Switch the Station
Many years ago I--a recovering critic--began a little practice that helped me: every time I criticized someone (even if only in my head) I prayed for that person twice. Sometimes this was the senior minister that my husband as an associate minister worked with; other times it was the odd-looking person walking down the street. To my surprise, my constant criticism helped birth an ongoing prayer conversation with God.
Several years later I expanded on this replacement principle. It came about because I noticed that when I was obsessed with a certain thought or feeling and tried not to think it, this backfired. (Try not to think of chocolate cake or crème brulee after you’ve told yourself not to.) Nagging thoughts and feelings can feel like a radio playing in your head. You switch it off but it switches itself back on (especially at night when you can’t sleep). Then you scold yourself and the enemy has you spinning about how hopeless you are.
What works better, as I learned from Dallas Willard, is to replace destructive thoughts with helpful ones (as I had done with replacing criticism with prayer). In other words, don’t try to shut off the radio; switch the station, change the channel. Jesus knew this, of course, because that’s what blessing our enemies is about. Instead of thinking about how difficult you are to deal with, I think about how I might bless you. I may even pray: “Bless X through me.” Then I might ask God to give me some ideas of how I might bless you (at least a little bit). That replaces the obsessive thinking. Sure, I slip back to my destructive thoughts but that’s not the big deal that the enemy of your soul tells you it is. The big deal is to get back on track immediately and keep going forward.
You might wonder if this works with replacing destructive feelings—yes, via thoughts. As we said in Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice (pp. 88-89): “If it feels as if our feelings are bigger than we are (like a giant bogeyman hunching over us), it’s because they’re being produced by the thoughts we cultivate–especially ones we play over in our mind (the radio station). Since my first freedom is where I put my mind, I can ask myself, What will I think about in the next ten minutes?” What I think about in these next ten minutes will govern what I will feel in the next two minutes or two hours.
For example, if I’m worried about finances, it doesn’t work to try not to worry, or to try to replace worry with contentment. But I can replace my thoughts. Sometimes I list what I’m grateful for; other times I fall back on Isaiah 26:3: thou wilt keep me in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee because she trusts in Thee (sometimes I have to shout the last three words, or s a y t h e m s l o w l y). And yes, I’ll slip back but that’s OK. I just pick up the gratitude list or verse and keep going. The more we practice this replacement pattern, the easier it gets until it almost comes naturally.
Grace and peace,
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