Category Archives: Thoughts

Who Do You Think You Are?

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Knowing who you are is an important concept when it comes to good mental health. Development of a healthy sense of self is one of the primary tasks of youth. However, a sense of self is a problematic concept for a lot of Christ followers. Are we supposed to love ourselves? Where is the line between loving myself and “thinking more highly of myself than I ought”? If I’m confident in myself, does that mean I’m not humble? While the answers to these questions are complex, I think the answer lies in having our identity in Christ, but what does it really mean to have “identity in Christ?”

A sense of identity in the world generally occurs through relationship. My identity as a child follows this loose formula: I start to get a sense of myself; I start to get a sense of you; and then the relationship that exists (how you interact with me, what you think of me, how you respond to me) shapes my identity. As you go on in life, this same loose formula applies. My sense of myself as a wife is based on knowing myself, knowing my husband and the relationship we have with each other – the ways we respond and love each other confirms my identity as his wife. Even non-personal identities can be formed this way. A sense of identity as a certain kind of employee is based on knowing me (my skills and what I have to offer); knowing the company (what skills are required and what they are looking for); and then the relationship between those two is confirmed with production, employee reviews and so forth. I get a sense of identity as a certain kind of worker through the relationship between these three things.

I think we can apply this same loose formula to our identity in Christ. Identity in Christ is based on knowing who I am in relationship to Him; knowing Him and what He has done; and the relationship that exists between us – how He interacts with me, responds to me, what He thinks of me and how He reveals himself to me. If any of these three pieces is out of place, my sense of identity in Christ will be skewed accordingly. That’s why perhaps it’s easier to talk about this topic in terms of how you might know if you don’t have a solid identity in Christ – and how you can work on that. Since I’m defining identity with a three-part equation, I’ll also identify three different pitfalls.

Identity Crisis #1: Self-righteousness or Judgmentalism – I don’t know who I am.    This may be one of the hardest to diagnose in ourselves, because none of us want to think of ourselves as self-righteous or judgmental. But we all are this way from time to time, and it comes from not having a clear view of who we really are and how we stand before God. If you read Romans 1:18-3:20, you will get a very good picture of what your position is before God (I recommend the Message version). This is the beginning of Paul’s classic text on salvation – and he starts with the fact that we are all guilty, every single one of us. God does not “grade on the curve”- we are all in the same boat, sinners every one. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and say “they” are so much worse than “us”; but Paul calls our bluff. Of course (thank goodness) Romans goes on after Chapter 3, verse 20. Knowing how we really stand before God isn’t just to shame us or make us feel horrible. But if we find ourselves consistently feeling overconfident, self-righteous or judgmental of other people, our identity in Christ is skewed. We need to be careful not to put ourselves above any other human who has ever lived – we are all guilty. If this is you, I recommend immersing yourself in these verses from Romans until you really understand your position before God.

Identity Crisis #2: Low Self-Esteem – I don’t know who God is.                                                  If you have low self-esteem, you might be overly focused on your guilt and sin – knowing full well your pitiful position before God and consumed with that – without balancing that with who God is and what He thinks of you and has done for you. God created you and thinks you are a masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10); He has gifted you and has plans for you (Jeremiah 29:11); if you were the only person living, Jesus would have still died for you to offer justification by faith for your sins. God loves you, with a pure and intentional love. If you don’t love yourself, you are saying something about what He’s created that is almost disrespectful in nature. It would be like accepting an art piece someone handcrafted for you, saying you are thankful for the gift, but then treating it poorly. The artist would not feel good about giving such a gift to an ungrateful receiver. Loving yourself and seeing yourself as uniquely gifted, handcrafted and beautiful is a respectful and correct view of yourself in light of God being your loving Creator. You cannot have a secure and firm identity in Christ if you have a consistent low self-esteem. I recommend immersing yourself in Scripture that assures you of who God is and how He feels about His own creation, and then lining yourself up with this truth.

