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Tag: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The Mind Set Free

guest post

Guest Post by Merle Hertzler who blogs at The Mind Set Free

If you search for my site, The Mind Set Free, you are likely to first find a book and sermon by Jimmy Evans, A Mind Set Free. Evans promises mental freedom. Yet he relies on the theme verse, “Casting down arguments, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” That does not sound like mental freedom to me. That sounds like mental captivity.

By contrast, when I speak of the mind set free, I am encouraging intellectual freedom, which is the freedom to explore ideas that differ from your religious background or cultural demands. Evans, however, asks people to commit that they will listen only to that which is consistent with what he calls The Word of God. He asks people to consciously block out ideas that differ from the Word of God. That is mental captivity.

The Place of the Skull

He explains why he thinks they crucified Jesus at a location called The Place of the Skull. It turns out God chose this place, Evans tells us, because God wanted to show the inherent corruption of natural thoughts inside our skulls. How does Evans know this is the reason for the selection of this site for the crucifixion? He doesn’t know this. But it makes for a good story. And so, he tells it as truth, not merely as one possible explanation. We hear that Jesus died in the place of the skull so he could let us know he wanted control of what happens in the skull. Really? That explanation sounds contrived.

I know how this works. Years ago, I regularly taught Sunday School. One can simply make up an explanation that sounds feasible, and so that is what it is. There is no need to question it or say this is just one interpretation. We found an explanation, so that’s how it is. Onward.

We hear that the devil and others are corrupting our thoughts in our skulls. What is his solution? He asks us to cast those thoughts out. We cannot allow ourselves to listen to anything that differs from The Word of God, which is, of course, his name for the Bible.

Why listen to The Word of God? He explains that the words in the Bible are so powerful, that they even brought into existence the very matter that forms the pulpit from which he is preaching. That is quite a stretch. First, nobody knows how the universe came into existence, but most likely the ultimate cause of the universe did not even have a mind. But even if the ultimate source of the universe had a mind, and we choose to call that mind God, we are still a long way from proving that this cause revealed himself in the ancient Hebrew scriptures and that the Bible contains his words. But even if that book contains God’s words, those words wouldn’t be the same words that created the atoms that made up his pulpit. Nevertheless, Evans somehow equates the words of the Bible with words that created all the matter we see. So, listen up!

He tells us to force ourselves to live by these words that he finds so powerful. “Every thought that comes into my mind,” he argues, “I need to point a spear under its neck and say ‘You are going to listen to what Jesus has to say’…Any thought that does not agree with the Word of God, I take it out.”

A lot of thoughts pass through my mind each day. Even if I wanted to avoid thinking them, how would I prevent my mind from thinking about these things? I don’t even know what my next thought will be. How can I prevent it from being one that opposes the Bible? He proposes that we block out those thoughts through biblical meditation.

Biblical meditation, as he defines it, is quite different from Eastern meditation, which is a process by which one empties the conscious thought stream while observing the thoughts that enter the mind outside of the normal stream of conscious thought. Some find that emptying the conscious mind this way is an effective method to see what is really going on inside the mind outside the clamor of everyday life. Others use relaxing vacations to do the same thing. The whole idea is to give the mind a little freedom to generate its own thoughts.

But biblical medication, as he proposes it, is the opposite of emptying the mind to give it freedom. Instead, he argues for purposely filling one’s mind with a particular set of thoughts. He asks us to force these thoughts from The Word of God into our consciousness night and day, constantly ruminating on them, constantly forcing the consciousness to dwell on the desired thoughts. We overcome atheist thoughts, he says, by forcing the correct thoughts–the thoughts that supposedly created atoms–into our minds.

To illustrate this, he tells us that, if we are told we should not think about a yellow elephant, we would find it hard to keep thoughts of yellow elephants out of our minds by sheer willpower. But if, instead, we force ourselves to think about purple lizards, then we won’t be thinking about yellow elephants. And so, he tells us, if we constantly think about the Bible (or purple lizards), then we won’t be able to think about atheist books (or yellow elephants).

