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O My Soul: Positive Self-Talk From a Biblical Perspective

Naturally, we are drawn to the world’s teachings. The flesh desires so desperately to be gratified by half-truths and fine-sounding words. What’s more, oftentimes we, even as believers with opened eyes, do not identify the world’s words as different from God’s. It is the cleverness and cunning nature of Satan to mask truth and make falsehoods look more believable or appealing. This is not something to be hopelessly ashamed of, though; rather it is something to be repentant of. The recognition of the human’s heart and its desire to wander should bring about sorrow that results in refreshment; it should always lead us back to our knees, in fearful recognition that God’s righteousness and grace covers, though there is nothing that our own will has done to bring his favor about.

One of the world’s teachings that I see as a slippery slope is the idea of positive self-talk. Let me define what I mean by this term. When I say positive self-talk, I refer to the idea of telling oneself affirmations that make a person feel good about themselves and bring about confidence rooted in egocentric thinking. I understand this is a strong stance; I also want to be careful not to trash the idea of confidence in self, either. I think that self-positivity is absolutely essential in building a deeper trust within self; however, it is not everything. And that is what I see the world so apt to teach. The downfall of the positive self-talk movement is that it emphasizes the idea that we can save ourselves through the power, not of the transformative Spirit of God, but through the power of positive thinking or psychological awareness alone.

There is a fine line that I fear I will breach in this topic, and I will preface this with my main point⏤practice truthful self-talk, not just positive self-talk.

What is Truthful Self-Talk?

Sometimes positive self-talk and truthful self-talk align; many other times they do not. At the heart of truthful self-talk, though, is the truth of God. Who is he and who are we in him? What does he say about us or our life situation? How does he define our worth, our purpose, our success, our strength, our beauty, our confidence?

Truthful self-talk is a biblical way that allows God’s words to be the antidote to a downcast or insecure soul. Truthful self-talk admits to shortcomings rather than speaking good vibes over them. Truthful self-talk accepts God’s truth as ultimate comfort and identity and speaks this reality to self. Truthful self-talk is freedom.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:31-32

I believe that affirming ourselves to the point of seeing ourselves as good enough has the potential to rob us of refreshing repentance, of a deeper joy in God’s character and grace, and even steal from God’s own glory. When we lift ourselves up to the degree that we alone, apart from God’s definition, are sufficient, we run the risk of putting self-affirmations above truth and putting the desire to feel good above God’s own glory. The hard truth is, a lot of times, we aren’t good enough, strong enough, worthy enough⏤at least, not independent of God. When we see who God is in all of his splendor, much like Isaiah, we fully understand how faulty we are in comparison. This is not negative self-talk, though; it is truth. We do fall short. We can’t make it on our own. We are naturally unclean.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Isaiah 6:5

How can we, believing that self alone is enough, venerate the God who gives us our value according to his own good will and character? How can positivity and self-love that lift humans on a pedestal honor the God who deserves the highest praise? We are in danger of missing the point of the gospel by failing to understand our place in comparison to the holy and perfect place of God. Seeing our own shortcomings, though it can be painful to acknowledge at first, reveals the mercy of a just and gracious God who, in his holiness which we can never attain, welcomes us to be covered in his righteousness, in his love, despite our flaws. We are covered by what he calls us more than what we call ourselves. And recognizing our depravity makes the gospel that much sweeter.

Of course, I concede once again that this is a fine line and that affirmations still have a place in the Christian’s life; I just want to highlight that turning to fine-sounding words of artificial validation rather than to what God says about us can be dangerous. Our itching ears are prone to listen to words that are easy to accept.

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

2 Timothy 4:3

Let this be a reminder that truthful self-talk reaps a plentiful harvest of hope and confidence that goes beyond ourselves.

Truthful Self-Talk Starts Here

So what can we, as God’s elect, do to protect ourselves from negative thoughts and despair? Martyn Lloyd Jones, in his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, puts it this way:

Have you ever realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self if talking to you. Now this man's treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. "Why art thou cast down, O my soul?" he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, "Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you." 

Jones makes it clear here that self-talk is necessary in our fight for confidence. Rather than let our own heart, which is deceitful above all else, dictate what we think of ourselves through unsound whispers of insecurity, we must stand up and speak out truth that transcends any argument that we can set up within ourselves. We have a nasty habit as fallen beings to succumb and submit to the lies that self speaks to us. It is even more difficult to overcome these negative thoughts simply because we know ourselves best. We know the unrighteous, unspeakable, or shameful things that others don’t see and can justify cynical self-talk because we feel we deserve it. Self really is our worst critic. Stop listening to yourself for a moment and speak to yourself as an offensive tactic in the race towards truth.