Identity Crisis #3: Getting identity mainly from my work or human relationships – my relationship with Christ is not central.                                                                                              The third piece, once you are clear on who you are and who God is, is the relational piece. If relationship between yourself and God is central in your life, then God’s interaction with you is the primary place you get important feedback. God’s response to you, communication with you and love for you is where you can find real security. If this relationship is not central, you will need to rely on feedback from other sources, such as your job or your boyfriend or kids. We all rely on interpersonal feedback for our sense of identity – the question is simply which interpersonal feedback we will choose to have primary sway. Whatever we assess to be the most important relationships will have the most influence on our identity. So if success at work is our primary goal, then the opinions of our success at work will have the most influence over how we feel about ourselves. But if what God thinks of me is my primary goal, then what He thinks of me is going to be the most important feedback. This doesn’t mean that success at work and my other relationships isn’t important; it just means that if I’m ok with God, I’m ok. Those other things can now ebb and flow without the highs inflating me or the lows destroying me. If you find yourself being overly concerned with success at work or obsessed with what someone else thinks of you, you may want to work on making your relationship with Christ more central in your life. You might want to pursue intimacy with Him, find out more about what He says and feels about you. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time trying to manage and/or control relationships and work issues that are not actually in your control.

Because this is a three-part formula, the concept of balance is obviously important. There is almost a knife-edge balance to be had here between being overly confident in God’s beautiful artwork (you) and being hopelessly lost in shame over your guilt and sin. You can be so centrally focused on your relationship with God that you find yourself not participating in the real concerns of life, or you can find yourself so consumed with your job/bills/kids that you forget to listen for God’s voice. Like riding a bike, balance is the process of constantly losing and then re-finding your balance. True identity in Christ is like that moment your parents let go of your bike and you actually rode on your own! Freedom indeed.

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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It’s a Mystery

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Recently I bought Josh Garrel’s new music album, Home. Several times in this album, he uses this phrase “It’s a Mystery”, referring to God’s kingdom and our lives. It’s a nice song lyric, but the truth is we really don’t like mystery. As humans, we are obsessed with knowing, and often it causes problems for us. We often speak for God as if we know his heart on every issue, forgetting that much of what we say is clouded with our own humanness and has no chance at getting even remotely close to how God really thinks.

The urge to ask why can prevent us from acceptance of what is happening in this moment. I’ve talked with people who suspect they have childhood abuse in their past, and they are downright obsessed with remembering the details so that they can heal and move on. But the fact is, being preoccupied with what happened and why is preventing them from healing. It’s possible to say “I have no idea what happened; it’s a mystery. But the result is where I am now, so I’m going to try to be in the moment and work on that”. The same thing sometimes happens when a spouse is betrayed by infidelity or some other seemingly unexplainable betrayal. “If I could just understand why, I could move on!” While that sentiment is surely part of the process, to get stuck there is a distraction. Moving on is going to be painful and difficult even if you know why. When it seems I won’t ever really discover the why, then my telling myself that I could move on if I knew the why, becomes a cop-out that gives me a pass to not do the hard work.

Paul could have been obsessed with why God wouldn’t remove the thorn he prayed to have taken away. Why, God? Why wouldn’t God help his good and faithful servant Paul with this struggle? Paul would have never reached his place of joyfulness and usefulness had he been thus preoccupied. Why did it take so long between when David was anointed and when he became King? Why did Job have to lose his family along with all his belongings? Why did a God full of grace not allow Moses into the promised land? Why? I don’t know; it’s a mystery. What I do know is that these characters did not allow the why’s to distract them from doing God’s will with joy. Why is a distraction; the need to know pulls us from enjoying God’s provision and instead fills us with a suspicion that things might be “going to hell in a hand-basket” or that God has somehow forgotten that we need deliverance from our present circumstances.

I don’t know why you have anxiety. But if you do, you do. You should pursue all avenues of knowledge and healing. But if in the end, you are just a person who has anxiety, don’t let the endless repetition of “why?” get in the way of being an absolute, joy-filled, all-in disciple of Christ. I don’t know why you drank the exact same amount as your roommate in college and you ended up addicted and they didn’t. You can dwell on the “why?” and the unfairness of that and blame it all on God until your last breath. But then you’d be missing the joy of intentionally embracing life in the midst of the mystery. Don’t let the mystery prevent you from finding healing, from seeking for God’s provision and blessing wherever you find yourself.

