Couple days ago, Mom held out her hand to give me a paper pamphlet found in the home library. I recognized it as one of those little books the elderly carried with them in their pockets, at the old Church of Christ when I was a child, many of the pamphlets seen neatly placed in a wooden shelf at the building’s entrance. (Do churches still do that?) I was about 6 or 7 years old. I always wondered about them, since they were read almost religiously, but I wasn’t much of a reader. I liked drawing and playing with friends.
Mom told me why she recommended it now, after all this time. “Norman Vincent Peale was always an inspiration to me when I was young. Read his writing and see if you can get something out of it.” Oh well, no problem, I thought.
Peering down at the pamphlet, my eyes saw the cover. Within purple and blue stripes was the title, “Thought Conditioners, Silver Anniversary Edition” and “by Norman Vincent Peale”. The copyright, written in that old style, “MCMLI, MCMLXXV” aka Roman Numerals for 1951, 1975.
Peale outlines how by conditioning our thoughts, we can create happiness. “Since happiness and effectiveness depend upon the kind of thoughts we think, it is absolutely impossible to be happy if we think unhappiness-producing thoughts. One of the wisest men who ever lived was Marcus Aurelius, who said, ‘A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.'” Peale continues to write that by letting negative thoughts come into your mind, you will have an attitude of negativity, and by thinking fearfully, you will, as consequence, be afraid. Great ideas. But immediately my mind felt a sense of cognitive dissonance.
Norman acts like I can control the thoughts that come into my mind. Sure my mind thinks, but I can’t “put into my mind thoughts”, as he suggests. Rather, perception just happens. My thoughts respond to what I perceive: I either agree or disagree to events as they unfold. Personality is most of who we are, and we are what we are. Yes, my thoughts possibly induce fear and anxiety, even a panic attack or sweaty palms or hyperactivity, but like the commercials for antidepressants say that side effects may cause suicidal thoughts, bad events in my life cause negative thoughts, while good events caused positive thoughts. It can’t be changed…
I kept reading though, giving him the benefit of the doubt, not only because I was curious, but because I respected his age and generation. Mr. Peale was in his early 50’s when the book was first copyrighted, in 1951. He was my age in 1926. That means he suffered through the Great Depression. He witnessed World War I and II. He was alive before technology took over, and before TVs were in every home. Maybe he knew a secret I didn’t…?
I continued to read. “…if you fill your mind with spiritual words so that they sink from your conscious to your unconscious mind by a process of spiritual osmosis, you will so condition your personality with spiritual power and sensitivity that God’s will can operate in you, and every great value of this life, the ones that really matter, shall be yours.”
The wind of confidence in his tone nearly blew me over! According to him, you can change your personality by filling your thoughts with spiritual words, which of course, he as a minister, means the Holy Bible. I can’t believe that my mind sat here like a wimp trying to justify my lack of willpower, saying personalities are what they are, while he states we have the power to change our very selves, to meet the standards of God and His will!
Often I hear the argument that God’s standards are too high, too strict. Therefore He cannot exist or somehow He is less valid. For example, one modern day problem with the Bible is that homosexuality is among the sins that are practiced by people who cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, so if the Bible indeed says that then never mind, it is not a valid doctrine, it surely cannot be truth, or if it is, it’s rejectable. However, if what Mr. Peale writes is true, then our personality can be conditioned, and if our personality, then our attitude towards gender roles, our likes and dislikes, our prejudices, and eventually, are very character and the way our mind is oriented. The same goes for anyone and any sin.
Society (maybe even scientific studies) might back up my argument that personality is set in stone and we are not responsible for our mental wanderings, but the Bible backs up Mr. Peale. Romans 8 is a Bible passage explaining the human mind’s struggle, between what is spiritual and what is selfish (some versions say “fleshly”, or “sinful”). The first verse gives us hope saying “there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, but that shouldn’t fool our brains into thinking we can let our minds run like a wild mustang without a master, and Jesus cannot condemn us. For it continues to say:
“People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.” (Romans 8:5-8, CEB)
Do you notice how it says, “because it can’t”? The “I can’t change” attitude my brain has is the one beholden to selfishness. In order to submit to God you must first believe that you can.
“So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.” Romans 8:12-17, CEB
According to Romans, God the Father is the holy standard we must try to learn from, the Holy Spirit inside us is what says “Abba, Father” and gives us the will to change, and Jesus Christ is the one who makes it possible for us to do so.
It seems I was wrong and Peale was right. You can and should condition your thoughts. In order for the Spirit to dwell, He needs spiritual-thought-processes, rather than usual self-thought-processes. That means I’ll have to learn which of my thoughts are selfish, which are spiritual, and if I still feel like my thoughts are side effects to things around me rather than something that can be controlled, well, I need to figure out what I let be in my life and whether I can cut off the bad influences.
For example, my Ipad can be a tool for good or evil. I may carry it to have the Bible with me, but if I find myself using it for immoral research on things I don’t need to know – for example, I look up how to write a better love scene to improve my writing, but I shouldn’t even be thinking about that kind of intimacy much less writing it – then I may need to stop carrying it with me and instead read from a paper Bible where temptation won’t be. That will certainly condition my thoughts, even if I do get a few stares or critical comments.
In “Thought Conditioners”, Norman Vincent Peale stresses that memorizing Scripture is the key to altering your personality. Now this is something our technology-hungry-world almost doesn’t have the ability to do. I personally have trouble memorizing Scripture, especially since it is so tempting to use the ‘Search’ option on Google or look at the Bible app and compare versions. But what if someday Google doesn’t exist or the government blocks copies of Bibles? (That’s how it is in some countries.) The ability to zero in on a text and think about it repeatedly until it is able to be recalled feels like an ancient custom, but it is perhaps the highest form of intelligence to prepare the mind, if ever should calamity strike, conveniences disappear, or future events remove what we see now as everyday habits but are actually privileges capable of being destroyed by a sudden new development.
Here is a good THOUGHT CONDITIONER that Norman Vincent Peale wrote that I will share:
“‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ Romans 8:31
“Imagine yourself as actually looking at all your difficulties like an army lined up against you.
“Then realize you have a backing that can overcome them all. As you face these enemies of yours: discouragement, frustration, disappointment, hostility, weakness, ask yourself, ‘What shall I say to these things?’ And the answer is ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’
“Now spend a minute realizing that God is for you and say this affirmation, ‘God is with me. God is for me. God is greater than all these things.’
“Then visualize these enemies of your peace and happiness as retreating, giving way before God’s power.
“Personalize the text by saying: ‘If God be for me, who can be against me?’
“The repetitive use of this text will give you an enormous sense of God’s presence and a powerful feeling of victory.”
Always remember: You CAN do it!!!!
Final note: After all this time! I understood thanks to Kat, my lovely sister, why the elders passed those pamphlets around like they were the latest craze. Ha. It’s cool. Kat explained, “Back in that day, it wasn’t convenient to carry the whole Bible around, and it was easy to carry these around in the pocket of a jacket.” She took the pamphlet from me and imitated the way an old man wore a suit, pulling back her imaginary jacket and tucking it away in a refuge, next to her heart. “See, this was their way of taking Scripture or self-help writing with them, so they could think about it throughout the day.” Imagine that! They had no phone, no car radio, no laptop, no distractions other than face to face conversations with people, and oneness with nature!
Perhaps it was easier for writers in the past to condition their thoughts and fill their mind with the Spirit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible today. It just means we’ll have to do a lot less conforming, and more converting!