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Understanding the Unconscious

Updated: Feb 7

Ancient Wisdom | Modern Minds

Exploring Psychology in the Bible, Week One

Romans 7:15-20

January 7,2024

Rev. David Collins

Today we are starting a new sermon series called Ancient Wisdom, Modern Minds: Exploring Psychology in the Bible.

There are lots of reasons we’re looking for Psychology in the Bible. A big one is that psychology has articulated lots of things that are just true about human life. And since the Bible contains lots of things that are true about human life too, it just seemed like a good match. Also, we don’t want there to be any stigma at all about psychology or therapy, so we thought looking at it like this might help somebody. Plus, this stuff is fun to think about!

We’re starting off with one of the foundational concepts in psychology: the Unconscious Mind. The unconscious mind is that deep part of your brain that pretty much runs things on auto-pilot. It’s like a deep lake full of feelings, beliefs, urges, and memories that you are not always conscious of, but drive your actions, and most obviously your reactions.

If you’ve ever been in danger, and acted without thinking to get out of it, then you are still here today because of your unconscious mind. The people who were in danger, say they were in the path of a speeding train, then made a pros and cons list about what they should do….well, they aren’t here are they? Or maybe you smelled some food once, and it smelled bad, so you wouldn’t eat it, but others made a conscious decision to. They got sick, and you didn’t. Thank you Unconscious Mind!

The unconscious mind does more than just save us from danger. It’s also great at problem solving. We’ve all woken up at 3 in the morning with an answer we couldn’t come up with during the day, right? You’ve probably heard the story that to think clearly, Albert Einstein would sit in a comfortable chair with an empty pie pan in each hand, so when he fell asleep, he would get instantly woken up and have access to more of his unconscious mind.

But it’s not all advantages. Sometimes it trips us up. For instance, look at this picture.

It takes you a second to figure out which word says which color, doesn't it? This is one of those times that being color-blind is a huge advantage!

See, in addition to saving us from danger occasionally, the unconscious mind can also trip us up and keep us stuck. So much of our decision making is done automatically, without us really thinking about it. This is one of those areas that’s really fun to do studies of.

“One of the best-known ones focused on the process of deciding whether a candidate was fit to hold public office. A group of mock voters were given a split second to inspect portrait photographs from the Internet of U.S. gubernatorial and senate candidates from states other than where the voters lived. Then, based on their fleeting glimpses of each portrait, they were asked to judge the candidates. Guess what happened?  Seeing the candidates’ faces for less time than it takes to blink an eye predicted the outcome of two out of three elections.”

Scary stuff.

The unconscious is where all of our prejudices live. It’s where our biases rule. It’s where our traumatic memories hide so they can jump out and ruin our day just about any time they feel like it. But I shouldn’t say they should I? I should say you. Because for all intents and purposes, your unconscious mind is you. Or at least, it’s most of you.

It’s why we’re so full of contradictions. It’s why we say one thing and do another. It’s why we are so often a mystery to ourselves. It’s why we often know what we should do consciously, but something in our unconscious just won’t let us do it. Or vice-versa, we know we shouldn’t do something, but we just go ahead and do it anyway.

Which sounds a lot like the story of God’s people in the Bible, doesn’t it? Over and over again, God’s people Israel are rescued from captivity in one way or another, and given a better, more holy way to live, and they say, “Yes! That is so much better! We will all live this way from now on.” And then God, or Moses, or Jesus leaves them alone for give minutes, and all of a sudden, they’re like a toddler stretching their finger out towards the electric outlet saying, “NOOOoooooooo”.

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul spills a good deal of ink wrestling with the conundrum of whether or not the Law of God was in some way responsible for all the sin in the world. Did point out what the people shouldn’t do somehow plant the idea that they should? Sometimes it seems like maybe it did? But that can’t be right, can it?

It’s like the struggle we all have between our conscious selves and our unconscious selves. We can know exactly what we need to do, but knowing it doesn’t seem to help. Would it just be better if we didn’t have those ideas? Maybe all the “should’s” are to blame? Maybe we should all just do whatever feels right to our instincts? But that would just lead to chaos, right? I mean, it HAS lead to chaos, hasn’t it?

That’s what we’re dealing with here in Romans. We all know what we should do, if we were living intentionally and consciously, and especially as Christians, we know what we should do, because it’s al right here in this Bible, but we don’t do it. Why is that? Paul describes the problem, and gets to the answer. Let’s take a look together.

Romans 7

15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

That pretty much sums up how my New Years Resolutions usually go, how about you? There’s the thing I want…on a superficial level right now, it’s to lose weight and get back in shape after taking a few months off, but I also want to eat whatever I want, when I want, and instead of exercise, I want to sleep in and watch tv. One of them I want consciously, the other I want…need unconsciously. Which is going to win, I wonder? And that’s just the superficial stuff.

Spiritually, I want to love like Jesus. I want to be open-handed with everything I have and trust God with my life. But my actions tell me that I’m afraid. That I distrust other people. That I don’t even trust God that much. How about you?

Maybe you’re also living with an addiction, or in an unhealthy relationship. Do you understand your own actions? Do you do what YOU want? Or do you do what you WANT? And which one is the real YOU, anyway? The next two verses speak to that question. Which one is the real you anyway?

16 Now if I do what I do not want, (that is, when I am led around by the nose of my unconsciousness and sin against God and others because it feels right even though it feels wrong) I agree that the law is good.

17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

When we talk about sin, it's not just about the bad choices we make. You see, sin is more complicated than that. Paul's got this idea that sin isn't just something you do; it's something that can happen to you, too. You don’t just sin. You are also sinned against.

Sometimes, people do stuff to you, maybe without meaning to, that sticks with you deep down. These things, they kind of set up shop in your subconscious and start messing with your head.

