Whatever Is Lovely

How to Overcome Pressing Distractions

Where do your thoughts come from?

Our conscious thoughts always come from somewhere. That’s obvious enough, you might think. My guess, though, is that much of the time it’s not obvious to you at all where your thoughts are coming from.

Of course, sensory and information input give you frequent food for thought (like this article is doing right now). But what about the thoughts demanding your attention first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, or the compulsive thoughts that dictate your behaviors?

I’ll give you a personal example. During my morning prayer time, it’s not uncommon for me to suddenly realize I’ve stopped praying and am now engaged in an imaginary conversation with myself or someone else regarding something I’m currently concerned about. When I try to stop and get back to praying, it can be very hard — my thoughts are demanding my attention.

You know what I mean, because you experience this too. Such thoughts often have what feels like a gravitational pull on our attention, almost like we can’t resist going where they want to lead us, even if we don’t want to go there. Where are these coming from?

Thoughts, Emotions, Beliefs

If we want to know where our thoughts are coming from, the first thing to examine is our emotions. What specifically are we feeling — fear, anxiety, anger, disappointment, discouragement, grief, sadness, hope, excitement, pride, joy, desire, anticipation? Sometimes powerful emotions like these push us down a certain train of thought. Other times certain thoughts stir up such emotions. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, because our emotions always point to what’s feeding our thoughts.

And what our emotions point to are our underlying beliefs. What we believe is what feeds our thoughts — the thoughts that really matter to us and guide how we live.

We all have official beliefs and functional beliefs, and the beliefs I’m talking about are the latter. Our official beliefs are like a company’s formal mission statement, core values, and policy handbook. Functional beliefs are like how a company actually operates. If we want to know what a company really values, we look at its operations. If we want to know what we really believe at any given moment, we look at our functional beliefs.

And the quickest way to see our functional beliefs is to look underneath our emotions. That’s what’s feeding our dominating, behavior-dictating thoughts.

Think About These Things

But is any of this in the Bible? Yes. God, having designed the human psyche, is the supreme Psychologist, and the Bible is an incredible psychology text. Functional belief-fueled emotions and thoughts are all over the Bible. Why did Gideon think to hide his wheat in the winepress (Judges 6:11)? Why did David think sleeping with Bathsheba was a good idea (2 Samuel 11)? Why did Peter think he should deny Jesus to the servant girl (Matthew 26:69–70)? Why did the anguished father think to say to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)?

But the text I’ve found most helpful recently is Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Note the last four words: “think about these things.” That’s a strong statement. Paul isn’t offering us counsel; he’s giving us a command. This is something we must obey. God is saying something profound to us through Paul: there is a way to change how we think, and we must choose that way. What way?

Look at the list. Have you ever stopped to think how abstract the concepts Paul lists are? The last time you struggled to escape a compulsive train of thought, how much help were concepts like truth, honor, justice, purity, excellence, and the rest? To the degree they remained abstract, probably no help at all.

Paul never intended these concepts to remain abstract. That’s why he wrote “whatever is” before each one. Paul knew that giving rise to our negative, sinful thoughts are specific false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, ugly, disgraceful, and detestable functional beliefs. Wherever these functional sinful beliefs (or unbeliefs) exist in us, manifesting in our demanding sinful thoughts and emotions, they must be confronted and replaced with “whatever is” the appropriate, God-dependent belief.

Fight for Joy

When we are struggling with distracting, demanding thoughts and emotions, God wants us to know that we are not victims who must simply endure the miserable ride on the train of our thoughts. He wants us to seize the controls he’s given us, switch tracks, and head in a faithful, joyful direction.

And we do this by remembering that superficial thoughts and emotions are the offspring of our deeper functional beliefs. Those false beliefs are based on false promises — any promise that doesn’t have its origin in God through his word. Therefore, when we unseat specific false promises by trusting true promises, we unseat the false belief giving life to dominating emotions and thoughts. When we do this, it produces spiritual peace and joy, even if nothing has changed in our circumstances.

This is hard work, especially if we’re out of practice or have never really made this a consistent practice. It’s a fight of faith, one we engage numerous times a day. And in habits of sinful thought and feeling we’ve conditioned ourselves to indulge, we should expect it to be particularly difficult.

But difficult doesn’t mean impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Yes, learning the habit of not being pushed around by our thoughts and emotions requires us to exercise discipline. But biblical discipline is not in the long run the denial of pleasure, but the pursuit of pleasure (Hebrews 12:10–11).

It is for joy and freedom and love that God is calling us to fight with all our might to “think about these things.”