“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” – John Wesley
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” – (John 4:23)
Goodness (Greek – αγαθωσυνη – pronounced ah-gah-thow-soo-ney): uprightness of heart and life. Goodness can also be defined by virtue, excellence, or honor. Virtue is linked to a life principled by a moral sense of what is right and wrong. Goodness is also linked to strength, vigor, and generosity. It has an active quality.
The Habit of Goodness: Living a life of truth is one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of goodness. Beth Moore’s study book on the fruit of the Spirit Living Beyond Yourself emphasizes how the quality of goodness involves zeal for the truth that is active and correcting. While a discussion on goodness could take many different directions, the primary focus here will be on one: a zeal for the truth. Unless we can confront falsehood and ignorance, we will continue contributing to the brokenness of the world. Living a life of truth starts with confessing our ignorance and acknowledging that each one of us has unconscious bias. Once we accept our limitations, then we can move beyond them. Strength lies in accepting our weakness. This is an active movement. To hide from weakness or put on a front of anger comes from fear.
Johari’s Window is a tool developed by two psychologists in the 1950s to help us acknowledge our ignorance. It plots out in four segments what we know and what is left unknown. It is a window into our unconscious.
|Known to Self||Unknown to Self|
|Known to Others||Open: Public knowledge, things about ourselves known by others and that we are aware of, too.||Blind: Feedback from others is needed for change.|
|Unknown to Others||Hidden: Private knowledge that can be shared if others are trusted.||Unconscious: Unknown to self and others. New awareness can be found. This is by far the largest of the four segments. |
There is information that others know about us that we might not know ourselves. These are our blind spots. These could include mannerisms, beliefs, or ways of speaking. People have inherent biases that they are often unaware of. Being open to allowing others to teach us is an extremely important life skill. The more we think about how we are ignorant and what our blind spots are, the better our habit will be of overcoming them. Remember also the words of Jesus: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’seye” (Luke 6:42). Take some time to consider the above and what the log in your eye is. Ask a trusted friend or family member to point out some blind spots for you that would help you grow as a person. If we can start the habit of challenging our own ignorance, it will inspire those around us to challenge their own ignorance.
When it comes to moving beyond ignorance, to examine how each one of us uses psychological defense mechanisms is extremely helpful. People use both healthy and unhealthy mechanisms to help them adapt and cope. And often, we are unconscious of the defense mechanisms we use.
Unhealthy defense mechanisms include denial, delusion or distortion. Rather than facing reality, sometimes people will create fanciful delusions to buffer themselves from the harsh realities of the world. Sometimes denying truth outright and hiding within one’s own cocoon is another way people cope. While about 1 billion people face food shortages throughout the world, in the United States about one third to one-fourth of food is thrown away.[i] To be unfeeling or uncaring toward the suffering of others is a way of living in a distorted reality. Perhaps feeling the weight of suffering seems too much for people to comprehend, so it is easier to put food in the trash than think of others who may need it.
One of the most tragic delusions of our time is our country’s runaway debt of over $25 Trillion.[ii] The interest payments thrown away each year on the national debt come out to about $1,000 per person. Imagine if each person in your household was given an extra $1,000 per year. For a family of four that would be $4,000 per year! But we are throwing it away on interest and the debt only keeps getting higher. Is it not delusional to be shackling our grandchildren’s future into debt?
Other unhealthy defense mechanisms include acting out, projection, or passive-aggressive behavior. Perhaps unconscious anger, because they feel powerless in the world, causes someone to act out in anger at their family. This may be unconscious in the person. Perhaps someone is feeling vulnerable or afraid in their own situation, so they project and demonize others. Having a scapegoat might seem helpful in the moment rather than accepting the reality of being scared by one’s own situation.
Not all defense mechanisms are destructive though. Altruism, humor and sublimation are healthy ways of engaging the suffering of the world. Rather than hide from the truth, an altruistic heart will propel us into action despite overwhelming odds. When we confront our own ignorance and prejudice, but can laugh at ourselves rather than punish ourselves, it will help us move beyond our limitations. Sublimation is one of the most profound of the healthy defense mechanisms. Sublimation is turning our tragedies into opportunity and strength. Perhaps someone was molested or raped in their youth. Rather than turning to anger and hurting others, they turn their anger into a life of advocacy for other people who have been molested or raped.
Living by God’s goodness involves challenging our ignorance and unconscious bias. Where do you see yourself living by denial, delusion, distortion, acting out, projection, or passive-aggressive behavior? How can you break free from it?
Healthy mechanisms drive us toward creativity and the birth of goodness through our hearts, minds, and actions. As discussed earlier, the Butterfly Effect demonstrates that each one of us, no matter how small, has an infinite impact on our world. When we are geared toward creative goodness, we will change the world more profoundly than we can possibly imagine. Even the simple act of opening a door for someone or stopping to talk to a stranger will redirect every action and reaction they have moving forward in time and space. Every moment opens up infinite streams of connection into new realities for each of us. It has been said that our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond belief. We are powerful beyond all belief.
