By displacing lies with truth and reframing hurtful events in the light of God’s love and purpose, we can experience increasing freedom from sin's bondage and become more like Christ.
I was first introduced to the concept of neural pathways in my high school and college years. These pathways in the brain were described as “ruts” that are “deepened” with repetition, much like a well-worn path or a road rut is deepened with continued traffic. The more one repeats a pattern of thinking or behavior, the more reinforced it becomes. Continued reinforcement fixes it into long-term memory or more habitual behavior.
Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that repetition and regular use are key to mastery. Likewise, those who have taken the time to learn a musical instrument know the countess hours of repetition required to build the necessary neural connections and muscle memory to play skillfully. This same process applies to mastering any mental or physical skill.
Mental and motor skill development is perhaps most apparent when observing children learning to walk, to feed themselves with a spoon, or to ride a bike. Then comes the challenge of learning to read and write, adding and subtracting numbers, or memorizing the multiplication tables. Through painstaking repetition, children form neural connections and reinforce these connections until they master all manner of knowledge and skills.
This continues throughout our entire lives as we develop a wide range of knowledge and skills essential to living in our modern world such as driving, using digital devices, and developing specialty career skills. Athletes, artists, tradesmen, surgeons, and performers of every type all know the hours of training and practice necessary for their specialized knowledge and motor skills to become second nature and automatic.
Even as I type this paragraph, I recall countless typing drills in high school and my frequent use of a computer keyboard for more than 30 years. Regular repetition of this skill enables me to type these words in a timely fashion without needing to look at the keyboard. On the other hand, I have lost other knowledge and skills through neglect, thus confirming the familiar saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” After a year of shorthand in high school, I was able to write at 90 words per minute, three to four times the average longhand writing speed of most adults. Now, due to lack of use, I can’t even read most of the shorthand notes I took during my college years.
The human mind is remarkable. It can learn, unlearn, and relearn. It can remember and forget. It can hold things in short-term memory or long-term memory. I’m amazed at the things I easily remember from my elementary and high school years – songs, poems, Scripture verses, my childhood phone number, and my U.S. Social Security Number. I’ve not reviewed these bits of knowledge for many years, yet they readily come to mind any time I wish to recall them because they are permanently fixed in my long-term memory. In contrast, I have lived in Canada for over 40 years and I have never taken the time to sufficiently learn my Canadian Social Insurance Number or more recently my wife’s cell phone number. I simply retrieve this information from my S.I.N. card or speed dial on my cell phone any time these bits of knowledge are needed.
Considerable research has been done on the brain over the past decades. The regions of the brain have been mapped in detail. Studies in physical rehabilitation, research in addiction recovery, and findings in the fields of science, education, or psychology have all contributed to our understanding of the brain. Of particular importance is the brain’s ability to make new neuro connections and rewire itself. Known as neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new synaptic connections and neuropathways is a key factor in physical rehabilitation after injury, in learning new knowledge and skills, and in behavioral change.
Image from IMGBIN
The more we review and use knowledge and skills, the stronger these pathways become and the more they are fixed in our long-term memory, our habitual thinking, and our behavior. Though the brain and its functions are morally neutral, they can be used for good or evil and can impact our lives positively or negatively depending on the content we program into our minds. It is critical to be aware of our self-talk because our inner dialog is rehearsing and reinforcing beliefs whether they be true or false, good or evil, positive or negative. Then in turn, these rehearsed beliefs shape our outlook and our responses. Therefore, it is vital that we examine the content of our thought life and focus our thoughts on those things that are spiritually, morally, and relationally beneficial (Philippians 4:8).
Negative self-talk based on faulty beliefs will reinforce these faulty beliefs. In addition, our tendency toward confirmation bias can further reinforce faulty thinking. For example, ten people may compliment you, but if you have an entrenched view that you are a failure, you will filter out those compliments while allowing a single criticism to pass through and confirm the lie that you are a failure. The key to healthy thinking is being able to identify and reject faulty and destructive thinking and replace harmful thinking with God’s truth as revealed in Christ and His word.
In my previous posts in this series, I discussed four sources for our thoughts and introduced a three-step process that I found helpful as “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV). I’ve already covered the first two steps: 1) Recognize – identifying the source and nature of each thought, and 2) Renounce – rejecting lies and faulty thinking (including casting down sinful and demonic thinking). In this post, we will look at the third step: 3) Replace – displacing lies and harmful thinking with God’s truth.
Far before man's discovery of neuropathways and the neuroplasticity of the brain, the Bible taught that thinking determines behavior. Moreover, the Bible teaches that a key to resisting worldliness and experiencing transformation in our character and behavior is the renewing of our minds.
Romans 12:2 (NASB)
2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
The futile and darkened thinking of those separated from God leads them into sinful living (Romans 1:21-32; Ephesians 4:17-19). Salvation brings the light of Christ into our hearts and minds so that we can now see (Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:4-5). Further transformation comes as we grow in "light" by progressively embracing the truth of God's word (John 8:31-32; John 17:17).
