Black & White Thinking in Anger

Here is Part 9 in the Black & White Thinking Series.  Please click on the respective links for Parts 1-8:  Part 1 (Introduction), Introduction (Part 2)Part 2 (Biblical Lens),  Part 3 (Grace),  Part 4 (Mental Illness), Part 5 (Depression), Part 6 (Anxiety), Part 7 (Pride), and Part 8 (Christian).

angry-dude

“You’re always doing that!”  “You never (fill in the blank)!”  “That stupid, #@!*%!”  You probably don’t have to look too far in the distant past (perhaps minutes!) to think about the last time you’ve been angry.  Anger is a universal emotion that all of us feel at different times, some more often than others.  Anger is an emotional reaction or response to situations or circumstances that we find are unfair, unjust, or simply wrong.  Being created in God’s image means that we will experience the emotion of anger as He does, though admittedly, our anger is often tainted by our sin and not as righteous as His.  Throughout the Old Testament, God’s anger and wrath is poured out on humanity for sins against Him and against others.  In the New Testament, we see God’s anger and wrath poured out on His Son for our sins.

There are several themes of anger that are fairly consistent with the Black & White Thinking.  These themes include 1) being right vs. wrong (meeting a standard), and the 2) difficulty of reconciliation.

BEING RIGHT vs WRONG (meeting a standard or expectation)

There are two points that are worth mentioning about rightness and wrongness that are reasons Black & White Thinkers can become angry: 1) What is right and 2) The need to be right.

  1. First, anger typically occurs when something happens that we know is not right. Since we are created in God’s image, we essentially are created to become angry at sin (wrong).  If you learn of sexual or physical abuse to children, do you become angry at the perpetrator?  Of course you do.  It is how we are made.  Ultimately, we ought to be angry at sin and evil and at all the things with which God is angry.  Yet, since sin entered the world, our anger has not been totally aligned with God’s anger. Instead of being angry at sin, we are more prone to welcome sin into our lives, and our anger shifts from being angry at the breaking of God’s law (sin) to the breaking of our own laws (expectations or standards).

We don’t need to look much further about anger than the story of Jonah, who, after running from God, finally relented and preached to the Ninevites to repent and turn to God.  After he delivered this message of repentance, he waited, hoping that God would wipe them off the face of the earth.  And when God didn’t give the Ninevites what they deserved, Jonah became so angry, he even wished death upon himself. Jonah was angry at God because God did not meet Jonah’s standard/expectation/law.  God SHOULD have wiped them out, because it’s what they deserved, but He didn’t.

Our anger is not much different than Jonah’s.  We get angry at ourselves because we did not meet our standards for ourselves.  We get angry with others because they did not meet our standards and expectations.  We get angry at God because He did not respond the way we think He should have (BTW, the word “should” is a buzzword to let us know that we have a standard or expectation).  Just this morning I got angry at a driver at my sons’ school for parking in the dropoff lane.  Why?  Because that’s the dropoff lane.  That’s the rule!  And he was breaking it, causing a backup of multiple vehicles waiting for him to follow the rules.  He should have known better!  He should have been more considerate of others!  You get the idea.

So, our anger has shifted from God’s law being broken (sin) to our own laws (standards/expectations) being broken, and when that happens, others deserve our wrath.  Or perhaps, these laws are not our own laws, per se, but societal laws (driving laws, etc.) or even unwritten laws (you have to wait in line with all the other cars when merging from 2 lanes to one).  In all cases, we feel justified because they did wrong according to the laws, and since we believe we are in the right, they are all “idiots.”  And, of course, being in the right can certainly feed self-righteousness.

2. When pride enters the picture (which it does for all of us), the need to be right in our own eyes and in the eyes of others often gains momentum.  Black & White Thinkers think more Right and Wrong or Good & Bad, and when pride reigns in the heart, admitting wrong is equivalent to being bad.  Some Black & White Thinkers feel the need to be right and find their esteem in being right.  When being right becomes more important than anything else, anger is often used to keep others quiet so as to remain under the illusion that they are right.  Anger, then, is used more as a control tactic to silence others and remain in the right…often by being wrong.