More than preaching to yourself the good, attractive qualities that you see (or perhaps don’t see) in yourself, preach the Bible to yourself. Truthful self-talk starts here, by aligning the heart with an eternal perspective of what really matters. With the natural temptation to wander and seek out other self-soothing methods, we must remind ourselves of the value and peace that the word gives to those who seek it, and along with it, the worth that God assigns to us, the comfort God gives us, and the love that God is. Focusing on what is good and true means focusing on truth outside of our own perspective and natural thoughts. Think about such things.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

Truthful Self-Talk in Action

These two examples of people in the Bible show the faithfulness that is brought about by preaching truth to self. The bleeding woman:

She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”

Matthew 9:21

And Deborah going into battle:

…March on, my soul; be strong!

Judges 5:21

Both examples of these meditations on God’s power yield a harvest of healing and freedom. Victory is the fruit of truthful self-talk. And notice that these examples of truthful self-talk not only lead to strengthened faith but are also followed through with confident initiatives. Their faith is made complete by active trust. That is what truth offers; a heart of boldness and confidence in the promises of God. It defines self through God’s power and grace. I will be healed—her identity, through Christ alone, is that of a renewed creation. Be strong—Deborah’s identity is transformed from a spirit of fear to that of a fearless leader, backed and guided by Christ’s strength. When we know the truth of God and understand that this can and does apply to us, and then speak this to ourselves as a mode of building faith, action naturally accompanies this God-given confidence that goes beyond our own abilities.

For even more examples of meditations, the Psalms illustrate beautifully the power of truthful self-talk, commonly marked by the words, “my soul.” See Psalm 43:5, 57:8, 62:5, 103: 1-5, 116:7, and 146:1-5.

Biblical Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:5

The context of this scripture is not always understood fully. In this scripture, Paul is not talking about his thoughts, but rather the thoughts of others that go against the message of his ministry and gospel. Many beliefs about the Messiah had to do with glory and greatness. A lot of Jews still believed that Christ would come as a mighty soldier to demolish their earthly enemies, to vanquish the Roman Empire, and restore the chosen people to their former glory. Paul preached the cross, though. He taught a message of meekness and humility, and in doing so, spoke of truth as it is, not as what people wanted it to be. He warned his hearers to demolish these arguments of an untrue, fabricated Messiah in their heads and challenged them to align their world views and beliefs with the gospel of God, not their own preconceived notions or thoughts. These thoughts that gave into what others wanted to believe set themselves up against the real, life-giving freedom of the gospel of Christ.

In this time, people were tempted to believe in an idea of God that wasn’t him, and I argue we do the same thing now with a new message that the world preaches. Rather than believe that God is a gracious and just God, we emphasize one or the other with positive and negative self-talk. In positive self-talk, we can easily overextend ourselves grace, completely overlooking our need for validation from God’s mercy. In negative self-talk, it is tempting to only see God as a judge; we understand our shortcomings but do not see grace within them. God encapsulates both of these characteristics equally, though.

So even more than combating negative self-talk, scripture demands that we combat untruthful self-talk. This covers a wider range than the generic “I’m not good enough” phrases, though. Untruthful self-talk also covers the opposite end of the spectrum; prideful internal speech is just as damaging as an insecure monologue. So if the aim is acknowledging and believing the truth, falsehoods are to be demolished and taken captive. Let’s revisit that scripture now that the context has been established.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:5

This scripture closely aligns with what psychologists call CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which is the idea that we must challenge automatic, negative thoughts. Most CBT treatments follow the steps of 1) identifying the falsehood instead of letting it define you, 2) challenging the negative thought, and 3) replacing it with a truthful, better belief. Of course, I am no therapist, so do your own research if you must, but this method has been proven to temporarily alleviate emotional distress and maladaptive behaviors. How would this apply with the Bible as our reference for treatment, though?

Identify the Falsehood

First, we must recognize the worldly “argument” that resides in our heads. Many times, the lie will attack our own character or value⏤I am unworthy, I will never get through this, I need to be perfect, I am a bad person, I am incapable. Without knowing the argument that needs replacing, we cannot move on to deeper healing. This often involves prayer for open eyes and the Spirit’s wisdom to see the falsehood that is so ingrained in us.

