Skip to content
Sep 22 / Reflexion Community

September 22, 2019

Guest Speaker: Esther Dewitt

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 4-9

This summer we have been exploring the physiology connected to the psychology that creates the mental, emotional and behavioral patterns that lead us in the wrong direction.  Chuck has been educating us, connecting the science with the spiritual, as we have considered the prospect of re-writing the owner’s and operations manual for our Brain.  The impact this series has had on me has been significant as we have considered how our personal history has been imprinted on our brain and nervous system, forming the habits of our lifetime.  How these, over time, through trauma, hurt, and wounding developed into pathways, the ones that make us feel like we are stuck or heading in the wrong direction, the ones that lead us away from the God of peace and the peace of God, to anxiety, depression, frustration, discouragement, conflict, anger and a host of other harmful and hurtful spaces.

Fortunately, we have not studied this just to discover a hard reality, to be left knowing how we got to the places we don’t want to be.  Our study has been to empower us, to understand that simply because we have been heading in one direction, does not mean we have to stay heading there.  All that we have been learning has been to draw us towards repentance, towards changing our direction.

Repentance is more than quitting a list of clearly articulated biblically wrong behaviors.  We repent not just from a traditionally accepted list of sins. 

Repentance is a changing of direction.  It is more than a change too. 

It is an intentional change of direction.  It is a choosing of a specific direction.  It doesn’t occur automatically or instinctively. It isn’t the simple exchange of one behavior, pattern, way of thinking or doing for another.  Repentance involves the recognition that the well-worn path we have been on is not getting us where we want to go.  In repentance we make the conscious, intentional choice to change direction to move towards God, the God of Peace, away from the paths and patterns that have gotten us stuck, that have caused damage to us and our relationships, and towards healing and in the direction of wholeness and restoration, towards the peace of God.

Romans 2 tells us that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. We are not led to repentance out of punishment or condemnation.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Repentance causes us to forge an unfamiliar course.  It can feel uncomfortable.  It challenges us.  The change of repentance is not easy. 

We do not have make these changes on our own, in our power. In John chapter 14 verses 26 and 27 Jesus tells us that the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

We have help, we have a teacher, to help us turn from our fear and troubled hearts, but it’s a learning process.  We will need to be reminded.  The Holy Spirit will teach us, will remind us.  As we develop new habits, new patterns, we will need that help, those reminders.  That is not failure, it is a part of the process.

Is it worth it?  If we know going in that making changes, heading in a new direction will be hard and uncomfortable, why we would do it?

Why bother?

We do it because we recognize and acknowledge that our current paths are not getting us where we want to be.  They are leading in the wrong direction, possibly in circles, exhausting us without offering real progress, causing damage to our relationships, creating conflict internally and externally.  So even though these thought and behavior patterns seem natural and comfortable, and we follow them instinctively, we know at our core that they can never get us where we want to be, they will never lead us to Spiritual or emotional healing.

And we are all wounded.  We have all been hurt.  Our stories are different, but we are all in need of healing. 

In fact, many of the paths we want to turn from were created as we consciously or unconsciously fled or tried protect ourselves after we were hurt, or when were in search of healing and safety, but they took us in the wrong direction.  Whatever the motive or circumstances that led us there, we don’t have to stay, we are not committed to those paths.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit we have the power, the strength to make the change, to repent and change direction.

The challenge then, is to find strategies to resist returning to the old patterns and paths, to find the tools we need to forge the new path.

We find these strategies in Philippians 4, although because many of us have heard this passage many, many times, we can miss the practical tools it offers.

Several years ago when I was in my training to become a Certified Anger Management Specialist, I found myself in awe that the emotional strategies of our training, although dressed up in psychological terms and labels have at their root these same recommendation of Paul to the church in Philippi.

Does it make you feel any better to know that you are not alone in this process?  It does me.  I am comforted when we are honest together as a community, as followers of Christ, about our need for repentance, our need to change our old patterns.  I am also encouraged by the goal set forward in it, the reward: to experience the peace of God, and the nearness of the presence of the God of peace. Yes, I want less harshness and more gentleness, less anxiety and more thankfulness, I want those things, but I feel a great need to experience more peace, the peace of God, and a great need to experience the presence of the God of peace, and that for me is a reason to step out my comfort zone, away from the natural, instinctive patterns, and towards repentance and new a path that will lead me closer to God.

