In 2003, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Daniel Amen, I actually saw how my brain works. After a clinician injected my arm with small doses of radioactive chemicals, snapshots of my brain were taken using single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT for short). Don’t worry; you won’t be tested on this.
The purpose of SPECT scans is to evaluate areas of a person’s brain that work well, those that work too hard, and those that do not work hard enough. People who undergo SPECT imaging use this information to optimize their brain function.
Okay, apart from the radioactive injection thing (no, I don’t glow in the dark), isn’t that amazing? Wouldn’t it be incredibly helpful to look at your brain and see which areas are right on target, which need some pep, and which need to take it down a notch? It was for me. And my SPECT-scan results made perfect sense.
Dr. Reed, the woman who reviewed my images, reported — very scientifically — that my brain was “on fire.” She explained that parts of my brain, such as the basal ganglia and cingulate (which control anxiety and the ability to let go of obsessive, negative, or recurring thoughts and behavior) as well as the temporal lobes and deep limbic system (which she called the “inner critic” and “mood regulators”), were working overtime. Technically speaking, whether because of a chemical imbalance or my habit of dwelling on unhealthy thoughts (perhaps both simultaneously), my brain needed to settle down.
Do your thoughts ever seem overwhelming — uncontrollable, untamable, and completely ungodly, despite your best efforts to live righteously? Sometimes I’ll review the thoughts I’ve had over the course of a day, even the course of an hour, and I’ll despair: the mean things I’ve thought about others or myself, the impure, angry, or fearful thoughts that have assaulted me and reminded me how truly fallen I am. If these thoughts were displayed on my forehead for all to see, I’m sure I would live as a hermit.
You may be thinking, Great, is my brain “on fire,” too? What if I’ll never be able to conquer the thoughts that pass through my mind? What if someone finds out what I’m really thinking about? There’s nothing easy about asking yourself these questions, but you’re in good company; every other woman on the face of the earth deals with the same thing. We all struggle with our thought lives, even if we don’t know it.
And talking with each other honestly about our thought lives rarely happens because it’s vulnerable and uncomfortably close. Yet as I’ve matured, and as I’ve worked with other women, I’ve found that evaluating my thoughts, especially in the context of community, is extraordinarily important. What I think determines how I feel, which then impacts how I behave.
You may wonder what the big deal is. Perhaps you have no idea what’s really going on in your mind because you haven’t paid much attention. You think about whatever you want to think about and find it difficult to believe that your thoughts have much of an influence on your behavior, at least not directly. But consider Proverbs 4:23, which reads,
Be very careful about what you think.
Your thoughts run your life. (ncv)
Every act, whether beautiful or heinous, starts in the mind. Every charitable act begins with a loving thought, and every sin grows out of a distorted thought. We sin, in large part, because we hold on to and live out of toxic beliefs. So whether we are aware of the depths and brokeness of our thoughts or not, they are very real, and they influence us more than we even know.
Many of our thoughts, unfortunately, are both negative and untrue. At different points in their lives, most women have believed poisonous lies such as these: I’m not good enough. What others think about me defines who I am. I am the sum of my accomplishments and my relationships. We have believed a multitude of other self-defeating falsities as well, lies that have hijacked and poisoned our minds.
Joyce Meyer writes, “Thinking about what you’re thinking about is very valuable because Satan usually deceives people into thinking that the source of their misery or trouble is something other than what it really is.”1 The Enemy wants us to believe that what we do is more important than what goes on inside us. But our behavior is only a symptom of a deeper problem.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get to the real root of our problems? Judging from the fact that you decided to read this book, I’m guessing you’re interested. First Peter 1:13,15 encourages us, “Roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear . . . let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness” (msg). A life and mind energetic and blazing with holiness — I think deep down that’s what we all crave.
How and what we think determines our spiritual, emotional, and sometimes even physical health. Elizabeth George notes, “Like a virus, our thoughts have the ability to drain our energy and cripple our usefulness. Our thoughts can, however, also be a source of strength when we dwell on the powerful truths of Scripture.”2 That’s what we’ll try to do together — dwell on the truth. I have written this book from a biblical viewpoint because the Bible both reveals Truth and defines how your mind was designed and is sustained by the living God. You have been created incomparable and magnificently unique. No one thinks or feels precisely the way you do.
Sadly, many people believe that to qualify as Christians, we must act, talk, and think in a similar manner. Truly, everyone should “learn to think like [Jesus],” as 1 Peter 4:1 teaches us to do (msg). But we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that our minds, hearts, and souls can be shaped in a cookie-cutter fashion. Your faith does, and will always, look different from mine. You are completely unique. Forcing you to think or approach God like I do would be madness.