The whole idea of trying to suppress certain thoughts often has paradoxical results. In psychology, Ironic Process Theory suggests that trying to suppress thoughts actually makes them stronger. In a famous experiment, Daniel Wegner found that subjects who tried not to think of white bears later found themselves thinking of white bears even more. In another experiment subjects listening to a story on a tape were divided into three groups that were each instructed either to a) deliberately not think about the tape, b) think about anything at all, or c) think about anything including the tape during the time the tape played. After the story finished, those who had been asked not to think about the story were more likely to talk about the story compared with those in the other groups. Similarly, another experiment found that subjects with a spider phobia, who were told not to think about spiders for five minutes, found themselves more likely to speak about spiders after that period was over. In yet another experiment, subjects with chronic low back pain were asked to play a computer game against a harassing opponent. Some subjects were told to suppress feelings of anger during the game. Those subjects who were told to suppress feelings of anger were later more angry and more aware of their chronic back pain after the game was over.

All these experiments show it is not easy to suppress thoughts and feelings. Attempts to do so can have paradoxical effects. The suppressed thoughts often later rebound to become very strong. The person who is going to continually suppress thoughts against his religion and force himself to think only thoughts in line with his beliefs can find himself needing ever larger efforts to keep the unwanted thoughts out. The result is not mental freedom. It is mental captivity.

When we hear new ideas, and our minds are interested, then it is fine to listen. That is what I refer to as the mind set free. It is simply observing that some new way of viewing the world has stimulated our thinking and then taking the time to understand and analyze that new view. If we find the new thoughts helpful, we can incorporate them into our worldview. If we find the new ideas worthless, we now understand why we don’t want to pursue those ideas further. If the ideas come up again, we know immediately why we rejected them before. No need to pursue them further. We already thought it through. Those thoughts already had their day in court. We move on. That is true mental freedom.

But Evans apparently would not have us take time to understand opposing thoughts coming from the world. He tells us instead to take those thoughts out. When the atheist speaks, we should apparently metaphorically clap our hands over our ears and shout the thought down: “I don’t hear you! I don’t hear you! Thus saith the Lord . . . Be gone, yellow elephant. Purple lizards, purple lizards, I am thinking of purple lizards. I don’t see no yellow elephant!”

That is not mental freedom. It is mental captivity.


One thought stream he tells us to avoid is thoughts of low self-esteem. I agree that self-esteem issues can lead to depression and anxiety, so yes, it is important to have healthy self-esteem. The combination of our biology and previous experiences can sometimes lead many of us into dangerously negative self-thoughts. That is a real problem. To overcome this, Evans resorts again to his self-brainwashing technique, in which one overflows the mind with thoughts he considers proper such that the negative thoughts don’t even have a chance.

With his technique, we endlessly concentrate on The Word of God. One verse he suggests is Psalm 139:14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” So, if you are feeling down, just keep repeating this verse? I can tell you from experience this does not work for me. Constantly repeating a verse that tells me what to think does not overcome what the mind wants to think.

Yes, we are wonderfully made. Any biology book will tell you the amazing details of human biology. And many books talk about the marvelous things that we can do. But, of course, our biology is also deeply flawed, leaving us susceptible to diseases and unnecessary limitations, and our inner selves can also be flawed. But still, the overall being is good. And so, we can find many reasons to view ourselves as something worthy of value and respect. If we understand those reasons, we can truly feel good about ourselves, while balancing this positive view with realistic knowledge of our limitations. Such understanding is far more fruitful than repeating that an ancient book says I am wonderfully made. We overcome low self-esteem by understanding what it means to be good as a human. We cannot overcome it by drowning out reason with a steady stream of preferred thoughts.