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul’s elaborates on this transformation process. He instructs us to put off sinful ways that are based on deceitful lusts, be renewed in our thinking, and put on new righteous ways based on truth found in Christ and the character of God.
Ephesians 4:20–24 (NASB)
20 But you did not learn Christ in this way,
21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus,
22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,
23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind,
24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
Ungodly and destructive patterns of thinking lead to ungodly and destructive behaviors. To experience transformation, the lies and deception of worldly and sinful thinking need to be replaced with truth. Old pathways of thinking need to be rejected and new pathways of thinking need to be formed and reinforced. As our thinking is renewed by God’s truth, it will resulting in godly patterns of thinking and behaving.
The Law of Displacement
One of the most effective ways to renew our minds and replace error with truth is through the practice of displacement. The law of displacement states that two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. For example, it is not possible for two people to stand in the same spot at the same time. They can stand very close to each other or one can stand on top of the other, but the only way that a person can stand in the same spot occupied by another person is by displacing that person.
The game of chess nicely illustrates this concept. Only one piece at a time can occupy a square on the chess board. If your opponent's piece occupies a particular square, you must capture his piece with a more powerful piece to occupy that square. In effect, your more powerful piece displaces your opponent's piece.
This is also true with thoughts. There is a battle for our minds. Both God and the devil want their pieces to occupy the squares of our minds. The devil uses lies and deception, while God uses truth. Two opposing thoughts cannot hold the same place in our minds at the same time. By filling our minds with truth found in Christ and His word, we can increasingly displace the lies, wrong values, and sinful thinking that may have found a lodging place on the chessboard of our minds.
As illustrated in my “Brainwashed” post, we don’t remove the darkness from a room by sweeping it out or by vacuuming it out. Rather, we simply turn the light on and the light, which is more powerful than darkness, dispels the darkness. Likewise, we don’t remove air from a glass by sucking it out, we simply fill the glass with water and it displaces the air. In the same way, the more we fill our minds with the light of God’s word, the more the darkness of our minds will be displaced by truth.
Changing the Channel on Unwelcome Thoughts
I have found that the more I wrestle with temptation or an unwelcome thought, the more it has my attention. I often illustrate this physically with students by calling a volunteer to the front of the classroom. I then tell the student that my hand coming toward him is a temptation or an unwelcome thought, and I ask him to resist it. In all cases, the student will raise a hand and grab my hand seeking to push it away. I keep pushing back and we end up in a hand wrestle as he tries to resist my hand. I then say, “As long as you keep resisting my hand, I have your attention.” I then let go of his hand and say, “Now I’m going to come at you again in the same way, but rather than grabbing my hand and resisting it, I want you to simply walk away and sit down.” The students get the point.
If we simply try to resist thoughts by saying to ourselves, “Don’t think lustful thoughts, don’t think lustful thoughts, don’t think lustful thoughts,” we will find ourselves giving attention to the very thoughts we are trying to resist. If chocolate is a temptation and we say to ourselves, “Don’t think about chocolate, don’t think about chocolate, don’t think about chocolate,” we are still focused on chocolate. If a bad movie is on TV, we won’t overcome in our thought life by sitting there trying to resist the images that play on the screen. Rather, we overcome by changing the channel.
In the same way, we don’t overcome tempting, destructive or unwelcome thoughts simply through mental resistance. Rather, we need to renounce them and replace them. We need to change the channel, fill the room with light, and displace the air with water. We repent, i.e., we change our thinking, and we focus our minds on those things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).
For example, rather than wrestling with lustful thoughts, I instruct students to do something that will occupy their minds with something else. Displace the thought by playing worship music, go to the gym and shoot some baskets, join other students who are playing table games, or read the Bible or a book that will grab your attention. Change the channel and displace the unwelcome thoughts by making a proactive choice to focus on something good and constructive.
Displacing Anxiety with Trust in God
A good example of overcoming unwelcome thoughts, can be found in the Bible’s instruction for overcoming anxiety. Rather than being anxious, Paul teaches us to displace anxiety by turning our cares into prayers.
Philippians 4:6–7 (NIV)
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul doesn’t just say, “don’t be anxious,” calling us to only mentally resist anxious thoughts. Rather, he instructs us to lift our concerns to God in prayer with thanksgiving. Both of these are important. Prayer allows us to cast our cares onto God, and thanksgiving places our hearts in a posture of faith as we gratefully anticipate God’s answer. It’s like the two wings on a bird – both are necessary to fly. Many Christians are like a one-winged bird. They pray and pray and pray, but never move into thankfulness. A one-winged bird or a one-winged plane cannot fly. If either one lost a wing in flight, it would spiral down out of control, crashing to the ground. It takes both the wing of prayer and the wing of thanksgiving to fly above the anxieties of life.
Paul promises that when we lift our anxieties to God with prayer and thanksgiving, “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” will act like a soldier or a sentry standing guard over our hearts and minds. Our anxiety is displaced with peace because through prayer and thanksgiving, we have surrendered our cares to God and we have come to a posture of faith, trusting Him to answer. The result is God’s peace guarding our minds. This aligns well with Isaiah’s promise, “You [GOD] will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 26:3 NIV).
