Many people look forward to the New Year for a new start—a chance to get rid of some old, nasty habits. I don’t think this is what God had in mind. I no longer make New Years resolutions. The habit of making plans, of criticizing and molding my life, is already a daily event for me—it’s part of God’s molding me into the likeness of his Son, Jesus. No question, this kind of change is hard. It’s like an unwelcome guest who arrived on our doorstep and isn’t leaving!
Whenever people try to make changes in their lives, there is a tendency to start out well but they end up doing exactly what they do not want to do. The apostle Paul experienced this in, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Like us, Paul struggled with his human nature.
We can really change our bad habits and unhealthy ways of interrelating. We are told in Philippians 1:6, "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." We know our sinful nature hinders positive changes, but God promises to help positive changes become lasting changes. For this to happen we must learn new thinking techniques.
Let’s take a look to our brain. Steve was chatting with his sister-in-law, who is a psychiatric nurse, about how plastic the brain is. His seven-year-old daughter, who had been listening in, asked in disbelief, “Our brains are made of plastic?” Steve explained that he didn’t mean plastic, literally, but rather that our brains can change and adapt with use.
God designed us with the ability to change our own brains. We actually can “rewire” our minds to some degree based upon need and use. This is call plasticity or neuroplasty. Plasticity is different than memory. If refers to the actual rewiring of the structure of the brain for a new type of use. Brain plasticity has two primary functions, developmental and damage repair. So when God says we are to renew our mind, he gives us the ability to do that. Scientifically, on a brain scan, we can see that bad choices and negative circumstances can actually be rewired.
Let’s talk about damage repair: when there is conflict between who you are being and who God created you to be there will be pain. We are integrated beings; therefore, that pain will be expressed spiritually, emotionally, physically and relationally.
Our behavior matches our identity. If we believe we are worthless, unworthy of love, insignificant, these beliefs will present themselves in our thinking and actions. We may do destructive things based out of fear instead of love.
God can heal us but we still need to develop our life skills and take in spiritual food in order to grow. Too many people today want pain relief—they don’t true transformation. They’d rather take an aspirin everyday to relive the pain than have the surgery and have to do the rehabilitation that goes along with it.
Our goal is to begin to identify and interrogate our beliefs so we can distinguish between false beliefs (lies) and godly truth. In your quiet time with God, ask him to begin to help you
begin to identity your core values and beliefs. You may come to know a belief through the emotion or feeling that is associated with it. You may also come to know a belief by looking at your behavior which may be your solution to an inner problem or conflict.
- I feel [sad]… therefore, I believe [no one wants to be around me]…, therefore, I behave [by withdrawing from bible study]…
- I feel fat. Therefore, I believe I will not be attractive to my husband.
- Therefore, I diet constantly and talk “fat talk” driving my family crazy!
Obstructing Mental Tracks
If we can stop the negativity going on in our heads, we can also stop our negative behaviors; therefore, we are not helpless nor are we captive to our genetics or predispositions over which we have no power. Instead, we have the power to change and stop the cycle of destructive behaviors and attitudes.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). What an incredible promise to claim, especially when we believe we are "transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2). God would not have told us this if he didn’t give us the ability to do it.
This is exactly what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Philippians 4:8, "Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." [It is noteworthy that he wrote this while in prison under conditions that would make any normal person depressed!]
God gives us the ability to think like this. The plastic brain is like a snowy hill in winter. Aspects of that hill—the slope, the rocks, the consistency of the snow are a given—like our DNA and family history. When we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a path determined both by how we steer and the characteristics of the hill. Where exactly we will end up is hard to predict because there are so many factors in play.
What will definitely happen the second time you take the slope down is that you will more likely than not find yourself somewhere or another that is related to the path you took the first time. It won’t be exactly that path, but it will be closer to that one than any other. If you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end you will have some paths that have been used a lot, some that have been used very little…and there will be tracks that you have created, and it is very difficult now to get out of those tracks.
We all have mental tracks that get laid down. They can lead to good habits or bad habits. It is possible to get out of those old tracks and start new ones. It can be difficult because once we have created these tracks, they become “really speedy” and very efficient at guiding the sled down the hill. Our usual obstacle is giving up familiarity and comfort. Additionally, stress, fatigue, and not having basic needs met, will tempt us to stay on the same course.
