It matters what you think

If you are asked, ‘What are you doing?’ you may say, ‘Just thinking.’ But we are never just thinking. What is going on in our heads—or not going on—affects what happens. Good thinking leads to good living.

It’s also true that if you are not thinking, someone else is doing it for you. And one day, you may resent giving your mind over to others—to musicians, playwrights, pressure groups or dictators.

But how does healthy thinking happen? I’m not trying to be an amateur psychologist here. I’m simply pointing out some directions we’ve been given to help us think well. They come from Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (4:4-9).

In human terms, if we are going to think well, we need to be inwardly happy—not depressed by our circumstances. We also need some confidence—so we are not embattled by rival opinions.

We need to be secure rather than anxious. And we also need lots of good options to choose from.

Many would agree with all this. Courses and therapies try to produce these states so that we can think and live well.

But Paul shows that these qualities arise from who God is, and from what Jesus Christ does. The world believes its enlightenment comes from our own history and experience. But we need to be enlightened by God speaking to us. Our thinking then becomes the way these unseen things become visible in the real world.

Let’s see how this works out.

First, Paul tells us to delight in the Lord—that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are not just called to believe in Jesus Christ but enjoy him. A healthy mind starts by being happy, content, joyful—and Jesus Christ has given us good reason to do that.

Anyone who’s suffered with depression will tell you unhappiness is not healthy. It doesn’t lead to good decisions, or relationships or communities.

Because there’s a lot of trouble in the world, many would say we need to represent this in our attitudes and arts. For example, we have angry music, catastrophic news casts, dystopian novels and bizarre entertainment.

There’s lots in this world that’s going wrong. We can’t close our eyes to what’s painful or evil. Some things should make us speak up or try to change things. But if this is all we have, we tend to produce more despair than hope, more anger than action.

The Christian has a reason to be joyful. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. Jesus is coming again. This is the framework for our thinking. The world has a Saviour. And we are part of what he is doing.

Notice, this joy is not something that happens to us. It’s something we decide. ‘Rejoice in the Lord, and again, I say, rejoice!’ We’re being called to embrace this. Some are waiting for their circumstances to change to give them some joy. God is giving us an opportunity to change our thinking. It could be that this will become the cause of a change in circumstance.

Paul describes himself doing this a little earlier in his letter. Things haven’t worked out well with his work. People are opposing him, competing with him. But he reckons that Jesus is still being made known. This makes him glad. Then he says, ‘And I will rejoice!’ (1:18).

This attitude helps him to think of things that will give joy to others (2:27-28).

We all need to find this source of inward delight. Is this what you have? Is this something you’ve been missing out on? Have circumstances been framing your thinking? What do you have that secures your happiness?

Think again of what you have in Jesus Christ—the forgiveness of sins, a place in God’s favour and purpose, a Father to approach and a goal to share. Set your mind on these things and see if life changes!

Second, our core confidence is that the Lord is near. So, we can be reasonable or gentle towards others.  

In practical terms, if we know where we are coming from, we don’t need to get rattled by people with opposing views. If we’re sure of our ground, we don’t need to shout.

This is a big ask—given the frustrating and frightening situations and people we meet. But Paul has a reason: ‘The Lord is near.’ He could mean that Jesus is coming back again to put everything right. Or he could mean Jesus is here now. Both are true.

Jesus has confronted this world’s corruption and rebellion head on. He let the world kill him. And he did it for us. And God raised him from the dead and put him in charge of everything. And now, he is near. The situations we are facing are being managed by him and he has us in the middle of it for some purpose.

People say you have to be strong when confronted by something really difficult. That’s true. But the Christian is saying that someone else strong is near—Jesus Christ. That’s our strength.

Many Christians can tell us about their experience of going through difficulty and finding Jesus Christ more real and powerful than they ever did before. Their difficulty made Jesus Christ more enjoyable—not less. Their thinking changed. And they changed. And things around them started changing.

Third, we need to call on God for what we need—and not let them run on into anxiety.

Think about this. Something is wrong, threatening, damaging or impossible to manage. Isn’t fright and flight an appropriate response?

In lots of situations, putting ourselves out of harm’s way is the best option. But that’s not always possible. And then, there’s lots of reasons why we feel anxiety. We can’t always switch these feelings off with some positive thinking.

It helps a lot if we know there’s something we can do. We can pray.

Now, here’s something very interesting. When we learn to pray rather than give way to panic, God’s peace will be like a wall around us. Notice, he’s not saying we feel peaceful. He’s saying the peace of God is around us.

Our God is the ‘God of peace’ (v. 9). This is who he is. He isn’t flustered, altered or surprised by anything. He has decided how things will work out best and that is the plan he’s working on. It’s this peace—a lot bigger than what will fit in our heads—that will keep our hearts and minds.

God doesn’t make us clever enough to cope. Our thinking needs to be going on inside his thinking. There are some things we just can’t work out. We weren’t meant to. We are meant to pray. And God will keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ. That is, he won’t explain the complexities of everything. He will keep us trusting his Son.

That’s where we can find help for our mental health.

Fourth, we have a list of good things to focus on.        

There are lots of things that are worthy of attention—things that are true, worthy, right, pure, lovely, admirable. The long list of similar words suggests that we won’t be stuck for things to dwell on.

There’s a Bible full of good things to read. But the list suggests people and events we are seeing, hearing, studying or sharing in. There are wonderful examples in people around us who do worthy things. We can seek out their company. Or we can read their stories. We can learn from what they discover and be encouraged

Of course, there’s plenty of things we can’t avoid seeing and hearing that are false, shameful, impure or ugly.  We need to grieve over them. We may have to deal with them.

Again, the Bible has many sad and gruesome stories. However, if you read the whole story, you can see that they are told from the perspective of a God who deals with evil and promises good.

These impure, things don’t need to frame our thinking. So, we don’t need to feed on them and let them fester in our heads. We need to hate them and put something better in their place (Jude 22).

We need a mind full of good things if we are going to form proper assessments, make good choices and act well. And we need to seek them out, delight in them and let them shape our decisions.

Elsewhere, Paul tell us that God transforms us by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). This happens by thinking that starts with what God has done, and looks at everything else from that point of view.

I hope these pointers help us on the way to some good thinking.

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