July 15, 2008
 No More

Not Letting Imaginary
Problems Consume Us
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The capacity of the human mind to conjure up imaginary problems has long intrigued and amused me.

During my first year out of seminary, I occupied the drafty attic bedroom of a one-hundred-year-old home that I shared with other members of the Sons of Thunder--a Christian music group I directed. This rundown house, an abandoned monastery bordering a cemetery, had been donated to our use for a dollar a year plus some TLC. It needed much more than we could ever give it. One look and you knew it had to be inhabited by something.

Early one morning I awakened and edged myself to the side of the bed. As the surroundings of my bedroom gradually came into focus, I suddenly realized I was staring at . . . a bat, clinging to the wall in front of me. I darted out of the room, slamming the door behind me, and ran downstairs yelling for help. Duane, the band’s technician, calmly arose, got a broom (the standard bat-combat weapon), and marched upstairs as I tagged behind, mulling over recent news stories of rabid bats biting children in local parks. He boldly entered the room. Mustering some courage, I followed and flipped on the light.

The bat was no longer on the wall where I had spied him, so we began a careful search of the room, finding nothing. The windows were shut tightly, and there was no obvious way a bat could have escaped these confines. Duane concluded I was bats and went back to his room.

I sat down on the bed bewildered, wondering if I could have dreamed the whole thing. Finally, I decided to try to go back to sleep. I reached over and switched off the ceiling light, then took a final glance at the spot on the wall where the bat had appeared.

To my astonishment, in that very location was a shadow with the precise dimensions of that unwelcome visitor I had glimpsed a few minutes before. I looked at the window where sunlight was pouring in, and realized that a torn shade was casting this illusion on the wall, bearing striking resemblance to the winged creature I had seen. The ceiling light had washed the shadow out when I turned it on.

Sitting on the bed that early morning in a semiconscious state, I had stared at a simple shadow. But with the blurry vision of just waking from sleep, I had perceived something more. My mind had registered a gigantic creature of prey, about to make me a candidate for a painful series of rabies shots!

Problems Real and Fanciful

My encounter with the imaginary bat stands out in my mind as a telling reminder of my capacity to create imaginary problems. I’m reminded of how easily I can envision problems where none exist and blow real ones out of proportion.

Of course, my talent for doing this is shared fairly universally among our species. We are uniquely gifted as humans at ruminating. We can dwell on some imagined future catastrophe to the point that we’re practically certain it will occur; our fears may even prevent us from taking a vital step forward with our life. Yet so often our apprehensions bear no more relation to reality than the mirage I saw in my bedroom that morning.

I think of the story of a young man who ran out of gas on a lonely country road. Seeing a farmhouse in the distance, he began walking up the half-mile drive toward it. After going only a short distance, he began to worry: They probably won’t have any gasoline. As he got closer, his fears increased. If they do, he thought, they probably won’t want to share it with me. As he approached the farmhouse, his fears got out of hand. They’ll probably get angry with me for trespassing and order me off the premises, he fretted. Exhausted, he arrived on the front step of the home. Before he could even knock, a smiling, elderly lady answered the door and began to say, “My dear boy! What can we do to help?” -- but before she could finish, he cut her off, exclaiming, “Keep your blasted gasoline!” and rushed away.

Like the young man, we each have powerful mental generators capable of giving off images of failure, images that can stifle us when we want to take certain steps. As psychologist Martin Seligman puts it in Learned Optimism, we “catastrophize.” We think,

She will never want to go out with me, so why bother phoning her?

The teacher will never grant me an extension on my paper, so no sense asking.

My friend will only laugh at me if I apologize; no use trying to talk the problem through.

That firm will never grant me an interview. If they do, I’ll certainly not impress them, so I’m better off not inquiring.

Yet obsessing about the possibility of failure can cause us to miss golden opportunities that actually will open to us.

Grasshoppers and Giants

A stunning example of catastrophizing in Scripture occurs when Moses sends twelve spies on a reconnaissance mission to Canaan, described in Numbers 13. After they return, a full ten of the twelve are able to see only immense problems involved in trying to capture the promised land, to the point that they are paralyzed from going ahead.

