I once offended a woman by extolling the virtues of repentance to her. I believe the misunderstanding lay in our definition of the word. I think the image she had in her mind was of penitents on their knees making a painful trek to the Vatican. My image was of Christian in front of the Cross in Pilgrim’s Progress shedding his burden of sin and shame. Say the word repentance and we often default to condemnation and the list of our shortcomings we carry in the back of our minds. Of course, she may have just been angry at the idea that she had anything to repent of. We have all been there.
Once I learned that repentance was the act of changing my mind, I found it to be quite useful in helping myself to re-channel my brain towards more life-giving directions than worry, insecurity, and prophesying doom. Oh, and replaying episodes of excruciating embarrassment from the distant past like TV reruns. For me, repentance means glorious freedom. And science backs me up.
Once scientists figured out about twenty years ago what the New Testament knew two thousand years ago, neuroplasticity has become the new face of therapy. It used to be that scientists thought that by thirty, we were working with hard drives. The problem with hardware is that it can only store so much and can’t be rewired. Turns out actually, we run software programs and those can be reprogrammed through some effort and determination, much like plumbing the intricacies of html in order to fix programming glitches. We all need to update our apps.
The two main methods of rewriting bad programs? Cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. These are code words for taking thoughts captive, confession, tearing down strongholds, and yes, repentance. The definition of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is a type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns or treat mood disorders such as depression.
Sounds like putting on the mind of Christ to me. Maybe a bit like 2 Corinthians 10:5 doesn’t it? We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. A good therapist, familiar with biblical truth, acts as confessor and counselor, pointing out destructive thought patterns and helping to establish new ways of thinking. To be honest, there are some pretty good secular ones out there too. The heart of repentance is changing our mindsets away from harmful patterns and reinstituting life-giving ones.
I attended a church quite a while ago where the pastor was vehemently against psychology. He used the verse in 1 Titus 6:20 about sciences falsely so called in reference to it. The problem with this is that it involves a basic misunderstanding of mental illness. Mental illness is just that, a disorder that affects your thinking, moods, and behavior. The sources of mental illness are just as varied as the varieties of mental illness. Trauma, genetics, dysfunctional families, spiritual issues, and biology each have their role.
To throw out all of psychology is to remove from our arsenal a good deal of biblical help, as well as to ignore medical science. I know a great many people who benefit from meds to treat mental illness and a great many people who do not. But whatever your stance on the field of psychology, cognitive behavior therapy helps a great many people. And it will continue to do so because it is an act of repentance.
Once we throw away the image of repentance as the woebegone martyr or as the exposure of all the things that are wrong with us, we gain the courage to practice mindfulness. And yes, mindfulness requires a great deal of courage. Here is a definition of mindfulness to put us all on the same page: a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. I would hazard a guess that practicing mindfulness regularly would contribute greatly to the mental and emotional well-being of a nation obsessed with distraction.
Addiction and all kinds of compulsive behaviors have a number of different roots, just as any kind of mental illness. Again, genetics, trauma, nurture, etc… can lead us into behaviors that are inherently harmful. Mindfulness is confession. Just like repentance has a reputation for being something horrible, confession has a bad rap too. But in the Greek, confession’s basic definition is to say the same thing.
The heart of mindfulness is to recognize and face the feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations as we experience them. To simply admit to who we are and how we feel. And the truth is that a lot of us live in daily agonies we can hardly face. To make things worse, emotions are felt physically so if we hurt emotionally, we hurt physically. So instead of facing down the man or woman in the mirror, we look away or perhaps down at our cell phones. We take a drink, we watch some Netflix, or do some online shopping.
But confession leads to healing. When we identify our emotions, embrace them, and admit to them, their power over us is greatly reduced. James 5:16 says Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Interesting that confession, prayer, and healing are linked here. But not surprising.
I find that being mindful in the presence of God is the fastest track to wholeness. So many times I have found myself filled with sorrow or overwhelmed by my circumstances. My prayer times often begin with mindfulness. Here I am, Lord. I feel alone. Or I am so angry. You name the emotion, I have felt it. I bet you have, too. Then comes the CBT in my prayer times. Show me the lies I believe about You, about myself, about my circumstances. Show me what is true. Show me a better way.
Don’t be put off by new terms for the spiritual disciplines we all need to practice. Cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness are the same paths Christians have trod for centuries, sometimes on their knees, and sometimes while the babies are screaming, the spouse is fussing, and the boss wants extra hours on the weekend. But these methods really work. They rewire you for redemption, for faith, and for love. God’s truth changes your brain. May we all have the neuroplasticity of Christ.
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