What’s Your Context?
I watched the tiger.
He was getting closer. He was pacing back and forth. Then he looked my way and stopped. We locked eyes in a stare.
But my body didn’t react.
I wasn’t afraid. Just amused.
Because the tiger and I were both at the zoo—and he was on the other side of glass—I knew I was safe.
But if I encounter the same tiger this afternoon in my back yard? My response would be fear and panic.
My mind understands the difference in context. My thoughts control the emotional response in each scenario.
When Emotions Aren’t Based on Facts
A few years ago I read this about contexts:
“Contexts are learned. Thus most of what provokes emotion is learned. And these emotional contexts are generally learned in a single-minded way.”
– Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
Think how you react to God.
Maybe the thought of God invokes feelings of anger. Fear. Or even shame. Maybe indifference.
Perhaps it’s because of the context of an absent father. Or because of harmful church experiences. Or unanswered questions after a tragedy.
But our initial perceptions about God aren’t always accurate. The emotions we feel, originating from our contexts, may not be based on accurate facts.
If you get a phone message from your doctor asking you to schedule an appointment immediately, you will likely feel uncomfortable emotions. Not because scheduling an appointment is stressful in itself, but because the thoughts you’re reading into the context are stressful: Is something wrong with me? Do I have cancer? What will this mean?
“Our thoughts create the context which determines our feelings.”
– Ellen Langer
Our emotions radiate from our thoughts.
If we’ve thought of God as a stalker waiting to catch us in one wrong move then bang!, or if we’ve thought he could care less about our lives, or that he doesn’t exist at all, we’re not likely to seek him and discover the full life he has for us.
And we will surely have a hard time loving such a God.
So what do we do?
Seek the Truth
Get the right context.
- Reexamine our old beliefs.
- Look around at creation.
- Study to see if our thoughts line up with who God says he is.
- Talk to those who have a satisfying relationship with God.
To avoid unnecessary prolonged stress, get to the truth.
God encourages mindfulness, not ignorance (2 Timothy 2:15). He stirs us to renew our minds, to change the way we think, to come into alignment with what is real and true (Romans 12:2).
We aren’t to avoid painful thoughts, but we don’t need to indulge in untrue thoughts.
Granted, it’s not always up to us; sometimes our minds need medical help and outside reinforcement. That’s different. Our minds can break, just like a bone, and we can’t just “think” our way into healing. Untrue thoughts hurt us in many ways, often unaware.
Seek the truth. Even if it’s a hard truth. If a tiger really is in our backyard, we need to know so we can respond accordingly. Then if we discover he’s contained in a cage, we can relax and be unafraid.
By changing our thinking to align with the truth (as much as our limited minds are capable of discovering truth anyway), we’ll still feel the range of emotions. And that’s okay. But ultimately we can find acceptance and freedom within those emotions.
And with freedom comes life—a life that is full with a God who is good (John 10:10).
Have you ever changed your emotions by changing your thoughts? Please share in the comments.
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