 And then there is the matter of interpersonal communication. I’m always advocating for more curiosity. For example, if I’m in an argument with my teenager and he yells “you don’t know what it’s like!” you know what the temptation is, right? Of course, to tell him all that I know! “Are you kidding me? I was 17 once! I know how boys think, I know exactly what you’re doing!” Has any conversation like this ever ended with two people feeling closer to one another? Of course not. On the few occasions when I’ve been able to soften my tone, lower my voice and say “You know what, you’re right – I don’t know what it’s like for you. But I’d like to. Help me to understand what you are thinking”, those conversations have always ended well. It’s good to remember that even other people can be a mystery. We might think, based on experience, that we know why our husband just did that or the reason our friend just said that. But approaching the conversation from an unknowing, curious place will usually bring you closer and teach you something.

Isn’t it enough to accept that we don’t know? But God knows. And we will know. Someday. But for now, let’s stick to the things we know for sure. God is love. Therefore we should love. That’s something we can know. For example, our politics might be different. Does God agree with you or me? I don’t know; it’s a mystery. But does God love you and me? And should I love you too? This I can know and do. If I say I can’t love you until I know if God agrees with you, I violate the things I do know.

Accepting mystery means that I give up my “right” to understand the way the universe works. It means I admit that I might be wrong about the way I view things. It’s scarier because it means I might not be in control; I might not be able to say for sure. But it releases me from a struggle I can’t win into a life I can be victorious in. It frees me to love you no matter what; it allows me to let God be God; it lets me trust that He’s got this. My only job is to listen to His promptings and follow Him, not to figure out all the rights and wrongs, or to right every wrong. I can do the things I know to do – love my fellow man, take care of the poor, feed the orphans; rejoice always; serve; the list goes on.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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Thought Replacement

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Last week we discussed observing our thoughts in order to come up with a “diagnosis” of how our thoughts can negatively affect us. This week, we are going to start talking about a “treatment process”. How does a person find this transformation Paul is talking about in Romans when he says “do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV). I think we’ve established that you won’t achieve this change by trying to force yourself to stop unproductive thinking and be transformed! Real transformation is only made possible through the grace of God, kind of like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar is a willing participant, but it’s not the agent of change.

So how do we readily participate in this thought transformation? There are a multitude of strategies we can use. We’ve already established the fact that our thoughts aren’t necessarily true, and you might have even identified some of your thoughts that aren’t actually true. It’s often helpful to get a little bit of distance from them, and one way you can do this is by naming them, like the “I’m a bad father story”, or “here’s the I’m an unorganized loser story”. It’s just wording, but it helps you to identify in your own mind that you’re not buying into the false belief that all of your thoughts are true.

One technique I really like is the idea of redirecting, like you might do with a wayward 2-year old who is doing something naughty – instead of punishing, you could just pick her up and set her down by a beloved toy or puzzle. Similarly, you can “pick up” a wayward thought and set it down on a thought you do want to be thinking. This is what Paul is getting at when he tells us in Philippians 4:8 (NLT):

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

Paul knew that thoughts pop into our heads, unbidden. Do we really imagine that Paul never once thought about his horrible past and the things he’d done? Probably he did, but one thing we do know: he didn’t live in the past; he didn’t dwell on those things. If he had, he never would have been available to do God’s bidding. Instead, Paul replaced these thoughts with today’s truth – thoughts that were true, honorable and so on. And he encourages us to do the same. I often say to my clients, you can’t do anything about a bird landing on your head, but you can control how long it sits there! Thoughts will come unbidden, that’s true. But you get to choose which thoughts you will rest your mind on. And you can choose, like Paul did, thoughts that fall into this verse’s instruction from Philippians.

