How to Battle Negative Thoughts

“The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin

I’ve had several conversations recently with ladies who are struggling with oppressive, negative, angry emotions. They are surprised when I tell them that the key is to learn to take control of their thoughts. We tend to focus on our feelings, but forget that those feelings are fed by our thoughts.  And our thoughts can be controlled. Negative thoughts, depressive thoughts, sinful thoughts, angry thoughts can and must be brought into submission. It’s a matter of paying attention to what’s running around in your head.

Psalm 77 was written by Asaph, one of the Temple priests during the Babylonian captivity. The situation seemed hopeless, and this is reflected in his Psalm. In verses 1-9, Asaph lamented God’s apparent rejection of His people. In verse 2 he says “my soul refused to be comforted.” Ever been there? I know I have. But look at verse 10, Asaph turns his mind and heart on a pivot, like a door on its hinges. “Then I thought, to this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord…I will meditate on all Your words” (vs. 10, 11, 12). Did you catch the keyword? Thought. In that moment of despair, Asaph took control of his thoughts and changed the focus of his heart and mind.  He deliberately remembered and meditated instead on the character and deeds of God. And when he opened that door, hope and peace flooded in.

We see the same change of mind in Lamentations 3, which starts out: “I am the man who has seen affliction,” (v.1) and continues for 20 verses saying “my soul is downcast within me” (v. 20).  And then verse 21 begins with that hinge word: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.” There’s the clue again “I call to mind.”  Jeremiah’s whole focus and attitude is transformed. A change in his focus changed everything.

Paul said, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Then we take the Philippians 4:8 prescription – I’ll let you look that up. It’s how we battle mental negativity. Beloved, the only sure way to find peace in seasons of struggle is to intentionally turn your thoughts to God, to wrap His Words around you like a comforter, and trust in His love, faithfulness, and peace to carry you through.

Hebrews: Jesus, Man of Sorrows

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I’ve been told I am a “strong” person. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I appear strong because I do a pretty good job of hiding when I am falling apart, although some of you have learned to read between the lines. Like you, I have cried and yelled and begged God to change certain things in my life. Like you, I have struggled with depression and anxiety and despair.  But you and I are in good company.  Even the strongest person in human history came under the weight of emotional affliction.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death . . .” (Hebrews 5:7). If you didn’t know who Jesus was, you would probably think that this guy went into whatever he was facing kicking and screaming all the way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Luke said, “As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus walked toward the cross with determination. But the Scriptures are clear that it was a terrible strain on Him.

Of course, you know that this verse is speaking of His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. Jesus was “very sorrowful and troubled,” even “to the point of death” (Matt. 26:37, 38). He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Luke said His anguish as He prayed produced “sweat like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).  He pleaded, Abba, Father, everything is possible for you Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). I’ve prayed much the same thing, and I am sure you have as well.  The difference is, you and I bear much smaller burdens compared to Jesus, who was feeling the weight of the sin of the entire human race being piled on His shoulders. Isaiah called Him “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). So when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus, our great high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). it is because He also felt the weight of despair. It was one of the most “human” moments in Jesus’ life.

I’m going to leave you right here, Beloved, in the Garden with Jesus, watching Him cry to His Father. But know that He was not lost to despair, nor are you and I. When we return to Hebrews, we will see that this very human moment is also a moment of divine glory.

Hebrews: Open Heart Surgery

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“The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Yes, we’re still here – but I have a reason. Last devotional we saw the Word of God as a mighty sword. Today I want you to see it as a surgical scalpel. A surgeon wants to help people get well. But he first has to cut through skin and tissues to get to the problem.

The Word of God penetrates and divides “soul and spirit, joints and marrow . . .” The soul (psyche) is the immaterial and eternal part of the inner person – it is translated in the scriptures by personal pronouns – me, myself, I, mine. The spirit (pneumo) is the immaterial part of the inner person that can respond to God. While the soul is fixed on self, the spirit is the part of man that hears that still, small voice and follows – or turns away. The Word also divides “joints and marrow.” Joints are connective parts of the skeletal system and marrow sits deep within the bones producing blood cells that keep us alive. Consider that the root word for marrow speaks of “hidden or concealed things.” Hang in here with me, this is all going to make sense.

The Word of God also “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” It goes right to the heart – the seat of our thoughts and emotions. But not just the random thoughts that flit through our minds. God’s Word is judging our deliberate thoughts – the ones we draw up from those deep places where we think they are safely hidden. But, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (v. 13).

