Whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear. No white bears. Try it..close your eyes and don’t think at all about a white bear.
How long did you make it??
Sometimes it seems like the harder we try not to think about something, not to worry about something, not to be distracted by something… the more pervasive “it” becomes!
Or is that just me?
Did you know there’s actually a term for this? Studies have been done to test the “Ironic Process Theory”, coined by Dr Daniel Wegner. It basically says the harder we try to suppress a thought, the more likely it is to keep coming back.
I’m pretty sure I could have told him that.
Even if you don’t battle anxiety or depression or any of the other so-called ‘biggies’, I would imagine you could have told him that as well.
Even when I’m thinking healthily, I still find myself so frustrated with my distracting thoughts at times. Whether it’s listening to a friend and thinking about my to-do list, or trying to pray and catching myself having a mock conversation with someone I’m praying about (please tell me I’m not alone in this?!), the more I try to make myself not think about something, the harder it persists.
Regardless of what your distracting thoughts are, I think we can all find common ground in that they aren’t focused on God. I imagine most of them are focused on ourselves.
I’ve talked before about the pivotol moment for me, when I really understood the fact that even a lowly perspective of myself was still focusing on my self instead of my God. But even after coming to that realization, it was several more years before I began to understand how to turn my focus off myself and on to God.
I love this response to a quote from William Temple, in which he basically says what I mentioned above…humility is not simply thinking less of ourselves.
Gary Inrig replies, “That is true but it stops short of telling you how not to think of ourselves (emphasis mine). The answer is that we are to fill our minds with the lord Jesus. It is worship that drives out arrogance and pours in love.”
I see three primary aspects to our thought processes, and I believe scripture speaks very clearly to each one. Intentionality in each of these aspects is how we “fill our minds with the Lord Jesus”, as Ingrig writes.
1. We are intentional with the information we allow in from the outside
Perhaps one of the most referenced verses when it comes to how we ought to filter what we allow into our minds is this-
“Finally brothers, 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me-practice these things, and the peace of God will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9
We can’t think on these things if there’s nothing in our daily lives that meets the criteria! If the only sources we have to draw on for our thoughts are the antithesis of this passage, we have no hope of fullfilling this admonishment. What we read, who we listen to, what we watch…these all play a role in our ability to think on these ideals from Philippians. I’m not saying we can only ever read the Bible and only ever watch or listen to Christian teaching and radio. I am saying that at some point, whatever we’ve allowed to be the input into our brains becomes our white bear. If you’d never seen a white bear or known what it was, it would be much easier to avoid the distracting thoughts it produces.
2. We are equipped with the words of God to replace any thoughts which are contrary to Him once they do get in.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32
In order to take our thoughts captive, we must be equipped with truth to replace the lies. As I’ve become more intentional with what I allow in from the outside, the lies and thoughts contrary to God have lessened. However, the enemy hasn’t gone anywhere. And when he finds something that can easily get my focus mixed up I HAVE to have words and thoughts that are true to be able to literally fight that battle in my mind.
Knowing what God has to say about the white bear is the only way to make it go away.
3. Our filter for what comes out of us is just as intentional as what comes in.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” 2 Corinthians 5:17
At first glance this scritpure might not seem to speak to this point, but stay with me for a second. If we are alive in Christ, our old selves are crucified with Him. That means that our speach and actions will increasingly reflect the mind of Christ and not our own. In the meantime we are in this strange place where thoughts that were once pervasive and distracting will continue to pop up from time to time. If we are intent on not thinking about the white bear, but we continue to talk about it with those around us…well…it’s not going to go anywhere!
This means that when thoughts of gossip or slander cross our minds, we not only replace them with truth but we keep them to ourselves!
When thoughts of self-loathing creep back in, we don’t allow them to be multiplied by the regret of verbally vomiting on the nearest listener.
I don’t mean to say that we bottle everything up and exhibit false piety. Far from it! But we can be transparent and vulnerable and authentic with others without sharing everything. I can acknowledge that in my own strength I’m still a mess without giving you a laundry list of all the reasons why. Which of us does that benefit?
If I need you to know all of my shortcomings to help me overcome them then I am attempting to use you to meet a need for me that you were never intended to meet. And if you need to know all of my shortcomings in order to feel better about your own, then your eyes are off of Christ. There is no level of satisfaction or redemption that another person’s insufficiencies will ever bring you. Christ alone took on our sins and failures, and Christ alone is our redemption.
So we ask the Lord for discernment and wisdom as to when it is appropriate to share more or less with others, for their edification and His glory. But we don’t look for opportunities to tell everyone around us about the white bear we are doing our best to not think about.
In each of these three areas we must be intentional, because we have a very real enemy who is intentional toward our demise.
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8
But thankfuly, we have a Father who loves us more than the enemy can ever despise us. He will help us in our weakness, lead us, teach us, and guide us.
Thank you, Father, that “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you.” Isaiah 26:3