Everyday we make thousands of choices. Much of what we do comes from habitual behaviors. Most of our decisions are made by our unconscious. We gravitate towards familiarity; even though it may be unhealthy, it is comfortable. To take a different path becomes increasingly difficult unless a roadblock of some kind is put in the path to help us change direction.
It works this way: You have a thought. Your brain releases chemicals which can be emotionally toxic or not. An electrical transmission goes across your brain. Then you become aware of what you’re thinking. Thoughts stimulate emotions that result in an attitude which finally produces behavior. Allowing our minds to dwell on envy, lust, greed, or revenge only leads to bad behavior. All negative or wrong behavior starts withthat one thought.Ongoing negative behavior eventually wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies.
When we become aware of a negative thought, we have a choice: to let it go through or put up a road block. The answer: put up a road block. Where do we get this road block? The living Word of God. It’s the God tool we use to erect a road block.
Eugene Peterson, The Message, paraphrases 2 Corinthian 10:5-6, “We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.”
The NIV says, “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” That means we interrogate it and toss it out, or let the thought through. When prisoners are taken captive, they are interrogated. When we take a thought captive, we do the same: “Why am I thinking this way?” “Why do I keep doing what I don’t want to do? Where is this thought this coming from?” We stop and ask God for information. Job did this (see book of Job). But Job also learned it was not okay to demand answers from God. Sometimes we don’t get an answer. We accept that and move forward. We ask God questions such as:
- How did I get here? What are my core values? Who influences me strongly?
- What is it about the way I am designed and my past experiences that attracts me to those influencers? How do I detach myself?
- Where do I place you on my priority list? My family? Myself?
- What do I need to do in life, with your help, to attain balance and happiness?
- What values or convictions have I discovered that are causing conflict in my life?
Jesus was disciplined to follow the will of his Father. Then there is us—we impulsively put each thought into action immediately, instead of taking that thought captive. That is our flesh in action. Every one of our thoughts must be sifted through the filter system in our brain. Your brainallows you to select approximately 15-35 percent of what you read, hear, and see while getting rid of the remaining 65-85 percent.
Some of those thoughts get thrown out like trash. Others end up in the recycle bin and we find we’re taking them captive over and over again. If we build our mind with Scripture and godly thinking, then everything that goes through that sifter that is not scriptural, or truth, will set off our mental alarm. We reject it and toss it into the trash bin.
Physiologically, toxic thoughts upset the chemical balance in your brain, putting your body in a harmful state. The only way to prevent this from happening is by sifting through the toxic information and tossing it out. When you set your mind on Jesus and consciously take control of your thought life, it doesn’t take long for the positive benefits to kick in.
When that thought gets to the brain’s filter system, stop, and ask:
- What good or happiness do I think I am missing if I don’t stop this thought?
- What is the result that I’m trying to get by acting this way?
- How do I think my response will lead to meeting my unmet needs?
The fact is already formed thoughts and habits will resist. The flesh will fight but it will be bridled by the Holy Spirit. The beast will trouble you, but prayer will send him away. If you learn to bring every negative thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, it will be one of your greatest assets when the time of trial comes, because your faith and the Spirit of God will work together.
Jesus, Enlighten me with your eternal light. Restrain my wandering thoughts and take away all darkness from my heart. In your mercy, suppress the temptations which attack me so frequently. Join me to yourself in an inseparable bond of love.
Jesus, I can see you are seeking to bring me farther along the journey. I've learned I can't rely on the world’s methods or my own will and determination. I am weak. Forgive my sins of willfulness and selfishness. Forgive my sipping the nectar of the world. Forgive my flimsy excuses. Restore me as only you can. Amen.
Norman Doidge, M.D., The Brain the Changes Itself, 209-210, New York: Penguin Books, 2007
Caroline Leaf, Who Switched Off My Brain, 111-112, Switch On Your Brain Organisation Pty (Ltd.), 2007
Kimberly Davidson, Author ~ Become a Facebook fan Kimberly posts encouragement daily!