the bed and having a bad morning. I'm talking about a long-term funk.

A few weeks ago I started feeling a bit down-in-the-mouth with no clear reason. My wife would ask me what was wrong, but I could not articulate the problem. No one thing seemed to be the culprit. After ten or twelve days of this nonsense I sat down with my journal and decided to do a "brain dump" of everything negative that I could think might be a factor. I wrote a paragraph: gray weather, lack of exercise, bad eating habits, a few frustrations at the church, some disappointments on a couple of projects...

Then I wrote a heading--Blessings--and began to note some of the things for which I was grateful. My dad had my sister and me do this when we were kids. Before I knew it I had quite a list of blessings and my mood had improved.

Every time I do this exercise I can hear my dad singing "Count Your Blessings" in  the background.
"Count your many blessing name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done..."

This is a useful way to get our minds out of a cycle of negativity. Why do our minds move towards entropy? Why do worry, bitterness, frustration, and guilt crop up more frequently than peace, contentment, and hope? And misery loves company, so the cycle continues, spiraling down, down, down until we're depressed. The negative thoughts bounce off each other and echo in our minds with increasing intensity until we no longer know the source. Writing helps us sort things out.

But is this the best way to maintain a positive outlook on life? Is this the type of exercise that Paul was advocating in his letters, particularly in the letter to the Philippians? "Rejoice in the blessings always..." That is not what it says, but rather, "Rejoice in the Lord always." Do you see the difference? Blessings and circumstances can change--just read Job. Jesus does not.

Theologian Leslie Newbigin was once asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. He replied, "I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead." That is a powerful statement. Optimism or pessimism have to do with the state of things in our world. Are they improving or going to improve or are they declining with no hope of recovery? Neither. Christ is risen.

What in creation does that mean? Not creation but New Creation. Two verses of Scripture will help me illustrate how I understand this. First, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come" (ESV). Except that isn't what the Greek technically says. It says, "Therefore, if anyone [is] in Christ a new creation. The old things have passed away; Behold! has emerged the new." The Greek doesn't indicate that the person is new, but rather that in Christ they live in a new creation...a new creation that is emerging. It is not fully here, but it will be one day.

The second passage that speaks to this issue is five chapters later in 2 Corinthians 10: 5. Paul writes, "We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of  God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (ESV emphasis mine). The context of the passage indicates that we don't wage war through physical means but through ideas and truth. We are to take every thought captive--that means our own fallen and sinful thoughts too. We make them captive to Christ Jesus because, as the verse in chapter five shows, those who are in Christ have a new creation. The rules have changed. Christ has risen. Death has been reversed. The ultimate consequence of the fall has been stripped of its power and now we can have eternal life in relationship with God. Everything else is peanuts compared with that.

So when we find ourselves depressed it does us good to think on positive things, but those positive things shouldn't simply be the material or circumstantial blessings that God has given us. Rather we should look to the blessing we have in Christ. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:3 ESV). Through Him we have New Creation. We need not choose between optimism or pessimism--the victory has already been won.

So when you find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, fix your eyes upon Christ "and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace" (Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Helen Howarth Lemmel).

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