DIFFICULTY WITH RECONCILIATION

Anger is typically resolved when there is a good process of reconciliation.  Reconciliation often occurs when there is an acknowledgement of wrong, a seeking forgiveness (which often comes from brokenness for hurting the other person), and then followed by a change in behavior that comes from the brokenness. Reconciliation also occurs when forgiveness is granted combined with the willingness to move forward and work on trust. Granting forgiveness for past hurts may be difficult for some Black & White Thinkers since forgiveness is not a concrete concept to grasp, and to grant forgiveness would seem to “go against” the works related theme, “you get what you deserve” (as opposed to the grace related theme, ‘you don’t get what you deserve’).  Since the other person doesn’t deserve forgiveness and hasn’t earned it, forgiveness will not be granted, and anger can resume.   Individuals who hold to this belief do not grasp that forgiveness can never be earned, but is freely given; nor is it for the other person, but is actually for God (and us!).  Just as we will never deserve God’s forgiveness, others will not deserve ours.  But as we forgive as God has forgiven us, we are released from our anger and freed from resentment.  At minimum, the Black & White Thinker’s form of forgiveness may simply be to just not think about it anymore, but this falls short of actual reconciliation as discussed above, which involves the emotions of hurt, brokenness, and love.  When these emotions are not worked through, anger can remain the dominant emotion.

Is acknowledging wrong and apologizing enough to reconcile and move forward?  For some, yes, because apologizing is a tangible action (words) and corrective actions may be taken to show the other person change. Some may not find a need to apologize, but simply to recognize where they may have been “mistaken,” correct the mistakes, and move forward.  This seems more like a “taking responsibility for actions” type of response (though ‘mistaken’ is not admitting wrong), yet it certainly falls short of “taking responsibility for the relationship” type of response. Some Black & White Thinkers don’t recognize that apologies help heal any brokenness that exists in the relationship.  And some more severe Black & White Thinkers have an extremely hard time even being broken over their sin as they cannot empathize with those they hurt.  This is because these emotions have not been felt themselves for a very long time because they are uncomfortable and painful.

Some additional reasons for anger in the Black & White Thinker include situations perceived as being unfair, anger masking depression, or anger being used as a defense mechanism to protect oneself against hurt.  Protecting against being hurt is learned early in life, and some say causes Black & White Thinking.  Though I won’t say it is a cause, it can certainly be a heavy influence leading Black & White Thinking to increase, and thinking Relationally to decrease.

Anger is a universal emotion that we all experience.  Just as has previously been written in anxiety and depression, Black & White Thinking can certainly be present in anger as well. If you see this thinking in your anger, think some more about the situation.  When does it happen?  What laws/rules are being broken? What expectations do you have?  Then look at your own heart and how you have not met God’s expectations either and are deserving of the same anger (times infinity) you have towards others.  Yet in His love and grace, His anger was poured out on His Son instead of you.  Other people may be wrong, but so have I been wrong…many times.  Thank God for His grace and love on undeserving people like us.

The Black & White Thinking Christian

Here’s Part 8 of the Black & White Thinking Series.  I would encourage you, at minimum, to read Part 1 (Introduction), Introduction (Part 2)Part 2 (Biblical Lens), and Part 3 (Grace) before reading this blog.  Part 4 (Mental Illness), Part 5 (Depression), Part 6 (Anxiety), and Part 7 (Pride) can be read by clicking the appropriate links.

black-and-white-puzzle-profileWhether in the counseling office, at church, or at home, all of us either know a person who thinks more Black & White, or we are one.  Christians are as different from one another as the rest of the world are from each other.  Our shared beliefs in Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, & our trust in His Word unite us together to live out our faith together at a local church.  Yet, how we live out our faith can be very different than the next person.  How we interpret Scriptures, perceive events, and treat our fellow Christians will partly depend on whether our thinking is more Black & White or Relational.  This particular Blog is more about how the Black & White Thinker lives out their faith.