You and I cannot hide our hearts from God. His Word penetrates, divides, and judges the state of our hearts. It digs into the deepest parts of us. It exposes our thoughts, especially the ones we try to hide, the ones that are feeding our emotions. Surgeons go after the things in our bodies that make us sick. The Word of God goes after our thoughts that make us sick. Beloved, God wants you to be well and whole. Will you let His Word do the work of healing your heart?

In the Valley of Sorrow

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My best friend cries at the drop of a hankie. I hardly cry at all – unless I am very overwhelmed. It’s kind of a running joke between us that somehow she got my allotment of tears. I just don’t like to give in to my emotions. Still, there are times when I’m sure I just need a good cry. I guess I’ll just let her handle those times for me.

Tears are not a bad thing. Jesus wept. And we know that whatever Jesus did is right. In fact, emotions are not a bad thing. God is depicted many times in Scripture expressing emotions.

Anger – Psalm 7:11; Deuteronomy 9:22; Romans 1:18

Compassion – Psalm 135:14; Judges 2:18; Deuteronomy 32:36

Grief – Genesis 6:6; Psalm 78:40

Love – 1 John 4:8; John 3:16; Jeremiah 31:3

Hate – Proverbs 6:16; Psalm 5:5; Psalm 11:5

Jealousy – Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:14; Joshua 24:19

Joy – Zephaniah 3:17; Isaiah 62:5; Jeremiah 32:41

So really, my refusal to show emotions is rejecting this God-like quality that reflects His own image. Wow!

Tears have their place and can turn into a blessing for others. Psalm 84:6 talks about God’s people on the pilgrimage of our earthly life. The psalmist noted, “As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs.”  The Valley of Baca refers to a place of weeping and deep sorrow. This life is filled with sorrow on top of sorrow. But sorrow has a purpose as this verse shows.

When the tears flow and seem to never stop they collect into springs which become pools of refreshment for those who enter the Valley of Baca after us. How comforting it is to know that our tears are soothing for another weary, weeping pilgrim.

That is a lovely, poetic expression, but how does it translate in real life? Paul said that “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the same comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Sorrow becomes a bridge to another hurting soul, and the pool of our tears becomes a cup of cold water we can share. “I have experienced that same heartache, let me walk through it with you and give you the same comfort that God gave to me.”

So, my beloved, weepy friend, let your tears flow, and I’ll work on mine. Someone needs the refreshment of your tears. It might even be me.

Independence Day

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“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Galatians 5:1

Here in the United States, July 4th is our Independence Day – the day when our nation’s founding fathers declared our freedom, vowing that America was no longer subject to the British. They wrote and signed a “Declaration of Independence” to proclaim their right to sovereignly rule themselves. In the spirit of this day, I am declaring my own independence.

I declare that I am no longer subject to the lies of the devil or the world. I will be a wise Berean and take everything I hear and “examine the Scriptures” to see if it is true (Acts 17:11). I will listen only to God’s Word because His Word sets my heart free (Psalm 119:32).

I declare that I am no longer subject to sin. I have been set free from sin through Jesus Christ (Romans 6:18). Sin is not my master (Rom. 6:14). It has no power over me and I will not submit to it anymore.

I declare that I am no longer subject to fear. I am a child of God and He has lavished His great and perfect love on me (1 John 3:1). Perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn. 4:18).

I declare that I am no longer subject to the opinions of others. “If God is for me, who can be against me?” (Romans 8:31). What does it matter what other people say about me if I am accepted by God through His Son?  I seek only His “Well done!” (Matthew 25:21).

I declare that I am no longer subject to my own emotions.  I will “set my heart at rest in His presence whenever my heart condemns me. For God is greater than my heart” (1 John 3:20). I will bring my emotions under the control of the Holy Spirit and not allow them to control me.

This is my Declaration of Independence. And it is also my Declaration of Dependence on God because He is the sovereign Ruler over my life. He has set me free from all these things and from the punishment I deserve – the punishment His Son bore for me. I am subject only to Him. So, what about you, Beloved? Will you declare this July 4th as your Independence Day?

Do You Trust God?

