May 1, 2013
Christians and

How Much Can We
Psych Ourselves Up?
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This article is adapted from Blaine Smiths book Emotional Intelligence for the Christian. It is also included in his Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life.
Few biblical incidents do more to ignite my faith than the story about the woman with the hemorrhage. For twelve years she experienced the indescribable discomfort and embarrassment of a blood flow that no physician could heal. To add to her misery, she became financially destitute, bankrupt from her extensive medical expenses. Mark summarizes the woman’s despair in a sentence: “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse” (Mk 5:26).

Finally, after this interminable search for help, she heard of Jesus and his exceptional power to heal. She pressed through a dense crowd to touch him, and at the instant when her hand made contact with his clothing she was cured.

This woman’s example inspires me because I identify so easily with her humanity. She apparently was terribly frightened as she approached Jesus, for unlike most others in the Gospels who sought healing from him she attempted to do so unnoticed--by merely brushing the edge of his robe. Yet Jesus recognized instantly that healing power had escaped from him. When he asked who had touched him, “the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth” (Mk 5:33).

Given her intense fear, it’s all the more impressive that she found the resolve to approach Jesus for healing. It’s this display of courage that impresses me most. I’m moved, too, by her incredible optimism: in spite of her constant experience of disappointment during more than a decade of seeking help from medical professionals, she still found it possible to believe that her health could be restored. What was the basis for her remarkable faith?

Matthew gives us a revealing insight when he notes that “she kept saying to herself, ‘If I can only touch his coat, I will get well’” (Mt 9:21 Williams). She confronted her fears and doubts by telling herself repeatedly that she still had reason for hope--that her past did not have to define her future.

Talking to Ourselves

Psychologists today would say that this woman benefited from positive “self-talk.” The term has emerged in recent decades, both in pop psychology and in more serious psychological circles as well, to describe an important part of our mechanism of thinking. Enthusiasts note that much--if not most--of our thinking is verbalized. If I wake up in the morning feeling depressed about the day ahead, for instance, I’m not just feeling some vague sense of despondency but am actually verbalizing a negative message to myself, such as, “I haven’t had enough sleep. I won’t be able to cope with the pressures ahead of me today, and I know the boss is going to give me too much to do.” When we stop and look carefully at what is going on in our minds, we find that we’re constantly talking to ourselves for good or ill during every conscious moment of life.

It is noted, too, that we can fall into certain patterns of negative self-talk early in life which if not checked continue with us for a lifetime. We are endlessly verbalizing messages to ourselves--consciously and unconsciously--about our prospects for success and happiness, and these mental memorandums dramatically affect our destiny. People with chronically low self-esteem, for instance, are constantly uttering statements of disapproval to themselves, such as, “I am no good. I make a mess of everything I try to do. I don’t really have the right stuff to make friends or be successful, and even if I make the effort, no one is going to like me anyway.”

Proponents of self-talk therapy argue that we can change virtually any behavior or thought pattern merely by altering the messages we speak to ourselves--“reprogramming the tracks,” as it’s called. To improve your self-image, simply make a habit of telling yourself, I am someone of profound worth. I have the ability to make good friends and keep them and the potential to make a significant mark in this world. Or, if you’re frightened about an upcoming job interview, calm your nerves and increase your prospects for success by saying repeatedly to yourself, I have skills which are really needed by this company and have good reason to hope that the employer will quickly see this. I’ll be calm, articulate and friendly and present my case convincingly.

The most provocative claim of self-talk devotees is that such efforts at constructive self-talk can quickly bring significant results and that they hold the key to personal change--even to spiritual growth. Pick up a popular book on self-talk, and you'll likely find it saying that positive self-talk has a virtually hypnotic effect on you. Simply change the way you speak to yourself in a given area and surprising improvement will soon result. You can count on it.

I Feel Good, I Feel Great . . .

Most of us react to such an idea with mixed emotions. We don’t deny that much of our thinking is verbalized (how could anyone argue with that?), and we suspect that there probably are benefits to working on our self-talk. Yet we balk at the notion that self-talk is a cure-all for our problems or an instant guarantee of health, happiness and success. For one thing, it’s hard to rid ourselves of the thought that our efforts at positive self-talk easily amount to a glorified sort of wishful thinking.

I’ve never forgotten an Archie comic strip I once read and its lighthearted jab at positive thinking. As I recall it, Jughead tells Archie that he fears he will fail at something he wants to do. Archie then gives Jughead some time-honored advice: “Tell yourself you can do it. Speak positive messages of success to yourself.”

Jughead answers, “That won’t work. I know what a liar I am!”

