Sometimes there are sad thoughts I must think. Life, it turns out, is not always happy.
But sometimes there are sad thoughts I don’t have to think…and I think them anyway. I bet this has happened to you, too. I could be going through my day seemingly fine, and the next thing I know I have brought myself nearly to tears from a conversation that happened no place except in my head.
Why on earth would I do this to myself? And more importantly, how do I stop it?
Let me share what I learned recently.
Just the other day I caught myself ready to launch off the cliff of sad thoughts. The fact that I even recognized where my thoughts were headed is a miracle in and of itself. But I stopped just long enough for an SOS prayer: Dear God, I’m headed no place good. What should I think about instead? Tell me what to focus on.
It has been said that the answer to every problem we face is in the Bible. I have not applied this theory enough to vouch for its complete validity, but I can say in this case the answer was surprisingly black and white. Because in response to my plea, the Bible records Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he explicitly tells his readers to think about some things.
It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Unfortunately, I can never remember exactly how the verse goes, so I stood there for quite some time trying to remember it. It’s like I was handed the answer to my prayer in a package, and I needed to unwrap it piece by piece. I know there are things that are true and lovely, something about noble and praiseworthy.
Perhaps it’s good that I can never completely remember this verse because the longer I spent trying to recall the verse, the more my mind began thinking about the thinking that I should be thinking and less about the thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking.
(It’s okay, read it again.)
In other words, the process of recalling to mind what I should be thinking helped pull me from the wrong path my thoughts were headed down. There is likely a neuro-cognitive explanation for this. I’m no brain scientist, but I know our emotions can run rampant when certain parts of our brain get triggered. When this is starting to happen, the process of trying to recall a verse can help by firing up a different part of our brain – the part involved in language, reasoning, and metacognition. These are the things that let us step back and perceive what is happening to ourselves rather than being swept away in the emotional response. Once certain parts of our brain are activated, we have a greater ability to redirect our thoughts.
I find this fascinating. We know when we are discussing it rationally over a cup of tea, that we should think about things that are lovely, noble, praiseworthy and all the rest. We may even be able to quote Philippians 4:8 verbatim. But when that verse has fled our consciousness and our thoughts are about to jump off the cliff-of-the-not-so-noble, there is still a path back.
“Think about these things,” Paul wrote. And if you can’t actually think about them, think about thinking about them. Try to call that verse to mind. Try to remember what it is you are supposed to be thinking about. Get new parts of your brain engaged. You might be surprised at the power you have to take your thoughts captive. You are, in fact, able to pull yourself back from the brink and start down a new path, but you do it bit by bit, one thought at a time.
God answered my plea with a verse that worked even when I couldn’t remember it. You might be surprised how the simple act of trying to remember can help you move in a new direction, too.
Janet Beagle, Ph.D. serves as director of graduate programs for Purdue University’s College of Engineering and is a writer, a Bible study teacher, and a student of God’s Word. In her spare time, she likes to eat other people’s cooking and hike with her two- and four-footed friends. Read more of Janet’s Christian reflections at www.mustardpatch.org