Way before Bob Newhart played Papa Elf in the wildly popular Christmas movie Elf (and I mean way before, like in my childhood), he starred in The Bob Newhart show as psychologist Robert Hartley. In one of his more memorable scenes (easily found on YouTube these days), he asks a patient to tell him about the problem she’s facing. After she describes her fear of being buried alive in a box, he thoughtfully pauses and tells her to listen very carefully to his advice. Then he just yells at her: “STOP IT! STOP IT!”
I laugh every time I see this. I mean, duh, sometimes we don’t need to psychoanalyze everything. We need to stop thinking about things that really aren’t going to happen, about things that aren’t true.
You know, the Bible says the same thing, just in a nicer tone. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, a man named Paul tells us, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Paul had been a member of a religious group called the Pharisees, and he watched happily as Christians were stoned to death. After Jesus appeared to him personally, Paul’s heart changed completely. The Bible doesn’t say this, but I bet Paul was still tempted to think that following the churchy rules is what gave him God’s approval. He had to learn how to take his old thoughts and throw them in a jail cell until they were reformed into thoughts that matched what God says.
I had the chance to put this into practice when, like much of the country, our area dealt with cold temperatures, snow, and wind around Christmas. I bundled up and headed to the chicken coop to gather eggs. (If you don’t gather them, they will freeze and crack!) You know what I did? I took my phone because I planned to record how miserable it is to own chickens when the windchill is -35. You know what I ended up doing? Praising God! The sunshine and the snow on the evergreens were so beautiful that I couldn’t whine. Instead, I was grateful for how lovely it was, for my warm home, for the delicious eggs.
You have thoughts—ranging from mild complaining like mine to more serious struggles—that run amok in your brain. Instead, throw those bad boys in jail and tell them the truth over and over again. As Pastor Mike says in this week’s sermon, “You can’t control the first thought, but with the help of God, you can control the next thought.”
Actual psychologists (not the one Bob Newhart played) call this neuroplasticity. Negative thinking reinforces neuropathways, eventually making negativity an automatic reaction. But if you take captive every thought, you can rewire and retrain your brain to make Jesus’ thoughts become your thoughts far more automatically.
Curious how to get started? Follow more advice from Paul: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
Linda Buxa is a writer and editor who once reenacted a scene from Elf at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. She ran into a chocolate shop that advertised “Greatest Chocolate Store in the World” and cheered, “You did it! Congratulations! World’s greatest chocolate shop. Great job, everybody!”