The insight of that simple four-frame comic strip is actually astounding, for it highlights a major reason why efforts at positive thinking so often backfire for the person with low self-confidence--the fact that she mistrusts her own judgment to begin with! While she has plenty of dreams of success and happiness, she assumes that these are largely fantasy. A more confident counselor may encourage a person to verbalize positive messages to himself. Yet it does little good to tell himself repeatedly, “You’ll be successful in this job interview,” if a louder voice underneath keeps announcing, “You usually fail--and this attempt to psych yourself up is a delusion.” His chances for success are about as good as those of multiphobic Bob in the movie What About Bob?, who begins his daily routine and the film chanting repeatedly, “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” yet a moment later collapses in anxiety on the sidewalk.

Those with high self-esteem may benefit more readily from working on their self-talk. Yet they, too, likely discover that deeply ingrained thought patterns don’t roll over and play dead as quickly as they would hope. It has been estimated that by the time we reach thirty years of age our brain has been subjected to three trillion mental impressions. It takes more than a few casual efforts at positive self-talk to reprogram such tracks!

But then there is the example of the woman with the hemorrhage. She clearly benefited from telling herself that she would be healed if she touched Jesus’ robe. Her self-talk seems to be the factor that nudged her beyond a considerable barrier of fear. Her step of courage so impressed Jesus that he declared, “Daughter, your faith has made you well”--one of only a handful of instances in the Gospels where he praised someone’s faith (Mk 5:34). Her inspiring example brings us back to the fact that the Scriptures do see significance in the way we talk to ourselves.

What, then, are the real benefits of working on our self-talk, and what are the limitations?

Self-Talk in Scripture

To begin with--and for what it’s worth--the Scriptures do give broad and perhaps surprising support to the fact that much of our thinking is verbalized. It’s common, for instance, for biblical writers who are describing what an individual is thinking to use the words “said to himself.”  The phrase occurs frequently in Scripture and clues us to numerous examples of verbalized thinking in the Bible. Most of these fall well short of the redemptive example of self-talk displayed by the woman with the hemorrhage; many, in fact, underline just how misguided self-talk can often be. For instance:

“Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’” (Gen 17:17).

“[The wicked man] says to himself, ‘God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees’” (Ps 10:11).

“This is the carefree city that lived in safety. She said to herself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me’” (Zeph 2:15).

“But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards” (Mt 24:48-49).

Although these examples and many like them are negative, they do show that Scripture respects the fact that we verbalize our thinking. They bring out, too, that our self-talk has more than a trivial effect upon our destiny.

There are also clear exhortations in Scripture to work on our self-talk. For example--

“After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness’” (Deut 9:4).

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 11:18-19).

These commands exhort us to constantly express to ourselves and others a grace-centered perspective on God. The fact that we’re commanded to do this is encouraging to consider, for it indicates that God has given us the ability to do what is commanded. We can make improvements in our self-talk, in other words: Scripture does give us hope at this point.

No Quick Fix

Scripture, however, never comes close to suggesting that our lives can be dramatically improved or that deep-seated habits of thinking can be quickly changed merely by focusing on our self-talk alone. While the Bible is highly optimistic about the possibility of positive change occurring in our lives, it cautions us against any attempt at a quick fix.

This comes across vividly in a discussion which Jesus had with his disciples about faith. On one occasion they came to him with an understandable request, “Increase our faith!” (Lk 17:5). Undoubtedly they were envious of Jesus’ remarkable thought control. They wanted his uncanny capacity to believe without wavering that someone would be healed on command or--may we speculate?--that needs in their own lives would be instantly met. They wanted to get rid of all those negative messages inside their heads that kept saying, “This is impossible.”

Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Lk 17:6). At first his reply seems puzzling, for he merely spoke to them of the challenge of increasing their faith, not about how to do it. He didn’t seem to answer the question they asked. Yet I suspect Jesus realized that his disciples were looking for an easy shortcut to faith. He meant his response as a reality check, to jolt them into realizing the extreme difficulty of what they were asking. Even a very small genuine change in perspective is radical in nature and far-reaching in its effects. Or to say it conversely, it takes more than a few efforts at thought control or a wave of a spiritual magic wand to bring about an authentic change in outlook. This requires nothing less than a true inner transformation--and that takes time.

The point is pertinent to our discussion on self-talk, for our concern in improving our self-talk is, after all, how to increase our faith. Here we’re reminded that our greatest faith need is not to become momentarily psyched up but to experience a thoroughgoing change in perspective. We need to become thoroughly persuaded of Christ’s vibrant outlook on our life, not just temporarily enthused about it.