As stated in previous blogs, Black & White Thinkers often focus more on the fruit (the actions & behaviors) than they do the heart (motives, desires), although the heart is certainly acknowledged. Typically, in the heart of the Black & White Thinking Christian, the motives tend to be more focused on the importance of obedience to the Word / Law (you can also exchange “law” for expectation or standard) and living a life that demonstrates this.  If you are not obedient, which is right, you are disobedient, which is wrong.  And if you are wrong, consequences are deserved.  And basically, this would be correct.  The Black & White Thinking Christian emphasizes obedience in his or her Christianity, yet may have more difficulty feeling or understanding the relational component that is also important in the Christian faith.  While some acknowledge that Christianity is not about religion, but a relationship, the relationship is often lived out by works, which may tend to lean toward religion.

“I’m a Christian.  I believe all Jesus did for me.  Now, just tell me what to do and I will do it.”  Devotions and service, for example, stem from the desire to be a good (not bad) Christian. Relational individuals will focus more on God’s love for them and their love for God as motivation for doing something for Him, and may tend to de-emphasize the obedience to God.  Black & White Thinking Christians tend to focus more on obedience to God and have difficulty with less concrete things such as the feelings and emotions of faith.  According to Jesus’ words in John (14:15, 23), “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” or “obey me.”  This verse captures the love of a Black & White Thinking Christian towards God…it is demonstrated mostly through obedience.

One of the main concerns of Black & White Thinking Christians in the church and in family life is that grace becomes a license for people to sin and do what they want (see Romans 6:1-2) . This is one of the reasons grace is a difficult concept for many.  If you give grace (a relational concept) to others, then others will take advantage, they won’t learn, and they will be more disobedient.  If fellow Christians live by grace (as opposed to obedience), they will not act regularly according to His Word.  Since obedience is such an important dimension of faith, grace seems to stand in contradiction to obedience.  What the Black & White Thinking Christian needs to comprehend on a greater level is that while remaining true to being obedient to God, it is God’s grace that empowers such obedience. If you haven’t already, please read the Blog on Grace & the Black & White Thinker for more on this…

While recognizing that overemphasizing grace (some call it cheapening grace) and overemphasizing obedience (religion) is a danger to our faith, Black & White Thinking Christians ought to be cautious of not judging others by the standards of obedience. Obedience is certainly important in the life of a believer, but it is not the standard by which others are measured (as good/real or bad/fake Christians).  Christ’s obedience on the cross is the measure of obedience necessary for us to be considered righteous by faith.

One additional caution for Black & White Thinking Christians is to recognize that relationship is just as necessary as obedience.  This relationship between God and us was made possible only through God’s love and grace (“We love because God first loved us” – 1 Jn 4:19), and was never made possible through our own actions.  We will never be able to earn God’s favor, love, or attention through our works.  Therefore, all of us, Relational and Black & White Thinking Christians alike, need to remember to focus specifically on Him and His love and Grace through the cross, and not focus on our own or other people’s works.  Our treatment of others must reflect our relationship with God through Christ, based on His grace and mercy to us, and not on whether others are obedient or not (good or bad Christians).

Finally, I would also argue that paying attention to the vertical relationship with God through Christ will help us to be able to acknowledge our own blindness.  Often, while focusing on obedience to certain standards, we can be blinded to the relational commands in Scripture.  For example, we may speak truth to those who are disobedient,  but we are often blinded to the fact that in speaking truth, we do not speak it “in love” (Eph 4:15). When speaking the truth overshadows the “in love” part, the truth spoken ceases to carry any weight of the Truth (with a capital “T”).

Black & White Thinking Christians are very important to the Body of Christ.  Although I’ve mentioned some weaknesses and cautions, let me share one significant strength as well. The Black & White Thinking Christian’s passion to stand for the Truth and the Word of God is exemplary, and often guides and challenges others around them (hopefully in a good way). Though personal feelings may heavily influence interpretation of a Relational person, feelings are typically submissive to the Truth with Christian Black & White Thinkers. Any feelings that are present are more of a response to Truth (or of other people’s not believing the Truth) than an actual guide for discovering or learning Truth. Without this anchor to the Truth, the Christian faith can easily become watered down if we gave in to the demands of “feel good” culture or even the fears of our hearts.  If we cannot stand with the Truth, we will fall with this world.