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God doesn’t always do what I want Him to do. He doesn’t always answer my prayers according to my wishes or follow my well-laid-out plans. There are things I’ve prayed about for years that remain unresolved. Hard situations that didn’t magically get better. People I’ve laid at His feet over and over who get up and wander back into sin and self-destruction. What are we to do when – let’s call it what it really is – we’re disappointed with God?  I know. It seems almost sacrilegious to say it, but if we’re not honest with God we will always be stuck with this gnawing sense that He can’t be trusted. And while we’re being honest – that is the root behind our prayerlessness and our half-hearted study of His Word.

So what do we do when the doubts creep in? To borrow from my sister-in-love, we “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). I’ve told you before that I’m a word-nerd, and the Holy Spirit asked me – “What do those words mean?” Two key things stood out to me. First: “trust” – it means to “have confidence in.” Do you have confidence in God? Do you have confidence in His goodness and His love?

Then – and this was huge to me – three words: “heart,” “understanding,” and “acknowledge.” The “heart” is the seat of our thoughts, emotions, and understanding. “Acknowledge” means to know, recognize, understand. Did you see the word“understand” in both of those definitions? “Understand” at its root – this is key – means “to consider with full attention.” There it is. When we lean on our own understanding – we are giving our emotions our full attention. But when we“trust in the Lord with all our heart” we give Him our full attention.

I don’t know about you, but my emotions will take me all over the place. But God is the one who sets my path straight. Where are you focusing your attention today? Your Father is your solid rock. He will never betray your confidence in Him. Beloved, you really can “Trust in the Lord.”

Fear Not

Fear not

“Fear not . . .”  Isaiah 43:1

“Fear not” – words that make us stand a little straighter and feel a little stronger.  “Fear not,” (and words of a similar context) are found in the Bible more than a hundred times.[1]  We’re taught that fear and faith cannot coexist.  A fearful saint is not a faithful saint. But if you – like me – find yourself in a tumultuous situation, that contrast between the two extremes is a very real and present tension.  Like the father in Mark 9, we find ourselves pleading – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24).  Over and over I pray: “God, I know You’ve got this.  I know you are faithful.  I know You will never leave me nor forsake me.  But I’m scared God.  I don’t want to be.  I’m trying not to be.  But I am.”  And He understands.  He doesn’t chide or rebuke me – He just gives me reasons not to fear.

Fear not . . . for God has heard (Gen. 21:18)

Fear not for I am with you (Gen. 26:24) (My favorite)

Do not be afraid, the Lord will fight for you (Deut. 3:22)

Do not be afraid . . . for the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you (Deut. 31:6)

Fear not; I will help you (Isa. 41:13)

Today, at the suggestion of my sister-in-love, I’ve been meditating in Isaiah 43 and found some incredible words of hope that fit my life perfectly:

“This is what the Lord says – He who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters” (v. 16); “I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (v. 19).

At this moment I am both drowning in the sea and wandering through a desert.  Seems as odd as faith mingled with fear but let me explain.  My emotions seem like an overflowing river, thoughts rushing this way and that, pulling me under and threatening to take my very breath.  For a split second I come up for air – “I believe!”  In the next the waves crash over my head again – “But I am afraid!”  God promises to make a way – a path through the waters of fearful thoughts and discouragement that threaten to drown me.  He promises dry ground to cross over to the other side.

Yet I am in the desert where nothing grows and all seems lost – walking through a season of drought.  Health issues.  Disability.  Unemployment.   Multiple applications with no nibbles.  Interviews with “no thank you.”  Watching the funds dwindle as the provisions dry up.  The reality of what we’re facing beats down like the scorching sun as we wander looking for an oasis.  God promises to make a way here too – to provide streams in this wasteland .  Mind you not to drown us like the sea, but to refresh and restore us.

He meets our needs for rescue and refreshing.  He gives us dry ground and cool springs.  He never fails to notice us wherever we are – even when we’re in two places at once.  Oh, my drowning, wandering friend – let me throw you a lifeline of hope.  You don’t have to fear because God hears you, He is with you, He fights for you, He will never leave nor forsake you, and He promises to help you.  He knows where you are right now, and He knows what you need right here.  He will make a way.

 

[1] The NIV records some 110 references; other translations will have a slightly different word count.  Despite how good is sounds, there are actually not 365 “Fear not” verses.

