On Thinking


On Thinking

Read. Stop. Ponder.

When was the last time an article you read actually changed your life?

Usually when we read, particularly online, we skim. We glide effortlessly across the surface. And we forget about it the moment we look away. We notice a link. Hmm … looks mildly interesting.click.

Our world is chock-a-block with distractions—and our minds are cluttered with trivialities. The overstimulated, technology-driven, information-saturated nature of modern life is too noisy for us to hear ourselves think—yet so omnipresent and addictive that silence disquiets us.

Thus, it is hostile to serious thought. Serious, life-changing thought.

For our hyperactive information gluttony, we pay a steep price. That price is depth.

You simply can’t cover a lot of ground quickly and also go deep. You are either waterskiing or you are diving.

Yet how we think is critical. Our thoughts govern everything we do and the attitude with which we do it. Thinking is the core of our being. Superficial, unfocused thinking produces a superficial, unfocused life.

What is the quality of your thinking? Are you skilled at analyzing problems? Can you concentrate on the things you want to concentrate on? How deep a thinker are you?

Stop reading here if you don’t care about the answer to those questions.

Vigorous thinking is fundamentally a matter of replacing inferior thoughts with quality thoughts.

Realize: Information is not the same thing as understanding. Of course the stupid amusement that dulls the mind is a distraction. Proverbs 12:11 in the Revised Standard Version is wonderfully pithy and tactless on this subject: “[H]e who follows worthless pursuits has no sense.”

But anything can be a distraction. Mere information—even good information—becomes another distraction if you’re not thinking about it, evaluating it, analyzing it—if it’s not stimulating your mind in original directions.

Distractions crowd our minds with inferior thoughts. Thus, if you want to improve your thinking, you must turn them off. Exercise an act of will that creates some quiet and clears space for something of substance.

Just what is thinking? It is merely a collection of images flickering through your mind, a sequence of associations. Thinking deeply is a matter of restricting those associations so as to repeatedly and purposefully mull a particular thing. It requires eliminating irrelevant thoughts: those weed-like musings that crowd your mind and pull you off the subject you want to be pondering.

The Apostle Paul advocated such mental discipline. He spoke of “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This requires a moment-by-moment awareness of and restraint over the images, impressions and ideas that float through the mind and then an expunging of anything unwelcome. That, in essence, is exactly what concentration is.

Good idea, but how to apply it? We may want a quick fix, but concentration is a skill acquired with practice (just as poor, petty thinking is a habit strengthened by years of practice). If you aren’t used to focusing your attention, you can’t suddenly summon the knack. It requires habitual, concerted deliberation.

But there is a trick to learning it. Recognize this simple truth about how your mind works: We naturally concentrate on what we enjoy.

In a wonderful little book written in 1929 called The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet wrote, “[R]eal interest is essential for concentration and creates it in an instant. The same boy who goes a-wool-gathering when he has to write a literary essay can concentrate for half a day on mathematics or on a new radio implement” (emphasis mine throughout). Thus, concentrate only on those things you enjoy—or learn to enjoy those things you must concentrate on. At least, you can consciously practice concentrating on the more satisfying things and progressively work toward applying the skill elsewhere.

Paul also understood this principle. To the one who seeks to attain God’s Kingdom, he advises to “set your affection” on it (Colossians 3:1-2).

Dimnet advocated populating your mind with greatness. “It is impossible to spend an hour in a room with a man approaching greatness without feeling the contagiousness of distinguished thinking,” he wrote. “Such men cannot always be found, or our chances for meeting them may be limited. But anybody with an average knowledge of the history of nations, literature, philanthropy or art, not to speak of the history of great religionists or saints, can people his imagination with groups of superior men in every realm. … [O]ur serious hours cannot be devoted to a more useful occupation than studying the lives or ideas of great men.”

Dimnet threw out this challenge: “If, at any moment, you are unable to name a great man who is, or has recently been, having an influence on your conduct, you will be passing the verdict: ordinary on the quality of your own thought and existence.”

Who do you spend your time with? Their influence on you looms larger than you would like to believe. Scripture is filled with admonitions such as this: “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20). Find those wise men and women, and then really converse—meet minds—think deeply together.

When you read, what do you read? What is the quality of the food you feed your mind?

And—just as important—when you read, how much do you think? Studying something to the point where it actually changes you requires letting it soak into and saturate the folds of your gray matter. Be honest: How much of your reading is forgotten the moment you stop?

Yes, read more. But as you read—read less, think more.

This brings up another essential commodity for the thinker: solitude.

“Solitude produces an exhilaration of consciousness, the consciousness of our innermost, whatever that may be. It never fails of this result,” Dimnet wrote. “Take strong coffee one morning, to keep yourself awake, lie not in bed but on a couch for two or three hours, and try to simplify and again simplify your problems ….”

How much time do you dedicate to private, quiet contemplation each day? Most people would laugh at the question. But if we are eliminating distractions, we will be redeeming some time (Ephesians 5:16), which can then be devoted to secluded thinking. “How can we secure solitude when our path is beset with a variety of undesirables?” asked Dimnet. “There is no answer to this question if we do not really crave solitude.”

Yes, we must crave solitude. King David did (Psalms 63:1; 119:148). Jesus Christ did (Mark 1:35; Matthew 14:23).

A life of worship of the true God should involve daily personal prayer—time spent in isolation communing with God, which requires a certain degree of introspection. Daily prayer is a huge benefit to deeper thinking—not only because of the invaluable contact with the Creator that it brings, but also because it instills the habit of focused, effortful thinking to a purpose, done in seclusion.

Educator and theologian Herbert W. Armstrong recommended about an hour of prayer a day. Secular sources say that even 20 minutes a day of quiet reflection goes a long way toward improving one’s mental health.

The Bible is filled with directives to think about what you’re doing, and to regularly evaluate yourself. For example, Haggai 1:5 says, “Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.” Analyze your life. Think about what is working and what isn’t. Involve God in this process and you can save yourself a lot of problems—and simultaneously deepen your thinking.

God is the epitome of quality thought, of depth, of substance, of quiet meditation, of everything opposite our shallowness. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

But the wonderful truth is, that great gulf need not remain. Yes, God’s thoughts are much higher than ours—but we can strive to rise to His level. And with the help of God’s Holy Spirit we can succeed—in no small measure.

“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

This is what we’re striving for: God’s thoughts. When we talk about becoming deep thinkers, we’re talking about our thoughts co-mingling with and coming to approximate God’s thoughts. There is no thinking deeper than that.

Consider: God can impact your mind to the extent that you have the capacity for deep thought. If you are a shallow thinker, you’ll only ever be able to have a shallow understanding of the deep things of God.

The deeper thinker you are, the more rigorous your thinking is, and the more you exercise and challenge your mind, the deeper your understanding can be.

It’s the road less traveled. But if you really want to change your life, it’s the only route to take.