There is so much more that can be said of Black & White Thinking Christians that has not been said in this blog.  Hopefully, in reading the series, additional insights can be gleaned throughout that can bring some clarity to our differences in our world views.  My hope is to one day put all this together into a resource for many…

(Note: The Black & White Series is based on observations and conversations with many individuals in the counseling office and beyond, and includes various insights into the Scriptures as well.  While not stating all that is said in these blogs are Truth, the series is meant to be a starting point for further discussion and perhaps help us to understand, love, and live out our faith and relationships better.  That being said, I would love to dialogue with you and hear your thoughts and add to the discussion and one another’s understanding.  So, in that spirit, let me ask you: What other areas do you see are different for the Black & White Thinking Christian?  What challenges or questions do you have that you can add to the discussion?  I hope to hear from you soon!)

When Black & White Thinking is Ruled by Pride

This is part 7 in the Black & White Thinking Series.  Click on these links for Part 1 (Intro), Introduction (Part 2), Part 2 (Biblical Lens), Part 3 (Grace), Part 4 (Mental Illness?), Part 5 (Depression), and Part 6 (Anxiety).

pride-comes-b4-a-fall

Let’s be honest, pride is something all of us have.  I’m not talking about pride as in “taking pride in our work” kind of pride.  No, I’m talking about the self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-focus, all about me kind of pride.  The kind of self-centeredness that all of us have inside of us, thanks to that inherited sinful nature all of us have received from Adam & Eve.

Our pride and self-centeredness manifests itself in different ways.  At times it occurs in subtle ways that nobody really notices, such as in our unspoken thoughts.  At times it can be disguised in our kindness to others, while we are doing the acts for our own benefit. Other times, it is seen and heard by others in comments, conversations, and actions.

While pride is present in everyone, all of us seem to have one or two areas that seem to be displayed more frequently than other areas.  Authors Paul Tripp & Tim Lane, in their book, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, describe many areas of pride that are present in our lives.  They are self-centeredness (seeks attention & approval), self-rule (seeks to be right, in control), self-sufficiency (seeks independence), self-satisfaction (seeks pleasure), self-righteousness (seeks to be right in eyes of others), & self-taught (seeks to give opinion). Personally, as I look at this list, I see all of them in me, though self-centeredness and self-satisfaction seem to be more prevalent in my life.

As previously mentioned in other blogs, Black & White Thinkers simplify their judgments into whatever is good/bad, black/white, or right/wrong.  When pride is present, admitting wrong is tantamount to being wrong or bad.  And if you “can’t” be wrong, than you must be right and others are wrong.  When pride reigns in the Black & White Thinker, self-righteousness and self-rule are often the two highest heart struggles on the list dealing with pride.  The need to be right and to be right in other’s eyes lends itself to making justifications, excuses, blaming, etc. for personal actions in order to convince themselves and others that they are in the right (and others in the wrong).  Truth be told, all of us do this, Relational and Black & White Thinkers alike.  However, when pride reigns in the Black & White Thinker’s heart, the justifications, blaming, and excuses are regular occurrences.  Additionally, if being “right” is considered “good” and being “wrong” is considered “bad” (heart), then the tendency to look at self as better and others as worse is demonstrated in bragging, insults, and criticisms (fruit).

Similarly, I had mentioned that Black & White Thinkers are likened to the Pharisees in Scripture who obey the “law” or standards.  That is, anyone who falls short of obeying the law deserves punishment.  The Pharisees started with God’s Law, and then added thousands of other laws on top of God’s laws so that the original laws would not be violated.  When Black & White Thinkers make their own laws or standards in their own homes and then require others to follow them, they can become controlling through criticisms and conflicts, and they may look down upon others who don’t meet their standards.  This occurs in emotionally or physically abusive relationships.  Their laws or standards are high for others, and they can’t admit to being wrong, so their actions and beliefs are justified, excused, or blame is placed elsewhere.