Will I Go to Hell Because I Yelled at God?

crying-babyMy heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue.” Psalm 39:3

I yelled at God.  I was aggravated because He wasn’t doing things like I thought He should.  The truth is, He wasn’t doing anything at all.  A difficult situation was just festering, and so was my frustration level.   I had prayed so much about this issue.  I had begged God to intervene; I had pleaded for His help with my face down in the carpet.   I told Him all the reasons why He needed to act on my behalf.  I pointed out how devastating this situation would become if He didn’t.    The longer the situation drug on the shorter my patience became until I just exploded—at God.  I told Him that I couldn’t take this situation any longer.  I asked Him what He was waiting for.  I asked Him if He was paying attention.  I even asked if He was trying to push me over the edge of sanity.

Lest you think I’m being disrespectful and irreverent, God and I have worked out the situation and we are still on very good terms.  But I’m telling you this because in our human nature we all tend to get impatient and frustrated with God.  Really—it’s okay to admit it.  Do you think He doesn’t know?

That day I sat in the floor of my study, my face red and streaked with tears, yelling at the God of heaven and earth—and He never yelled back at me.  In fact He didn’t say anything for a long time, He just let me rant on and on until my anger gradually gave way to quiet exhaustion.  I leaned my head against the wall, closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  And that’s when I “heard” a quiet voice in my spirit say, “Feel better now?”  I’m not sure I felt better about the situation, but my anger was spent and I quietly answered, “Yes.”  Then the Lord reminded me of the lesson I had taught just a few days before; that God is sovereign over our lives and He is able to take the most impossible situations and bring amazing things from them.

I had talked about Joseph who was sold into slavery by his own brothers, forced into servitude and thrown into prison on trumped up charges, yet God used every step in his journey like rungs on a ladder to elevate him to the second highest position in the province of Egypt and to save the lives of his entire family.  Had his brothers not sold him into slavery, he would have never been in Egypt.  Had he not worked as a servant and been thrown in prison he would have never encountered Pharaoh’s cupbearer who recommended him to Pharaoh to interpret his dream.  Had he not interpreted Pharaoh’s dream he would have never been placed over the entire kingdom’s food resources.  Had he not been in that position, his family would have starved to death in the famine and the nation of Israel—along with our Savior—would die with them.  Though all his challenges, the Bible never shows that Joseph became impatient or frustrated with God.  He quietly trusted God and waited for the Lord to act on his behalf.  He believed that God was able to take rejection by his family, slavery and prison and work them all together for a good purpose.  I’ll bet Joseph never yelled at God.

So what do we do with our pent up emotions?  Deny them?  We’ve already established that He knows our feelings.  Stuff them?  That’s a sure recipe for a pressure cooker explosion like the one I had.  Nor do I think God wants us to pretend that we are so spiritual we are not affected by these difficult times.

Remember that we are made in the image of God, and Scripture frequently tells us that God experiences emotions.  God feels delight – “The Lord your God  . . .will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).  God feels sorrow – John 11: 35 tells us that Jesus wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus.  God feels joy – when His disciples returned rejoicing over the wonders they performed in His name, Luke says that He was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit.”  And yes, God also gets angry – though His anger is righteous and just.  The Israelites angered God on more than one occasion with their faithlessness and idolatry.  Job 42: 7 says that God declared His anger at Job’s “friends” because they spoke untruthfully about Him.

God knows that we have emotions – including anger – and He knows that in our finite human minds we get frustrated over things we do not understand.  Surely if God would have sat down with me and told me His plan for this situation I would have been able to control my emotions as He worked it all out.  But then, that doesn’t require much faith does it?

So that day I had it out with God, and you know, He never berated me for losing control.  He didn’t turn and leave in a cloud of offense.  He didn’t respond with His own blast of anger at me.  He let me purge my heart of all that I was feeling, then like a good Father He wrapped His tender love around me, calming my anxious spirit and assuring me that, indeed He was watching, He cared and He had a plan.  And as time moved along, I saw Him faithfully resolve the issue.

Beloved, God is big enough to take your honest emotions, in fact He insists that we come to him in truthfulness—and that includes your feelings of disappointment, discouragement, frustration and, yes, even anger.  We do so with honesty and reverence knowing that He will not reject us, but rather draw us close as His child and soothe our hearts with His love.   So take all your raw emotions to God and tell Him how you feel, even if you have to yell a little.

Holy Father, I am thankful that You know me so well; You know that I am fraught with human emotions that I sometimes can’t control.  Lord thank You for hearing my heart’s cry and for touching the deepest part of me with Your peace and tender love.  Amen