There was a family in the first church I pastored — father, mother, three kids about 8 to 15. One day at a meal in their dining room, they told me about Green Trees. They pointed to a large painting on the wall which was of a serene New England landscape. They had had a number of family meetings under that painting, where conflicts and hurt feelings were discussed and resolved. The hopeful spring forest in the painting became something they made into their family rallying point. If there was tension between siblings or with mom and dad, somebody would say “Green Trees,” and everybody would smile. I actually witnessed them doing this, far from the painting in their dining room.
It’s never seemed quite that simple in our household. I guess Green Trees is more believable in Massachusetts than in the desert that is Southern California. The closest thing we had in our home to a theme painting was the colorful Haitian bowl-of-fruit in our kitchen, and I remember times when I thought saying “Haitian Fruit” might be my best strategy. Saying what was on my mind would be hurtful, and saying nothing would be just as bad.
Reflecting on this led me to the question of how much we can or should control our thoughts and feelings. It’s not a simple thing. Denying that we have these negative impulses can be very hurtful to ourselves dangerous depression) and to others (hypocrisy and distance). But spilling our every thought and feeling can create an emotional avalanche and make things much worse.
In the 1950s Dr. Norman Vincent Peale made popular the phrase “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Many current TV evangelists have built their careers on this simplistic notion, offering their own Green Trees magic wands to troubled listeners. While we need to call them out when they misuse this technique in a way that is closer to a carnival pitch than to the Gospel, we ought to remind ourselves that there are many Biblical texts that make it clear that we have some choice in how we think and feel. Here are a few for your consideration:
Jesus taught — “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Jesus rebuked Peter with the famous words — “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Paul also talked about our power to set our mind — “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5)
“Brothers and sisters, . . . many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; . . . their minds are set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:17-20)
Paul also implied we have the power to — “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
He goes so far as to say — “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)
Here’s his advice about how to begin this process of change — “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)
“Seek”: that means focus your attention on the spiritual channel.
“Set your minds on”: Focusing your attention is not enough. You need to acknowledge your awareness of the many distractions around you and make a conscious choice to set your mind. There are many other interesting distractions, but you’re choosing this channel!
Harder than Green Trees, but much more effective.
— Pastor George Van Alstine