ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 21, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Romans 12: 1 – 18; John 3: 1 – 15
The human brain is one of God’s most amazing creations. While inside the womb, our brains produce 200 billion neurons giving us the power to think and act. By the time we’re about to enter the world, we’ve killed off about half of them; making us smarter before we were born than at any other time of our lives. Between the 2nd month of gestation and our 2nd birthday, our bodies produce 1.8 synapses per second. Neurons that change and mould us our constantly firing in our minds. The pathways between our neurons become shaped in ways that are completely unique to you. The brain is not a static organ, it has something called neuroplasticity. It strengthens and increases the pathways we use and allows under-used corridors to whither away. In other words, our thoughts shape our brains. Pathways with no traffic are closed, while heavily trafficked ones grow stronger and thicker. Neurons that fire together wire together. When you practice a certain thought pattern, say gratitude, your mind literally rewires your brain. This works the other way too. When our thinking is not sensible, helpful, or positive our brains get wired in obstructive ways. Thoughts that are out of step with reality are called “cognitive distortions”. Cognition being the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. And distortions being the ways we warp those thoughts, experiences and senses. More simply, we could think of this as “stinky thinking”. Let’s for a moment have a look at some of the habitual ways our minds twist reality.
Blaming, the inability to be responsible for ones actions is as old as Adam and Eve. I am never at fault.
Polarized Thinking is the propensity to view everything as black and white, good and bad, all or nothing. One is either perfect or a total failure. Relationships are ideal or completely flawed.
Filtering is the ability to pick and choose our facts. Regardless of how successful, honoured or rich one is, one always feels worthless. Or the reverse may happen, people can’t admit they have weaknesses.
Personalization is the inclination to view everything that happens as being about or against you.
Over-generalization is the certainty that if something bad happens once, life will always unfold that way.
Labelling takes an over-generalization and applies it to a group (they’re all criminals), an individual (she’s a spoiled princess), one’s self (I’m stupid) or a partner (I’m with stupid).
Fortune-Telling is the tendency to jump to conclusions without knowing the facts.
Catastrophizing is the most horrible, terrifying, deadly thing that can ever happen and it’s happening now.
Control Fallacies covers both the sense that you have no say or control over your life and the sense that you are responsible for everything that happens. (It’s not all about you).
Fallacies of Fairness and Reward Fallacies are the conviction that all of life should be fair and good actions should be rewarded.
Shoulds ‘Should’ people have a lot of rules, which create anger and guilt towards others, God, and life and within themselves.
Emotional Reasoning allows are feelings to dictate our reality. If I feel it, it’s true. ER encourages victimization.
Fallacy of Change If I try hard enough, I can change someone else. (Hint: you’re not that powerful).
Being Right Also known as “male answer syndrome” and “I don’t need Google, my wife knows everything.”
Denial Ignoring all facts and evidence and making up your own truth. (aka lying to oneself).
A few years ago, my dog had the misfortune of being sprayed by a skunk. We had the misfortune that he came into the house. We washed him and cleaned the house thoroughly, but the smell still lingered. Then we discovered a family of skunks living under our deck. We realized it wasn’t enough to treat the smell, we needed to get rid of the skunks. So, one afternoon, I created a trail of ham leading from the gap under the deck to the far corner of the yard. Within minutes the skunks came out and ate their way away from the house. Very quickly, I nailed a board over the gap. (Do not do this at home, kids.) A few days later one of our neighbours reported they had a family of skunks under their deck. The point is, our negative feelings are like skunk odours. We can try to change our feelings, but feelings initiate in our thoughts. Trying to change emotions without a change in our thought process, is like fumigating the house while the skunks are still under the deck. To remove the oppressive feelings, we need new ways of thinking. We need a new mind.
As we do with feelings, people often view themselves as passive spectators or helpless victims to our thought processes. On one level we know our thoughts are making our soul ill, on another we feel unable to change. Trying to change our patterns of thinking – our brain’s wiring by will-power alone is nigh impossible, we need the life-changing flow of the Spirit to redirect the currents of our thoughts. Like Nicodemus, living out the patterns that have developed from birth won’t get us there. Even if we could crawl back into the womb and start over, it would be déjà vu all over again. If we want to experience God’s kingdom, God’s wholeness and shalom, we need to be born from above. The good news is, the Spirit wants us to be whole and mature, even more than we want it for ourselves. The Spirit wants to flow within us, making us the best, most God glorifying self we can be. In the flow of the Spirit our thoughts and emotions can change. We can ask the Spirit to guide our thoughts and we need to be willing to ask the Spirit to renew our minds and souls. The Spirit desires to work within us, and God’s design is that we are not to be passive spectators or helpless victims in the Spirit’s work. God asks us to participate in our own lives. God empowers us to work with the Spirit because part of our healing is realizing we aren’t helpless victims. We can take custody of our own souls.