A biblical strategy to break the cycle

The Living Bible Paraphrased translates Philippians 4:8, fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right.  Think about things that are pure and lovely, dwell on the fine, good things in others.  Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about it.

Our thoughts trigger emotions, which form moods.  In our current culture we are bombarded with bad news.  Bad news sells, it spreads, and it can sink in.  We can easily develop thought patterns of negativity.  We get stuck in the problems, and the worst case scenarios, what is wrong and what might go wrong, in addition to dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.  These negative thoughts breed fear, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed. The negative spins around, catching us up in its loop.

If we view verse 8 as a strategy to break this cycle, we can see the sign posts for the new path in front of us.  We are encouraged to think on the things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.  The Message translation says that we will do our best by filling our minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

I’m not suggesting we stick our heads in the sand over the evil in the world, that we become Polly Anna’s pretending that everything is rosy when it is not.  It is intentionally deciding to spend time thinking about the good, the praiseworthy things.  Especially when you notice that anxiety, anger, depression, and other distressing emotions have settled in. 

So how do we do this?  With intentionality.  We seek out the positive things, we go looking for them.  We capture them, write them down and keep them close to us when we find them, so we can return to them, intentionally and meditate on them.  It may be a photo of nature that reminds you of God’s creativity and beauty, it may be a story of someone doing something heroic, that reminds you of the admirable, or remembering and writing so you can re-visit the kindness that someone showed you.  As you sense the negative input dragging you down the wrong thought and emotional path, your reminders of what is lovely, true, noble, praiseworthy are there and ready for you turn your focus to.  And as we are thinking of these better things, these things to praise, we take the time to thank God for them, remembering that all truly good things come from Him, and this brings us into His peace.  It reminds us that He is good.

Do you find there is a time of day where your thoughts go heavy or dark?  Where your memories return to hurts or disappointments, failures or rejections?  In some quiet space where the memory pattern of your mind naturally returns, triggering sadness, discouragement, fear, or disappointment?  As our notes from the message last week suggested, being aware of these experiences is important if we are to break the patterns.  Again, intentionally being prepared is a key strategy to forming a new habit. 

I have a couple of practices I suggest.  Take a notebook, a journal, a pad of paper, and across the top of multiple blank pages write the title of a list.  Maybe the list is things or people I am thankful for, or the Names of God, or the qualities of God.  Maybe the list is beautiful and amazing things in God’s creation.  Don’t fill out the list, just title it.  Maybe on each page is a different list, maybe the same list for multiple pages.  Then place that journal or notebook or pad, in close proximity to where you frequently are when those repetitive heavy dark thoughts come.  Do you wake up with them many mornings?  Place it by your bed or cereal box or coffee pot, and take 5 minutes to fill out the list when you notice those thoughts.

Are there places you go frequently that trigger these negative thoughts and emotions?  Does a doctor’s office waiting room send you to the purgatory of ‘What If’ or anxiety? Carry your blank list in your car, in a bag, in your wallet, start it as a note on your tablet or phone.  Have it clearly titled and ready, because as the thoughts begin their familiar cycle in your brain, an empty page is usually not enough to interrupt the pattern, and you are more likely to stare at it blankly or to make a chore or shopping list on it.

Being aware means taking the time to check in and pay attention.  What are we experiencing physically, mentally, emotionally? When I listen to this music do I notice myself feeling sad?  When I watch that news do I clench my jaw or tense my shoulders?  When I engage in that activity do I feel drained and empty afterwards?  We can do this as we look for patterns, times and experiences that trigger certain reactions and send us down certain paths, and we apply this awareness to the present, here and now, learning to recognize when we are not where we want to be, and when we want to stop and turn in a different direction.

We can build new and positive experiences, learning to savor them, letting them sink in, marinating them, so that they crowd out the memory space in our limbic system.  They are not erasing previous negative experiences, but they are claiming more of the space.  To do this we often have to interrupt the tyranny of busyness. Let the little things, the positives that you enjoy, add up internally. We help capture these memories by increasing our sensory experiences of them. Breathe in the ocean air, or the mountain air and pause to let it sink in.  Close your eyes to listen to the music, and let it sink in.  Smell the roses, the lilacs, the pine trees.  Stop and feel the sun, the rain drops or the wind on your face.  Catalog in your mind the chill of the evening as you stargaze. Take a photo of the sunset or rainbow, draw or paint the bird.  Watch the squirrel run around, notice how the puppy plays with abandon.  If in the moment we stop and experience as many of the senses as possible during positive experiences, smell, touch, sight, sound we help them seep deep and our brain can memorize those experiences and the positive feelings they trigger.  The moment of calm, the laughter of joy, the wonder of beauty.  These are building new paths, paths towards internal healing.

