Part 12 of the series:
When Faith Doesn’t Work
by Don Enevoldsen
Not long ago, I strolled down the sidewalk on a warm, southern California afternoon, my mind engaged with important philosophical contemplations such as why September always seems to be the hottest month of the year when summer is supposed to be over and fall is supposed to begin. (I don’t know that it really is the hottest, but in Los Angeles, it always seems like it.) My ruminations on the eccentricities of Paradise were suddenly interrupted by a loud and persistent buzzing near my head. A yellowjacket, one of those evil wasps masquerading as a bee, announced its evil presence.
The yellowjacket circled my head, not once, but twice, passed within mere inches of my arm and hovered as though looking for an appropriate landing and attack point. Those of you who have not read Part 1 likely cannot appreciate the gravity of the threat. Those who have read Part 1 will be amazed at my reaction.
I ignored the yellowjacket and kept walking.
How did this amazing transformation take place? That is the story of this series. Over a period of years, somewhere, almost imperceptibly, my core beliefs regarding yellowjackets changed. I no longer have an irrational fear of them.
There was a point in time when I consciously decided that I must overcome the fear of bees. I remember thinking it through and telling myself how ridiculous I looked when I reacted to them.
That decision resulted in attempts to get rid of my fear by a variety of easy, but ineffective methods. I prayed. I asked for deliverance. I tried will power, which meant that I could occasionally force myself to not panic. Of course, that meant that instead of running, I froze in place. Which probably looked to other people just as silly as running.
None of those things really helped until I actually studied yellowjackets to learn how they lived and operated. My wasp education taught me that they were not inherently malicious, and I learned what kinds of things caused them to attack. At least I knew what not to do.
Over time, I began to watch bees in flight to observe what they did. I knew from experience that I could survive a sting, even if I did get one. My experience with the reality of yellowjacket life enabled me to be more tolerant of them. Eventually, I became familiar enough with them to ignore them. At the same time, I now know what not to do to anger them.
Of course, I understand that yellowjackets are a relatively small problem compared to the issues of life with which we are all challenged, but the principles are the same. I find, however, that this process is very difficult to communicate to others. It defies formula. I’ve tried several times to condense it to a three-, seven-, or ten-part diagram. Follow these easy steps and it will change your life. Unfortunately, real life is never quite that clean. Every time I’ve outlined the steps, I’ve seen exceptions and caveats that render the formula imperfect. Even now, as I try to summarize what I’ve learned, I must emphasize that we are talking about life, not formulas. The application of these principles will have to be adjusted to fit your particular personality, your way of thinking, your experiences, your problems and limitations, the culture of your family and your community, and the language with which you understand life. It’s very individual.
With that disclaimer, I believe I can identify a few overarching concepts that I hope will be helpful.
The first thing I have had to do with every problem I have ever overcome (including, but hardly limited to, an irrational fear of yellowjackets) is acknowledge that something is wrong. “No, I’m not responding in terror to that yellowjacket. I just occasionally feel like running spontaneously for no reason. It’s part of my lack of inhibition. It’s a good thing.” “Really.”
My tendency is always to defend myself. It’s not that I want to portray the image of being right when I know I’m wrong. Rather, there is an unconscious understanding that if I admit something in my belief system is wrong, then I will have to change it, and that will require far too much work for me to be able to handle it in my busy schedule. It would be much too disruptive. So I prefer to continue with the problem. Until I admit something needs to be changed, it will not change.
Secondly, the idea of taking every thought captive is the essence of overcoming. However, that phrase has been so overused and abused that it has little significant meaning for most people. We spend most of our time trying to corral the wrong thought. The real problem is the core beliefs we have.
For example, as Christina has worked with hundreds of people who have been sexually abused as children, we have seen the wrong approach over and over, yet it is the approach most often recommended in church. A girl who is sexually abused throughout her childhood is likely to grow up with the core belief that she has no value other than for sex. That’s all she was ever told. As an adult, she is likely to be very promiscuous. She goes to her pastor for help, and he tells her to take every thought captive.
She struggles to pounce on every promiscuous thought that runs through her head, only to find that she still cannot get rid of the thoughts. Whether she restrains her behavior or not, she is still plagued by the thoughts, and ends up believing she is a failure because the thoughts keep coming. The thought that is the problem, however, is the one that is deep in her core beliefs: the thought that she has no value other than sex. That thought must be identified and replaced by the truth that God created her for something different and better.
Taking a thought captive involves identifying it and interrogating it in order to find out where it came from and why it is there. Once the real source is located, it can be dealt with. Until then, we are only treating symptoms. Change can only come when we face the real cause.
Change is a combination of confession, experience and death. The confession does not magically alter our inner being, but it does help us mentally or intellectually delineate the truth and understand it. The power of positive confession is not in the change it produces, but rather in the understanding and clarity it helps us to achieve.
The key to change, however, is internalization of the intellectual understanding. Until we experience the truth and live it, we will always struggle with implementing it. As long as it is some external thing imposed from the outside, it will not affect behavior. Only when it is written on the heart can we expect real change. The goal is to make the truth our core belief and let go of the false beliefs that have driven us in the past.
This is easy to summarize from Revelation 12 as recognizing the redemptive power of the blood of the Lamb to bring forgiveness, followed by the word of our testimony, that is, confessing and embracing the truth, wrapped up with death to the old way of life. It’s easy to summarize, but not so easy to do. It’s not a formula. It is life. And life grows and develops over time. It puts roots down in any soil where it can find nourishment. It is remarkably unpredictable and difficult to coerce.
All this means that I see the patterns, but they’re not reducible to simple steps. Real life never is. This might be the reason Paul advises us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Simple acknowledgement of a formula does not accomplish much. We must be actively involved.
To wrap this up, then, I will refer to a few points from another study, an analysis of how Joshua achieved success in taking the Promised Land. (This will probably become a series in the future, so these are just a couple of highlights.)
First of all, Joshua never tried to take it all at once. An angel had told Israel earlier that God would not drive out their enemies in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous (Exodus 23:29). And that’s how Joshua approached it. They took one city at a time and consolidated each gain before moving on to the next.
Likewise, changing core beliefs cannot be done overnight. There is no timetable that has to be adhered to. Life grows at its own pace, so never beat yourself up for not moving fast enough.
Secondly, Joshua set up memorials everywhere he went as a reminder of past victories (such as Joshua 4:9). Everywhere the people looked, there were piles of rocks that said, “You won a battle here.” “You saw a miracle here.” “You were an overcomer here.”
I find great benefit from memorializing my victories. On days of crisis, it’s encouraging to look back at other times when I did overcome. On days of depression, it’s comforting to recall times when I came through the same sort of pressure. For some people, this is the benefit of journaling. For me, I love to surround myself with trophies and awards. Don’t let some sense of false humility deprive you of your success. Whatever works, do it.
I suppose we should try to answer the foundational question of this series. God said it, I believe it, why doesn’t it work? The answer is that in spite of what we say, we don’t actually believe it. Not really. Not at the deepest core of our being. If we did, then our behavior would change and our lives would change. Change your core belief and you change your life.
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.