capacity of the human mind to conjure up imaginary problems has
long intrigued and amused me.
During my first year out of seminary, I occupied the drafty
attic bedroom of a one-hundred-year-old home that I shared with
other members of the Sons of Thunder--a Christian music group I
directed. This rundown house, an abandoned monastery bordering a
cemetery, had been donated to our use for a dollar a year plus
some TLC. It needed much more than we could ever give it. One
look and you knew it had to be inhabited by something.
Early one morning I awakened and edged myself to the side of
the bed. As the surroundings of my bedroom gradually came into
focus, I suddenly realized I was staring at . . . a bat,
clinging to the wall in front of me. I darted out of the room,
slamming the door behind me, and ran downstairs yelling for
help. Duane, the band’s technician, calmly arose, got a broom
(the standard bat-combat weapon), and marched upstairs as I
tagged behind, mulling over recent news stories of rabid bats
biting children in local parks. He boldly entered the room.
Mustering some courage, I followed and flipped on the light.
The bat was no longer on the wall where I had spied him, so
we began a careful search of the room, finding nothing. The
windows were shut tightly, and there was no obvious way a bat
could have escaped these confines. Duane concluded I was
bats and went back to his room.
I sat down on the bed bewildered, wondering if I could have
dreamed the whole thing. Finally, I decided to try to go back to
sleep. I reached over and switched off the ceiling light, then
took a final glance at the spot on the wall where the bat had
To my astonishment, in that very location was a shadow with
the precise dimensions of that unwelcome visitor I had glimpsed
a few minutes before. I looked at the window where sunlight was
pouring in, and realized that a torn shade was casting this
illusion on the wall, bearing striking resemblance to the winged
creature I had seen. The ceiling light had washed the shadow out
when I turned it on.
Sitting on the bed that early morning in a semiconscious
state, I had stared at a simple shadow. But with the blurry
vision of just waking from sleep, I had perceived something
more. My mind had registered a gigantic creature of prey, about
to make me a candidate for a painful series of rabies shots!
Problems Real and Fanciful
My encounter with the imaginary bat stands out in my mind as
a telling reminder of my capacity to create imaginary problems.
I’m reminded of how easily I can envision problems where none
exist and blow real ones out of proportion.
Of course, my talent for doing this is shared fairly
universally among our species. We are uniquely gifted as humans
at ruminating. We can dwell on some imagined future catastrophe
to the point that we’re practically certain it will occur; our
fears may even prevent us from taking a vital step forward with
our life. Yet so often our apprehensions bear no more relation
to reality than the mirage I saw in my bedroom that morning.
I think of the story of a young man who ran out of gas on a
lonely country road. Seeing a farmhouse in the distance, he
began walking up the half-mile drive toward it. After going only
a short distance, he began to worry: They probably won’t have
any gasoline. As he got closer, his fears increased. If
they do, he thought, they probably won’t want to share it
with me. As he approached the farmhouse, his fears got out
of hand. They’ll probably get angry with me for trespassing
and order me off the premises, he fretted. Exhausted, he
arrived on the front step of the home. Before he could even
knock, a smiling, elderly lady answered the door and began to
say, “My dear boy! What can we do to help?” -- but before she
could finish, he cut her off, exclaiming, “Keep your blasted
gasoline!” and rushed away.
Like the young man, we each have
powerful mental generators capable of giving off images of
failure, images that can stifle us when we want to take certain
steps. As psychologist Martin Seligman puts it in
Learned Optimism, we “catastrophize.”
She will never want to go out with me, so why bother
The teacher will never grant me an extension on my paper,
so no sense asking.
My friend will only laugh at me if I apologize; no use
trying to talk the problem through.
That firm will never grant me an interview. If they do,
I’ll certainly not impress them, so I’m better off not
Yet obsessing about the possibility of failure can cause us
to miss golden opportunities that actually will open to us.
Grasshoppers and Giants
A stunning example of catastrophizing in Scripture occurs
when Moses sends twelve spies on a reconnaissance mission to
Canaan, described in Numbers 13. After they return, a full ten
of the twelve are able to see only immense problems involved in
trying to capture the promised land, to the point that they are
paralyzed from going ahead.
“We are not
able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than
we.” So they brought to the people of Israel an evil report of
the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land, through
which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its
inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of
great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak,
who come from the Nephilim); and we seemed to ourselves like
grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Num 13:31-33 RSV)
The spies foresaw only disaster if Israel invaded Canaan.
