“Underwood, you think too much!” I can’t tell you the first time heard this phrase from a dear friend of mine, but it’s one he occasionally pulls out. When I recently wrote a series on Christians and judging he told me that I was making things “too complicated”. Actually, I didn’t mind his analysis that I was over-analyzing. It made me detach, take a step back from my tendencies, and, well, analyze them.
His point was worth considering. It is possible to become overly analytical when it comes to spiritual matters. I have a friend, for instance, with obsessive tendencies, wholives in insecurity; constantly wondering if she’s born again – if she really believes in Jesus or just thinks that she does. It makes her miserable. Or it’s possible to encounter the paralysis of over-analysis – to spend so time trying to figure out exactly what Scripture means that we seldom get around to living it out So I get the potential danger of over-analysis. Like any good tool, it can be misused.
Yet the solution to over-thinking is not to rely strictly on spiritual instinct; on what feels right or good. Instinct, or acting from the gut, also has its limitations. Let me discuss those limitations first.
1. Our initial instincts are often not the best choice
When someone criticizes you, what’s your first instinct? Is it to listen patiently and humbly with an open mind? Probably not. Men, when a racy picture comes on TV, is your first instinct to look away? Our natural instincts are sometimes good, but often they’ve been shaped and tainted by sin, dysfunction, or ignorance. 1 Peter 2:12, describing evil men, says: “They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed.”
2. Our instincts are reactive, not reflective
Instinct is a lightning fast response, based not a careful evaluation of a situation and various possible responses, but on intuition and habit. Sometimes this is a necessity. Life moves fast and we don’t always have the luxury of slowing it down. At times we must respond quickly and decisively. And intuitions can be right on target. But, going back to the first point, an instant response is not always the best one, and sometimes it’s disastrous. Have you ever said foolish words that you wish you could take back? Or acted impulsively and regretted it? I have – many times.
So is instinct bad? Not at all. It’s absolutely necessary. We rely on it. In fact, one of the goals of the Christian life is to come to a place where many of our daily responses spring naturally from holy instinct – we respond patiently because we’ve become patient. We react with compassion because we’ve become compassionate. We don’t even have to consider these responses. They just flow out unconsciously.
These godly instincts, however, do not come easily. Unlike ungodly instincts, which often spring up effortlessly, like noxious weeds, Christ-like instincts must be planted and cultivated over time with the help of the Holy Spirit. This happens in multiple ways, the main one simply being spending plenty of time with an open heart in God’s presence. He has a tendency to rub off on us. Another tool for improving our spiritual instincts, however, is committing time to thoughtful analysis of our responses through considering them in light of biblical/spiritual truth. This leads to our second question:
What are the benefits of thoughtful analysis of biblical/spiritual truth?
Let me set this up by noting the phrase “biblical/spiritual truth”. While the Bible is our foundation, careful analysis will connect it with our own insights and other streams of wisdom from the world around us. Remember, all truth is God’s truth.
1. Our instincts are significantly influenced by our understanding
We don’t act out of a void. Our instincts are based, at least in part, on our understanding; on how we see God, ourselves, others and so on. Often these understandings are buried in our subconscious. For example, why do I have such a hard time admitting when I’m wrong? Or why do I have a critical spirit toward certain people? Or why do I find the Bible boring? Thoughtful analysis can sometimes bring the hidden reasons for my reactions to the surface. This leads to a second benefit
2. Understanding the source of my instinct gives me more control over it
When we understand the reasons we react a certain way, it pushes us back one step from the instant reaction process. We’re less hard-wired to it; more detached. My mindfulness gives me choices. I, for instance, often have a hard time saying “No” to people, even when I probably should. I’ve come to realize that part of the reason for this is compassion, but another part is that I want people to like me. If I say “No”, they may not like me anymore. But that’s kind of a selfish reason, don’t you think? Sometimes, the more loving response is “No”. The more aware we are of the thinking behind our instincts the more space/time we have to accept them or push back against them.
3. Analysis of biblical/spiritual truth significantly increases my range of options
Recently, a person in a class at church discovered the power of the “bless those who curse you” teaching. This may seem obvious to you or me, but it wasn’t to her. She’d been dissed by another lady and dissed her right back. Her new willingness to repay good for evil not only freed her from sinning, but it changed the dynamic of a negative relationship. The other person, the curser, became more friendly.
Frequently, we have far more wise, godly options than we’re aware of. Our natural instincts, based on upbringing, culture, and natural tendencies are limited and sometimes sinful or unhelpful. The Bible opens up a wider range of tools and perspective which we can use to form and guide our instincts. We come to realize, that our response is not limited just to “A or B”, but also can include “C,D or E”. Learning, for instance, to pray for your enemies, is a great instinct re-shaper. Or learning how to be angry and keep my mouth shut till I cool off is also helpful.
4. Analysis of biblical/spiritual truth allows me to practice my responses ahead of time
Good coaches know that the time to think about athletic moves is not in the heat of the game. They take time to teach the moves, go through them slowly, and run through them over and over until they become hard-wired. The same is true of our spiritual instincts. By thinking them through ahead of time we’re more likely to respond biblically under the pressure of the moment.
5. Analysis of biblical/spiritual truth makes me a more apt teacher
I can coach others better spiritually, if I can tell them how God wants us to respond, why He does, and what that response might look like. This does for them what the first four steps have done for us – freeing them up to develop even godlier instincts.
God has given us our minds to help guide our heart. Next week I will discuss what useful analysis of biblical/spiritual truth might look like.