Thoughts direct our lives

Thoughts direct our lives. That is the message that comes from the early Christian spiritual writers. As they looked into their own hearts and listened to the stories of the men and women who came to them for spiritual guidance, they noticed the important role thoughts play in shaping our lives. We hold, in our thoughts, a way of seeing and "being in" the world. Converts to Christ discover new ways of thinking. Sometimes we are oppressed by our thoughts: patterns of perceiving, relating, and understanding that crowd out the presence of God's Spirit in our lives. And at other times our thoughts bring us comfort and enable us to make tough choices and live well. An important message of these early desert spiritual masters is that “you are not your thoughts.” We may have thoughts that are lustful or revengeful, but we can choose to step away from them. 

Paul highlights the fickle nature of these thoughts when he says “their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Rom 2:15, NRSV). These thoughts are not productive thinking—the thoughts of planning, solving a problem, or thinking hard about something—but the mental chatter of accusations, daydreams, nursing wounds, and thoughts of anger and revenge. The desert writers remind us that it is not only the content of these thoughts that is the problem, but the very presence of what they called logismoi. These are the automatic negative thoughts, the self-focused daydreams, and the fantasies. The desert elders saw these thoughts as having a sticky quality because, like velcro, they attach themselves to other thoughts and quickly form a train of thoughts. As Meg Funk reminds us “thoughts are like a comet that has a life of its own with a trail of little vapors in its tail”( Funk 2013, 3). None of these tempting thoughts are innocent, they remove us from the here and now—where God is at work—and contain lies about our true value and God’s love for us. We find God in reality—in the beauty of nature, in the gift of a friendship, in doing well the work that is before us, or in the hope of the resurrection in the midst of tragedy. We do not find God in the chatter of our heads. This ancient wisdom tells us to step back from the chatter and listen to the small still voice of God in His word and His world. It is only found in the present moment, so be mindful to this time. We should seek to have our minds carefully observe and engage in the situation at hand—living fully in the moment rather than being trapped in our “vain imaginations” (Rom 1:21, KJV).

The ancient writers saw these automatic thoughts as very appealing and generated by one’s mind more than perceived in the real world. One of the great human freedoms is the ability to direct the focus of our attention. If you are told, “pay attention to what you are doing,” “watch the road,” or “think about a white bear” we have a remarkable ability to direct our thinking in the short term. We find it easier to switch our focus than to maintain long-term attention. Because we are so good at switching our attention we can operate under the illusion that willpower is all we need to continuously direct our thinking. These ancient Christian psychologists remind us that trying (using will power alone) will never bring about the results that training our brain through spiritual practices will produce.

Our thoughts do matter, and over time we can learn to reshape the way we think and what we focus on. Our initial attempts at redirecting our thoughts may end so poorly that we may be tempted to give up. As difficult as this change may be, there is reason for optimism, for both the Bible and contemporary neuroscience tell us we can reshape the focus of our attention.

Funk, Mary Margaret. 2013. Tools Matter: Beginning the Spiritual Journey. Collegeville, Minn.: iturgical Press.