Evans turns to another verse to build our self-esteem: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Here we have a statement that is simply false. You cannot do all things, even if Christ strengthens you. You are human. You have human weaknesses. You are limited. Endlessly repeating that we can do all things is simply brainwashing ourselves to believe something that is not true. If you truly force yourself to believe that you can do all things through Christ, then you have an unrealistically high view of yourself, a view that others who see you can easily interpret as hubris.

If your solution to negative self-thinking is unrealistically positive I-can-do-all-things thinking, it is no wonder that such positive thoughts don’t do well at crowding out the negative. Eventually, those suppressed negative thoughts push their way to the forefront of consciousness. It is better to instead understand the many facts about the whole self that are both realistic and positive.

In the popular secular treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, patients learn about negative thoughts that distort reality, such as, “People always focus attention on me, especially when I fail.”  “Only my failures matter. I am measured by my failures,” and I am responsible for every failure and every bad thing that happens.” These are distortions of reality. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one learns to identify these distortions that cloud the thinking and to view things more positively based on realistic assertions. Such therapy is far different from the therapy that simply brainwashes one’s self into thinking one set of thoughts that is not exactly true in the real world.

Evans tells us that it is the devil that is telling us to have low self-esteem. One wonders then why the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “We are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil,” and why John Calvin taught that self-love was a noxious pest. Were these people doing the work of the devil? Faced with the facts, Christians simply abandoned the historical Christian teaching on self-esteem, and conveniently found that thoughts that promote self-esteem were in their Bible all along. But the positive thoughts they find in the Bible are often far from reality.


Evans turns next to a discussion of sexual desire. He tells us that, when he was young, sexual thoughts overwhelmed him. He doesn’t tell us if his desires were for men or women, and I don’t care. Sexual thoughts are totally normal in young people. I have no problem with a person having and enjoying thoughts of sexual arousal, provided one doesn’t then behave and talk in ways that are inappropriate.

How did Evans conquer his lusts? “I began to meditate on scripture,” he tells us. “I got set free that quick,” he says with a snap of his fingers, “It didn’t take two seconds.”

Somehow, I don’t believe it was that simple. If sexual thoughts come to my mind, then no, constantly repeating “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28) does nothing to help me. Instead, I could simply acknowledge the thoughts and find ways to act morally and respectfully in the situation. If the drive becomes strong, there are ways for people to later relieve the urges in the privacy of one’s bedroom or with a consensual adult partner. But if one insists on removing the thoughts through self-brainwashing alone, then I doubt this will do the trick in two seconds as claimed. When faced with sexual desires, endlessly repeating Bible verses until the thought goes away only induces guilt without addressing the thoughts. Such attempts at mental freedom do not work.

Suppressing sexual desires can have all the familiar paradoxical effects of suppressing any thoughts. The suppression can lead to the thoughts becoming stronger. By contrast, understanding, accepting, and dealing rationally with desires can break the power of those thoughts.

Bruce Gerencser has documented countless times that members of the clergy have been charged with Black Collar Crimes, often involving sex. No doubt many of these people knew verses about sexual purity, preached them, and thought about the verses often. But in the end, somehow the urges allegedly drove these people to immoral activity. Endless meditation on commands does not end the desires. Understanding the desires and appropriate responses is far better.


Evans promises that his technique of metaphorically shouting down every idea that differs from the Bible is guaranteed to free you from fear, anxiety, depression, and lust, and that any Christian who does not know such verses is bound for defeat. He is simply wrong. Ask any good psychologist. There is simply no evidence that forcing yourself to think about how Jesus does not want you to fear, become discouraged, or lust will solve your problems. There are plenty of other good psychological options.

If you agree with Evans’ technique of closing your mind to every idea that differs from the Bible, it is doubtful that you have read this whole post. The words written here are specifically words he probably wants you to avoid. It is your choice. If you want to allow only those thoughts that say the Bible is God’s word, that say you can do all things through Christ, and that condemns any thought of sexual fulfillment outside of strict biblical norms, be my guest. But please, do not call that a mind set free. It is not. It is a mind held captive.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser