The Quality of Our Thoughts and the One Thought That Really Matters: The Fathers and the Baylor Report on Mental Health and Religious Beliefs
A recurring theme in Ancient Christian Wisdom as well as throughout this blog concerns the fact that our private thoughts about our selves color our emotions, shape our behavior, and set an indelible mark on our character and ultimately our lives. In developing this thesis, I explored Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy in the light of the teachings of the ancient fathers. According to Dr. Beck, “cognitive therapy is a system of therapy that attempts to reduce excessive emotional reactions and self-defeating behavior by modifying the faulty or erroneous thinking and maladaptive beliefs that underlie these reactions.” According to the ancient fathers, the quality of the thoughts occupies a central place in the spiritual life and their change or re-ordering can lead to healing and transformation. As I write in ACW, “the saints have also found that selfish thoughts, left unchecked, lead a person to sinful acts, passions, habits, and eventually alienation from God and neighbor; whereas godly thoughts, when cultivated, guide a person by the grace of God to virtuous actions, habits and ultimately purification from the passions, illumination by the Holy Spirit, and deification in Christ.”
Those godly thoughts of the fathers are as diverse as the stars in the heavenly firmament made up of “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise” (Phillipians 4:8). But there is one thought above all thoughts, one “name, which is above every name,” and that is the thought of our loving God and the name of our Savior Jesus Christ. That is the one thought and the one name that can separate the sheep from the goats, the good thoughts from the bad, and that can lead us to think, feel, and behave as children of the highest. This is why the cultivation of the remembrance of God is integral to the beginning of a healthy thought life.
Interestingly enough, this patristic insight into a flourishing life seems to be borne out in a September 2011 Baylor University study concerning the religiosity of Americans and its effect on their mental health. In a section of the study entitled, “Image of God and Mental Health,” the surveyors conclude, “concepts of Americans fall along two dimensions: God’s judgment and God’s engagement. A Judgmental God is critical, punishing, and angered by sin, where an Engaged God is involved in the world and in people’s lives. The mental health questions from the Baylor Religion Survey Wave III can be broken down into five general categories of anxiety-related disorders. These are Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Paranoia, Obsession, and Compulsion. People who believe in an Engaged God (i.e., one who is active in worldly and personal affairs) report fewer of these anxiety disorders. However, for people who believe in a Judgmental God (i.e., one who is critical of human behavior and quick to punish human sin), concerns about some of the anxiety disorders (Social Anxiety, Paranoia, and compulsion) increase. Specifically, respondents who believe in a very Engaged God have:
• 21% fewer concerns related to Generalized Anxiety.
• 34% fewer concerns related to Social Anxiety.
• 25% fewer concerns related to Paranoia.
• 18% fewer concerns related to Obsessions.
• 17% fewer concerns related to Compulsions.
The Baylor University authors are quick to point out that this data does not warrant a causal relationship between God’s judgment and mental health disorders. It’s not that believing in God’s judgment makes people sick, but those who experience God active in their lives do tend to be healthier. In other words, the sense that God is present in our lives helps us worry less about what might go wrong, how we might fail, who might be against us, and what we absolutely have to do. The one most powerful thought about God can trump all other thoughts and guide us in the way of peace and salvation. But that thought, of all thoughts, must be accurate and true. And that Truth is revealed in the meek and humble Person of Jesus Christ.
The results of the Baylor study interestingly tally well with the experience and teachings of the church fathers, who understood God as engaged in the world with an abundance of love that calms every worry and every fear. For instance, Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! …What love served to initiate the creation of the world! This same love which initiated the act of creation prepared beforehand by another dispensation the things appropriate to adorn the world’s majesty which sprung forth as a result of the might of His love. In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captive to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. With this design did He bring them into existence, even though they among themselves have made, after their coming into being, this distinction between the just and the wicked. Even though this is so, nevertheless in the Creator’s design there is none, from among all who were created and who have come into being—that is, every rational nature—who is to the front or to the back of God’s love. Rather, He has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first place or last place with Him in this love for any single one of them.”
In terms of the Baylor study, those who inculcate the words and beliefs of St. Isaac of Syria will be profoundly affected by God’s loving engagement in the world. Their thoughts, attitudes, and behavior will be shaped by God’s love that is always there, wherever they are and whatever they do. And that belief will be especially strengthened when they make it a part of their daily life through the frequent invocation of Christ’s most sweet and holy name. One could expect that such persons will be less troubled by anxieties, less driven by compulsions, and less vulnerable to other mental disorders, for when they say, “God is with us” and “ours is a God Who works wonders,” they feel His love, they are assured of His presence, and they know His care. The Baylor survey certainly points to this, but even more importantly, the Holy Fathers have lived this and in their lives and writings shown that it is most certainly true.
—Hieromonk Alexios Karakallinos