Of course, it is important to note that abusive relationships are more likely to occur when pride REIGNS in Black & White Thinkers, not if pride is simply PRESENT.  The presence of pride in our lives means that we are fallen humanity living in a fallen world.   The reign of pride means that we are completely absorbed in ourselves and we are moving towards what psychologists would call narcissistic.  In order to keep pride from reigning in our hearts, it is essential to recognize that we are indeed wrong (sinful) and that it is OK to be wrong. That doesn’t mean that we are to pursue wrong-doing, of course, but simply to expect it as fallen human beings.  Our wrongness, per se, does not impact our value or worth as humans, but it does help us recognize the great love Christ has for us which is not based on our wrong-doing, but on his love.  This is the path to humility.  As we recognize and believe these things, and we seek Christ, he begins to change us inwardly so that pride does not reign in our hearts.

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6, Prov 29:23)

Black & White Thinking in Depression

The following blog is Part 5 in the Black & White Thinking Series.  Click on the links for Part 1 (Introduction), Part 1b (Introduction)Part 2 (Biblical Lens), Part 3 (Grace), and Part 4 (Mental Illness?).

b_w-thinking-pic

According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.”  It is characterized by low energy or fatigue, change in appetite and sleep, low self-esteem, poor concentration or inability to make decisions, and feelings of hopelessness.  Feelings of guilt, shame, being unloved, and numb feelings can be oppressive and lead to inactivity and loneliness.  The more severe the depression is, the more likely the oppression seems to control you (thoughts, actions, mood, etc.), which means the more you feel powerless to control yourself.

Some of the writings about depression state that the depression itself causes thought patterns.  Though I am unsure as to whether depression itself causes negative thought patterns, I can certainly say that they are present in depression.  One of the common thought patterns found in depression is Black & White Thinking.

b_w-diagram-1If we take a look at the diagram on the left, we see the green ball which represents the actions or words of another, or events that take place.  The Black & White Thinker hears the words (green ball) and they are interpreted (fall all the way down the triangle) as either “all or nothing” or “black & white.”  There is no stopping the interpretation until it reaches the bottom. For example, a student who is depressed will tell herself after receiving a “B” on a test: “I failed it.  I’m stupid.”  A father who did not handle a situation well will tell himself, “I’m a lousy father.  I’m a failure.”  The event happened and the interpretation of themselves goes to one side or the other.  But a “B” certainly is not failing, but far from it! The father may not have handled a situation well, but that does not mean that he is a horrible father as he has probably done many things well!  In Black & White Thinking, the simple conclusion is that it has to be one or the other.  To conclude that a “B” is not stupid or that a good father can make poor decisions is difficult to comprehend, let alone believe.

People struggling with depression make similar conclusions about themselves.  “I am unloved.”  “No one really cares.” “I am a failure.”  “All is hopeless.” “Nothing will help me.”  When Black & White Thinking is present and its conclusions are believed, the depression gets worse.

We not only feel oppressed by our depression, but we also participate in our depression.  In other words, we not only feel it, but we do it.  We actively (or passively) engage in our depression.  We may wear dark clothes, think depressive thoughts, remain in bed, and basically obey our feelings.  At times, we may not feel as though we have a choice, even though we do.

In order to combat the Black & White Thinking in Depression (or in general), new conclusions based on a different Truth needs to be introduced.  This new Truth is not based on one’s own flawed interpretation, but it is a Truth based on God’s Word.

Take a look at the second Diagram to the right.  Here, wb_w-diagram-2e see that with the intervention of God’s Truth, the green ball does not fall to the previous Black & White conclusion, but instead falls a shorter distance.  And what are these new conclusions based on God’s Truth? Let’s go back to the examples.  In both cases, the Truth of God’s Word (based on Rom 2:8, 3:23, 8:1; Jn 3:16) is the following, “I may not have done as well as I would have liked, or maybe even failed, yet I can expect to do poorly at times as ‘All have sinned and fall short.’ But who I am is based on Christ’s actions for me, not on my own actions (grace).  Therefore,  I may have failed, but I am not a failure.  I am loved, worthwhile, blessed, cherished, and adored by Him…not because of what I have or have not done, but because of who He is.”  Or perhaps these Truths may be better for others: “I know I failed or did poorly.  My failures were taken to the cross by Jesus.  Therefore, I do not need to punish myself any further, as my punishment fell on Christ.”  When these Truths become more important than personal truths and conclusions, and when they are trusted and believed more than one’s own truths, there is progress made for those who struggle with Depression.

