Saturday morning I was arrested by a phrase in Seasons of the Heart, compiled by Donna Kelderman. One sentence of the day’s selection, written by Frances Ridley Havergal, said, “Oh, forsake the thoughts as well as the way, and return unto the Lord, and He will abundantly pardon.”
I’m sure the inspiration for her comment came from Isaiah 55:7: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
I’d read this verse before, several times. It and other passages talk about managing our thoughts, so the idea wasn’t new to me. But perhaps because the wording was rearranged just a bit, that idea of forsaking certain thoughts stood out. It’s not enough to forsake a certain sin if we’re still thinking about it all the time. And some thoughts in themselves are sins (lust, pride, etc.). We need to forsake sinful thoughts as well as sinful ways.
But how can we forsake thoughts when they spill into our minds unbidden? We might not want to think them, but we can’t seem to get away from them.
First, we need to pray. Something I sometimes pray is Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.“
Then, we can change our thoughts.
In How to Say No to a Stubborn Habit, Erwin Lutzer said that if someone told you to stop thinking about the number 8, suddenly that’s all you can think of. What to do then? Think of other numbers, do equations, arrange them in different orders, etc.
The best way to get rid of one thought is to replace it with another. Instead of passively being at the mercy of whatever thoughts assail us, we can actively think about profitable things. We can take our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5).
David Martyn-Lloyd Jones put it this way in Spiritual Depression:
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.”
So what can we say to our souls?
We can turn our thoughts to anything active, really: planning our next week, what we’re going to serve at the next church fellowship, how to rearrange the desk or living room, etc.
But the best thoughts to turn to are God’s. After the verse about forsaking wicked or unrighteous thoughts and ways in Isaiah 55, God goes on to say His thoughts are higher than ours. Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Sometimes in an urgent situation, singing a hymn (either out loud or to ourselves) helps in a couple of ways. First, it turns our thoughts to God’s truths. Then, once we start a well-known song, our minds want to finish it out. This has helped me a lot in times of anxiety. There was a period of time where I was often plagued by negative, almost blasphemous thoughts about God. I didn’t believe them. I was quite distressed, unsure where they were coming from. Finally I decided every time such a thought would begin, I’d start singing a hymn of praise to God. If it was Satan suggesting these thoughts, I guess he got tired of it after awhile when his efforts just led to more praise to God.
Either reading or remembering Scripture helps us center our thoughts on God’s. The more we read and memorize, the more the Holy Spirit can “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). If we’re wrestling with a particular temptation—lust, pride, gluttony, etc.—it helps to look up verses to combat those, list some to have them ready, and start memorizing them.
Then, it helps to concentrate on the positive and not just the negative, what we can do instead of what we can’t, doing rather than don’t-ing. 2 Timothy 2:22 says, “So flee youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Colossians 3 tells us to put off some things—immorality, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscenity, lying—and put on other things like humility, forgiveness, kindness, patience, love, compassion.
Just trying to stop thinking about what we can’t do is like trying to stop thinking about the number 8. Not only will our minds keep trying to go there, but we’ll be discontent. But if we focus on what we’re supposed to be doing instead, we’ll have enough to keep us busy for a long time.
How about you? What ways have you found to forsake wrong thoughts?
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