By Jesse Jost
After a painful struggle with bulimia and pornography, my wife’s sister, Katrina, decided that the battle was too exhausting. Rather than continue giving into temptation, she would end the struggle for good. She took her own life in 2001, shattering the lives of those who knew her.
When I hear about her struggles, or read her journal from those dark days, there are so many things I wish I could have told her, verses I could have pointed her to, truths I wish she had known. But then I keep reading her thoughts, or notes she wrote other people, and I am reminded that she DID know the very things I wish I could have told her.
All the factors that led Katrina to end her life will remain mysterious; she clearly was not fully rational at the time. But this much is clear: Her problem wasn’t that she didn’t know truths that could have set her free. The problem seems to be that these truths were forgotten and pushed from her focus by the lies and desires that enslaved her attention.
Her attention was filled with despair over her failures, and belief that her life would always remain an exhausting struggle. There was no room in her mind for hope in the Holy Spirit’s power to transform, or the power of confession and accountability, or the love and mercy of God. It wasn’t that she didn’t know about these truths; they just didn’t shape her attitudes and behaviours any more, because her mind was captivated by other tormenting ideas.
Satan is well aware that the battle to lead you down a destructive path is not won or lost merely by the information in your brain, but by thoughts you give your attention to most.
Satan is completely fine with you thinking about God’s love and sovereignty or the power of the cross on Sunday morning, if he can keep you focused on something else the rest of the week.
We are such forgetful creatures, with a powerful handicap of “recency bias”: the ideas we last focused on or are currently dwelling on have far more potent influence on us than the other truths we know.
It won’t matter what diet principles you have carefully researched and decided are most effective. If all you can think about is brownies and ice cream and hot fudge, your health knowledge will be of no value to you!
It won’t matter how deeply you have studied the goodness of God or the dominion of His sovereignty, if tormenting imaginings about the horrors that the future could hold fill your limited awareness, your carefully studied theology will bring you no peace. It’s not because you’ve been carefully convinced by reason and evidence that God is not good, or that He is really powerless, it’s just that you are so focused on your worries that the truth is forgotten.
Even so we are derailed by more than just forgetting what’s true. The ideas that are before us repeatedly start to feel true, even without evidence or reasonable support. If you see an idea on Facebook from three different people, that’s enough evidence to convince our brains that it must be true, no footnotes or references needed!
Our actions, our attitudes, our emotions, our relationships are all powerfully affected by whatever ideas hold our attention. In fact, the thoughts that we think the most often, literally become part of us as our brain chemistry changes.
Every time we repeat a thought, true or false, negative or positive, that brain pathway gets stronger and it becomes easier to think that thought again, and harder to believe the opposite.
We humans are afflicted with a tendency to ruminate on the ways we have failed, or the way we have been hurt by others. We also have a “negativity bias” which causes us to notice and remember the hard things in life, and the possible dangers, far more than the good gifts and ways God has provided and protected us.
The emotional pain that this toxic thinking produces makes us hungry for distraction that will numb the pain. We are vulnerable to hours of Netflix bingeing, or endless social media scrolling. Their harm is that they distract us from being aware of God and his life-giving truths.
God knows well our distract-ability and our difficulty remembering truth. He instructs to do all we can to not just learn his truths, but to keep them continually before our mind’s eye.
Joshua was commanded to keep God’s law “always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
Psalm 1 says the blessed and stable man is the one “meditates on God’s law, day and night.”
Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for your life.” (1 Thess 5)
Our greatest factor that will bring spiritual growth and transformation is likely not more insight (although there is always more wisdom and insights that God wants to show us.)
Our greatest need is to find ways to keep our eyes on the basic life-changing truths of the Gospel. We need to create habits that keep our eyes on Jesus, and keep our minds stayed on God.
How do we do this? We start by daily acknowledging our need for the Holy Spirit to convict us of waywardness and to bring to memory the truths that will not only set us free, but also delight us and satisfy our deepest longings. The Holy Spirit is the One who convicts and reminds.
Once we have acknowledged our dependence on Him, we seek to establish habits and routines that keep reminding us of God’s truths:
We memorize scripture and prayerfully meditate on it during our regular routines, such as driving or taking a shower.
We decide to make every effort to notice and thank God for His many gifts.
We listen to hymns and songs of worship throughout the day that place godly earworms in our minds instead of mindless bubblegum tunes.
We choose to let daily occurrences – doing dishes, going to sleep, folding the laundry – be the trigger to remind us to pray.
We seek regular fellowship with godly believers where the conversation topics convict and inspire us.
We read or listen to godly books that challenge and comfort us. Biographies, devotionals, and books of theology have real value, not just because they tell us something new, but because they keep us focused on the truth.
I always lose more weight and eat healthier when I am reading a weight-loss book or book on nutrition. It’s rarely because I’m learning something new, but because I’m being reminded of what’s true.
We must be proactive in feeding our attention span with God’s truth. It won’t happen by accident. If we do not continually choose to find ways to focus on God, our attention will be captured by other toxic thoughts that will lead us on a downward spiral.
No matter how mature you are, or how brilliant the insights you have written or spoken in the past, you cannot afford to neglect meditating on these truths. Godly pastors who have written on “affair-proofing your marriage” have had affairs. Men who preached compassionately on recovering from church abuse, have grown abusive themselves.
Were they hypocrites all the time? Only God knows, but it is far more likely that they stopped being influenced by the truths they taught, because their minds were filled instead with other things.
I encourage you, however you are reading this, take a moment to ask God to remind you of His truths and refresh you with His Spirit. Rejoice in His love, compassion, and mercy. Thank Him for His wisdom and power over all things. Be captivated by the expressions of beauty that pervade His creation. Worship Him for His sacrifice and kindness.
Think of new habits and routines you can add to your day that will keep your mind focused on his truths. Jesus wants to give you life more abundant. He wants your life to be filled with the joy and peace that comes when we are daily, and moment by moment, abiding in Him.k