The Neuroscience of Goodness
If we can actively seek and engage the truth, then our neural circuitry will better mesh with the world. When we live in ignorance, we might be consciously or unconsciously drawn to ignore or dispute truth. If in our ignorance we feel cozy, then we will live in a cocoon. Neurologically we will have to make ever-larger distortions or delusions to separate us from the truth or our fantasy world will get cracked by reality. The hippocampus plays a major role in memory, but it is also essential in contextualization. People who often lie, will have to keep track of whom they have lied to, about what their lies were, and the actual truth. This will put added stress on the hippocampus and our neural circuitry just trying to keep track of the lies. A life lived in and by the truth will establish deeper connectivity with the prefrontal cortex and will give our brains deeper contextualization. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which is involved in moral and ethical decision making, will play a strong role in this. To engage and actively seek the truth will strengthen the VMPFC. A life grounded in truth will give greater flexibility and ease in making connections with our prefrontal cortex and our hippocampus’s role in making memory because our memories will be true rather than a falsehood to deceive others. If we do not have to constantly think about our deceptions or the deceptions of others then we can live in peace. We can live with less fear, anxiety or suspicion of others.
Living life with less fear, anxiety, and suspicion is in part what makes a life of truth also a life of goodness and generosity. The word generous come from the same root as to give birth or be generative. Truth is the wellspring of goodness. It propels us towards trust and allows cooperation and collaboration. Without truth, suspicion and fear will rule our lives. Our conception of heaven is generally a place where truth reigns supreme. We can also work toward truth reigning supreme on earth as it is in heaven.
Seeing the world as it is can be overwhelming, but it can also fill us with gratitude. To know and be known is one of the most fundamental desires of all people. When we can see each other, “warts and all”, rather than by deception, then there is much room for grace. In fact, gratitude and generosity work together. Gratitude propels us to give back and be generous. Gratitude and a generous spirit give us the ability to bring goodness into the world. Gratitude activates parts of the brain that produce feelings of reward, fairness, and morality. The areas of the brain include the ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. The anterior cingulate is also involved. Seeing the world as it really is can be devastating. But if we live in ignorance and prejudice, our brains become convoluted by conflicting signals. Living in the truth helps us produce a cleaner conscious that is healthier and more capable of bringing about healing in the world.
Goodness also draws us to be creative and to work toward making the world a better place. When we are willing and able to see the world for what it is, then our prefrontal cortex can really get to work. The executive function of problem-solving can determine the challenges in front of us and we can make plans and take action to overcome them. Continually looking to see the reality of the world will give us a clear conscious and help us continually plan for the best. The prefrontal cortex helps us understand long term consequences rather than settle for short term gratification. The orbitofrontal cortex, in particular, helps us regulate pleasure-driven feelings. Dan Siegel in his book, The Mindful Brain details nine specific functions of the prefrontal cortex: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, insight, fear modulation, intuition, and morality. The complexity and function of the prefrontal cortex are what sets us apart from all of God’s other creatures. Through the executive function of our brains, we can actively make plans to bring goodness into the world.
The Neuroscience of Ignorance
The thalamus plays a major role in our understanding of what is real or what is not real. If we believe something to be real, the thalamus will help make the perception become our reality. In fact, the thalamus does not make distinction between inner and outer realities. If we approach the world out of fear and anger, then we might be drawn to shape our perception of the world out of falsehood and ignorance. Throughout our lives, we also get duped into believing falsehoods. Often racism, hate, and fear become unconsciously ingrained into one generation to the next. The brain is structured to perceive and act on threats as if they are real even if they are not real at all. Two examples of pathological neurosis are denial and delusion. Often when confronted with fear and anger, those who do not want to embrace the truth or are so deeply unconscious of an alternative, will fight against the world and try to impose their own delusions on others so as not to have to face the harsh facts. As an example, many news outlets often sensationalize the horrors of the world and aggravate peoples’ differences rather than strive for reconciliation between people of opposing views.
One of the most destructive things that is at the heart of ignorance is passivity. Unless each one of us actively takes part in reconciliation, love, and justice, then the world will remain broken. If we take the world for granted then we will never overcome the horrors and sadness of it. Taking the world as it is, not asking questions, or not having curiosity will all leave us in the dark.
Each one of us lives within a conceptual model of our world. As much as we would like to think that each one of us lives in reality, we are limited by our senses, education, and cultural perspectives. Rather than denying our ignorance, we can embrace the fact that we only have limited information about the world. When we are surprised by new information and insights, then we can rewrite our understanding. We can seek truth. Once untruth and societal myths get hardened in our minds, it is hard to make change. But through neuroplasticity, we are capable of great change. We do not have to live in ignorance.
Strengthening the Habit of Goodness through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps us overcome ignorance and destructive defensive mechanisms. It helps us make an action plan for change and to see things as they truly are. The ABCD method is one of the simplest and most straightforward ways of using CBT. It involves reviewing and Activating Event, our Beliefs, the Consequencesof our beliefs, and ways we can Disputeour negative habits and beliefs. With help through a counselor or a group it is very effective, though is also effective as a personal tool as well.
