A few years ago I had a conversation with a man who was struggling with a bad attitude toward a co-worker. Even the sight of that co-worker was enough to upset him. I gave him a simple assignment. Every day he was to do something nice for that co-worker: help out, provide encouragement, be pleasant, listen, ask about his day, perform random acts of kindness, etc. Be creative. Be persistent. Above all be nice. After 2 weeks the man called me back to give me an update. He was surprised at how the relationship had changed. His highly intentional commitment to be nice and act in good ways toward that co-worker made a huge difference in how he felt. Once his feelings changed, it was much easier to keep the good behavior going.
I wasn’t surprised at all, as I have used this same approach with people I have struggled to have a good attitude with. (Obviously, none of you are included in that list.) Treating those people nicely, kindly, and lovingly changed how I felt about them. Here is why.
You think. You feel. You act.
You have a mind, heart, and body.
You have constant thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
It is very hard to think sad thoughts and feel happy.
It is very hard to think calmly, act angrily, and then feel joy.
It is quite easy to think sadly, feel sad, and act sad.
It is quite easy to think joyfully, feel joyful, and act joyful.
It is quite easy to think angrily, feel angry, and be angry.
God designed you as a whole, as a unit. This is a core idea to remember: It is very hard to directly change how you feel. If you are feeling sad and I tell you, “Don’t feel sad,” you will have a very hard time not feeling sad. But, if you begin to help someone in need and do kind acts of service for someone in need, you will begin to feel less sad. Why? Because your actions are positive, create energy, and are in alignment with goodness. This automatically begins to prime positivity that is in contrast to your current feelings.
Your feelings will either change for the better or assert themselves, in which case you will stop doing those positive actions.
The same goes for your thinking.
“Change your thoughts – change your life” is an idea found in many of the teachings of ancient philosophers and contemporary psychologists. Christianity has this SAME mindset. By the way, you don’t ever have to be concerned if an idea in some other philosophy or psychology lines up with a Christian belief. All truth is God’s truth. God communicates truth in general revelation to all people. For example, you can find some version of a Golden Rule in just about every religion and philosophy. When we find truth “out there” we make sure it is truth that aligns with Scripture, and then we make the most of it.
But back to thinking, feeling, and acting. The Apostle Paul talks about this in Philippians 4:4-9. (Check it out!)
This is why two of the most popular approaches to helping people change are:
1) Behavior modification. As you begin to act more lovingly toward someone, you will actually think more loving thoughts and even feel more loving toward them. Behaviors are among the easiest things to access and change. The New Testament has hundreds of instructions and commands for us to act in specific ways.
2) Cognitive therapy. Change how you think. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2). Learn, understand, believe, and accept truth and you will be positioned to act wisely. As you think and act wisely, your feelings will change for the better. To learn new thoughts and dwell on them is much easier than trying to adjust feelings. Adjust your thinking and the feelings will often follow.
These two approaches work because they take into account how God has created you. They also work because they are used in the Bible. It turns out you can think and behave your way toward better feelings. Christian counselors and pastors have used these approaches for decades, as did Paul, Peter, James, and John.
Tomorrow I will give you a few practical suggestions on this.