In their book Prayer and Temperament, Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey claim,
One of the great tragedies during the past several centuries is that we have been more or less forced by training into a form of prayer or spirituality. . . . When it did not work, the conclusion was that there was something wrong with the person rather than with the method. The result was that many good people gave up . . . or went through the motions of [faith] without any real interior effect or benefit.3
One size does not fit all when it comes to spiritual formation.
With that in mind, I’ll endeavor to steer clear of telling you exactly how or what to think in this book. I want you to understand and live in Truth as the woman you were created to be. I encourage you to filter each of the toxic beliefs and truths we’ll discuss through the grid of who you are.
As you read, also keep in mind that I may not phrase the lies you’ve been tempted to believe in the exact words as those that poison your own thinking. Try, however, not to dismiss any of the toxic beliefs we’ll explore simply because of phrasing. Instead, ask the Spirit if you’ve held to this misconception in any way.
My heart’s desire is simply that you move toward a healthy thought life in order to become the person you were created to be. Which leads me to something important I’d like to explain about this book.
I hope this won’t disappoint you, but Every Thought Captive is neither a self-help book nor a guide for how to have a victorious thought life in 250 pages.
Rather, I want these words to lead you on a journey toward wholeness, inspired by the Lover of your soul. I pray that through this book, God will ignite in you a holy passion to evaluate and guard your thoughts. And I trust that the Word of Truth will act as an agent of renewal.
A pastor whom I deeply respect once said that the spiritual life is not about information but transformation. So it is with this book. I claim, for you and me, the words of the apostle Paul: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life . . . and place it before God as an offering. . . . Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:1, msg; 12:2, nlt).
Your job? Just show up. Let Him have your troubled, full, exhausted mind. God will transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Did you get that? He does the work. You give Him the room to do it.
Exposing my distorted thoughts to you and sharing the flawed mind-sets other women have confessed to me will be vulnerable and sometimes raw. Allowing the corners of your own mind to be illuminated may make you feel like a weak Christian or a bad person. Guilt often tells us that we’ve done too many bad things to change now. Shame says, “You are a bad person for thinking and acting the way you have [or are currently].” Please don’t listen to these poisonous lies.
Before we dive into the many lies we believe, I’d like to debunk a particularly toxic belief, which tends to overshadow many others:
If I think or struggle with _________ [fill in the blank], I must not be a good enough Christian.
The Enemy accuses and shames us with thoughts such as How dare you call yourself a Christian? Look at your wicked thoughts! and If you had more faith, you would be over this struggle. You’re so pitiful. What a failure! You’ll never be as good a Christian as she is.
Satan suggests ungodly things even to the most faithful, righteous women, and we cannot control him. He tempts all of us to believe lies that promise us freedom from pain, rejection, and lovelessness.
People also assault us with lies. We hear venomous messages every day about who we are and what we should be doing. Sometimes the world attacks us with such lies; other times (and how sad this is) Christians encourage us to live in deception.
There are even times when we choose to embrace distorted thinking. Often it’s easier to believe that we’re worthless and weak than it is to truly accept that in God we are incomparably valuable and girded with matchless strength.
Whether Satan, another human, or your own mind introduces a venomous lie to you, you have not failed even if an hour before — or after — reading about a particular toxic belief, you find yourself living out of it. You are not a terrible Christian; you are simply human. You are also not alone.
God knows that I am weak. He knows that I will fail. He knows your struggle, too. But your relationship with God is not based on how you perform. In success and failure, God sees you covered with the righteousness of Christ. He sees you as you will be eternally — perfected and purified. And God deeply desires your freedom from bondage; He never wants you to feel stuck in a life poisoned by lies. He wants you to be set free, and freedom comes by knowing and living in the Truth. We must vigilantly guard our minds, train them, and replace negative and misguided patterns of thinking with healthy and true ones.
I don’t always discipline or protect my mind, and I’m willing to bet that you don’t either. It’s not easy. For much of my life, I actually preserved the purity of my mind pretty poorly. I’ve let thoughts run rampant and have struggled with a host of issues, all of which stemmed from unredeemed beliefs. Self- and body-image issues, bitterness, envy, depression, unhealthy relationships, and a variety of other problems wormed their way into my life through unguarded thoughts. I became a slave to my own distorted thinking.
