You choose what you think about. That’s why God is being perfectly reasonable when He commands you to think about good things: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8, ESV).
What do you think about that? Admittedly, sometimes you are confronted with an image that invades your thoughts, or you have wild dreams while sleeping, or someone shares hurtful gossip with you that you didn’t want to hear. Your mind is then temporarily hijacked. But you get to choose whether you dwell on that or replace it with something healthier. Your conscious moments of reflection are your moments, your choices, and your thoughts. And the way that you choose to think has a significant impact on your attitude and character. It may take some effort for you to find them, but there are things happening that are positive, things that are “true … honorable … just … pure … lovely … commendable … worthy of praise.” God says, “think about these things.”
This is not merely the human psychology of positive thinking. It’s not trying to capture positive vibes that are floating around the cosmos. It’s not developing a body posture that makes you more open to the positive self, and it’s not about repeating verses or phrases merely as a mantra. It’s about rejoicing (Phil 4:4), being thankful (4:6), being content (4:11), and not being a complainer (2:14). Negative murmurings are poison to your mind. Sadly, they are also contagious. One person’s bitterness justifies the feelings of a second person who is a little upset. Together, they sway a third person. Now, they become a group that feeds off one another and shares their poison with anyone who will listen, resulting in their downfall. “The elders don’t care.” “The ministry is never any good.” “Nobody will come to the meetings.” “That paint color is ugly.” Really? Is that “lovely” conversation? Are they “true” thoughts?
This does not mean that you should avoid reality. Mindless optimism can hinder an honest assessment and stifle required change. Sometimes there are problems that need to be addressed. Sometimes there are concerns that need to be expressed. So, express them. If you are in a crisis, don’t be afraid to ask someone else for help. But simply dwelling on negatives and playing them over in your mind doesn’t help the situation. It often makes it worse and produces discouragement. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22, ESV). Generally, the Old Testament word “heart” corresponds more to our mind than our emotions. The verse is not telling you to put on a fake smile and tell everyone that everything is fine when it isn’t. The verse is a reminder that our attitude impacts our health, and that a positive thought pattern better equips us to tackle life. Dried up bones make it hard to walk the Christian walk.
Discouragement is not an uncommon experience for the Lord’s people. Don’t think you are strange or weak or a bad Christian if you sometimes get discouraged. In fact, the Lord is well able to use such circumstances for His glory and for your good. He brings you through those times to teach you to turn to Him and trust Him, above all else and anyone else. The devil, however, knows that a discouraged saint is less effective and he wants to keep you in that pit. Screwtape’s advice to his under-demon, Wormwood, is: “Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anti-climax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy [God] allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavor … And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”1 Thankfully, “greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1John 4:4), and, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26, ESV).
In times of anxiety or discouragement, or when in the company of excessive negativity, you need to rein in your own mind. This is an exercise in self-discipline, which is to be a hallmark of our Christianity. It isn’t easy, but you are in control of what you choose to think about. Turn your thoughts to the Lord and the blessings of His salvation. Turn your eyes to the Scriptures: “The words of the LORD are pure words” (Psa 12:6). Pray, and ask the Lord for help to see the positives. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
If there are problems in the assembly where you fellowship, do not be shocked. The Christians there are not only saints … they are also humans – like you! Once there was an assembly where rivalry and envy were rampant. It was obvious in those preaching the gospel. Sisters who used to work together no longer got along. Imagine what the young believers were feeling. The Apostle Paul gave them some good advice. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice … Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:4, 8, ESV).
1 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Company, 1990), 17-18.