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Thought Stopping or Saying “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”

July 23, 2013

Disputing thoughts that make us angry require some reflection and composure that is sometimes hard to find when anger flares. There is another method proposed by the manual authors called “thought stopping,” which incidentally is not the same as thought suppression that is not really possible or even advisable. In a therapy setting, the person would be instructed to think about something that makes him or her angry and then suddenly and unexpectedly, the therapist shouts “STOP.” Eventually, the patient learns to shout “STOP” when engaged in such thoughts and even to shout “STOP” mentally. There are all sorts of variations to this technique including flicking a rubber band on one’s wrist, but the important point is to make a break in the chain for even a moment. The authors of the manual describe this technique in this way, “You simply tell yourself (through a series of self-commands) to stop thinking the thoughts that are getting you angry. For example, you might tell yourself, ‘I need to stop thinking these thoughts. I will only get into trouble if I keep thinking this way,’ or ‘Don’t buy into this situation,’ or ‘Don’t go there.’”

While this may be an effective approach for some, it may not go far enough for others.  Aristotle once remarked that nature abhors a vacuum.  The same is true for our thoughts.  Breaking a stream of angry thoughts for a moment may result in a new stream that may be less angry, but not necessarily be the onset of a blessed stream of thoughts that lead to calmer and kinder seas. Moreover, anger may well surge again just as uncontrollably if a new better focus does not come to mind. When the Lord Himself was tempted in the desert, He not only said “STOP” with His “Get thee behind me, Satan,” but continued with a statement about the Truth that sets us free saying “for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” The other instance in which he said, “Get thee behind me, Satan” was in speaking to Saint Peter, which certainly caught the Apostle off guard and enabled him to see that his way of thinking was not in accord with the mind of God.

Following Christ’s example, the ascetic fathers recognize the need for a further step.  Thus, they recommend stopping such thoughts with a “Get thee behind me, Satan” and replacing them with holy, healthy thoughts, namely the remembrance of God and His love for us even when we have not been faithful to Him.  In an earlier post on the thoughts I write, “According to the ancient fathers, the quality of the thoughts occupies a central place in the spiritual life and their change or re-ordering can lead to healing and transformation.  As I write in Ancient Christian Wisdom, “the saints have also found that selfish thoughts, left unchecked, lead a person to sinful acts, passions, habits, and eventually alienation from God and neighbor; whereas godly thoughts, when cultivated, guide a person by the grace of God to virtuous actions, habits and ultimately purification from the passions, illumination by the Holy Spirit, and deification in Christ.  Those godly thoughts of the fathers are as diverse as the stars in the heavenly firmament made up of  ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise’(Phillipians 4:8). But there is one thought above all thoughts, one ‘name, which is above every name,’ and that is the thought of our loving God and the name of our Savior Jesus Christ. That is the one thought and the one name that can separate the sheep from the goats, the good thoughts from the bad, and that can lead us to think, feel, and behave as children of the highest. This is why the cultivation of the remembrance of God is integral to the beginning of a healthy thought life.”

This ancient thought-stopping strategy recognizes the need for a double movement of a firm No to anger and a firm Yes to God. The No is brief and need not much elaboration, but the Yes is the very content of our lives. Learning to say “Get thee behind me, Satan” to hatred-arousing anger is certainly a proper approach for the struggling Christian seeking love that “never fails.” It is interesting to note in the canonical epistle of Blessed Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria, those in a state of repentance and penance are instructed to “turn over perpetually in their minds and say out loud the text quoted by the Lord against the tempter, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan; for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shall thou serve.’” In this way, they are also prepared for the scourge of anger, for whenever it raises its ugly head, they will be less likely to fall down before it and serve it, but will dismiss it with a “Get thee behind me, Satan” and return to worshiping and serving the Lord their God.

  1. A Buddhist perspective comparatively helped me to appreciate better the spiritual control and growth that a Christ centered life offers us. The beginning of all knowledge for the Buddhist is that all human life is filled with suffering. If all human life is suffering, then how shall we live? The Noble Path of right thoughts, right speech, and right actions. Buddhists identify the Passions as the primary source of all human suffering. Unless one controls the Passions, one will never be free from them and the suffering they will cause. It reminds me of the startling comment C.S. Lewis made when he said: ‘If it weren’t for Jesus Christ, I would have become a Buddhist’. Buddhism may have a good diagnosis and a virtuous vision of a true humanity, but it cannot offer the ultimate purification of the passions, the illumination by the Holy Spirit, and deification in Christ. When we stop a passionate thought by saying the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner! We are living and growing into the confession of faith as expressed by the Apostle Paul: “I have been crucified in Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:1)

  2. Thank you so much for an insightful comment. The image of God in every human being is the starting point for all virtue in every place, even if the concept of the image of God is lacking in some vocabularies. Yes, there are some similarities between Buddhist right speech with its absence of lies, slander, insults, harshness, and idle talk on the one hand and Christian speaking the truth with love on the other hand. In some ways, it resembles some similarities between ancient Christian wisdom and cognitive therapy with similar conclusions reached by different paths. And as in the case of ancient Christian wisdom and cognitive therapy, the different paths are extremely significant, for they imbue the followers of each path with a spirit with effects that spread out from the depths of the soul to the heights of heaven. As you suggest, yes there are similarities between Buddhist right speech and Christian speaking the truth with love. And again as you suggest, the difference is that the truth is Christ and that Love is God. The person of Christ offers a grounding in this world and hope in the next that gives grace to genuinely Christian speech, seasoned with salt, brimming with life, even life eternal.

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