Try writing about your positive experiences shortly after you have them.  Writing a couple of paragraphs about the beauty or joy or wonder of the sunset or sunrise, the waterfall, playing with the child, or singing in the car. If you don’t like to write in paragraphs, make a quick list. The senses you experienced, your thoughts, your emotions – all of the positive ones you can remember.  If you took a photo or made a drawing, give it a caption, a description that identifies the positives.  It is a conscious re-living of the positive and it helps to consolidate those memories, storing them more securely. If you tell someone else about them, you are reinforcing the memory again.

Build positive connections with Scriptures as well.  Ask the Holy Spirit if there is a message from Scripture for you in the experience. As you reflect on your positive experience does it remind you of a Scripture?  This is just for you, it doesn’t have to make sense to others.  As you remember the amazing piece of pie does it make you think of “taste and see that the Lord is good”, as you admired the full moon did it remind you of the verse “praise Him sun and moon, praise Him all you shining stars.” (Psalm 148:4).  If a verse or passage comes to mind write it down.  Sometimes nothing pops up right away, but later we are reading and the positive memory returns, and we see a connection to the verse, write that down, record it next a note about your experience.  If you printed out a picture, write the verse on the back of the photo, place it somewhere you will see it and be reminded of it.

It took a while for most of our old patterns to be formed.  It can take a while for these new ones to be formed.  It isn’t a magic wand.  We make a plan, intentionally practice the plan, then rinse and repeat.  Repetition is how the new paths become natural, normal, and even comfortable.  We keep returning to listen to the Holy Spirit, it’s not a one-time lesson, and we are not failing because we need reminders.

Focusing awareness on our thoughts

One of the most un-natural and yet important things we can do in the changing, the repentance, process is to challenge our thoughts.  Our thoughts can lie to us.  Just because we think something that does not mean that it is true.  Our thoughts may have been formed from false input, what others told us and we accepted, or by faulty conclusions, how we processed and made sense of information.  We can question our thoughts, challenge them, seek out the truth, and choose to replace the lies we previously believed.

This is especially true with our thoughts about God and how He feels about us, and our thoughts about ourselves, our worth, our value, and our abilities.  How easy it is to believe thoughts like “this is just how I am”, “God is angry with me or disappointed with me”, “it’s too late for me to change”, “God could never use me”, “I am not enough or I am too much”.

 We can challenge these thoughts head on, by identifying them, recognizing them and countering them.  We evaluate what emotions these thoughts lead us to, how they make us feel. If the result of the thought is discouragement, depression, anxiety, wanting to give in and give up, then we can assume that the thought is not of the Lord, and that it is not true.  If you are battling these thoughts, you don’t need to condemn yourself because you have believed them, or beat yourself up because you accepted them without questioning them previously, but you can counter them now. 
• We can search the Scriptures to see how much God loves us, the worth He placed on saving us, and the hope that He offers us that we can indeed leave the old behind and grow into maturity. 
• We can meditate on these Scriptures, asking the Holy Spirit to show us how we are loved, how our strength and courage comes from the Lord, is given by Him for us to access. 
• And,when the thoughts return,we can call them lies, counter them with the truth of Scripture, and refuse to dwell on them or believe them.
• We can also watch out for where some of the thoughts might be originating.  Sometimes the negative voices around us are so critical, so loud, so repetitive that we adopt their messages in our own thoughts, but really they are external messages, that we have internalized.  Once we recognize that the message is external, and is not true, about us, about God and how He feels about us, we can counter it even more effectively, and in some cases limit its access to us.
• We can replace those messages with trusted, positive voices of truth.  Whether that is spending more time with encouraging and uplifting people in our lives, or listening to or reading messages based in the truth of the Word given to bless and encourage us, building us up in our faith rather than tearing us down, we can seek out sources that help us counter the lies with truth.