So even if you want to do the right thing, there's all this stuff buried inside you that can trip you up. It's like trying to walk straight on a path that's got all these hidden obstacles. You might trip and fall without even seeing what hit you.

18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.

"I want to do the right thing, but it's tough when there's all this hidden baggage dragging me down.” Sometimes our actions are influenced by things that have happened to us, stuff that's been done to us.

It's like carrying around a backpack full of rocks you didn't even know you had. It makes the journey of doing the right thing a whole lot harder. So, when we mess up, sometimes it's not just about making a bad choice; it's about all these invisible forces playing tug-of-war inside us.

19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

That’s why it’s so important for us to recognize the deep unconscious part of ourselves. Because there’s not just one of you. When you look deep within, to your desires and feelings within, you’re going to find that they contradict each other. If your conscious self, and your unconscious self are all one person, that person is pretty incoherent. Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.

Paul sums it all up, and the whole gospel, just a few verses down.

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

We are not alone in our struggles and don't have to untangle the complexities of our lives by ourselves. Our salvation is purely a gift through Jesus Christ, and it shows us that we have divine support, whether we feel it or not.

All we have to do is turn towards this grace, and that opens us up to all kinds of transformative possibilities. We don't earn our salvation through work, but through turning towards Christ. In the same way, making positive life changes begins with making peace with our deeper, unconscious selves, rather than struggling against them.

When we acknowledge and work with our unconscious mind - that repository of our experiences, including those that have led us astray - we start a journey of true transformation.

Instead of fighting against the current of our deeper selves, we learn to swim with it. We don’t let it tell us where to go, or what to do, but we accept that it’s real, and needs to be handled with care, rather than screamed at or ignored. Because sometimes our unconscious knows best. Sometimes it is the one to tell us that a person or a place isn’t a safe place for us.

This approach doesn't just plaster over the cracks; it rebuilds us from within. It involves listening to our inner selves, understanding our deeper motivations, and gently guiding them towards the values and ideals embodied by Christ. In this way, our transformation isn’t a battle, but an evolution towards the best version of ourselves. Because our ultimate perfection is already taken care of.

So since it’s the first Sunday in a new year, let’s talk about those things that are on all of our lists. Changes we want to make, bad habits we want to break, or good ones we want to begin. How can we work with our unconscious rather than against it?

1. Make it appealing.

When it comes to forming new habits, it's all about changing our perspective to make the process something we look forward to. Instead of seeing it as a chore or a loss of something comfortable, we should focus on the positive aspects of the new thing.

If you're aiming to write more, instead of setting numeric goals for words per day or something like that, join a writing group where you can enjoy the fellowship and get constructive feedback - that can make writing a lot more enjoyable.

Or, if you're trying to sleep earlier, think about how this could free up a peaceful hour for you in the morning. It's not just about the habit itself but the rewarding experiences it brings.

2. Pairing

It’s this idea from behavior science where you link something you're not too keen on with something you really like. This way, they start to feel the same to you. Treat yourself like my Great Aunt Thelma treated me. When I was a kid, she always showed up with the greatest gifts. I was four years old, so that’s why I liked her.

So, why not try this with a habit you’re trying to pick up? Like, say you find running a bit of a drag, but you’re really into books. Start listening to an audiobook while you run. Before you know it, you might just start looking forward to your runs because of the story you get to dive into.

3. Watch out for ironic processes.

You know how when you try really hard not to think about something, that thing ends up being all you can think about. Like if you were trying to cut down on carbohydrates, so you go to the store thinking, “Don’t buy bread’” But all your hear is ‘Buy bread”.

But you don’t have to be the hero. You don’t have to overcome your unconscious mind. You can just work with it. Use instacart instead. Or shop when you’re full. It’s not all or nothing. A wins a win.

4. Try and try and try again.

If you're finding it tough to stick to a new habit, don't beat yourself up. Changing long-standing behaviors is hard, and it's not because you're not trying. It's just that building a new habit is all about repeating a behavior until it becomes as automatic as the old one. You're basically training your brain to switch gears, from the conscious effort to the unconscious routine.

Research shows that for habits like smoking or heavy drinking, most folks only kick the habit after several tries. And it's not just about breaking a physical dependency; these habits stick around because they give us something – whether it's comfort, a sense of safety, or just a way to relax.

New behaviors take time to become our new go-to, especially when we're stressed. We tend to fall back on old habits because they're familiar. But getting down on yourself when you slip up? That's not going to help. In fact, it could just drive you back to the old habit even faster.

So, cut yourself some slack. Understand that it might take a few shots to get this new habit to stick. Remember, you're doing something tough, and it's okay to be kind to yourself while you're working on it. Patience and self-compassion are key to making change happen.

Alright, let's wrap this up. We've all been there, wanting to do one thing but ending up doing the total opposite.

But you know what? It’s okay to be a bit of a mess sometimes. We're human, after all. We are often at odds with ourselves, our conscious intentions clash with the undercurrents of our unconscious mind. This realization is not a call to surrender but an invitation to a deeper understanding of ourselves and a more compassionate approach to who we really are, in all of our contradictions.

As we step into this new year, let us embrace the challenge of aligning our conscious desires with our unconscious drivers. Let's approach our goals not as a battle to be won but as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. Let's remember that our worth and identity are not defined by our successes or failures but by the grace and love that is already ours through Christ.

So, as we move forward, let's do it with the understanding that our unconscious mind is not an enemy to be defeated but a part of ourselves to be understood, accepted, but also guided.

So, here's to a year of learning, growing, and maybe messing up a bit – but always moving forward. Let's keep it real, keep it kind, and keep leaning into this amazing grace we all share. Here's to a year of being beautifully, wonderfully, imperfectly us. Amen.

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