Many years ago, at my first church, when I hit a rough patch, I retreated one night onto the nearby shadowy, silent train tracks, walking till one in the morning, rehearsing the painful events of the day over and over, analyzing them into dust, giving defensive speech after speech to God and to the invisible audience of those who had wounded me. Today, I try not to take that approach when life bites me. I’ve learned that, rather than reducing my anxiety, it makes it worse and deepens my anger as well as my sense of self-pity and victimhood. Now, though I still have painful moments, I’ve learned healthier ways to get sad, get mad, and get over it. My instincts, thank God, have changed for the better.
One of the reasons my instincts have changed is that my understanding of emotional dynamics has deepened. Thoughtful analysis of our instinctscan help make them more constructive andChrist-like. Last week I explained why. This week I will attempt to explain how.
How can I use analysis to help correct and refine my spiritual instincts?
Let me begin by defining what I mean by “analysis”. Analysis, the way I’m using it, is meditation on scriptural/spiritual truths that’s guided by a practical bent. So how might I do that?
1. I begin by recognizing the limits of analysis
In the era I grew up in, the modern era, Western society had practically deified human reason. We thought we could solve our world’s woes by rational means; by figuring things out. It turns out, though, that ignorance was not our greatest problem. Our greatest problem is sin. Sin distorts how we think and weakens our will to do what’s right. This leads to the second point:
2. I continue by recognizing that only the Holy Spirit can truly transform me into Christ-likeness
Without relying on God, people, do analyze and improve their lives to some extent. One can lose weight, learn better time organization, or gain stronger communication skills. These are all useful to a point. But God’s goal is to do more than refine our performance skills. He wants to transform our very hearts; to make us like Christ (Rom. 8:29) to the bone. Understanding alone won’t do this. It has to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. He alone can give us a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17), and transform our deepest instincts. Call to Him for help and rely on Him.
3. I get curious
One day I was reviewing a memory verse, Colossians 3:12-14, which says, “. . .clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. . .” and suddenly thought: “Where is the clothes closet here? How am I supposed to put on these spiritual garments?” Paul makes it sound as though we can just slip on compassion any old time we want. But I find that sometimes I’ve misplaced my compassion jacket and all I can find to put on is my “Yeah, whatever!” shirt. So how can I change that?
Bible teaching raises a myriad of these practical questions. They’re fun to discover and the answers are important, but you’ll only notice them if you’re curious. The next point is related:
4. I seek to define biblical terms in practical ways
The Bible uses a lot of abstract spiritual terms; words like compassion, lust, patience, covetousness, and so on. We often read right by these, assuming we know what they mean. But what’s the difference between really wanting something and greed, between healthy ambition and selfish ambition? What does it mean to “trust in the Lord”? Is that some sort of warm feeling? Often, these remain ill-defined and we have only a vague, subjective instinct about them which may or may not be accurate. In fact, too often, our instincts are informed by misconceptions. We may, for instance, confuse humility with an inferiority complex, or think that unselfishness means we’re not allowed to say “no” to others Correcting these misconceptions comes through our own meditation, reading books, talking with others, and asking the Spirit to teach us.
5. I seek to become sensitized to how my instincts match biblical teaching
Self-awareness is crucial here. The Spirit and others can help us with this. Now that I have a better grasp of what patience or humility might look like, how does that compare with how I actually live? Don’t expect your performance to be all or nothing. There’s a continual growing curve here that stretches out over a life-time.
6. I try to figure out practical ways to choose biblical responses
Analysis sets the stage for changing our instincts, but it must be acted upon. This often starts with our thinking. With forgiveness, for example, I can choose not to rehearse someone’s offense over and over in my mind or to entertain mean thoughts about them. In fact, when their offense comes up, I’ll often say, silently, “That’s forgiven.” Externally, I am careful what I say about them to others and I avoid payback actions. I pray for them. I ask the Spirit to help me forgive. Little steps, taken over time, can carry us a long way.
7. I grow to understand the difference between the role of my will and of my emotions
When it comes to obedience, our wills are the place where the most responsibility rests. Our emotions may or may not choose to participate and they’re easy to misinterpret anyway. So, for instance, I can clothe myself with compassion by choosing to act compassionately outwardly and by affirming my desire to be compassionate inwardly. Ideally, I’ll feel sympathy or warmth when I’m do this, but not always. An emotional match is something to pray for and work for, but it’s not always possible at the moment.
Over a year ago, my brother Tom, who had a good job and had done solid work, was called into the company president’s office and informed, in the presence of others, that he would be permanently laid off. This came as a bolt out of the blue. Keep in mind, too, the state of our economy and the fact that Tom was nearly 60 years old. It was devastating news.
Tom’s response still blows me out of the water. Looking at the company president, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “Sir, this news is blindsiding me. I had no idea I was about to lose my job. But I want you to know this. My hope isn’t in a job. My hope is in the Lord.”
That was his instinctual response, and it changed the atmosphere in the room in a positive way. I’m sure that most of those listening never forgot it. What came out was unrehearsed. It flowed from his deepest heart; a heart that has sincerely sought God for many years. That’s our goal; for every instinct to be purified and trained by God’s Spirit until our natural responses become His. Thoughtful analysis is often part of that process.