Is worry the well-worn path you want to turn from?  Does anxiety crowd out joy and peace for you?  How easy and natural it is to let fear and worry settle in.  We know what has gone wrong in the past.  We can imagine what can go wrong in the future.  It can be intense, gripping our minds and our emotions. And we are not alone.  There are things that trouble our minds and our hearts, there are real and potential dangers ahead.  We are not asked to pretend, or live in a false sense of reality. The instruction to the Philippians applies to us here as well.  When those worries and concerns arrive in our thoughts, instead of marinating in them, we take them to the Lord.  The Message says: “Instead of worrying, pray.  Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.”  The Living New Testament translation says: Don’t worry about anything, instead pray about everything: tell God your needs and don’t forget to thank Him for His answers. If you do this you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.  His peace will keep your hearts quiet and at rest as you trust in Christ Jesus.

The strategy here is to acknowledge when the worry or concern comes up in our thoughts, and to use that as a reminder to pray, to take the issue to God.  This isn’t telling us to feel guilty when worry comes, but rather not to soak in it, but to take that worry to God in prayer.  We not only pray for the issue of concern but we pray and ask God to give us His peace in the midst of the situation.  This is easier said than done.  It also doesn’t come naturally. It also requires intentionality.  Spending time meditating, and marinating mentally, on God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness, can help. 

Relational conflicts

The conflicts in our lives are not limited to internal experiences.  Our relationships, even the most important and dear to us, are at risk of conflict.  When individuals are in distress, it very easily leads to relationships in distress.

In Romans 12:18, we are encouraged to live in peace with others, as much as it is our power to do so.  Sometimes we don’t have the control, sometimes it is not in our power to resolve a conflict peacefully, but there are some practical things we can do, to help increase the odds, and to give us the confidence that we have done what we can.

Often one of the most valuable practices we can engage in is to prioritize the relationship over the issue.  Sometimes the issue is life and death, putting other key relationships in peril, or in some other way is so important that it rises above the relationship, but frequently, if we really consider the issue involved in a conflict, we realize that we would rather keep the relationship than win the issue.  Since we cannot always have the win and the relationship, we may need to prioritize, to make a conscious choice.  I love win-win situations, where I can find a resolution where everyone wins.  But sometimes the real win is in the forfeit, in letting something go to hold on to the more valuable.  We can get in a winning – need to be right – want it our way mindset. 

Sometimes when mediating a family dispute I will ask the parties separately, if they win the issue, but lose the relationship, will they be satisfied with that result.  It’s an important thing to consider, as it brings perspective.  It is easy to let little things get big fast.

When we separate the issue from the individual, and decide that a relationship is more than important than the issue we can return to the practices from Philippians 4 again, taking the time to list the things that are good about the person, that we appreciate and value, intentionally reminding ourselves of their value in our lives.  We break the mental cycle of thinking about the problem, and turn towards the person.  And as we do, we ask the Lord for His peace and we that He will guard our hearts and minds from returning to the old pattern.

And then there is unity without uniformity.  We can be in relationship, even close relationship, without agreement.  Even on important issues.  We do not have to let significant differences and disagreements lead to conflict.  We can give each other permission to come to different conclusions without the continual need for us to try to change their mind or convince them of our side.  We can choose to respect differences without succumbing to the temptation to demean them.  We can learn from each other through respectful dialogue or make a conscious decision not to bring up topics and issues that will tempt us to elevate hot-button or sensitive subjects.  This isn’t easy to do, it’s a discipline, because most of us are passionate about our positions and we want to convert or persuade our loved ones to our side of an issue.  And there may be a time and place for that, but we have to provide the space and grace, the honor and respect, for individuals to come to different conclusions.  This may be a particularly useful strategy during the upcoming election cycle, but it is not limited to political issues.

When we are willing to recognize that all kinds of issues are frequently complex and nuanced, and that we each bring our background and our experiences with us as we form our positions, we can grow to respect that other individuals may not agree with us, and that doesn’t make them all wrong and us all right, it doesn’t mean they are ignorant, or stupid or stand as evidence of our superior intellect or good judgement. When we release the requirement for uniformity within our relationships we find a new strength, a richness in the diversity, and often the tensions that lead to conflict are lessened.

In choosing to take the time to think on things that are of good report, fixing our thoughts on what is true and good, on the good in others, we are making a choice not to dwell on the negative things, on the things we disapprove of in the lives of our loved ones.  It’s not that we are not aware or are in denial, but we are not allowing those things to dominate our thoughts about the people we care about. In fact we can release our right to approval, and disapproval to help restore our relationships. 