EXERCISE: Make a list of a couple of thoughts you struggle with and then come up with a replacement thought. These can be any sayings or verses, they don’t have to specifically relate. But as an example, here are a couple of mine:

 Untrue Thought: “I am fat”

Thought to use as a replacement: “I am God’s masterpiece” (Eph 2:10)

 [So I’m not trying to STOP thinking “I am fat” – I’m just trying to notice it, and every time I notice it, I say (maybe even out loud), “No, I’m God’s masterpiece”.]

 Dishonorable Thought: “I really don’t like my downstairs neighbor, she’s rude”

Thought to use as a replacement: “Love your enemies, bless those that curse you” Matt. 5:44

 Also, it’s important to understand that this is not “pop psychology” or “positive affirmation”. I acknowledge the painful nature of my thoughts without judgment, and that my experience has value. My downstairs neighbor might well have been very rude to me. I’m not attempting to “get rid” of that thought or convince myself she is really nice. I’m instead choosing where my mind finds its resting place in regard to that particular situation.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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Don’t Even Think About It

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God’s power and strength are only available to us in this present moment. Being aware of what is happening for you in the present moment is a great launching point to start examining and working with your thoughts. Most of us would agree that our thinking gets us in trouble sometimes, so being able to have a right relationship with our own thoughts is critical.

Familiar Bible verses can be found to encourage a right relationship with thoughts such as “and do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV) and “we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV). But often, the message we get is an encouragement to eliminate our “bad” thoughts; somehow get rid of them because bad thoughts equal bad behavior. And it’s true, we do need to be transformed and obey Christ in our thinking. Trying hard to eliminate thoughts is the root of a lot of discouragement; you don’t have to try this method for very long before you fail. If I say “no matter what you do, do NOT think about ice cream”, I guarantee you will be eating ice cream by the time the day is over! It will be all that you can think about.

So the first step here is to drop the judgment and to start observing what we are actually thinking. This is the first step, I’m not suggesting that we just allow bad or wrong thoughts to simply be okay. But we often jump too soon into the treatment plan before we accurately diagnose what is happening. As Christ-followers, we do believe in absolute truth in the person of Jesus Christ. There is a line of right and wrong. However, before we jump to judgment and treatment, let’s allow ourselves to be curious and compassionate about our experience in the process of our diagnosis.

Remember that instead of trying to control our thoughts, which can’t be done, we are trying instead to have a right relationship with our thoughts. So what exactly are thoughts? Thoughts are simply patterns of words, or stories. We think of our thoughts as true, but often they are not. Here’s a silly little exercise: Think really hard right now “I can NOT lift my arm. I can NOT lift my arm”. Now lift your arm. Your thinking that you couldn’t lift your arm didn’t really affect your ability to lift your arm, did it? Of course not. The truth is, you can think anything in your head, and it may or may not be true.

A right relationship with my thoughts means that I understand that my thoughts are simply strings of words and pictures. They may be true, or they may be untrue. I’m allowed to examine and assess them, and then I’m allowed to choose whether or not I’d like to act on them or behave according to them. My goal isn’t to stop them, push them away or label them – but rather to see them as they are. If my thoughts help me move towards my values or towards Christ-centered living, then I can use them for action. If they don’t, I can allow them to just float on by, making room for something else.

EXERCISE: This week, in order to become more aware of your thought patterns, set a timer on your smartphone for four random times per day. Carry a small notebook, and each time the alarm sounds, simply write down the last thing you were thinking before the alarm sounded. Have no judgment about your thoughts – you are simply trying to see if there is a pattern to your thinking, or problematic thoughts that you notice arise again and again.

 Now, assess those thoughts for truth. So if you thought “my boss is a jerk”, is that true? It might be true that you don’t like what she just did, but it probably isn’t true that her whole character is a jerk. Or if you thought “I’m a terrible father”, is that true? You may have made a mistake or not spent enough time with your kids lately, but I bet you can think of some ways that you are a good father also. It may be true that you can improve based on your thought, but the thought itself might not be true. Also be aware that some thoughts that are NOT true can feel very true, because you’ve been thinking them for so long. But “I’m worthless” can’t possibly be true for anyone when judged against the truth of the Bible and God’s love for you. So if you have trouble determining truth, try seeing what the Bible has to say.

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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