Unwanted thoughts

How disciplined is your mind?  Try this experiment.  For the next five minutes, do not think of a white bear.  Not even once.  Got it?  Don’t think of a white bear.

Most people can’t do it.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has been studying people’s ability to suppress unwanted thoughts since 1987.  He found, paradoxically, that trying hard to stop thinking about something can make us think it about it even more.  Wegner writes that we suppress thoughts “when we want to stop thinking of something because it is frightening, disgusting, odd, inconvenient, or just annoying.  And when we succumb to that initial impulse to stop, the snowballing begins. We try and fail, and try again, and find that the thought is ever more insistent for all our trying.”

Sound familiar?

I came across Wegner’s work in a book entitled Opening Up by another psychologist, James Pennebaker, who has made a career of studying the beneficial effects of openly expressing and exploring one’s emotions–verbally or in writing–after suffering trauma.  It’s normal for trauma victims to experience the unwelcome intrusion of painful thoughts and memories, and sufferers may naturally try to suppress them.  But the strategy backfires.  Sufferers pay a high price in stress from the hard work of keeping their emotions at bay (he calls this “inhibition”), and the thoughts become more insistent rather than less.  By contrast, talking freely about traumatic experiences–which Pennebaker calls “confession”–is often unpleasant at first, but over time reduces the symptoms of stress and confers other health benefits.

As I read Pennebaker, I wondered, what might this mean for the Christian practice of confession?  My thoughts wandered to the Psalms:

When I kept quiet, my bones wore out; I was groaning all day long—every day, every night!—because your hand was heavy upon me.  My energy was sapped as if in a summer drought.  So I admitted my sin to you; I didn’t conceal my guilt.  “I’ll confess my sins to the Lord, ” is what I said.  Then you removed the guilt of my sin. … You who are righteous, rejoice in the Lord and be glad!  All you whose hearts are right, sing out in joy!  (Ps 32:3-5, 11, CEB)

But do we practice confession?  I don’t know about you, but I have sometimes taken Paul’s words, “we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5, NRSV), as meaning something akin to thought suppression.  Anger, lust, envy: Oh, no, there it is again.  Go away!  Don’t think about it.  Don’t think about it.  Don’t think about it.  And behind the suppression is a feeling of defensiveness and shame, like a little boy about to steal something from his parents and hearing footsteps in the hall.

And I have read Paul’s words about being “dead to sin” (Rom 6:11) as if it were a continual reprimand: You know you could really stop thinking those terrible thoughts if you just tried harder.  You’re just making a mockery of the cross!  Somehow, the other part of that verse, about being “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (NRSV), under grace instead of law, gets drowned out.

Merely trying to bury sinful or unwanted thoughts won’t make them go away, and how we handle them shows something of what kind of a Father we think God is.  Do we relate to him as a punitive or disapproving disciplinarian who waits to catch us in some private misdeed?  This is a Father from whom we hide, one before whom we suppress and deny what is within us.

Or, as the apostle John insists, is it that we confess our sins to a Father who is faithful and forgiving (1 John 1:9)?  It makes a difference.

There are many helpful ways to explore our emotions after traumatic experiences.  As Wegner observes, what many of them share in common is a non-judgmental acceptance of the emotions themselves, which allows us the freedom to make sense of our experiences without fear.

I’m not suggesting that as Christians we should suspend moral judgments of our thoughts or behavior.  But I am suggesting that we must accept the judgment that God has already made: our sin requires redemption of the most miraculous kind.  And we must also accept that God really is as gracious and patient, loving and kind as Scripture describes him to be.

Confession should not have to be something God wrests from us when we have failed spectacularly and have nowhere to hide.  It should be part and parcel of an ongoing, constant conversation that grows from the sure knowledge that there is no need to hide.  We are free to talk to our Father, anytime, anywhere, about anything: our deepest disappointments and blackest feelings, our highest hopes and brightest joys.

What are we waiting for?