Thoughts create our feelings. Our feelings don’t create our thoughts.

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18 ESV

…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 ESV

We have all, at some point, felt our way closer to God. Sometimes the feels come on a roller coaster of coincidences, another ‘God Thing’ we can’t wait to share with our believing friends. We share those stories to relive the feels again ourselves, and to watch others get some feels of their own. A washing with strong emotion can also happen with worship songs, or while hearing another’s personal testimony. Either way, feeling the flow of strong emotions, as they relate to God, can leave our insides more expansive, our excited chests breathless, and our faces full of tears (happy or sad, or both at the same time). We often feel renewed faith and hope in such moments.

However, sometimes I struggle to feel all the feels which seem to come so easily to my brothers and sisters in Jesus. This seems a common thing, in abuse survivors. If it seems my emotions toward God have disappeared again, when I am feeling flat or struggling a bit too hard to even get the feels, I know I’ve again slipped somewhere in my thinking, not at all in my feeling, about God.

I then begin to pay attention to my thoughts, in order to correct them. Because I learned something very simple when I was healing from past abuse, and this was the key to my healing:

Our thoughts CREATE our feelings!

After I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and PTSD, I finally saw that I needed to disclose the truth about what my childhood had really been. Keeping those details to myself, out of a skewed idea of what forgiveness looks like, had become detrimental to my physical and mental health.

What had happened to me wasn’t my fault or my responsibility. Yet, the entrenched consequences of childhood abuses, and what they had changed in me, were my responsibility to bear. Therefore I wanted to try and mend what I could.

I began a basic, Christian based, program for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to attempt to heal from those past traumas which I was finally ready to disclose (in safe ways). During my weekly sessions my therapist reinforced the point that if I am feeling one way (anxious, sad, upset) then somewhere or other I had been thinking thoughts that had led me to feeling those feelings (feeling flat, empty, or emotion-less: also being feelings).

It took a while for that truth to sink in. In time, as I began to change the highways in my brain, I saw clearly that it really is my thoughts which then create my feelings and fuel my emotions.

When we think a thought, synapses form in the brain and the result is a lot like building a road, on which to make future travel easier. Therein, the more we think the same/similar/common thought, the sooner the thought pattern itself becomes a very well traveled road. The more we affirm these common thought patterns, the well traveled road becomes a paved highway, and then a super highway, in our minds. And this is the problem. Who wouldn’t want to coast down a super highway, versus trudging into the tall-grass wild, making a little cowpath for ourselves, knowing it could be years before we even have so much as a dirt road going, from all the constant capturing, and correcting, of one’s own thoughts- one painstaking bit at a time?

That is hard work, and it takes a long time, to start to walk where we haven’t walked prior in our thought life. Avoiding that work, is also how we end up back on those super highways of our thought life. Falling back onto those well traveled roads is done fairly automatically, too, often without us noticing it. But, for the help of the Holy Spirit, convicting us in our minds and thought life, bringing up the pattern and showing us how to change it: I don’t know that it could ever even be done, in my life or another’s.

As I began to work on changing all that, and as the Holy Spirit helped me with that work, I started training my brain to enter the wild and build a new path. Turning around again whenever I caught myself on the old super highways of my own mind. It was then that I noticed how my very thoughts, themselves, were slowly changing and seemingly ‘automatically’ going to the cowpath that was developing. Shortly thereafter, my emotions began to open up as well, eventually I felt like I was entering the full range of human emotional experience for the first time in my life.

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.

2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV

This containment of one’s thoughts process is biblical: to take every thought captive is spiritual warfare. It is how we are able to easily tear down strongholds of the mind that the devil had a hand in building (see all of 2 Corinthians 10 for context). Yet, this kind of simple warfare, of examining our thought life and changing it to be obedient to Jesus, is rarely talked about in church settings. We’d rather share our feelings there, or retell our experiences trying to get others to feel strong feelings instead.