“We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the people of Israel an evil report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim); and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Num 13:31-33 RSV)

The spies foresaw only disaster if Israel invaded Canaan. What’s striking is that God had already assured them they would be victorious. When God had first spoken to Moses about sending out the spies, God said, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel” (Num 13:2). The purpose of the spying mission wasn’t to determine if they could be successful, but to determine the logistics of the military campaign. Yet the spies had such fertile imaginations that they magnified the challenges, to the point of convincing themselves that God couldn’t possibly give them success.

One of the factors that most frightened the spies was the physical size of the Canaanite men. They saw them as “Nephilim”--literally, giants. Archeology has shown that the people of Canaan were indeed larger than the Israelites; the spies didn’t fantasize this perception. But they severely misunderstood the implications. They assumed that the men of Canaan would view them as pushovers. “And we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” The evidence indicates just the opposite. Rahab the Canaanite harlot summed it up to the spies on a later mission:

“I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan. . . . And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any man, because of you; for the LORD your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” (Josh 2:9-11)

Among the twelve spies on this first mission, only two--Joshua and Caleb--were able to see the challenge from God’s perspective. “Do not fear the people of the land,” they declared, “for they are bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them” (Num 14:9). The rest saw only doom. Through their powerful mental images, they created problems that did not exist. And these problems, however imaginary, were fully effective in immobilizing them--even in the face of God’s absolute promise of victory.

What’s most surprising about this incident is that the spies were the leaders of Israel’s twelve tribes. The ten who brought the gloomy majority report were among the most intelligent, spiritually knowledgeable individuals in the nation. This suggests that we will not necessarily avoid the tendency to catastrophize simply because we are well educated, or have been a Christian for many years. It’s still human nature for us to fall into this pattern.

Taking Heart While Taking Control

A day doesn’t go by in your life or mine when we don’t confront very real problems--ones that Christ wants us to face prayerfully and seriously. But Satan will strive to make us live in a world of illusion. He will, if he can, incite us to paint worst-case scenarios in our mind, and to dwell on them to the point that we believe wholeheartedly they’ll occur.

We need to learn to recognize this thought pattern for what it is and to call its bluff when we fall into it. Here are three suggestions that can help us resist the tendency to catastrophize:

Learn to outwit your catastrophizing. If you find yourself worrying about a misfortune taking place, remind yourself that the vast majority of calamities you envision never materialize. Then take comfort, because the fact that you are worrying about this gloomy possibility means it probably will not occur. Remember, in other words, that your predictions of disaster are usually wrong, and take encouragement from that!

Learn to laugh at yourself. We who obsess over problems take ourselves too seriously. We take our ruminating too seriously and our predictions of doom too seriously. If we can learn the art of laughing at our tendency to catastrophize, it will do much to bring the giants down to size.

Learn to think of God’s grace dynamically. John 1:16 promises that Christ gives “grace upon grace” to us as Christians. The Greek text literally means “grace following grace,” or fresh grace every split second of our existence. Our anxieties result in large part from trying to predict precisely how God might provide us grace to handle some future problem. We can never foresee how he will do it, though, for it’s characteristic of his grace that he gives it at the moment we need it and not before. The promise of Scripture is simply that when we need God’s assistance, he will provide it. In all likelihood what we dread will not occur. But if it does, God will give us exactly the grace required for handling that predicament. We need to dwell on this remarkable promise, but not burden ourselves with trying to anticipate how God will do it.

Moving Forward

Are you finding yourself at this time facing a seemingly insurmountable problem? A broken relationship that appears beyond healing? A job that is taxing you beyond your limits? An exasperating financial roadblock? A friend who shows no interest in coming to Christ?

Don’t ignore your feelings of discouragement and frustration. But be careful not to let them become the controlling factor in your life. Remember that Christ sees our lives, and our dilemmas, infinitely more creatively than we do. Focus as much as possible on his love, his power and his desire to work out his very best plan for your life. Ask him for clear vision to see the bats as shadows and the giants as men who have lost their protection. Believe that he is for you and can guide you into a very good solution.

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This article is adapted from chapter four of Blaine's Overcoming Shyness (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

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