Scientists estimate that for every hundred pieces of information that enters our brain, ninety nine end up in our SPAM folder. We remember only one thing out of every hundred. And that’s a good thing. As many autistic people will tell you, if you don’t have a good SPAM filter, you can be overwhelmed with useless data.
The problem is that many of us have SPAM filters that are fantastic at filtering out the positive and letting in only the negative things of life. That’s partly because our education, political, and business culture rewards negativity experts, those who can pick out a single negative in a sea of positives.
We ask our children, “What’s wrong with this picture?” We set class assignments: “Critique this passage/viewpoint.” We mark mistakes with red ink but don’t waste blue ink on the correct answers. We scan our gardens for weeds. We admire debaters and politicians who can puncture holes in their opponents’ arguments. We promote lawyers who can detect a loophole from a hundred miles away. We love journalistic exposes. We are drawn to “watchblogs” and discernment ministries. We honor theologians who can destroy a heretic with devastating put-downs.
Grim one-sided input
All this programs our SPAM filter to scan life for negatives, problems, difficulties, lies, evil, etc. With such a grim input of one-sided data, is it any wonder that our emotions are so messed up? Harvard Professor of Positive Psychology Shawn Achor says:
Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals (The Happiness Advantage, 91).
Achor saw this problem especially clearly when the global tax-accounting firm KPMG commissioned him to help their tax auditors and managers become happier. How had these successful professionals become so miserable?
Many of them had to spend 8 to 14 hours a day scanning tax forms for errors, and as they did, their brains were becoming wired to look for mistakes. This made them very good at their jobs, but they were getting so expert at seeing errors and potential pitfalls that this habit started to spill over into other areas of their lives…undermining their relationships at work and at home. In performance reviews, they noticed only the faults of their team members, never the strengths. When they went home to their families, they noticed only the C’s on their kids’ report cards, never the A’s. When they ate at restaurants, they could only notice that the potatoes were underdone—never that the steak was cooked perfectly (91-92).
You don’t need to be an accountant to have such a SPAM filter! As we saw previously though, we can retrain our brains and renew our minds. Or, to put it another way, we can re-program our SPAM filter. We can train ourselves to Scan for Positive and AffirmingMessages in every situation.
Although science and scripture agree on the possibility of change through the daily repetition of lots of little positives, they do differ in some significant respects about the details of how to effect this. Shawn Achor proposes more meditation, more gratitude, more active friendships, more gifts, more humor, more funny videos, etc.
As Christians, we’d happily go along with most of these common grace insights. However, we’d differ in the detailed implementation of them. Our meditation would be focused on encouraging portions of Scripture. Our gratitude would be directed first to God. Our most treasured friendships would be found in our local church and built upon our common love for our Savior. Our gifts would be given in the name of Christ and first of all to the cause of Christ. Our humor would be sanctified humor, stripped of anything offensive to God and hurtful to others, etc.
We would also differ in the way we process negative events like suffering and sadness. We want to face these painful experiences head on without denying or diminishing them. In addition to seeing them as opportunities to grow in character, we also want to use them to humble us, to sober us up, to make us examine our lives, to loosen us from this world, to drive us to the promises of God, and to make us long for the world to come.
The Christian SPAM filter is not only scanning for positive and affirming messages. It’s also able to take the worst trojans and viruses and by God’s grace to use even them for personal growth and God’s glory.