But Christ declared to me, and declares to you, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, nlt). In developing a relationship with Jesus, who is Truth, you and I experience the only true freedom.
James 4:8 also promises, “When you draw close to God, God will draw close to you” (tlb). What a mind-boggling thought. God, almighty God, will draw close to you. The fact that He wants me at all is sometimes difficult to grasp. But that He wants to be near to me? Intimate with me? That’s breathtaking.
Throughout this book, we will draw near to God in the words we choose. You’ll notice I sometimes miscapitalize words. This is to communicate that God is present in words that we often think of as things. Christ doesn’t dole out love or hope as resources to be used up. He inhabits Love and Hope. He doesn’t mete out mercy or grace. He incarnates Mercy and Grace. He doesn’t define truth. He is Truth.4 Love isn’t merely a thing. It is the presence of God indwelling us, pouring Himself into and through us. Peace is not a thing that God gives, but a serene abiding in Him. We rest in assurance of things to come because He is Hope. We know grace because the Spirit of Grace dwells within us.
Through the following chapters, I will journey with you. Thoreau referred to books as friends with whom he dialogued. I hope you will see Every Thought Captive — and me, too — as friends with whom you have a long, heart-to-heart conversation. We’re in this together. Why? Because I am not an expert on thought life. I have not completely conquered my thoughts — in any area. I still battle and need to be reminded daily of the very truths God has asked me to share with you. I simply seek to offer you biblical truths that God has taught me, the experiences of my life, and the stories of brave women who have shared their battles and victories with me. I pray that together — by God’s grace — we might grab hold of the life we crave — a life marked by healthy, holy thoughts.
Many of us have heard that God commands us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, nrsv). But what in the world does that mean? By His grace, I propose we press into the mystery of taking every thought captive. Whether we recognize it or not, every woman’s mind will be captivated by something. Some women live in bondage to poisonous misconceptions. They are captives to lies, myths, and deceptions. Other women live in freedom, captivated by Truth. You can see it in their eyes, hear it in the words they speak, and know it by the way they live and love. I want to be one of these women.
I want to be a captive to real Life.
Through this book, in an effort to become women who truly live, we will expose and acknowledge the lies we have believed. Then, we’ll allow truth to illuminate our minds and our paths. We will use the sword of the Spirit to combat the toxic beliefs that have held us hostage. We will embark on a quest for the captivated freedom Christ promises us. And we’ll run toward — and grab hold of — the life we crave.
Throughout this book, I’m going to include specific thoughts about how Truth, rather than lies, can captivate our minds. At the end of each chapter, I will ask questions and give you ideas of what you can do to interact with the ideas we’ve explored. Use these in whatever way you desire, whether in personal meditation or group discussion. And over the course of our journey, I pray we will open our hearts and minds to God’s radical transformation by doing the following:
Have you ever felt this way? Many of us have never considered evaluating what’s at the bottom of our thoughts. It’s just too raw. Not to mention, it’s far easier to say, “I feel ___________ (fat/ugly/frustrated/worried/depressed).” But only at the end of — the roof of — each thought do we discover the toxic belief we need to confront first. As we do that, we find healing for the deepest of our doubts. More important, we find the Healer Himself. Will you draw near to God by going with Him to the farthest reaches of your mind?
Almighty God, who pourest out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.6
On That Thought . . .
1. Think about or discuss this quote by Frederick Buechner: “What deadens us most to God’s presence in us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter.”7
2. Have you attempted to analyze your thought life before? If so, what did you find? If not, what gets you excited about this journey? What do you fear?
3. Journal about or discuss these statements: “Christ doesn’t dole out love or hope as resources to be used up. He inhabits Love and Hope. He doesn’t mete out mercy or grace. He incarnates Mercy and Grace. He doesn’t define truth. He is Truth. Love isn’t merely a thing. It is the presence of God indwelling us, pouring Himself into and through us. Peace is not a thing that God gives, but a serene abiding in Him. We rest in assurance of things to come because He is Hope. We know grace because the Spirit of Grace dwells within us.”
4. What negative thought do you have about yourself or your life most often? Can you take that thought to its very end? What toxic belief do you find there? How might the Healer meet you there, at the far reaches of your mind? Ask Him to reveal Himself to you in this dark corner. Invite Him to transform (and keep on transforming) you there.
5. Have you ever thought, If I think or struggle with _________ [fill in the blank], I must not be a good enough Christian? How did you or could you overcome that thought with God’s truth?
6. Do you believe your relationship with God is never based on performance? Do you live out that belief? Why or why not?