What thoughts occupy you in a typical day?
I grew up in a fairly conservative, legalistic church community, and it messed me up big-time. Through most of my twenties, I was consumed every day with thoughts of all the things I did wrong. I was convinced, not only that I wasn’t good enough, but that I could never be good enough. After all, I was never able to do things right—I always continued to make mistakes. I’d been told that wasn’t okay.
We talked a lot last week about lies, and about the necessity of taking our thoughts captive. Today I want to take that discussion even farther, getting into the physical, hormonal reality behind these thoughts, the physiological mechanisms of what you might call “sin”—to answer the age-old question of why we do the things we don’t want to do and don’t do the things we do want to do, as the apostle Paul said all those years ago.
If you asked them, most people would say that they value love, positivity, and relationships far over things like money, pain/pleasure, and other selfish interests, but this is generally more a statement of what you believe is right than how you actually live.
I can still vividly remember the time I stole a candy bar as a child. It’s the first overt sin I can remember committing. I remember how it started with a simple desire—a candy bar would taste good, but I don’t have any money. Then, as I dwelled on it, it went from a desire to a need. I started to feel anxious, flushed, even a little panicky—just from thinking about it! I hadn’t even decided to do it, yet. But really, I never did decide that… those feelings just sort of decided themselves.
Recent studies are shedding fascinating light on this subject. So there’s a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which determines what hormones to release into your body. When it receives a love-based signal, it triggers a certain response, releasing oxytocin and endorphins. There’s nothing else quite like this feeling. It’s the sort of thing that comes with falling in love or doing good work on a task that you find intensely personally fulfilling.
Then you’ve got the fear-based signals, which release things like adrenaline and cortisol. Hormones that are practically synonymous with physiological stress, which stunts our creativity, emotional intelligence, our energy (in the long term), and making us far more vulnerable to illness and disease.
But where all of this gets really interesting is in the new research on what happens when you imagine doing something that you believe is wrong for you, like I did with the candy bar. When you do this, the research says, is the only time the hypothalamus releases BOTH sets of hormones, positive and negative. This creates a sort of chemical tidal wave that is practically impossible to resist, once it reaches that point.
Well, that certainly matches my experience. In fact, I can even be a little more specific. In my case, I’d say it takes about two minutes of dwelling on a sin before it reaches that point for me. I’m sure that timeframe is different for different people.
So when that temptation comes, it’s a time for taking thoughts captive. My spiritual mentor, Larry Napier, used to refer to it as “changing the channel.” Human beings aren’t actually very good at multitasking. Really, when we try to do two or three things at once, we’re just switching quickly between them. The conscious mind can’t actually think about more than one thing at the same time—while the unconscious can think about hundreds.
If you look through scripture, it gives some pretty detailed instructions on what sort of thoughts we should take captive: blasphemous thoughts, fearful thoughts, haughty thoughts, obsessive thoughts, thoughts of guilt and shame, people-pleasing thoughts, and fantasy thoughts—what you might call “wicked imagination.” I could keep going, but you get the idea.
So which types of thoughts are occupying your head in an average day?
These are the types of questions we have to be willing to ask ourselves—and don’t worry too much if you’ve got a bunch of those I listed above. It’s a process, and it’s hard for everyone.
But I’ll tell you what helped me… when you’re confronted by any of these kinds of tempting or just plain negative thoughts, turn them into a prayer. Don’t try to dress them up or censor yourself, either. If you’re angry, pray angry. Let God know what you’re really thinking and feeling, it’s not as if you can surprise Him.
This is one of the most powerful techniques I’ve ever found. Do this whenever a negative thought surfaces, and it will be really annoying at first because you’ll find yourself doing it so often that it feels like a disruption. But stay with it, and after a couple of weeks, I think you’ll experience a shift in your subconscious. It’s as if your subconscious throws up its hands and says, “Fine, I get it!” and largely stops sending you those types of thoughts. That’s when you reach the high country.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!