It isn’t necessarily that hard of work, to build new roads in one’s brain, since you can only ever do it one captured and reframed thought at a time. A single thought isn’t actually heavy at all. Even the biggest lie/thought I once told myself was easy enough to put down. Especially when picking up ‘the truth’ instead, was even lighter to carry than any lie had ever been. It can, however, take a great deal of time until you notice some progress, since that new road in the brain needs to be done by re-routing one single thought at a time.

It was also hard for me to even believe that thoughts fuel feelings, at first. In part because it seems most of us initially approached God with our emotions forward and our brains parked in neutral. I felt like I did. As a child, I adored going to church, seemingly for the experience of it. For the way the big bricked building with the beautiful stained glass windows up front, and all down the outsides, made me feel. For the way the Sunday school choir director would joyfully pound on the piano after worship and lead us in song; before dismissing us to learn the fun lessons and fill in the coloring sheets in our classrooms. I often had an outbreak of goosebumps during those songs and while hearing those stories.

I felt like God was special and like I was also special, by default. Plus, it was the one morning a week that my parents put on their best clothes and acted somewhat loving toward me, at least when others were watching anyway. I had already learned my lesson, quite young, that I’d have to sit very still and not whine about being hungry. Otherwise Mom or dad would take me to the basement, where no one was watching, and scold and spank and unleash on me the same contempt, which was a near-constant threat outside of church. When I was sitting still in a pew, quiet, daydreaming, pondering the sermon, or simply enjoying the music: mom and dad became safe people I wasn’t scared to sit beside.

The only problem was that I was almost always hungry in church. Living in the kind of home I did, if I didn’t make my own breakfast, I didn’t get any. And I rarely woke up in time to fix my own breakfast before church. But other than the being hungry part: I loved being in church on Sunday mornings. The protestant minister who abused me wasn’t our home-church pastor. And the minister who abused me, didn’t abuse me inside of an actual church setting, either. Even still, as an adult I worked through a period of being triggered, simply by being in the kind of church I grew up in, or just from seeing robes and choirs and pianos and pews hearkening to my childhood. But all that can be for another essay.

The point I am making here is multi-faceted.

  • Everyone needs to be convinced about God in their own minds, to approach God with reason, and thinking and responding in their mind to the truths found in Scripture. For that is where emotions stem. To try and sway anyone closer to God on sheer emotions, with moving worship, or experiential proofs, is wrong. We must retain simple logic, and easy truths in our evangelism efforts. All the more: when witnessing to an abuse survivor, or someone who grew up in a home that was outright antagonistic to the gospel. They will not respond well to emotional sways. They want to be approached and convinced on the intellectual level. Wherein, they themselves can make up their own minds. Can willingly go into the wild’s of their own thought life and build a new road, coming off the super highways that got ingrained on them in their own childhoods. Taking captive any errant thought and bringing it to obedience of Jesus; and the truths found in His Word.
  • The emotions will follow. The feelings will come. On their own. Our job as witnesses of the gospel is to share the truth, to reason with others, to engage them on the thought level, and convince them in their own minds of the value in turning from sins (repenting) and choosing to trust Jesus for their eternal salvation. While I was healing myself and I sometimes noticed myself feeling ‘flat’ or disconnected in a worship or other Christian setting where many others seemed enlivened: I also realized that it wasn’t necessarily because my own thinking wasn’t wrong at all. Sometimes that was because the ‘audience’ as it were, were collectively being told (in spoken or unspoken ways) to put our brains in neutral and give in to the spirits in the air, to the feelings, and the emotions and the lighting or the band tempo or what have you. I didn’t like that. Rightly so, too. I wanted to be able to make up my own mind, first, before I gave in to the emotions others around me were so readily entering into.
  • It takes a lot of time investment to disciple others properly. Time investments which few Christians in our modern, microwave, touchy, everyone’s feelings matter church world will have the patience to do, or the extended work ethic to dive into. As doing so will likely lead to some theological arguments, it will require needing to understand, yourself, the apologetics side of Christianity, as well as a basic understanding of how much of the occult world has crept into it, in order to walk beside and support someone coming out of the fog of abuse, or the fog of an unchurched, or false religion, or spiritually abused childhood. Because all of that needs to be done on the ‘thinking’ or intellectual level. Especially if someone grew up in a home where witchcraft, or the occult, or even simple atheism was instilled as ‘the way to think’, from childhood on. Then they aren’t going to be able to feel much of anything toward God, for a while. Those old super highways of thought ‘God is angry’, ‘God is bad’, ‘God isn’t real anyway’ ‘God is too patriarchal and Mother Earth is divine and She is not gender specific’ are going to leave them feeling not much of anything about God. And all of that should be expected as a normal thing, not as a broken thing, in someone with such a past.