What’s striking is that God had already assured them they would
be victorious. When God had first spoken to Moses about
sending out the spies, God said, “Send men to spy out the land
of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel” (Num
13:2). The purpose of the spying mission wasn’t to determine if
they could be successful, but to determine the logistics
of the military campaign. Yet the spies had such fertile
imaginations that they magnified the challenges, to the point of
convincing themselves that God couldn’t possibly give them
One of the factors that most frightened the spies was the
physical size of the Canaanite men. They saw them as “Nephilim”--literally,
giants. Archeology has shown that the people of Canaan
were indeed larger than the Israelites; the spies didn’t
fantasize this perception. But they severely misunderstood the
implications. They assumed that the men of Canaan would view
them as pushovers. “And we seemed to ourselves like
grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” The evidence
indicates just the opposite. Rahab the Canaanite harlot summed
it up to the spies on a later mission:
“I know that
the LORD has given you the
land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all
the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have
heard how the LORD dried
up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of
Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that
were beyond the Jordan. . . . And as soon as we heard it, our
hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any man, because
of you; for the LORD your
God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”
Among the twelve spies on this first mission, only
two--Joshua and Caleb--were able to see the challenge from God’s
perspective. “Do not fear the people of the land,” they
declared, “for they are bread for us; their protection is
removed from them, and the LORD
is with us; do not fear them” (Num 14:9). The rest saw only
doom. Through their powerful mental images, they created
problems that did not exist. And these problems, however
imaginary, were fully effective in immobilizing them--even in
the face of God’s absolute promise of victory.
What’s most surprising about this incident is that the spies
were the leaders of Israel’s twelve tribes. The ten who brought
the gloomy majority report were among the most intelligent,
spiritually knowledgeable individuals in the nation. This
suggests that we will not necessarily avoid the tendency to
catastrophize simply because we are well educated, or have been
a Christian for many years. It’s still human nature for us to
fall into this pattern.
Taking Heart While Taking Control
A day doesn’t go by in your life or mine when we don’t
confront very real problems--ones that Christ wants us to face
prayerfully and seriously. But Satan will strive to make us live
in a world of illusion. He will, if he can, incite us to paint
worst-case scenarios in our mind, and to dwell on them to the
point that we believe wholeheartedly they’ll occur.
We need to learn to recognize this thought pattern for what
it is and to call its bluff when we fall into it. Here are three
suggestions that can help us resist the tendency to
Learn to outwit your catastrophizing. If you find
yourself worrying about a misfortune taking place, remind
yourself that the vast majority of calamities you envision never
materialize. Then take comfort, because the fact that you are
worrying about this gloomy possibility means it probably will
not occur. Remember, in other words, that your predictions of
disaster are usually wrong, and take encouragement from that!
Learn to laugh at yourself. We who obsess over problems
take ourselves too seriously. We take our ruminating too
seriously and our predictions of doom too seriously. If we can
learn the art of laughing at our tendency to catastrophize, it
will do much to bring the giants down to size.
Learn to think of God’s grace dynamically. John 1:16
promises that Christ gives “grace upon grace” to us as
Christians. The Greek text literally means “grace following
grace,” or fresh grace every split second of our existence.
Our anxieties result in large part from trying to predict
precisely how God might provide us grace to handle some
future problem. We can never foresee how he will do it, though,
for it’s characteristic of his grace that he gives it at the
moment we need it and not before. The promise of Scripture is
simply that when we need God’s assistance, he will provide it.
In all likelihood what we dread will not occur. But if it does,
God will give us exactly the grace required for handling that
predicament. We need to dwell on this remarkable promise, but
not burden ourselves with trying to anticipate how God will do
As you begin this summer, do you find yourself facing a
seemingly insurmountable problem? A broken relationship that
appears beyond healing? A job that is taxing you beyond your
limits? An exasperating financial roadblock? A friend who shows
no interest in coming to Christ?
Don’t ignore your feelings of discouragement and frustration.
But be careful not to let them become the controlling factor in
your life. Remember that Christ sees our lives, and our
dilemmas, infinitely more creatively than we do. Focus as much
as possible on his love, his power and his desire to work out
his very best plan for your life. Ask him for clear vision to
see the bats as shadows and the giants as men who have lost
their protection. Believe that he is for you and can guide you
into a very good solution.