Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. ~ Romans 12:2
I used to be exasperated with the question of how to renew my mind. Well, yes, I knew to read my Bible, pray, and fellowship. But in hard times, when life asked far more of me than I had to give, I wanted tools to take me deeper. I wanted detailed steps to the inner process of change. Without a clear map, transformation only sounded like some mystical process that felt unattainable. I needed a systematic way of “getting at” my mind.
Transforming change comes about as we respond to truth, so we need to continually screen our mind for thoughts that are either “100% true,” “partially true,” or “completely false.” This method (borrowed from CBT) has helped me very much:
Awareness and Identification
First, we must identify potentially unhealthy thoughts (e.g. “I never get a break,” ”You can’t trust anyone,” or “I’m worthless.”) Easy, right? But there’s a problem. We tend to assume we know everything we’re thinking. Not so! Since thoughts are measured in milliseconds, consider their sheer quantity at any given moment. Our brains must continually prioritize according to perceived importance. How easily, then, we lack necessary awareness. This murkiness must be penetrated in order to find the damaging content. How do we do this?
When to Pay Attention
Notice sudden downward mood shifts. Key point: negative mood = red flag. Negative moods should immediately alert us to scan our minds, name as many distressing thoughts as possible, and write them down. Our goal is to uncover the lies and fears which repeatedly blindside us. Most harmful are core beliefs we’ve convinced ourselves are true such as “I’m a failure; I’m a loser; I’m helpless; I’m unlovable; I’m bad; There’s something wrong with me.”
Doing the Work
Once named, we must challenge the thoughts rationally with evidence for and evidence against. As believers, our first task should be to test the thought against God’s Word. We also consider personal observations, knowledge gleaned from science or other relevant sources, and input from family and friends. Again, record your work.
Formulating a Conclusion
After thorough, rational challenges, we are in a position to see the truth more clearly. Now it’s time to state the new, balanced perspective. Writing it down further helps clarity.
Reinforcements and Change
Some types of false thoughts are easily challenged and change occurs immediately. Others, such as core beliefs, have been there since childhood. These require persistent challenges and hard work before the truth embeds itself deeply enough to override the lie.
If you’re like me, you’d like to see how this works. Here’s how someone might tackle the thought “I never get a break,” a rather easy one to challenge.
Evidence for: It may be true that for a long time I have not gotten a break, but that’s not the same as never. So I can find no evidence supporting this thought.
Evidence against: Believing “I never get a break” doesn’t make sense in light of God’s interactions with undeserving sinners. Also, my experience tells me that even though things have not gone my way lately, I recall times in the past where things did. Family and friends have been reminding me of those times, too. I’ve just been too upset to listen.
New Perspective: I don’t need to give in to self pity because it’s not true that I never get a break. I can acknowledge that a lot of things have gone wrong lately, but I can also remember that God is for me and that he has plans to prosper and not to harm me, plans to give me a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
Here’s a fictional character who is challenging their core belief “I’m worthless,” which is more difficult.
Evidence for: I believe I’m worthless because my parents never wanted me. Mom told me that she had planned to abort but then found out she was too far along in the pregnancy to follow through. She seemed to resent that I was born. I can’t remember my parents telling me anything I ever did right. In fact, my dad constantly told me how much I annoyed him. We never had much money growing up, and I always felt all the other kids were better than me. I made myself invisible at school because that felt the most safe. I guess considering my past, no wonder I have trouble making friends and living confidently.
Evidence against: How do I challenge the deeply entrenched belief that “I’m worthless”? Where does a human being’s worth come from anyway? Parents should instill worth into their children but mine did not. Yet, just because my parents did not does not mean that I have no worth.
For example, according to the Declaration of Independence, all human beings appear to have worth. It states that “all men are created equal” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Beings who claim such rights would certainly enjoy worth. As a member of the human race, I inherently possess the same dignity and value as others. Whether my feelings agree or not, this is the truth.
Also, and more importantly, the Bible tells me that I am loved and wanted by God. Worth is ascribed to the one being loved and desired. If I am loved by God, I am worthy indeed. However, even though I can say this intellectually, my heart struggles to believe it. Therefore, my plan is to memorize and regularly review worth-affirming scriptures until I “know that I know that I know.”
Another evidence is my one close friend who tells me all the time how much I mean to her. When she tells me this I always wonder what she sees in me, but maybe it’s time I accept her at face value.
New Perspective: Though contrary to my current feelings, I can choose to affirm my worth. As I repeatedly immerse myself in the truth, I am hopeful that the feelings will follow.
Recapping How to Systematically Renew the Mind:
- Commit to identifying specific unhealthy thoughts.
- Recognize that downward mood shifts are an indication that negative thoughts are running and must be “caught.”
- Challenge the thoughts according to all sources of truth God has made available—scripture, scientific knowledge, and wise counsel, always giving God’s Word the place of highest authority.
- Summarize your new, more balanced perspective.
- Reinforce the truth by reviewing your work as needed.
- Change your behavior accordingly.
As noted above, without identifying maladaptive thoughts, we cannot challenge them, nor will we be able to change. Sometimes it helps to know the types of thoughts we are looking for. I’ve found Dr. Ross’s extensive list extremely helpful. http://rosspsychology.com/1/post/2011/06/cognitive-therapy-101-core-beliefs.html