I don’t have to figure it out. I don’t have to know the answer. Neither do you. At least, not always. One of the ways I have often described myself is as a “troubleshooter.” I can look at problems, find potentially more problems, assess those problems, and sometimes come up with multiple solutions for those problems. This mode of thinking has served me well over the years. In complex theological, ethical, or social issues, it has allowed me to avoid ditches, find nuance, affirm the right, deny the wrong, and sort out the shades of gray in the world we live in. This analytic mind has navigated through countless issues. It has been a significant contributing factor to who I am today and what I have accomplished. There is an immense benefit, but there is also a real danger to this ability. The danger is that it can cause a person to get stuck in a loop. The same value in being able to turn an issue around to see it in its multifaceted angles can also mean the same issue can sometimes get stuck constantly turning. Circular, repeating thoughts cause anxiety, stress, and lack of peace.I first noticed this in myself whenever I would get sick with a fever. Fever would always cause racing thoughts. These thoughts were like my mind was turbo-charged and hyperactive with nowhere to go. It would spin in circles, doing donuts in my brain like a group of teenage boys with a Camaro in a Walmart parking lot at 1 a.m. Racing thoughts aren’t just a discomfort with sickness; they are my chief discomfort. Sometimes, the thoughts were of serious things, but most of the time, they were of random, frivolous, non-sensical issues that just didn’t matter. I just wanted to sleep, not think. More than the high temperature, more than the achiness, more than the sweating, not being able to shut off my brain was the greatest discomfort in having a fever. Believe it or not, it is one of my fears regarding the dying process: aimless, incessant, constant thoughts that will not shut up.
What I realized, however, is that while sickness exacerbates the problem, even when I am perfectly well, I function in a low-level state of constantly thinking. The fever heightens and speeds up the wheels that turn until they become unhinged. While illness makes the merry-go-round spin so fast it makes the children fly out of their fake horses, my normal functioning still has the merry-go-round spinning, just at slower speeds. Perhaps it’s my everyday life that is the problem, and not the fevers when they come. If I could control my mind when healthy, find peace and rest in ordinary life, then maybe when the physical stressors come, be it physical fever or emotional grief, then perhaps even through the stressors, I could find rest. But how do you do that? How do you change your thinking about thinking?
Not every problem is a mental puzzle. Some things just are. Some things happen, and some things do not happen. We may be disappointed in them happening or not happening, but that doesn’t mean any amount of mental activity is going to change them or even change us. Some issues are like rip currents. Rip currents move water flow in such a way that it constantly sucks you back in. No matter how much you swim, how hard you paddle and kick, it will pull you back so that you get nowhere. The danger in a rip current isn’t that it draws you under; it’s that you wear yourself out to exhaustion so that you can’t keep yourself up anymore. The same solution to rip currents works for these racing thoughts; you don’t fight against the current. You swim sideways until you are out of it. Constantly trying to tackle the thought sucks you back in. Instead, acknowledge the issue and then move in a different direction. The sheer power of your body isn’t going to get you out of a rip current, and sometimes, the sheer power of your brain isn’t going to get you out of your incessant thinking.
My capacity is limited, and some things are just beyond me. I am not God. I am not omniscient. One of the reasons these thoughts get stuck rather than solved is that some of them are beyond my ability to figure out. Maybe there is a mental solution for the problem, but it doesn’t mean I have the mental capacity to figure it out. Recognizing our limits isn’t admitting to a failure or fault; it’s just acknowledging our humanity. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and even with our most significant strengths, there is often someone else in the world who is even stronger than us. What I need for these running thoughts isn’t my intelligence to figure it out but rather wisdom to let go. Intelligence, like height, is a physical attribute produced by the brain. People can cultivate intelligence, but its roots are genetic, granted at birth. While many prize themselves on their intelligence, and many parents applaud their children for how smart they are, intelligence alone shows as much about a person’s character as their genetically inherited cheekbones. That is to say, it doesn’t. People can use their intelligence for good, but wicked people can use it for immense evil. A large framed man could use his strength to help others, like a firefighter, or to abuse others, like a mugger. Intelligence is not a virtue.
