One Saturday night our house was assaulted by an odor so indescribably noxious we had to evacuate. We figured it was a gas leak and called both the gas company and the fire department. As it turned out, a skunk had gotten very close to our house.
I made a few phone calls, but no exterminator would come to look for a skunk, so we figured the problem would go away on its own. Most of the odor faded away, and what lingered we got used to. It didn’t bother us — until a visitor would enter and say, “It smells like a skunk around here.”
A week later I was on the road when my family called to say the skunk had struck again. I had to find someone who specialized in the ways of the skunk — a “skunk whisperer.” The man discovered that we had two live skunks and one dead one permanently residing in the crawl space under our house. It cost a lot to get the skunks removed. But it was worth it.
You cannot get rid of the skunk odor without getting rid of the skunk.
Our sense of smell has a unique power to evoke emotion, and in our inner lives, our feelings are like aromas. Our positive feelings — joy, pleasure, gratitude — thrill us like the scent of freshly baked bread. Negative feelings — sadness, worry, anger — can make us want to evacuate our lives. When they hit, your mood dips, you lose energy, God seems distant, prayer seems pointless, sin looks tempting, and life looks bleak.
But our feelings never descend on us at random. As a general rule, our emotions flow out of our thoughts. Discouraged people tend to think discouraging thoughts. Worried people tend to think anxious thoughts. These thoughts become so automatic that, like the lingering skunk odor, after a while we don’t even notice we are thinking them. We get used to what is sometimes called “stinking thinking.”
This can happen to anyone. The prophet Elijah had reached a high point of his life when he defeated the prophets of Baal. Then one event — the opposition of Jezebel — plunged him into fear. Look at his thoughts: he felt worthless (“I am no better than my ancestors”), hopeless (“he ran for his life”), isolated (“I am the only one left”), and unable to cope (“I have had enough”). He actually wanted to die (“Take my life, LORD”).
But God is the great healer. He had Elijah take a nap and eat a snack, then he did a little divine cognitive therapy to replace each of these life-killing thoughts. He gave Elijah an epiphany (“the Lord is about to pass by”), filled his future with hope because God would accompany him (“go back the way you came”), revealed that he was not isolated (“yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel”), and infused his life full of meaning because God had a mission for him.
Elijah thought his problem was Jezebel, but there will always be a Jezebel in our lives. The real challenge is between our ears.
The way we live will inevitably be a reflection of the way we think. True change always begins in our mind. The good news is that if God can change Elijah’s thinking, he can change ours. What makes people the way they are — what makes you you — is mainly the way they think.
John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
We have just completed a Bible study based on John Ortberg’s book, The Me I Want to Be. It consists of 7 lessons with ready-to-use questions suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.