This summer, my pastor handed out a list of fourteen steps to help us go deeper in our faith. The eleventh step on his list is “replace unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones.” What kinds of thoughts are spiritually unhealthy? How do you replace them with healthy thoughts?
Before considering thoughts that are unhealthy, I thought about the interplay of thoughts and feelings. Do thoughts and beliefs influence feelings or do our feelings drive our thoughts? I think the answer is both. I also think that both thoughts and feelings influence behavior but feelings are harder to control. If I am angry, rational thoughts fly out the window and I am more likely to say something I should not say.
❤ The Voice of Authority ❤
Before you can replace unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones, you have to recognize that your thoughts are unhealthy. Consider this list of negative emotions: hate, fear, anger, jealousy, guilt, shame, blame, anguish, pity, despair, sorrow. Negative emotions are not necessarily unhealthy. It’s healthy to feel sorrow when you experience a loss or to be afraid when you are in danger. Does the negative emotion help you process and accept an event that you cannot change? Does it motivate you to change things you can realistically change?
I think it is important to recognize that unhealthy thoughts may fit a pattern. We may be in the habit of reacting in a way that is not healthy. Blaming other people for our problems. Blowing things out of proportion. Jumping to conclusions. Making everything personal. Healthy emotions match the situation. Healthy thoughts are constructive.
But now, I’ll get to the heart of why it is important for a Christian to recognize and deal with unhealthy thoughts.
Last week, I listened to a sermon on the Hebrew word for heart, leb, לֵב. Pastor Bruce explained the meaning of the letters. The first letter (read from the right to the left) looks like a staff or cane and the other represents a tent. The staff symbolizes authority and the tent symbolizes being in the tent or home. Taken together, the heart is the voice of authority within the human body. It is what we know as the conscience.
The heart is the home for thoughts and emotions. A Christian’s heart belongs to God. We are commanded to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Any thought that keeps me from loving God with all my heart or from loving other people as I love myself is not spiritually healthy. Bad thoughts do not produce the righteousness that God desires.
Our actions reveal what is in our hearts. As Jesus pointed out, hypocrites, though they may act righteous, neglect matters that are important to God – justice, mercy and faithfulness. Jesus compared the heart to a cup or dish that hypocrites clean on the outside, while inside, the cup is filthy with greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23). Unhealthy thoughts of anger and resentment keep followers of Jesus from being the light of the world. “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness (1 John 2:9).
Our words often reveal the unhealthy thoughts in our hearts. “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)
Think about good things
I made a list of healthy, positive thoughts: love, trust, gratitude, peace, joy, hope, mercy, comfort, patience, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, self-control. Even making a list of healthy thoughts is good for my heart! There is no shortage of healthy thoughts to replace unhealthy ones.
In reality, I know that I can’t flip a switch to replace my unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones. I have to consciously think about what is good and right and admirable. I have to remind myself to not lean on my own limited understanding. I have to remind myself to trust in the Lord with all my heart because he is the source of all that is good. I have to intentionally put bad experiences in perspective and to remind myself why I have hope.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. – Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
We all have unhealthy thoughts that are replaceable with healthy ones. At times, I have struggled with fear, anger, impatience, envy, and despair. Fear can be replaced with love, anger with compassion, impatience with patience, envy with gratitude, despair with hope.
Reading List: Psalm 138:8 Proverbs 3:5-6 Philippians 4:8 John 15:9; 16:33 Romans 12:1-2 1 Corinthians 10:31 2 Timothy 2:15 Hebrews 13:14 James 1:12-21 1 Peter 5:7 1 John 4:18