Social psychologist Alison Ledgerwood is interested in how people think and how they can think better. One day she asked herself the question, how is it that when I return home from a day’s work, my mood is largely determined by what went wrong during that day, and not by its successes? She found that once our minds encounter something negative, they hold on to it longer. It was also easier to change from a positive to a negative view of things than the other way around.
If, for instance, people were told that 40 people were saved from a disaster, they liked it. If they then heard that 60 others had died, their opinion changed to dislike. But people who were first told about the casualties and then about the survivors, kept a negative view throughout. The conclusion was that our minds give prominence to negative thoughts. Often there are good reasons for that, namely to protect us from future harm, but sometimes it can be a real nuisance. The solution was simple: train our minds by going over a list of good things.
Alison’s husband helped her in this respect. Every day, after she had given her (fairly negative) account of that day, he would ask her, “And what good things have happened today?”. Invariably, there would be a fair number of such things, and remembering them would cheer her up. To see and hear Alison’s full story on TED, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XFLTDQ4JMk&feature=youtu.be
Where have we heard this before? Well, it is exactly what we are recommended to do when we pray. Phil. 4 (ISV): “Never worry about anything. Instead, in every situation let your petitions be made known to God through prayers and requests, with thanksgiving”.
So this principle was already known 2000 years ago, and what’s more, we’re not only told to list and count our blessings, but to give thanks for them, because we know where they come from. Later I will come back to the question what all this has to do with Lent.
Now in our reading from Jeremiah we read about a covenant with Israël which was broken. A lot depended on the covenant between God and His people, so breaking it was traumatic. It meant that the people would not reap the many blessings that God had promised, but disasters. Jeremiah compares it to the breaking up of a relationship. This always involves pain and insecurity.
But notice how God reacts. Although the people have broken the covenant, it is almost as if God says, yes, but I made the wrong kind of covenant. I should have put my law in their hearts, and that is what I will try next. In reality, it was not a mistake, but a necessary phase mankind had to go through: From obeying external laws to discovering our responsibility towards ourselves and each other. But the point is that God does not hold on to a previous negative experience!
If someone wants to hold on to negative experiences, it is not God, but mankind. The other day I read that Americans are massively turning away from organised religion. A picture showed a young woman holding a sign with “there is no God” written on it. It is partly an understandable expression of frustration, but it also releases one, or so it seems, from having to set a better example than those who are using religion for their own evil purposes. If we deny the gospel, we are as it were throwing out the baby (Jesus) with the bathwater. Notice also that here we have a negative thought. If God does not exist, why not emphasize what does “exist”?
Now the first covenant failed, but many people are still trying to live by it – either that, or fighting it. It is all about obedience, if necessary against our will, or on the opposite side, about “freedom”. One group is using all methods at their disposal to convert others to their ideas of the true religion. Others are defending their illusory freedom and democracy. Often it seems as if, after 2000 years, the new covenant has still not reached our planet!
Perhaps our gospel reading can give us some insight why. Jesus speaks about his own sacrificial death using the image of a grain that dies in the earth. But he also addresses all of us: “Those who love their life, lose it”. This brings us right back to Lent, which we think should be gloomy and dismal and negative. But is that true? Jesus does not say that we have to go through a spiritual rebirth. We can also just remain a single grain.
But if we want to bear “much fruit”, something has to give way first, and that is our selfishness.
In other words, it is good to train our minds to see the positive things we received, but even better to start seeing the positive things we can give. Or, to describe it in yet another way: We are too attached to negative thoughts about ourselves as well as about others! Then, what has to be freed from our negative perceptions is not just “me”, but the whole world! And this cannot be done if everyone only learns to be pleased with him- or herself. So here we have a very important contribution Christianity can make to this troubled world.
It also puts some of the examples that Alison Ledgerwood gives, in a different perspective. E.g.: It is true that when a thousand jobs are threatened, and 400 are saved, that is not only sad news. But the question why 600 jobs had to go, still needs to be asked. And those people still need our support. There are still issues of justice and basic human rights to consider.
So what does all this mean for our observation of Lent?
It means that Lent is not so much about giving up nice things like chocolat.
It is not even about temporarily giving up expressions of joy and replacing them by austerity. On the contrary, it is about letting go of negative thoughts and habits.
Things that keep us in a dissatisfied state, things that only make ourselves and others more miserable. In that sense Lent is not like Advent, a time of hope, but a time when we realize that we already have so much. It is a time for learning to live in the present and to allow others to share in our wealth.
Is 58:6 – “”Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? 6“Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? 7“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Yes, the gospel is really good news. This means we don’t have to be stuck in negativity.
The sins and failures that have been forgiven do not need to haunt us endlessly or be rubbed in. It may take some effort to really become convinced of that. Call it training, meditation or praying. Daily we may remind ourselves of our blessings, and look at our failures the way God does. But trying to have this good feeling about ourselves will be in vain if we ignore the needs around us. Freeing only yourself is like freeing no one.
Now I am not saying that Alison advocates freeing only yourself. On the contrary, she is helping others to break some bad thinking habits that would otherwise lead us to overly criticize each other, to become jealous or even aggressive. But Christ made it so much clearer when he spoke about loving our neighbours as (well as) ourselves, and even our enemies.
What He taught was not only meant to make us feel better, but to actually make some improvements. However, this it is not something we can do by ourselves. We need His example, His teaching and the Holy Spirit.The good news is that it does not entirely depend on us individuals. Summarizing, it is a good sign when we discover our negativity and want to train it away, but it is better still to know that God has faith in us and will do everything to assist us.
“The days are surely coming says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors”. As we know, in the time of Jesus most of His flock did not accept the new covenant. But there is no reason to suppose that God is less forgiving today than he was 2000 years ago. I am sure He is still working on human hearts.
We have passed the stage when we can believe things that we do not feel in our hearts are true. We do not constantly want to be lectured or converted. But it does mean that we truly have to listen to the voice of wisdom and compassion. It does mean that we cannot easily dismiss God and all religion. For the source of eternal salvation is still outside ourselves, seeking a way in. It is both natural and unnatural to us. It will need practice and faith.