(This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.)
“I’ve tried to pray and give my problems to God,” the grandmother told me, “But I can’t seem to stop worrying. What does that say about my faith?” It was the third time in a week that someone had asked me such a question. The first had been a man who couldn’t let go of his anger toward his ex-wife. The second had been a woman who was full of guilt and regret about her past. Each had asked me if their lack of peace meant that they lacked faith in God.
Regret, worry, anger, and social inhibition are only easy to let go if you are an animated Disney character. For the rest of us humans, our grip on negative emotions is surprisingly strong. Even when life is going along swimmingly, my brain will often go searching through the dusty cardboard boxes of my memory and pull out a decaying recording of an embarrassing memory from middle school. I can still sweat and turn bright red as I relive trivial social gaffes from thirty years ago. Why do such things have such a powerful hold on us?
In these kinds of pastoral care situations, I find that Christian culture is mostly unhelpful. We repeat trite sayings from inspirational posters: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is!” For years, preachers have attributed negative thoughts and memories to the devil: “That’s just Satan trying to bring you down! Keep your eyes on Jesus! Don’t let the devil steal your joy!” That approach may work occasionally, but for people overwhelmed by guilt, worry, or anger, policing their thoughts and attributing negativity to Satan only makes the problem worse. Now they not only have the stress of worry, but they also feel obligated to play emotional Whack-a-Mole, tamping down every negative thought. Someone who is a worrier now worries about their worry. Someone who feels guilty now feels guiltier.
What I share with people caught in such a bind is this: Your brain is a problem-solving organ. God gave you your brain to keep you alive. In fact, your brain loves solving problems so much that if you don’t have a problem, it goes looking for one. It rummages through the drawers of your experience and pulls out powerful memories and examines them, asking, “What can we learn from this? What could we do differently?” Sometimes it even invents problems or situations you haven’t encountered yet.
Our brains do this so that we can learn and survive. It helps us avoid mistakes. Usually it is helpful: Check your blind spot when you merge so you don’t have a wreck. Don’t let Billy play with your favorite toys, because he will break them.
The problem, of course, is that not everything is a problem to be solved. A man whose wife had an affair kept asking. “Why didn’t I see something? How could I have been so stupid? What could I have done differently?” His brain was approaching the experience as if it were a problem to be solved, when, in fact, there was absolutely nothing he could have done differently. Pointing out this fact to him could not make him stop obsessing over it, though. Nor could it help the woman who said, “If I had stayed on the phone with Mom another minute, she wouldn’t have been at the intersection when the drunk driver ran the stop sign.” These kinds of thoughts are impenetrable to logic or reason, because our brains keep trying to find solutions to these unsolvable problems.
“Metacognition” is the word psychologists use to describe how we think about thinking. It can be helpful to take a step back from our cognitive process and observe what’s happening. For many people, thinking about our brains trying to solve problems can be helpful. “This is just my God-given brain trying to solve an unsolvable problem.” If we acknowledge our irrational brains, we can allow the negative thoughts and feelings to have their moment and then pass away so we can get on with real life and solvable problems.
Of course, some folks feel empowered by the idea of spiritual warfare, and thinking of their lives as a cosmic battle is uplifting. They relativize their negative thoughts by attributing them to Satan. But it’s important not to treat negative emotions as if they are a failure to be adequately faithful. Although Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, he acknowledged that we do, in fact, have trouble today. He was well-acquainted with human frailty, and treated it with compassion, not contempt. Unbidden negative thoughts and feelings are not a failure to be faithful. They’re simply part of the total package of being human.