“You can’t keep birds from flying overhead. You may not even be able to keep them from landing on your head. But you can certainly keep them from building nests there.”
Martin Luther, who had a distressing familiarity with a bevy of unwanted thoughts, is alleged to have uttered this dictum many moons ago.
Of course, his assumptions differ instructively from most moderns.
He would have thought it the height of silliness, for instance, to offer the presently ubiquitous advice “to follow your heart.” If your heart is diseased, hyper-active, wants countless contradictory things at the same time, is subject to stormy changes in moods, and incapable of being the “author of its best hope,” there’s no chance of being wisely led by it.
Augustine, weighs in similarly, from the grave, “Thus, a good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but what is worse, as many masters as he has vices.”
So long as our inner life is ruled by a pre-occupation with ourselves, it isn’t safe or advisable to follow it too carefully.
“Trapped in the Gloomy Dungeons of Ourselves”
Terrifying experience and refreshing grace conspired to teach Luther that we are “bent creatures” always “curved in on ourselves.” One writer described us when turned in on ourselves and therefore turned away from God, as trapped in “the gloomy, little dungeon of ourselves.”
If you think that being jailed in a dungeon of your own concerns is an unsustainable and ultimately destructive state of affairs, then you will labor to get outside of you. And of course, normally, the folks who most agree that inward preoccupation is a defective state in which to dwell, are those who believe that we were created to worship (ie. to give our attention, adoration, and action for) Another.
Must All thoughts be Inspected?
If you don’t share this assumption, then you will likely assume all your thoughts need to be inspected, appraised, valued, and internalized. You may even take an entirely passive approach to your thoughts---you will let them dictate how you are to feel, act, and be.
But do you realize that you have no obligation to them? You are not beholden to the special interest groups of your own assailing thoughts.
Some of us accidentally ascribe limitless authority to our thoughts and feelings, and thereby give them the license to bully us around before we ever take the opportunity to consider that they may be misleading us.
Jesus once urged that we exercise care lest our spiritual arteries get clogged with God-amnesia, anxiety, and drunkenness (or a way to medicate the intolerable inward static). This was, of course, his way of highlighting that “life comes from paying attention to Me and not merely to how you happen to be feeling at the moment.”
The Summons To Fight Against Yourself
It was his way of implying, “You have got to fight against yourself sometimes. Fight unbelief. Fight discouragement. Fight succumbing to self-pity. Fight by turning your gaze to God. Fight by pulling your heart off it’s couch and taking it outside your windowless dwelling to the alluring beauty of God’s always astonishing activity.”
All of us with children recognize the need to inculcate a sort of impulse control in them. But do we ever reckon that we need a similar thing in ourselves? Our spoiled, inner-children sometimes needs scolding, redirecting, reminding, and instruction.
In his classic work on Spiritual Depression, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones surmises that a chief but oft-neglected aspiration for our lives is learning to “steward ourselves” (as Pastor Joe Novenson would say), rather than being the “victim of ourselves.” In other words, Lloyd-Jones was certain that talking to yourself was infinitely more useful than self-listening.
Leading the ADHD Heart
He bases that observation on discoveries he’d made while traipsing through Scriptural neighborhoods like Psalm 42 where a desperate pray-er refuses to accept his own inner conclusions as the authoritative statement about his life.
Instead of merely submitting to his sadness as an IRS ruling which cannot be appealed or overturned, he goes to work, against himself, making arguments and redirecting his fickle soul’s attention back to where it ought to be.
He leads his attention-deficit-disordered heart by the nose right back to the reality of the God for whom he was made.
Instead of further explanation, how’s about I yield the floor to Dr. Lloyd-Jones that he might speak for himself:
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”
The Psalmist does just as the muscle-bound fireman in Fireproof enjoined his confused Chief, played by Kirk Cameron, to do as a stab at interrupting a self-talk that was dishing crummy advice that seemed awfully appealing as the stinging winds of relational tumult battered him. Faced with an unendurably frigid wife in an icy blizzard of a marriage, the Chief joins the ranks of frost-bitten deciders weary from hazardous conditions and sighs, “I guess I should just follow my heart and get a divorce.”
The cross-fitted and perceptive fireman, like an earnest football coach, says to Cameron, “Man, you don’t have to follow your heart. You gotta lead your heart!”
No Nests of Resentment, Self-Pity, or Failure-Rehearsal Permitted
If the apostle Paul was correct that anyone who accepts the acceptance offered by Jesus has been the recipient of God’s initiating, planning, picking, pre-loving activity in order that we might all be “for the praise of his glory’, then it follows that any thought stream that comes trickling into our minds or hearts that doesn’t somehow move us outward, to our Savior; to His concerns, to His muscle, to the heralding of His warmth and wonder, should not be allowed to pool within us.
Any birds of thought that fly overhead and attempt to build nests in our minds of resentment, self-pity, or of the rehearsing of the failures of others, ought to be shooed off violently.
If you belong to Christ, you have been hand-picked and tenaciously pursued by Him. You are the possession of Him who is actively choreographing moments and molecules in order to dignify you with the privilege of participating in his healing, familial love, a love that intends to renovate the world.
So let’s insist on leading our hearts, instead of following them down into the suffocating labyrinth of ourselves, outward to the One whose punishment established ended our warfare with God and whose wounds assure the deep healing we crave.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org