“I honestly think you’re overthinking it,” my wife said.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I replied, already wondering whether I was truly overthinking whatever thing I was worried about that time.
This is life in my head. Forever getting lost in some downward thought-spiral about what to do or say or think or feel.
It starts rationally, with a level-headed question about what’s best in a given situation. I’ll just weigh the pros and cons, I tell myself. But with each positive and negative I spiral down a little further. Eventually, I wear myself out mentally and either leave the decision for another day or make a decision I try not to regret (which almost never happens).
Am I terrible at making decisions? No, I don’t think so. But I am often terrible at making them at the right time.
I’m an overthinker, over-analyzer, over-processer, or whatever over- name you might assign to people who can’t seem to get out of their head long enough to enjoy the world around them. (After writing this sentence, I got stuck on whether I should change the word “overthinker” to be hyphenated so it could match the other words with the prefix “over-” in the same sentence. Alas!)
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, keep reading, because there is a way to think about your overthinking that’s helpful and, if not life-saving, at least mind-saving.
Avoid the Meat Grinder
I subscribe to the Ask Pastor John podcast, though I almost never listen to it. I do so because every now and then Pastor John (Piper) will address something unusually interesting. Such was the case one day when I saw the topic was “How do we avoid overthinking or under-thinking the Christian life?”
Piper’s analysis is helpful in thinking through (yes, I know …) if you’re overthinking something. Piper starts by recalling a C.S. Lewis lecture in which he discusses what’s lost when we analyze the world around us. Lewis’ point is that we have to step outside of a thing in order to analyze it, thereby rendering ourselves unable to truly gauge the experience or decision. Or, as Piper puts it, “We become blind in the very act of analysis.”
Does that mean we shouldn’t think about things at all? Of course not. But it’s a warning not to get lost in our heads and miss the world around us. Here, Piper contrasts logicians (people who study logic) with poets:
Logicians go crazy because they try to get the heavens into their head. But poets are mentally healthy because they try to get their heads into the heavens.
Trying to “get the heavens into our heads” is what the overthinker does. It’s like shoving our brains into a “meat grinder,” to use one of Piper’s terms.
What the Bible Says About Thinking
Next, Piper goes to the Bible to see what counsel it offers us regarding thinking. He says it “celebrates thinking,” which I would agree with, and cites these texts:
- “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
- “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
- “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Piper summarizes these texts as saying, “Be a grown up. Think clearly.”
OK, great. But that leaves us pretty much where we started. Well, thankfully there’s more.
“The second thing the Bible does is show us that thinking is not an end in itself,” says Piper. This he explains by giving us three quick expositional phrases:
- Thinking exists to serve love (1 Timothy 1:5).
- Thinking exists to serve joy (1 Peter 1:8).
- Thinking exists to serve peace of heart and mind that surpasses thinking (Philippians 4:8).
The End of Thinking
Drawing on these points, he says,
I think that the Bible never makes thinking the final goal of life. The head, where the thinking is, must do its supporting work so that the heart can do its main work and not be deceived. … The Bible helps us not fall off the cliff of over-thinking or under-thinking.
So the head, or thinking, is never meant to be an end but a means to an end. That end is to set our minds on things above.
Set your thinking not only on what is true, but on what is above. Colossians 3:2–4 says it this way: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” So be about the business of taking your minds and all your thinking and make heaven and all the realities of God in Christ the focus of your thinking.
If we want to avoid overthinking or under-thinking, we are to set our minds on Christ and what is true, as revealed in Scripture. That doesn’t mean we only think about Bible texts but that we think about everything through the Bible.
Three Suggestions for Avoiding the Meat Grinder
Piper summarizes his thoughts on thinking with three suggestions:
- The Bible commends thinking as part of being mature.
- The Bible keeps thinking in its place and a servant of joy, peace, and love. The touchstone of whether it’s doing its work is its fruit. If it’s not producing joy, peace, and love, it’s not doing its work — we’re thinking badly.
- The Bible points us away from excessive introspection and subjectivism and says, “Send your thinking again and again to truth and to Christ.”
How I’m Finding Peace of Mind
As I said, I’ve found Piper’s analysis helpful in controlling my thought patterns. Here’s how.
When I find my thoughts spiraling away from me, I ask myself, Are my thoughts resulting in love, joy, or peace of heart and mind? If not, then I know my thinking is off or has gone too far. God doesn’t want me getting lost in my mind to the neglect of his glory and my neighbors. Thinking like that is unfruitful and unhelpful. If my thinking isn’t producing fruit (love, joy, peace of mind and heart), it isn’t productive.
When I fail to do that mental exercise and wind up weary from a thought-spiral, I let that weariness remind me to set my mind on things above. To set my mind on what is true and good and beautiful. To set my mind on Christ.
The best way to do that is by memorizing Philippians 4:8-9:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Sometimes I’m able to control my thinking and submit it to Christ in a way that honors him and brings peace. Not always, but it’s happening more often.
Instead of getting lost in a downward spiral of mental exhaustion, I’m setting my mind on what is excellent and worthy of praise. When I do that, I find my mind on an upward spiral towards Christ. I hope this helps you find the same peace of mind.