Jesus also modeled this law of displacement for overcoming anxiety. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus displaces our anxiety about having sufficient food or adequate clothing by focusing our attention on our faithful Heavenly Father and His care for the birds and flowers. He exposes the futility of worry by teaching that it won’t add a single moment to our lives – in other words, it doesn’t do anything to solve our problems or provide our needs. He then assures us that we are more important than the birds and flowers and that our Heavenly Father knows our needs even before we ask. Rather than worrying about food and clothing, we are to seek first God’s rule and righteousness in our lives, and God will provide all we need. Focusing our trust on our faithful Father will displace any anxiety we have concerning our earthly needs.
On another occasion Jesus' disciples were troubled because He had announced that one would betray Him, one would deny Him, and He would soon depart. To comfort them, Jesus told His disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1–2 NIV). Jesus’ solution to their anxiety was for them to trust God and trust Him. He then went to great lengths in this chapter and the following chapters to share the necessity of His departure and the many benefits they would receive because He would return to the Father. He refocused their perspective and gave them handles to maintain peace in the midst of this world’s tribulation (John 16:33).
I believe these three passages provide a great example of how to take anxious thoughts captive and bring them into obedience to Christ. Whether particular anxious thoughts come from the devil, or they come from focusing on the circumstances around us, or are they are prompted by our own human frailties, knowing the source isn’t so important as understanding that anxiety shows lack of trust in God. The answer is to give our anxieties to God, releasing them through prayer and thanksgiving. Further, we replace our anxiety with important trust-building truths about God as our Heavenly Father who cares for us more than the birds and flowers that He faithfully feeds and clothes. We can trust Him because He ultimately will provide a place for us with Him in heaven, and in the meantime, He has provided all we need to live for Him and fulfill His purpose in our lives here on earth.
Displacing Condemnation with Praise
My final example of how to replace destructive thinking through the law of displacement comes from the life of Peter. Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny Him three times before hearing a rooster crow (Luke 22:34). This happened, exactly as Jesus foretold (Luke 22:54-62). Immediately, even while he was making his third denial, the rooster crowed, and at this very moment the Lord looked at Peter. Seeing the look on Jesus’ face and remembering His words, Peter fled the courtyard and wept bitterly.
This experience had the potential to haunt Peter for the rest of his life. Every time Peter heard a rooster crow, it would remind him of his failure, his cowardice, and his denial of Christ. I believe this is why after His resurrection Jesus took extended time with Peter to restore him (John 21:15-17). During their conversation, Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to affirm his love – one for each of his denials. He then commissioned Peter to feed and care for His sheep. In so doing, Jesus affirmed His forgiveness and reframed Peter’s denial in light of His forgiveness and restoration. Now, each time Peter heard a rooster crow and was reminded about his denial of Christ, he could reframe that experience in light of Christ’s restoring grace, remembering that Jesus gave him opportunity to affirm his love three times and knowing that Jesus commissioned him to a trusted place of leadership.
In the same way, we can reframe our failures and shame in light of Christ’s forgiving grace and mercy on the cross. When we remember our sins or the devil seeks to accuse us and condemn us for our failures, we can use these moments as springboards to praising God for his love and forgiveness. Rather than wrestling with thoughts of condemnation, we can recognize that because of God's love Jesus died on our behalf for the very sins that come to mind. Through His atoning death, our sins have been paid for and God through Christ forgives us so that we stand clean before Him. Rather than living under guilt and condemnation, we can respond with songs of praise to Him for His goodness and love. Moments that could haunt us, now become moments of worship to a gracious and forgiving Father.
I learned the above diagram when attending Basic Youth Conflicts in my teen years.
So much more could be said. In the same way that shameful memories can be recast in light of Christ’s gracious forgiveness, we can experience Christ’s healing love at the wounded places of our hearts so that past traumatic experiences are reframed in light of Christ’s healing. Like Peter, after experiencing God’s healing in these broken places, we may find a redemptive purpose in sharing the kindnesses of God and the lessons we have learned with others who are struggling with similar events in their lives.
We live in a fallen and broken world. Faulty thinking is all around us and we constantly need to be on guard, filtering the barrage of this world’s voices and ideas through the truths of God’s word. We have all unknowingly picked up lies and destructive thinking on life's journey. Some of our faulty thinking may be rooted in misconceptions from childhood, or inflicted by the ridicule of peers, or embraced through a traumatic experience in the past. Other faulty thinking may have subtly seduced its way into our minds and shaped our lives through the worldly ideas and values that permeate media, the education system, and every aspect of society. We may have even unknowingly accepted lies or harmful thoughts imposed by demonic forces.
Lies, immoral thoughts, and destructive thinking can all be cast down and replaced with truth found in Christ and God’s word - truth that aligns with God’s righteous character. Displacing these lies with truth and reframing our hurtful experiences in the light of God’s love and His purpose for our lives will transform our thinking, our emotions, and our behavior. As our minds are renewed by truth, we will experience increasing freedom from sin's bondage and become more and more like Christ.