We form our approval, and our disapproval around what makes us comfortable, what matches our taste, what we are accustomed to or would like to become accustomed to.  And then we impose that on other people.  We want them to dress in a certain way, behave in a certain way, fit into our expectations in a certain way, so that we are not uncomfortable. It becomes a way to control others to relieve our own distress. We are not forced to change how we interact with world around us, to question our views or expectations, if other people behave in a way that meets our approval.  When people challenge the norms, or what we wish were the norms, psychologically we can feel like it is challenging how we fit in the world around us, challenging our very interpretation of life.  Imposing our disapproval on the behaviors of others, is our way of expressing our discomfort at the pace of change and growth around us.  Sometimes we disapprove because people seem stuck in the old ways and are not embracing societal changes, sometimes we disapprove because we are the ones not ready to change. 

Sometimes we attach a moral value to a taste or cultural difference.  We disapprove and say that it is wrong, when in reality it is unfamiliar or different.  In the church we can attach sin to these issues as well.  I went to a Baptist college where women were required to wear skirts or dresses below their knees to church, chapel and class.  It was a sin to wear pants, a sign of rebellion.  The disapproval that leadership felt over societal changes in women’s clothing over the previous decades, was imposed on all students in attendance.  I worked with another ministry organization that was constantly updating the views of what style of dress was appropriate for God fearing Christian women in leadership.  The disapproval of a few was used to control the actions of others.  Imposing our views of approval on others is demeaning, it is patronizing, it says loudly and clearly that we don’t trust their judgement or ability to form their ideas on what is appropriate.  It says we don’t trust them to listen to the Holy Spirit or to read the Word and learn healthy and appropriate boundaries for behavior. And frequently it backfires, causing people to truly rebel and chose even more extreme expressions of independence from our influence.

To build healthy respectful relationships, we can let go of the power of our approval over others.  We can intentionally choose to follow the instruction of Philippians 4, dwelling on the fine, good things in others, turning our thoughts away from those behaviors we don’t like, spending time looking for and acknowledging the good. It is not us compromising our own values, morals or beliefs to acknowledge that we are not responsible or accountable for the choices and decisions of others. We can trust other people to make choices in their lives without thrusting our own discomfort or distress on them.  I’m not suggesting that we throw out all laws and rules or even dress codes or social behavioral norms, but I am offering as a strategy in personal relationships, especially those damaged by conflict, to try to let go of the expectation that our approval or disapproval of their behavior, and their willingness to conform to it, is a litmus test for our love and support.  When people we love make choices and decisions that we not only disapprove of, but that we see are hurting them, we can pray for them, trusting the Holy Spirit to do a work, acknowledging the strength of our disapproval is not match for God’s love for our loved ones.  Deciding not to hoist our approval or disapproval on others probably won’t change their behavior and may not change our comfort level regarding it, but it is an acknowledge that their decisions and actions are probably not about us at all, and can help us have compassion for them, and if they are behaviors meant to make us uncomfortable, to stick it to us or punish us in some way, then our disapproval wasn’t really helping the situation at all.

None of these strategies are very easy to practice, they all require change, and when we are in distress, when we are discouraged, overwhelmed or in conflict it can feel like the hardest time to make a change.  We are already feeling drained and weak and finding the momentum to change from pathways and patterns that we are used to and that come instinctively can feel impossible.  I think that’s the beauty of the community of faith.  Together, here, we practice Meditation, we practice inviting the Lord in, quietly listening, waiting on Him.  What at first feels awkward and uncomfortable slowly becomes comfortable, even natural.  And in our practices we can encourage each other, support each other.  We are not in this alone.

It’s okay to ask for help.  If in the process of re-writing our brain’s manual we discover trauma we need help with, it’s okay to seek that help, to get that help.  If we need help in restoring our relationships, we can get that help, and that’s not a failure.  Whether it’s a counselor, therapist, mediator, prayer partner, or other source of help, it’s okay.  This isn’t a pick up yourself up by your boot straps and figure it out process.  This is a community, growing in love, teaching one another about the peace of God and together growing in our relationship with the God of peace. This is us sharing the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ with each other.

May the Lord Bless You and Keep You, May the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you.
May He be gracious to you, Show you His favor and give you His peace.

Leave a comment