This brings us back, then, to the question of how such a radical change in perspective can come about.

Temporary Elation vs. True Transformation

A variety of steps can help, including regular worship, careful study of Scripture, seeking the support and encouragement of others--even professional counseling if needed. Yet over the long haul, I do not believe that any activity helps us more to gain an outlook of faith than times of personal meditation. By “meditation” I don’t mean incantations or lotus postures but simply a time of quiet pondering, when we reflect on our life and on God, and when we give Christ an ample opportunity to get our ear. It’s through such periods that the most substantial and lasting changes in perspective are likely to occur.

This is the lesson we learn from Psalm 73. The writer of that psalm was overwhelmed with bitterness as he compared his lot in life to that of certain unscrupulous individuals he knew who were outrageously successful. He concluded that God had dealt him a low blow. Yet through a period of silent reflection he began to recognize the fate of these fraudulent individuals more clearly and to view his own life more optimistically. He moved beyond his acid spirit of comparison to a more vibrant outlook on God--and on his own life as well.

For him, the change in perspective occurred in the reverent stillness of a sanctuary. There was nothing magic about that location, for Moses had similar experiences on a mountain, Jesus in a garden, while John the Baptist and Paul benefited from the peaceful environment of the desert. The location is not the critical factor, as Jesus indicated when he suggested that we pray in a “closet” (Mt 6:6 KJV). The important matter is simply to arrange for a reasonable period of quiet and to choose a location that will enhance that.

I believe that each of us will benefit greatly from spending at least a few minutes daily in quiet reflection. During this period we should bring to the surface those areas of our life where we feel frustrated or discouraged. We should consider the hidden benefits that these situations may actually have for us and leisurely explore possible solutions and reasons for hope. We should ponder the biblical teaching on Christ’s grace and provision in our lives and consider what relation this teaching has to the challenges we’re facing. God has made our minds amazingly resilient, incredibly capable of regaining a sense of hope and generating optimistic solutions. Yet for this to happen we have to allow adequate opportunity for the Holy Spirit to influence us and renew within us the mind of Christ. This means especially the need for times of quiet.

Ideally this meditation should occur during a regular devotional time, when we pray and study Scripture as well as take time to reflect. Unfortunately our “quiet” times too often become cluttered with busy routines--prayer lists, study requirements and other rituals, which can become a subtle effort to court God’s favor through our spirituality. While these practices can be valuable, we must remember that the ultimate purpose of a devotional time is to become encouraged in Christ and to gain his perspective on our day. Each of us needs to experiment to find out what approach best accomplishes that purpose. Most of us will find that a period of quiet, uncluttered reflection will be immensely helpful, even if it means discarding some of the busy routine of our devotional time.

Early in his career, Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier decided to devote an hour daily to this sort of meditation. His many books bustle with stories of how this practice benefited both himself and his patients. Though setting this hour aside meant cutting back on other responsibilities, Tournier insists that the tradeoff was more than worth it.

An hour daily of personal meditation may be too much for some of us. Yet each of us will find that some time given each day to such reflection will benefit us and be worth the exchange of time involved. From time to time we will also find that a personal retreat or special extended period of prayer and reflection will help greatly to clarify things and rekindle our faith.

More Than Just Talk

Let’s return to the example of the woman with the hemorrhage. I believe that her extraordinary faith sprang not merely from efforts to psych herself up but from a deep conviction about the grace and goodness of God. In spite of her extreme suffering, she was profoundly persuaded that God desired the very best for her and that she had considerable reason for hope. Her illness, in fact, may well have provided the enforced solitude for her to think things through to this point. As she ventured forth to seek healing from Jesus, she was dreadfully frightened--and naturally so, for there was plenty of inertia to overcome, there were the reactions of unsympathetic people to face, and plenty of disheartening thoughts were playing over in her mind. In light of this, telling herself again and again that Jesus could heal her did prove helpful--but in reality she was simply reminding herself of what she already knew.

It’s here that we finally come to the point of saying what is the real benefit of working on our self-talk. Self-talk has maintenance value for us. It’s a way of bringing ourselves back to points of conviction we’ve already reached during times of quiet reflection before the Lord, especially as the more frantic pace of life drowns them out. It’s a way of combating fears that all too naturally crop up, even once we become convinced of what God wants us to do. When used in healthy balance with times of prayer and meditation, it can truly aid us in practicing the presence of the Lord.

You and I need to keep telling ourselves that.

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This article is adapted from Blaine's book Emotional Intelligence for the Christian. It is also included in his Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life.

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