Take a moment to think of one thought patterns that you have. Write it below and reflect on what triggers your belief in this pattern. Think of ways that you can dispute this negative thinking. You can also use the below for daily journaling. It will draw you toward goodness and away from fear and ignorance. It may be challenging, but it will be worth it.
Activating Event – what is the initial cause and what continues to trigger a negative thought pattern?
Beliefs – What is the source of the negative belief or and what are the negative thought patterns?
Consequence – What are the consequences of your current way of thinking?
Disputing – How could you challenge your thinking? What is an action plan for change?
The ABCD method of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy will help us cut to the heart of our negative beliefs and the errors in our thinking. A cognitive distortion is an untruth that our mind is convinced is true. They are lies that we tell ourselves either knowingly or unknowingly. Cognitive distortions can destroy your joy and relationships with others. They can also damage your connection with God or ability to experience love.
Two Common Cognitive Distortions: Fortune Telling and Mind Reading
Mind reading is the assumption that we know what other people are thinking.[iii] Perhaps body language, previous history, or what someone else has said about someone all lead you to believe whole heartedly what another person is thinking. Examples can be, she thinks I’m stupid. He’s not interested. He’s angry with me. She’s out to get me. Unless we ask the other person or verify our assumptions, our beliefs about another person could lead to unnecessary misunderstanding or even drastic consequences.
Fortune telling is the prediction of a negative outcome. It could be for yourself or for someone you know. Examples could be, he’s not going to come back. I’m going to fail. She’s going to beat me and I’ll have no chance.
Below are some other very common types of cognitive distortions:
Common Cognitive Distortions
|All or Nothing Thinking|
Only seeing black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Using superlatives like “always” or “never”. Also known as “splitting”.
Always blaming others rather than admitting your own personal fault
|Taking it Personally|
Blaming yourself or seeing things only from your perspective
|Should or Must Thinking|
Often are associated with guilt or shame. Can be toward self or others.
Discounting empirical evidence and relying solely on emotion
Consistently assuming the worst
Convincing ourselves that something is good when it is truly bad
|Discounting the Positive|
Minimizing or being blind to the good of our lives
|Jumping to Conclusions|
Sticking to a rash judgment without seeing evidence
All or Nothing Thinking, also known as Splitting is one of the most destructive cognitive distortions. It is a way that we make in-groups and out-groups. It is how we perpetuate hatred. To see the other as “bad” will prevent us from loving them. This is why Jesus calls us to love our enemies. We are all part of the Oneness of God, drawn together in infinite mutuality. Any of the above distortions will get us into trouble.
Are there any cognitive distortions that you see yourself falling into more often than others? Use the ABCD method to help yourself break free from cognitive distortions. And help others use the ABCD method to break free, too. You can internalize the ABCD method for yourself so that throughout the day, when you fall into a negative belief or notice yourself acting on a cognitive distortion you can break free.
Overcoming Ignorance Through Body Awareness
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an excellent tool to overcome ignorance and destructive thought patterns. But unless we have greater awareness of our bodies, we will still remain in the dark. At the end of each chapter within the group discussion and personal reflection sections of this book you will find exercises to help you slow down and be present to how the fruit of the Spirit works in your body or to feel when it is not working. With greater knowledge of the bodily sensations working in us, we will have greater awareness of the riches working in us. We will also be able to help other people name and celebrate how the fruits of the Spirit are working in their bodies. There are also exercises in this book to help you investigate indifference, anxiety, desperation, and hate. You might wonder why it would be helpful to take time examining how our negative emotions and experiences make us feel. Often, we are unaware of our negative feelings because of past trauma or from habit. To slow down and safely observe our negative emotions and bad habits will help us overcome them. It can also help us teach others to do likewise.
For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:
Try this: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you most felt God’s goodness by living truthfully. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience. Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of clarity, purpose, lightness, or inspiration? Perhaps you feel openness and lightness? Where in your body do your feel these sensations? Describe below how it feels in your body to abide in God’s goodness.
Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s goodness working in and through your body?
Try this with caution. Do not retraumatize yourself. If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you discovered that your ignorance was hurting someone. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience. After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of sorrow, being lost, scared, or confused? Describe below how it feels in your body to suffer from ignorance.
What is one source of my ignorance? What scripture, resources, or tools from this book can I use to overcome it? Who can I ask to help me see my ignorance?
What one habitual and settled tendency with my spouse, friends, family, or community is stuck in a cycle of ignorance and what specific changes would create more systemic goodness and zeal for the truth?
What one ingrained and regular practice of an organization, church, or political group that I belong to is stuck in a cycle of ignorance and what specific changes would create more systemic goodness through it?
What one specific and measurable goal to create more goodness and truth do I have that will help overcome an ingrained practice of ignorance at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to?
~ Pray ~
God, I am Yours. I say yes to your goodness. I will challenge and overcome my ignorance. I surrender to Your goodness.
[ii]“Debt to the Penny,” accessed June 2, 2020, https://treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/pd_debttothepenny.htm.
[iii]Judith Beck, Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond, (New York: Guildford, 1995), 119.