See, the reason I had such an emotional connection to God, even as a child, is reason itself! I was frequently sitting in those wooden pews surrounded by colorful images of Bible stories… and hearing the basic gospel truth. I listened intently and comprehendingly to the sermons, all of them. Still remember some of them too. It was a solid truth to which I was able to respond, on an intellectual level, and then also on a heart level even as a young child. When I confessed Jesus, along with the others reciting the weekly liturgy, I did believe it in my heart. The resulting emotions I then felt were very real; and powerful too. Because they were based in hearing the truth and responding to it. My thoughts about God led to my feelings about Him.

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ

Romans 10:17 ESV

I heard truth, on an intellectual level, and then made up my own mind to trust God, to take Him at His word. That basic instillment was strong enough to keep a seed of faith alive all through the other abuses, some of them spiritual, that I then endured in childhood too.

Whereas, I have a brother in Christ who grew up in a home very similar, in some ways, and yet totally opposite of my own. While I was taken to a Protestant church religiously whenever its doors were opened to us (Wednesday nights, Saturday mornings, Sunday mornings)–his upbringing included parents who hosted spiritual retreats with homegrown folk music and vegetarian food. The adults around him talked about energy healing, self-enlightenment, reading people’s auras, and unleashing kundalini power.

Naturally, the superhighway that his parents put into his brain is going to be antagonistic to God, even though as a child he always had some sense that God was real in spite of that, and as an adult he did hear the gospel truth and respond to it. Yet, the old super highway his parents instilled likely remains, and surrounding himself with people who focus on emotions, on the experiential, on the spiritual side of things, and not on the inner thought life itself (wherein we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Jesus), might only leave him feeling less connected to God; not more. The best way to reinforce and encourage him to demolish that super highway which he didn’t build, but which his very upbringing built, is to reason with him and tell him the truth as plainly as possible. That way he himself can continue to step forward into the tall grass and start a new way.

This, by the way, is the same method to strengthen anyone’s faith.

We keep offering up proofs, letting them be convinced in their own minds, that God can be trusted. That God is good. Or we might need to point out the ways evil has made inroads into the church, letting another decide for his or her own self which road to take, and which fellowship to trust. Reinforcing that we all need to turn from our sins and resist evil, daily. And we then leave the feels to come entirely on their own.

A stronger emotional connection with God, and being more in touch and better able to feel our own emotions, will come. As a result of one’s thoughts fully aligning with the truth of the Bible.

Take captive every thought. Then give it time, with yourself and with others. And while we wait please bear patiently with one another who seem slower to grasp it all. Especially those formerly abused, and especially those who were raised up to think and believe that God is horrible and a false religion is true.

Give it all even more time, and more patience, and more intellectual reasoning: in those cases. The new road, and all the strong feels we might feel upon it, will get built. Jesus Himself will make sure of that, on His timeline though. Not ours.

Rather than following the modern seeker friendly way, where I too often see the same mind numbing tactics abusers use, wanting others to put the thinking life into neutral in order to just rev up the heart and all the insecurities therein, playing on a person’s loneliness and quest for belonging in order to think you can secure them to Jesus that way…please just don’t. Honor those among us who have been manipulated by such things in the past and seek to awaken people’s emotions the old fashioned, slower, more thought-filled, and respect filled way instead. Reason with them. Just as God Himself calls us to reason together with Him, though our sins be as scarlet, He really has washed them white as snow.