Magazine Article

No Condemnation

Negative Thoughts Are Learned

Jonathan Betlinski, Rachel Scribner, Gary Parks
No Condemnation
Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: The following material is adapted from a pamphlet series on mental health produced for North American Division (NAD) Health Ministries and is used with permission by its publisher, AdventSource. We believe it to be especially relevant to this conversation.

Anxiety isn’t easy for anyone to battle. But for those of us who grew up with a religious background, it can get a little extra complicated. See, anxiety disorders can create irrational feelings of guilt. And sometimes, those of us who follow Jesus think any guilt at all must be a message from God. That’s where the problem happens. Anxiety creates guilt for no reason; we believe God must be sending us that guilt; and then anxiety and religion get all tangled up in a messy downward spiral of confusion. The more anxious we feel, the more we worry that we aren’t good enough for God. We try harder to be good enough, but that makes us worry more. And the more anxious we become, the guiltier we feel.

Finally, if the spiral goes unchecked, we can end up cutting more and more things out of our lives until there’s nothing we can do, and nothing we can eat, drink, or think about that doesn’t make us feel guilty. But we don’t feel better. We feel even worse.

So now what? How can we separate our own anxious feelings from God’s promptings on our hearts? Here’s a thought that might help as we each learn to listen for God’s gentle voice: God calls us toward things, while anxiety condemns us.

When the Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught in adultery, she probably felt guilty. And she had a reason. She’d broken the law, and she knew that according to the rules of her time, she wouldn’t live much longer. But after the hypocritical Pharisees slipped away as Jesus wrote in the dust, He turned to the guilty woman and asked her a question: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10, 11, NIV).

Jesus didn’t ask the woman if she felt guilty. That wasn’t His goal. He knew she’d made a mistake, just as everyone else on earth had, but He didn’t spend His time telling her how wrong she was or looking down on her. He simply pointed her in the direction of a happier and more fulfilling life and said: “Go.”

Jesus is a healer, not a prosecutor. Romans 8:1, 2 says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (NIV). The Bible is clear that Jesus wants to heal us. He wants us to be whole. But our God doesn’t condemn us. He calls us toward things—gives us steps we can reach.

Depression and anxiety can put some heavy thoughts into your head. And the more you believe those negative ideas, the more anxious or depressed you become. The good news is that you don’t have to stay in that cycle of negativity. Every time you confront a negative thought and replace it with something true, your depression or anxiety loses a piece of its power.

Types of Negative Thoughts

The first step to confronting these sneaky negative thoughts, or cognitive distortions, is learning how to spot them. Here are a few cognitive distortions to watch out for:

Mental Filtering: Magnifying the negatives and ignoring or filtering out all the positives. Example: “That party was awful; one of the people there didn’t want to talk to me.”

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Everything is wonderful or terrible; you’re either a success or a failure, and there’s no in-between. Example: “There are good people and bad people. If he did a bad thing, then he must be a bad person.”

Overgeneralization: One unpleasant moment is proof of an ongoing cycle of failure. Example: “I got a bad grade on my first assignment. I must be an awful student. I should quit school before it gets any worse.”

Mind Reading: Assuming you know what other people are thinking when you haven’t talked with them. Example: “I don’t have to ask Steve if he’s mad at me. I just know.”

Catastrophizing: Expecting disaster to strike or the worst-case scenario to happen. Example: “What if the airplane engines die? What if there’s a tsunami?”

Personalization: Believing that everything is all about you or taking everything personally. Example: “Julie looks nice today. She probably did that to get revenge on me.” Or “If only I hadn’t been late to the party. Everyone had a bad time because of me.”

Control Fallacies: Either we feel controlled by others (example: “I’m just destined to be unhappy; there’s nothing I can do”), or we feel responsible for things outside our control, such as other people’s feelings. Example: “You look so sad. What did I do?”

Should Statements: These distortions tell you that if you don’t meet the standard, you deserve to feel guilty. Example: “I’m so lazy! I only walked for 30 minutes when I should have exercised for an hour.”

Emotional Reasoning: Believing that if you feel a certain way, it must be the truth. Examples: “I feel like I got a bad grade, so I did” or “I feel stupid and lazy, so I really am.”

Negative Thoughts Are Learned

All those negative thoughts that jump into your head were learned—possibly from someone important to you when you were younger. You’ve heard people say these things often enough that you accepted them without question. And by now you’ve probably repeated them so many times that they’re automatic; they pop into your head before you even realize it.

You can unlearn and replace negative thinking. It might be tricky at first. Once thoughts have become automatic, they can be slippery and slide into your head before you notice. But with time and patience you can learn to spot them and retrain your brain to think differently. And one day they won’t be automatic anymore. You’ll have completely replaced them with new, positive thought processes. God may call you to make a change in your life, but if He does, you will know what He’s calling you to do, and it will be a step you can manage. By quieting the voices of fear in your head, you are moving toward healing, toward wholeness.

Jonathan Betlinski, Rachel Scribner, Gary Parks

Jonathan Betlinski, M.D., specializes in neurology and psychiatry in Portland, Oregon; Rachel Scribner, M.A., is a writer and filmmaker based in the Pacific Northwest; and Gary Parks, M.Div., is the Relational Ministries director for the Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.