Dr. Jack Haskins, a professor at the University of Tennessee, spent twelve years researching the effects of media on how people think.1 One of his studies attempted to determine the impact of a five-minute radio program that was filled with negative news stories: seventeen children blown up on a bus, an earthquake that killed thousands, riots in the streets of a large city, and so on. One group listened to negative programs like this daily, while a control group listened to more positive and uplifting news.
After evaluating the listeners who were daily exposed to five minutes of bad news, Haskins discovered four discernible effects on them: (1) they were more depressed than before; (2) they believed the world was a negative place; (3) they were less likely to help others; and (4) they began to believe that what they heard would soon happen to them. Simply by receiving and reflecting on the information from the radio program, their perceptions of the world and their outlook on life were adversely affected. Their concept of reality was shaped by their thoughts.
How could five minutes of negative thinking each day have that kind of influence? The old axiom, “You are what you eat,” is true not only physically but also psychologically and spiritually. The thoughts we entertain in our minds become the thoughts that guide our lives, for better or for worse. And if five minutes can have such a dramatic impact, can you imagine what six or seven hours of TV every day does to someone’s mind? The stream of negative news and skewed values that pours so freely into many of our minds clearly can change the way we live.
“As he thinketh in his heart, so is he,” Proverbs 23:7 (KJV) tells us. When we put positive, winsome ideas into our minds—for example, “I am deeply loved by God,” or “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24)—we have positive emotions. When we put discouraging, depressing ideas into our minds, we end up with negative emotions.
Whether we like it or not, what we think influences what we do. The thoughts we have, the feelings we feel, the experiences that shape our understanding—these things steer the ship of our lives. We act out of the perceptions we have, so those perceptions become a critical battleground.
Don’t believe it? Just ask advertisers. Sales people know that once you are emotionally hooked on a car, a house, or anything else, your decision to buy will soon follow. The entire advertising industry is based on the fact that behavior flows out of whatever moods and thoughts we have, and everyone in the industry contends for them. So do politicians, philosophers, and preachers. We even try to influence ourselves.
Consciously we may trivialize the importance of our thoughts, but we obviously recognize their power. When we get depressed or anxious, we spend a lot of time, energy, and money on changing our emotions. We undergo counseling and take medications to get our moods and feelings back on course. We also spend a lot of time, energy, and money on fixing our behaviors. We turn to counseling, medication, accountability groups, training courses, and a number of other aids to control a habit or a personality flaw. But almost always, beneath the emotions we want to improve and the behavior we want to correct is a pattern of thinking that needs to change.
Picture a train, if you will. The engine is our thinking, and it pulls first the car of emotions, then the car of behavior, and then the car of consequences. Good thoughts will influence our emotions for good, which in turn will influence our behavior and produce positive consequences. Negative thoughts have the same influence in the opposite direction. What we think will determine the course of our life.
Great Christians think great thoughts. Augustine spent his academic life studying the works of great philosophers and conversing with the leading rhetoricians of his day. After he embraced the truth of the gospel, his well-trained mind turned its attention to eternal realities. His writings demonstrate a thought life constantly wrestling with lofty concepts and deep reflections. He has influenced Christian theology perhaps more than any post–New Testament figure because he thought great thoughts.
Centuries later, one of Augustine’s admirers radically impacted Christian thought and helped spark the Protestant Reformation. As a monk, Martin Luther spent long nights and anxious days deep in thought about the nature of salvation and the practices of the church. To a large degree, the Reformation in northern Europe was a product of his thought life. We still reap the benefits of this mind, which was long ago captivated by the deep things of God.
Augustine and Luther are just two examples among many—Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, to name a few—whose thoughts have changed the course of history and enriched the Christian faith. And lest you think this practice applies only to the intellectual giants I’ve mentioned, great thoughts have powerfully influenced many who considered themselves intellectually ordinary. Dwight Moody, for example, had very little formal education, but his life was consumed with a thought expressed by an evangelist he met in Dublin: “The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully consecrated to him.”2 Moody wanted to be that man, and because that great thought was deeply rooted in his heart, Christian history has been (and continues to be) profoundly affected by his ministry.
The truth is that a mind flourishing with the deep truths of God is a powerful tool in his hands. Conversely, it simply isn’t possible to have a mind filled with flawed, pessimistic, cynical thinking and live an influential, fruitful life for the kingdom of God. If you want your life to dramatically change—to get out of a rut of destructive emotions or bad habits—it all begins with what goes into your mind.