It sounds simple enough, yet it is difficult for someone who is depressed to think differently as they have been thinking this way for a long period of time.  At times, medication may be necessary to lift the person up to be able to challenge their own thinking successfully.  Other times, medication is not necessary at all.  It may be necessary only having accountability and a list of God’s truths available to rehearse, repeat, and challenge the Black  & White Thinking.

What are some other examples of Black & White Thinking found in Depression?  How about truths that have helped?

Black & White Thinking is not only found in Depression, but it is also found in Anxiety as well.  Next week, we will take a look at Black & White Thinking found in Anxiety Disorders and God’s Truths that will help!

Grace & the Black & White Thinker

gracechangeseverythingThis is part three of the Black & White Thinker Series.  Click for The Introduction (Part 1),  Introduction (Part 2) or Black & White Thinking Through a Biblical Lens (Part 2).

Today, I wanted to look at the most important truth that all Black & White Thinkers ought to consider, and that is the necessity for Grace.  Grace is a difficult truth to comprehend for anyone, let alone the Black & White Thinker.  Due to the intangibleness of grace, meaning that it is not in itself observable or measurable (though the effects in a person’s life are more so), it remains elusive to many who have been enslaved to the Black and White Thinking.

As I read Paul’s letters in the New Testament, I would label him as the most Influential Black & White Thinker of the Bible.  Since we see Black & White Thinking amidst the Pharisees (based on the strict adherence to the Law) and Paul labelled himself as “pharisee” (Php 3:5, Acts 23:6), it would seem that he leaned towards this type of thinking. Also, we are told of his actions (prior to conversion – as Saul) and his zealousness for the law, how he was trained in the law and supported himself by giving “consequences” for those who disobeyed the law (persecuting Christians), so we can probably conclude that he was a Black & White Thinker, but with the added passion for justice (as defined by the Pharisees).

As Saul was living by the law and persecuting the Christians, he had a life-changing experience on the Road to Damascus.  He was stopped and approached in a miraculous way by a Relational Jesus.  Jesus simply asked him this, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).  This question has profound implications for Saul.  Though he was blinded by the light, he began to see for the first time that his understanding and actions, ones that he thought were right, were actually wrong.  Not only wrong, but his thinking and subsequent actions had personally impacted Jesus Christ.  Now, Saul wasn’t a believer at this point, but after such a supernatural experience with Jesus, he certainly became one.

After considering his horrible actions and the Lord’s call for him to be an instrument for Christ, and after receiving gospel training, Saul (now named Paul) became aware of  a different law at work.  He moved from living by the law of works, to living by the law of grace.  Grace became a topic he wrote about frequently and included in his letters to the churches.  Most of Paul’s letters started with the following exhortation: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul spoke about grace regularly so that the people of God would know that “it is by grace you are saved, not by works.”  Paul’s recognition of the grace of God would move him from being a person who thinks in black and white to one who thinks more relationally through grace.  That is, our relationship with God is not one that is earned by us, but one that occurs only by the grace and mercy of God through Christ.

Now, does this mean that Paul ceased all black and white thinking?  I don’t think so entirely, but I do think the Black and White Thinking decreased significantly with the inclusion of Grace in his life.  Paul still called for strict consequences for those who sinned, but he also was willing to show grace and mercy to those who asked for forgiveness (see 1 Cor 5:11-12, Titus 3:9-11, 2 Cor 2:5-11).

If you are a Black & White Thinker longing to grow in your faith and relationships with those around you, I would strongly recommend growing in your understanding and application of grace.  One great book on Grace is called Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges. This resource will help you to see how we set up laws in our hearts for ourselves and people and how we can live by grace.  (For another blog on this, click here.)  Don’t simply read a book on grace and be done, but surround yourself with godly men or women to comprehend grace and apply it to your lives and relationships.  It was meeting Jesus and his grace that transformed Saul and set him on a new course for his life and relationships with God and others, and it is the understanding and application of grace that will transform our lives, too.