Grumpy or Godly? What Christians might learn from mindfulness

(Photo: Unsplash/Aaron Burden)

A few days ago there was a bit of an emergency which demanded my attention at 3.30 in the morning.

Now I like sleep. In fact, I don't just like it, I love it – and need a lot of it. For that reason, being woken in the middle of the night is A Very Bad Thing Indeed. Not only do I feel sleep-deprived, I am grumpy, irritable and uncooperative – qualities which are not necessarily useful in an urgent situation where both help and a Godly mindset are needed.

But as it happened, the day worked out well. I was able to go through it prayerfully, conscious of the presence of Jesus, and even (in the middle of the emergency situation) getting quite a few other things done. And I attribute the ability to live that day in a Jesus-centred way at least in part to some secular mindfulness techniques I have learnt.

Now at this point, half of you are probably fascinated. But the other half of you may well be thinking a combination of words including some, or all, of the following: heresy, mind-emptying, Buddhism, dodgy, liberal, demonic and so on.

Of course, it does depend what you mean by 'mindfulness'. And just as the label 'Christian' can broadly include ideas which many of us would find questionable (the Prosperity Gospel, for example), so also the word 'mindfulness' can be applied to some very dubious concepts. Alec Taylor wrote in the Evangelical Times: "When we suspend the mind of all critical thought ... we are opening ourselves up to satanic powers." He adds: "The 'mindfulness' that urges us to blank out our minds from the real problems all around us is a delusion."

But far from being about 'blanking out our minds' or 'suspending our mind of critical thought,' mindfulness in much secular understanding is about developing the habit of being aware of what's in our mind. It's about not getting carried along by thoughts, feelings and sensations without realising what is happening. Thus, instead of being 'mindless' as the Evangelical Times article somewhat inevitably headlines it, the practice is in fact the exact opposite: it's about recognising what's going on in our minds, bodies and emotions. As a result, we slowly grow the capacity to choose to act differently from what our ingrained habits of thought might otherwise prompt us – unthinkingly – to do.

Theology professor Matt Jenson, writing on the Reformation 21 blog of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, gets to the nub of it when he says we need to "distinguish between metaphysical claims that might, but needn't, accompany the practice of mindfulness, and the practice itself".

This is such a vital point. Christianity and Buddhist metaphysics are incompatible, as dialogue between conservative evangelicals and Buddhists has demonstrated. Christians should, quite rightly, reject any metaphysical teaching accompanying mindfulness "in which the distinctions between God and the world, God and the self, and the self and the world vanish", says Jenson.

But learning to step back and view our thoughts, sensations and emotions – like watching actors on a stage, or seeing a luggage carousel going round in front of us at an airport as we stand a little way away – well that, it seems to me, is an entirely different matter. Because that can then enable us to make choices based on Godliness, rather than knee-jerk instinct, or just emotion. As Jenson adds: "Insofar as it aids the mortification of sin – and I have seen forms of it do just that, and powerfully – a form of mindfulness might be well-suited to growth in Christ."


In a similar vein, Shaun Lambert, a Baptist minister, member of the New Wine leadership team and a trained counsellor, has written: "Many people think they are their thoughts and feelings. They are fused to their thoughts and feelings, totally identified with them... Mindful awareness practices help us to realise that we are not our thoughts and feelings, that they are passing events in our minds." The puritan John Flavel wrote: "There is more evil in your own fear than in the things feared." Mindfulness helps us spot that.

So when I was woken at 3.30 that morning, what happened? I felt grumpy. My instinct was to pull the bed covers up and refuse to help. And some years ago I might have done just that. But then I remembered... in other words, I became mindful: how I was feeling and what I was thinking were just that – thoughts and feelings. They did not have to govern me. Internally, I stepped back from what I was thinking and feeling, recognised what was happening, and decided to act differently from my default instincts. Instead, I chose to sit up, pray, and then get into action – quietly, calmly and positively. Of course, I can't even begin to pretend I get it right every time!

John Gwyn-Thomas, writing in the Banner of Truth book 'Rejoice Always!' says the New Testament "assumes that our thoughts are subject to our wills and that we can control the way in which we think... As Christians, our minds are intended to be our servants, not we the slaves of our minds". And Martin Luther famously wrote in relation to temptations: "You can't stop birds flying around your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair."

Mindfulness, applied in a Christ-centred way, is about learning to make our minds our servants; it's about learning (in Luther's picture) to become bird-watchers, rather than being oblivious to what's flying around our heads. For a Christian, it is of course no substitute for prayer and Scripture. Rather, it is a way of developing practical tools to put the Word of God into action in real life. It is learning to be aware of our default thoughts and feelings in order to be able to pause and substitute thoughts and actions which are more Jesus-honouring. But it's no short-cut to perfection; it's just another tool the Holy Spirit can help use, slowly, to chisel Christlikeness into us as we are "transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12v2). And that process of sanctification is, as we know, life-long.

Many experts also reckon there are health benefits to the practice as well, though others dispute this. But if you are someone who, having read this far, still feels deeply suspicious a Christian should even entertain the idea of practising any form of mindfulness – then what I say to you is, 'Hey man, chill out!... Why not sit down, remove your shoes and socks, breathe deeply and...' (Only kidding!)

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A