This returns us back to the idea of godly versus worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow looks to God and back to self, recognizes shortcomings, and cries out to God in desperation for mercy. It is confident in the good character of God to forgive, grant repentance, and strengthen faith. Worldly sorrow, however, looks only to self, only to the mistakes or weaknesses, and declares failure. It is self-pitiful because it refuses to see God’s gracious presence within the mess of sin. It listens and accepts the whispers of falsehood—the arguments that set themselves up against the knowledge of God—and breathes out discouraging words that attack self from a lens of hopelessness. That, I believe, is the difference between Isaiah’s words (Isaiah 6:5) and negative self-talk. One is rooted in hope and knowledge of God and one fails to realize God is in the mess at all. One looks up in reverence and one looks down in despair.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.

2 Corinthians 7:10-11

Identifying the falsehood, the idea that sets itself up against Christ, means repenting, and at the very least, being humble enough to understand we need help to change our ways of thinking. We must see and declare our need for God’s truth before we can challenge the lie any further. Humility comes before any further transformation.

Challenge What is Against the Knowledge of God

Then, we must purge the false thought, the idea that does not align with truth as God defines it. We must “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” Any thought rooted in self-pity sets itself up against the knowledge of God by focusing on what is wrong with us rather than allowing our weaknesses to be an access point for God’s grace. Negative self-talk misses the grace of God by allowing a bitter root to grow in us, towards ourselves.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrews 12:15

In the same way, a prideful and puffed-up heart is just as dangerous. We still fail to see God’s grace because pride asserts that we don’t need it in the first place. Untruthful self-talk can also take the form of telling ourselves that we are righteous, better than the next person, or that we don’t need help or advice. If we view ourselves in this light, I would argue that these thoughts masquerading as positivity and independence can become ironically negative very quickly. We are left to think of ourselves with a skewed perception, a false pretension of ourselves, others, and our need for God’s grace.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

Romans 12:3

We must see the grace of God in order to have the ability to demolish these pretensions. How do these thoughts just go away? How do we, as humans incapable of healing ourselves, demolish thoughts that have become our own false truth for so long?

“We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Every and any thought that sets itself against the knowledge of God is not a thought worth retaining. But this idea of “taking captive” the philosophies against Christ is an intense one. It reminds believers of another hard truth to accept—we are in spiritual warfare. If we really evaluate the intensity of this word—captives—then we also understand that there is an enemy, an enemy whose native tongue is deceit, who wages war against our souls. Captives are those who are arrested in battle, enemies that must be retained, reprimanded, questioned, punished, or even killed. This is the same word to describe our thoughts, any thought, that is not on Christ’s side. They are prisoners of war and we must not take this lightly. Even the most innocent falsehood, if left unchecked, can become a stronghold that Paul talks about immediately before the challenge to take captive every thought.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.

2 Corinthians 10:3-4

We must confront untruthful self-talk with the weapon we have been given, the weapon that wields more power than we can comprehend. We confront the lies, we demolish the strongholds, we fight back with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Just as the serpent posed the question to Eve in the garden, “did God really say…?”, we take these words and ask the same thing to our untruthful internal monologues.

I am a burden. I am too messed up to be redeemed. Did God really say…? God is not really that good. God needs me to be perfect. Did God really say…? My past is too dark to heal from. My future is unknown and I need control over it. Did God really say…? I can make it on my own. My timing and will are far more superior to waiting on God’s. Did God really say…?

Our erroneous thinking must come face-to-face with the absolute truth and be evaluated by means of God’s words alone. We challenge untruthful self-talk by asking, “is this of God?”, “does this line up with God’s word?”, and “did God really say…?”. It is our weapon in fighting against lies of every kind.

Meditation as a Weapon

And now, we must replace this negative self-talk with a durable, truthful argument by making God’s words our own. Meditation, meaning to speak or mutter (contrary to the secular perception of meditation as a criss-cross, new-age practice), is a large part of God’s design for perseverance and preservation of his people. He intends for us to meditate on his law “day and night” so that we may remember his faithfulness and have an ignited hope for the days to come.

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.

Psalm 1: 1-2

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Joshua 1:8

Countless other scriptures speak to the joy that meditation, the murmuring or speaking of God’s law to self, induces. This is truthful self-talk in action, fighting the flaming arrows of the enemy’s deceit. Speaking this truth aloud and intentionally to self is one method in handling the word in a proper way, a practical guide to remaining rooted in God and his talk towards us.

