Impediments to Thinking, Learning, and Decision Making

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom 7:15)

We are the best fed and most pampered generation of all time; yet, our young people and senior citizens are committing suicide at historically high rates and “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” (Lucado 2012, 5) Why?

Isolation and Loneliness

One answer is that we have become painfully isolated from ourselves: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds” (Nouwen 2010, 89). Our isolation has been magnified by a loss of faith and community, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Technology Facilitates Rumination

Isolated people often ruminate about the past. In ruminating, obsessing about a personal slight, real or imaged, amplifying small insults into big ones. For psychiatric patients who are not good at distinguishing reality and illusion, constant internal repetition of even small personal slights is not only amplified, it is also remembered as a separate event. Through this process of amplification and separation, a single spanking at age 8 could by age 20 grow into a memory of daily beatings.

Amplified in this way, rumination absorbs the time and energy normally focused on meeting daily challenges and planning for the future. By interfering with normal activities, reflection, and relationships, rumination slows normal emotional and relational development and the ruminator becomes increasingly isolated from themselves, from God, and from those around them.

Why do we care? We care because everyone ruminates and technology leads us to ruminate more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the video game played every waking hour, and the work that we never set aside all function like rumination to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads.[1] Much like addicts, we are distracted every waking hour from processing normal emotions and we become anxious and annoyed[2] when we are forced to tune into our own lives. Rumination, stress addiction,[3] and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful when alone and in today’s society we are frequently alone even in the company of others.[4]

Rumination is Not New

Jesus sees our anxiety and offers to relieve it, saying:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

Self-centered rumination is a heavy burden, not a light one, and Jesus models the Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness that break rumination by encouraging us to look outside ourselves. In Sabbath rest we look outside ourselves to share in God’s peace, to reflect on Christ’s forgiveness, and to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to prayer. In prayer we commune with God where our wounds can be healed, our strength restored, and our eyes opened to our sin, brokenness, and need for forgiveness. When we sense our need for forgiveness, we also see our need to forgive. In forgiveness, we value relationships above our own personal needs which break the cycle of sin and retaliation in our relationships with others and, by emulating Jesus Christ, we draw closer to God in our faith.

Obsessions Interfere with Reflection

Faith, discipleship, and personal reflection require that we give up obsessing with ourselves. On our own, our obsessions are too strong and we cannot come to faith, grow in our faith, or participate in ministry. For most people, faith comes through prayer, reading scripture, and involvement in the church, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. For the original apostles, the discipling was done by Jesus himself.

Jesus takes the world’s threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity and reframes them as promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth. But, Jesus ties these promises to discipleship and does not extended them to spectators.[5] These issues interfere with our spiritual development directly but they also interfere indirectly by impeding our normal thinking, learning and decision making. In many ways, psychiatric dysfunction has increasingly been mainstreamed.


Blackaby, Richard. 2012. The Seasons of God: How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.


[1] Technology connects us yes, but it more often isolates us from one another. A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend. Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations. For an exhaustive treatment, see: (Turkle 2011).
[2] This is a form of escalation in which psychiatric patients amplify rather than dissipate any tension in conversation. Even polite disagreement quickly evokes an increasingly hostile response.
[3] Stress addiction is a situation in which stress becomes the norm in our lives. Peace and quiet upset us because we are unaccustomed to it. Because we cannot relax, stress threatens not only our mental well-being, but also our physical health.
[4] Loneliness in the company others is the theme of a recent book by Sherry Turkle (2011). Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination. Blackaby (2012, 47) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.
[5] The yoke (Matt 11:28–30) Jesus uses to describe the work of a disciples was a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work without injury. Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not. This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples. This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (Jas 1:22)

Impediments to Thinking, Leaning, and Decision Making

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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