Wisdom, on the other hand, is different. One can have a low mental IQ and be wise. One can be at a genius level and be unwise. I’m not just talking about “common sense” but an internal insight into the world that transcends mere facts. Intelligence is gifted; wisdom is moral. The opposite of wisdom isn’t stupidity but foolishness. Some very intelligent people are fools, and some unintelligent people are very wise. It takes wisdom, and not intelligence, to tell when I am in over my head. Wisdom tells me if I have come to the end of my ability and that I may be slipping into an unhealthy or sinful obsession. Cultivating wisdom, as in the book of Proverbs, gives reins to the sometimes wild, powerful horse called intelligence. Wisdom knows when to stop trying to fix what intelligence can’t get past itself. Wisdom knows when to let go.
But it’s not just that my intelligence is limited; it’s also corrupted. The noetic effect of sin means even my mind is broken. Theologically minded Christians can fall into a false premise without realizing it. We might admit that our emotions, feelings, society, bodies, and even our wills are tainted with sin, yet somehow assume that our brains are not. Our brains are not immaculately and hermetically sealed away from the rest of our fallen condition. Our mental faculties turn inward, affirming what we want to see while denying other parts of reality we don’t want to admit. Our brains seek justifications for our actions while accusing others of the same things we do (Rom 2:1-3). Our processing of logic is flawed. Some may retort, “But one plus one always equals two.” That is true, but sometimes our brain wants one plus one to equal three, and it can do amazing things to twist even basic logic into a justification for what it wants. The problem with the veneer, of completely detached reason, is that it is just that, a veneer. While objective truth does exist, and logic has clear rules for reasoning, we are not detached logic machines from ourselves.
Our ability to reason can accurately know reality, but it doesn’t accurately accept all of reality. The noetic effect of sin is the state of man after the fall, as Paul says in Romans 1:19-21 “For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Due to Christ and the wisdom found in the fear of the Lord, we can indeed grow in truth. However, just as some remaining corruption in all our other faculties continue until glorification, we have to acknowledge that about our intelligence too. Perhaps racing and intrusive thoughts are themselves a result of the fall.
Besides that, there may be an even more critical factor to understand. Not every problem has a solution. Not every hurdle in life is a problem. Sometimes, things merely are; they are not things to be fixed or changed. For instance, sometimes you may feel an emotion like sadness. Everything in your life might look good; you might otherwise be ok, but you feel sad in your current state. There are two possibilities; the first is something under the surface you don’t yet realize that you should deal with. The second, just as possible option is that you felt sad just because you did, and there is no other more profound meaning than that. What is true for our inner emotions goes for life hurdles too: you didn’t get the job, someone didn’t call you, a friend made a weird face at your comment, you haven’t seen someone for a while, etc. Some of these are just mundane occurrences of life and don’t need any extra mental effort wasted on them at all. Even then, some of them may be real, actual problems, but even those don’t have ways to fix them. Doing mental marathons for an unsolvable problem only stresses you out even more. In a broken world, some things will just be broken until Christ restores them to their proper place.
God calls me to rest and trust. He knows all, and more than that, he uses the power of his providence to take care of us in our lives. Racing thoughts aren’t just unhelpful, unproductive, and unhealthy; they are unnecessary. Matthew 6:25-34 tells me that my Heavenly Father already knows what I need. My extra thoughts aren’t assisting him in his role and promises to me. I’m not called to figure everything out. That’s not my job. God is the one who already has it all figured out. I can trust in his unfathomable intelligence regarding my problems. My favorite Old Testament verse is Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” There are far more secret things than revealed things. This universe is filled with mysteries we will never figure out, no matter how many discoveries we make. I can run myself raw trying to wrap my head around secrets, or I can merely trust the one who has it all in his hand. Intelligence is a gift of God to humans, but like every gift, it must be used in the right way and within the proper boundaries. Using our brains and reason for the glory of God and the love of our neighbor is a good and proper way of exercising our intelligence. The boundary lines are realizing when we need our brains to shut up, to simply rest and trust. You are not alone; God is with you. You don’t have to figure it out.