In all honesty, we are already meditating on something, whether it is truth or not. Just examine your raw, unfiltered feelings. Emotions are a tell-tale sign of where your heart is headed or where it already resides. And more often than not, when it does not yield the fruit of the Spirit, it is set up against the knowledge of God. The arguments in our heads, supported by convincing feelings, have the power to draw us away from trusting God and believing in his good character. Just look at the forbidden fruit, the bite personifying mistrust in a God who never forsook his people. Or consider David’s wandering eyes, a lustful heart that asserted that God’s plan was not satisfying enough. Think back to Sarah’s cynical laughter, an audible manifestation of an attitude that resorted to the world’s natural order rather than God’s promises. All of these started with a seed of thought, an inkling of an argument set up against God’s truth. The awe-inspiring part of these narratives is that God still remains unwavering in who he is, even when his character as a trustworthy, faithful God is put into question by his own people. But in these stories, God’s people are distracted with anxiety, with depression, with unbelieving hearts, because they are focused on muttering their perspectives as opposed to trusting God’s. Eve’s confusion whispers that God is withholding good. David’s discontentment murmurs that having Bathsheba is worth defying God’s law. Sarah’s sadness gives birth to doubtful hysterics. All of these meditations show the danger of straying from God’s promises and lovely law.

This holds true today, too. Our own untruthful self-talk, the meditation on falsehoods, is rooted in a heart that lacks faith in God.

For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Luke 6:45

At the center of untruthful self-talk is the failure to trust God. The state of our world’s injustices hardens our hearts and causes us to forget that God will bring his perfect justice soon. Dissatisfaction with a job or marital status or geographical location entices us to wonder if God knows what he is doing or if he really cares where we end up. An addiction that is too hard to shake, the devastating loss of a loved one, the incurable pain of physical suffering, a mind captivated with relentless sorrow or worry—these all cultivate a lack of trust in God’s good plan and his character. When things are out of our control, we begin to mutter to ourselves:

How can a good God let this go on? Is God even seeing this; is he seeing me? Where is God now? Is he withholding from me? Does God want the best for me? Am I good enough for his calling? Is it worth it? Are his words true?

At the heart of meditation, though, is the reminder to continue trusting, to continue believing, in God. Thoughts that set themselves up against the knowledge of God do not know the life-giving peace that is offered in the midst of the battlefield of the mind. The warzone is in our mind, so it is no wonder that peace is hard to come by. These tactical thoughts that the enemy uses to cause dissension between God and us are meant to be challenged and fought against with the strength of God’s truth.

Know God’s promises and who he is. Ask him to reveal himself to you, to increase your faith, to open your eyes. Pursue truth by reading his word and the words of other God-fearing authors. Make time and space to hear his voice. Surround yourself with people who seek out God, too. Relentlessly chase after the heart of God as a justified sinner. Then when the storms of untruthful self-talk or battles of doubt inevitably come, disrupting your peace, false thoughts can be challenged and replaced with spiritual reality, rooted in Christ. To battle untruthful self-talk is to battle unbelief, to battle unbelief is to battle sin, and to battle sin is to destroy the strongholds of arguments against truth. We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ by speaking to ourselves words that are worthy to be repeated and meditated on. In this way, we give glory to God and allow the Spirit to work in powerful, transformative ways.

A Renewed Mind

God’s word, with the Spirit’s hand, accomplishes many things—many wondrous fruits that I can’t sum up in a few paragraphs—but one that I would like to emphasize is the renewal of our minds.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Romans 12:2

The more we filter our thoughts through the truth of God, the more we are transformed and renewed. Truthful self-talk goes from an intentional fight for belief to a transformative new way of thinking, by the Spirit’s power alone. This transformation is not just conditioning of the mind, though. At first, when I read this scripture, I believed that this renewal was just another outcome of conditioning self to believe a new monologue. Of course we are transformed to believe this if we tell ourselves enough times; isn’t that just classic psychology 101? But transformation in this context goes beyond a new way of thinking. It returns us to our originally intended state of being. It allows us to see the radiating glory of God, the surpassing worth of his truth, and become light, too. We are conformed to the image of God, and psychological theories and practices cannot attain this level of transfiguration. Only the working power of the Spirit can accomplish such renewal and freedom.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:18

Speaking the words of God to ourselves simply, but powerfully, reminds us of the truth that we must saturate ourselves in. Declare to yourself the word of God, muse on the value and power of his word, ponder its implications and the place it has in your life. Speak words that are full of truth because it is full of God. Experience the renewal, though it may not always come right away, and revel in the mystery of God’s good will to sanctify his people through his truth. In this way, truthful self-talk becomes positive self-talk, words that humble us and bring all glory to God.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:14

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