'Mindfulness' or the mind of Christ: A false dilemma

Matt Jenson
"Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28) Oh, the beauty of Jesus' invitation. Who has not known the weariness that Jesus evokes, and the almost palpable relief in the promise of succor? For the anxious in particular, no words are sweeter. And for just that reason, no words can be more troubling. Rest, the one thing needful for the anxious, seems ever to evade their grasp. Or, if it comes, it leaves as abruptly.

In my nine years of teaching, I have witnessed a marked increase in clinical anxiety and depression. I teach good-hearted, God-loving, perfectionistic, smarter-than-me students, and they are ill at ease. So many of them. Turns out, so am I. At times my thoughts race, and I find myself strapped to the back of a thoroughbred of a mind, careening through the dark. It's fearsome. My students and I, we're sinners. But boy, are we trying. We are leaning into the power of the Spirit, seeking to abide in the love of God for us in Christ, turning strangers into family in the church. And we are anxious.


I recently spoke with a sociologist who asked me whether evangelicals have embraced the recent turn to mindfulness as an antidote to anxiety, championed by such diverse groups as health professionals, corporate executives, and school administrators. I was intrigued, then, to see an article on mindfulness in reformation21.

The author rightly castigated the metaphysics that often accompany mindfulness, in which the distinctions between God and the world, God and the self, and the self and the world vanish. Any spiritual practice that denies the distinctions created and governed by God cannot be countenanced by Christians. God created the world, and the world's dignity and dependence both flow from this distinction. When Sam Harris dreamily describes meditation as cutting through "the illusion of the self," we are right to cry foul. The self is very real indeed, intractable even; and it is this sinful self that so desperately needs the triune God, the divine Other, to come and rescue him. So far, so good.

The problem is, the author fails to distinguish between metaphysical claims that might, but needn't, accompany the practice of mindfulness, and the practice itself. He quickly slides from an appropriate criticism of the metaphysics that accompany some forms of mindfulness to a facile rejection of the practice itself. The author rejects mindfulness as a practice on the assumption that the sanctification of the mind is not about emptying our minds of all thought but "filling our minds with his word of truth and applying it to our circumstances." But this is a false dilemma. We need not choose between emptying our minds or filling them; instead, we can discern when to empty them and when to fill them, and also of what to empty them and with what to fill them.

Furthermore, the author seems to have a rather simplistic account of the renewal of the mind that Paul champions (Rom. 12:2). If only it were as easy as cramming more truth in one's mind! Instead, the process by which our minds and selves are renewed is one in which we unlearn the lies of the world and learn the truths of the gospel, and do so on many levels. We are transformed as we come to inhabit evangelical truth in such a way that it echoes throughout our lives.

I suspect that, ironically, the author hasn't reckoned enough with the complexity of sin's persistence. Sin affects not only the content of our thoughts, but the manner of our thinking. This could be why merely reading a passage of Scripture and trying to do what it says often fails to sort out the Christian's anxiety. "The command of Scripture regarding all our fears and anxieties is to cast them all upon God because he cares for us, and in so doing, '[God will] keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you' (Isa. 26:3)." Certainly, that's right. But it simply begs the question: How am I to cast my cares upon him? At times the author seems to suggest that surrendering fears is uncomplicated and straightforward; few I know who have struggled to do so would agree. 

Perhaps the abiding fear in Christians reflects a blunt refusal to do what God says. The thing is, anxious Christians try harder than anyone I know to "be anxious for nothing" (Phil. 4:6). They want nothing more than to silence the voice of fear and listen only for the voice of the Good Shepherd. Because of this, exhortations to "just trust the Lord" or "give it to God" fall flat; worse, they condemn. If it were as easy as simply deciding to not be anxious, or if all it took were a bit more exertion, I'd have been anxiety-free long ago. 


"Be not afraid," Jesus says. The command is simple; becoming a person who can obey it is more difficult. It's not simply a problem of information. We anxious Christians know what's true. I dare say we lean more heavily into the truths of Scripture than many, because anxiety can be so frightening. Our problem is one of formation.

The Christian tradition, especially in its Reformed inflection, has characterized our growth in holiness as a daily mortification and vivification, a dying to self, to sin, death, and the devil, and a rising to the new life of Christ in the power of the Spirit. How might fearful Christians practice a daily dying and rising with Christ?

Briefly, let me commend two disciplines. The first, centering prayer, is chiefly a means of mortification. Centering prayer is rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition and overlaps in practice with mindfulness. I recognize the risk I take in commending this kind of contemplative practice. It will sound an alarm to many evangelicals, not least because its emphasis on silence seems foreign to the bold speech that characterizes prayer throughout Scripture. Of course, silence will not suffice. It would be hard to square a spirituality of pure silence with God's own proclamation of himself in his Word, published by the Spirit far and wide through the saints' proclamation. 

What I've found, though, is that daily periods of silence give me ears to hear. In centering prayer, one sits in silence, seeking to abide with a single intention, to be open to the presence and action of God. This is a prayer of utter surrender in which one sits silently with Jesus and welcomes the work of the triune God. The work of centering prayer is to practice relinquishment, refusing the recurring temptation when thoughts arise to follow them down the rabbit hole. It is a fast from discursive processes, from the impulse to think things through. This is not self-extinction, however, but an entrusting of oneself to the Father, a relying on the Son who intercedes for us at the Father's right hand, and a resting in the Spirit, who intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. Call it a form of prayer in which I can rest quietly because the triune God is living and active for me and in me. 

For anxious souls, I would commend the practice of centering prayer as a mortifying practice, in which we put to death the need to control our thoughts, ourselves, our worlds. I have found even prayer and Scripture to be places where my anxious mind can spin out in obsessive attempts to control my world by controlling my mind. The temporary abandonment of thought in centering prayer, for the sake of remaining open to God's presence and action, has been one of the very few habits in which I have learned to put to death my relentless need for control--and thereby learn to trust the Lord.

The second discipline, meditation on Scripture, is chiefly a means of vivification. Evangelicals are more familiar with this, but meditation on Scripture seems to me an ideal complement to centering prayer. In centering prayer, we die to our need to control even our thoughts and learn to rest in the sovereign benevolence of God. In meditating on Scripture, we come alive to the truth of the world as it is in Christ. We rehearse and rejoice in the majestic salvation of God, learning to trace the contours of his ways in the world, to take the measure of his character; and we learn the depth and breadth of what it means to say that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, what it means to be able to cry, "Abba! Father!" as those sealed with the Spirit of adoption. In Scripture, we re-learn the story of God and the world and our place in it.

Certainly, we only empty our minds to fill them with better things. Mindfulness, insofar as it entails the cessation of thought, can hardly sustain life in the Spirit. But 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. If anything, what I've found in centering prayer is that the words of life, having long rattled around in my head, are making their home in my heart and gut.

We can hardly dispense with words. But we ought to insist on a rhythm of speech and silence, of thinking well as disciples of Jesus and disciplining ourselves not to think at all--trusting in the One who intercedes on our behalf at the right hand of his Father and ours, and in the One who intercedes within us with groans too deep for words.

Matt Jenson is Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He is the author of The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther, and Barth on 'homo incurvatus in se' and, with David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is a licensed minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church