Small Group Tools
Contemporary Comments 2016
Texts: Matthew 24:35-25:46; 2 Peter 3:1-18; James 2:14-26; John 4:35-38; 1 Corinthians 3:6-8; Revelation 21:1-4
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1863. His challenge became known as “ironic process theory,” or “the white bear problem.” Deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface. When someone is actively trying not to think of a white bear they are actually more likely to imagine one.1
A practical application of ironic process theory is in the treatment of trauma victims: how do you help people avoid being re-traumatized by memories of their ordeal? Often, PTSD victims are told “don’t think about the event,” which usually stimulates the opposite effect on these sufferers. Dr. Daniel Wegner of Harvard University studied this phenomenon. Wegner had his students record their thoughts for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind they rang a bell. Despite the explicit instructions to avoid it, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute.
Next, Wegner asked them to try to think of a white bear. The students then thought of a white bear even more often than a different group who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. The results suggest that suppressing the thought for the first five minutes caused it to “rebound” even more prominently into their minds later. His work revealed the paradox that attempting not to think of a topic often backfires, resulting in high rates of intrusive thoughts about the topic. The effect contributes to various psychological challenges and disorders. Smokers who try not to think about cigarettes find it harder to give up. People who suppress thoughts that cause anxiety often make those thoughts worse.2
Our lesson this week examines how we should wait for the second coming. Our paradox is, how are we to live in anticipation of Christ’s return without becoming “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good?” We live in the paradox that the kingdom is here now, and the kingdom has not yet arrived. The expectation and anticipation of the coming kingdom can paralyze our efforts to live like God’s people today. If our focus is totally inward, centering our thoughts and efforts on our own personal perfection, we can actually drive ourselves further from God.
Matthew 25:34-40 reveals that it is possible to live Godly lives within the paradox. God’s true people feed, clothe, and visit Jesus Himself though they have no idea they are doing so. It’s our way of life. We can live as God’s kingdom people, preparing for His return, though we don’t give it a second thought. We simply do what we do, because of who we are.
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