After asking to be brought into the flow of the Spirit’s renewing power, we need to become aware of our thought processes. Through which cognitive dysfunctions do I sift my experiences? We need the Spirit’s light for this, and we also need the Spirit’s gentleness, because we bring our thinking habits to the process. We beat up one ourselves for the habit of beating up on ourselves. We need to develop the ability to be present to our thoughts without judging them. Toddlers beginning to walk, fall frequently. But they don’t judge themselves with paralysing thoughts like, “Fallen again. I’m clumsy and hopeless. I’ll never learn to walk. I deserve to crawl until I’m 60). They simply get up and keep going. While they delight in the process. Learning to walk in the Spirit takes at least as much strength and grace so we can be aware of our thoughts without being burdened by the need to change them. Paul states, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8: 6). As we go through our day, we can pay attention to what we’re thinking and ask ourselves if this thought is leading me towards life and peace – towards God and becoming all God wants me to be, or is it leading me to death? You may even want to set a timer throughout the day, so that when it goes off, you can monitor your thoughts. It may help to write them on a scale of one to ten based on whether they lead you towards life and peace or towards death. Death can feel like despair, depression or deflation; for those with an inflated sense of self, or who are too vulnerable to ever admit you have a fault, it can also look like inflation, grandiosity, dismissiveness of other. The Spirit wants to liberate us, both from thinking that we’re nothing and thinking that we’re God.
Our mindset makes a difference in how we experience life. As dog’s day unfolds, he thinks: “food, my favorite thing! A walk, my favorite thing! An ear rub, my favorite thing! A nap…” Well you get it. A cat thinks: “983 days of captivity. I am being tormented by stuffed toys dangled in my face. I dream of escape”. Similar experiences, different reactions. Although it may not seem like it, we choose our thoughts and reactions, so we’re able to choose different ones. As a minister, I’ve received my fair share of criticism. My go-to thoughts are usually filtering, personalization, fallacies of fairness, control fallacies and catastrophizing with a few “shoulds” thrown in for good measure. I feel useless and hopeless. But I am learning in those times, to open myself to the Holy Spirit and ask her to show me the truth and to change my thoughts. So, the Spirit says, “you feel hurt. Your self image has been challenged. We can work with that. I love you and yes, you’re not perfect. You don’t need to be. It’s true you messed that up and need to make amends. It’s also true that the person who said that has ego problems and needs to humble herself, so don’t give her so much power. This is a chance to grow”. This is grace. Without it, I’d have collapsed years ago. But if I keep my heart turned towards God and I’m open to the re-birth of the Spirit, I can see life through a new, clearer and better lens. This can be demanding, if we’re resistant to renewal. I’ve had many people tell me, “I know he’s married and it’s wrong, but the heart wants what it wants. I can’t help it.” Well, you can. Ask the Spirit to reset your heart. Talk to women whose husbands have been unfaithful. Hear the betrayal. See the hurt in their eyes. You will think new thoughts! In the flow of the Spirit, your feelings will change. I’ve known people who work with the public and put up with a lot of grief, they become equally miserable. But with the Spirit’s insight, they can be renewed in their thinking and not allow the unhappiness of someone else to dictate their thoughts and feelings.
The design of our brains are an amazing part of God’s creation, but like everything about us, our thoughts are in need of the Spirit’s renewal, if we’re to live the abundant life Jesus offers. In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell out of heaven or a heaven out of hell.” Where do your thoughts lead you? The Psalmist wrote, “Investigate my heart, O God, find out everything about me; Cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of my mind; see where I’m wrong— then guide me on the road to eternal life” (Psalm 139:23). If you want a new mind, if you want a new and happier life, ask God to help you see where you’re wrong, and let the Spirit renew you in streams of living water.