Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Mental Scrapbook

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, as the famous adage goes. Your raw materials define what is possible with them.

The same is true of your mental life: you cannot make a good life out of bad imaginings.

Your mind is a scrapbook. Like any scrapbook, it collects fragmentary images of whatever you decide to put in there. Over time you fill it up. And eventually, what you have put into it defines the kind of life you’re going to have. That happens because the ‘resources’ you put into your mental scrapbook become the raw materials for your present attitudes, your frame of reference for present experiences, and the repository of images for your present imagination.

Garbage in, garbage out. Good stuff in, good stuff out. It’s that simple.

The Choice

So what kind of life do you want to have?

Do you want it to be full of wholesome things like good friends, fellowship, happiness, freedom, wisdom and love? Then don’t put junk into your mind. Don’t fill up the pages of your mental scrapbook with dirt and crud, and then expect to reap loveliness at the far end.

Jesus said that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, it’s what comes out of the abundance of his heart. And out of the abundance of the heart, the life is defined. There are things inside us that we ought not to be nurturing or excusing … and certainly not stirring up or expressing. If we have in us the new nature imparted by Christ, then there are within us new attitudes, thoughts, habits and ways of life that have to be built up; but if we are human beings, then there are also things inside us that need to be put down.

Yet it is not the case that just because we are Christians we can put anything into our heads safely. For we also nurture either the spiritual or the unspiritual side from the life of our imagination. No wonder then that the Bible says, “Whatever is true … honorable … right … pure … lovely … of good repute … anything excellent [and] worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” We will assemble our lives out of this stock of imaginings — or out of its opposite.

So what have we been dwelling on? What have we been putting into our stock of mental images? How are our mental scrapbooks starting to read? In building our worldview, what sorts of materials do we have available to us to draw on? When we look over the whole thing, is there more scripture or more sinister stuff? Is there more about love and light, or more about darkness and perversity?

The whole flavor of life is derived from the mental scrapbook. You can’t assemble experiences of goodness out of the scattered pieces of vileness. Likewise, you cannot make evil if all you have are fragments of goodness, beauty and gratitude.

The Modern Challenge

This is an important realization for all of us, especially in this media age. More than at any time in history, we are awash in ready images to debauch and corrupt the imagination. According to the New York Times, modern Western young people spend practically every free waking hour connected to the Internet and other media. Pornography, formerly available only by a deliberate and surreptitious trip to the local magazine store, is now always only a mouse-click away … even from children. And cruelty? Well, social networking has taken that to a whole new level: it magnifies our first reactions, sweeps them to their target with mercurial speed, and then sends them out into cyberspace where they can dwell forever, perpetuating lies, solidifying bad decisions, and extending cruelty indefinitely. How many of us have clicked on something that we immediately wish we had not, or have sent a message that instantly we wanted to get back. But couldn’t. Ever.

Today we need to be more careful than ever with regard to how we are assembling the substance of our mental scrapbook. Messing it up is so easy, and cleaning it up is next to impossible.

Watch what you put into your brain. You won’t easily get it out again afterward.

The Unity of the Mind

The mind, though, is unlike a scrapbook in this regard: that it is not divided or divisible. What you put in one part of it affects the whole. New stuff reacts in a sort of chemical way, suffusing everything that is there, remodeling ideas, coloring consciences, reshaping the imagination, and thus distorting your perception of the world and your whole life experience. As the philosopher Rene Descartes noted, the mind has a peculiar feature the physical lump of meat we call a brain does not: it cannot be segmented or divided. You can chop a physical brain in half, but you cannot literally “give someone a piece of your mind”. The mind has no “pieces”. It is a unity. That which affects a part of it always affects the whole.

Blogger Matt Walsh has recently commented on this. He writes:

“Your conscience is not a lunch tray, with all of the different components separated into their own compartments. Your conscience is a bucket, and everything you dump into it will mingle and mix with everything else ... It changes you, and how you see the world. This will happen. There is no way around it.”

A Practical Example

Several years ago, I read a movie review by secular journalist Johanna Schneller*, and I was never able to forget what she said as she described her mental experiences from having subjected herself to a well-known slasher film. She said:

“… it was the first movie I saw that I almost wish I hadn’t. It was the first time I became aware that the movies we see — like the people we meet, the experiences we have — move into our minds and live there permanently. We internalize them and to some degree, they affect who we are from then on. I have pictures in my brain now, of torture and mutilation and fear, that I would excise if I could. But I can’t.”

Schneller is, of course, no censor or art hater, no ultra-conservative or prude: her profession is to review films, many of which portray pretty dicey subject matter (she lists some, but I’ll spare you the list). By any measure, her tolerance for vile subject material is pretty high. Earlier in the same article she explains that she believes even very dark images could be justified in a film if the directors could thereby present some message of substance, some wisdom or insight that would counterbalance the offensiveness of the material and ultimately make the whole viewing experience worthwhile.

I think she’s too optimistic. In the case of evil images, something beyond our powers of personal free will are at work: we ‘freely’ put things in, but afterward cannot ‘freely’ get things out. We are defiled and debased, but cannot do anything about it. Schneller herself went on in the article to speak of how the images from this particular film were colonizing her mind and shaping her experiences in ways she did not like, but could not refuse.

After we put them in, it’s not a case of being “free to choose what I like” anymore; they shape the mind whether we like it or not. And these images lock into place in our mental scrapbook, take up residence there, and make possible visualizations of wickedness beyond what even our private hearts can produce for us; for the collective imagination of our fallen race can generate vile things far beyond the scope of the private individual’s imagination.

Schneller concluded her review with a highly cautionary note, one also tinged with personal regret. She wrote:

“… go knowing you’re inviting these images into your cerebellum forever, and be warned that there is no commensurate edification to offset them … I had to see [the movie]. You have a choice.”

In other words, leave off sinful images before you even meddle with them. They are tar. They stick to your mind if you even touch them once. The only safe way to handle them is not to handle them at all.

The Point

There is something sacred about the human mind. It was built to be a temple in which the Spirit of God dwells, not a sinkhole for the storage of wickedness. To defile that temple willfully is a kind of sacrilege.

We do not tend to begin life with that assumption, however. Instead, we tend to assume we belong to ourselves. We think we have freedom to put into our own heads whatever we please, and that we always have the option to accept or reject whatever we choose. But it’s just not true. Once in, certain kinds of images just take over and do their own thing, and our freedom NOT to think about them is gone.

In a sense, then, we might say that with respect to this particular issue it wouldn’t really matter whether you were a Christian or not: if you were anyone concerned about the freedom of your mind and the right of the individual to control the inner life, then you could not possibly help but be concerned about these features of the mental scrapbook.

We do have freedom to refuse to engage sinful images; but we do not have any freedom to refuse them after we have already engaged them.


So what do you do if you already made the mistake? How do you get mean, dirty, vile, wicked, debased or spiteful images that you have decided you hate out of the mental scrapbook and out of your life?

The news here is not good. The answer is, you don’t, really. Once in, they are always there. You can push them into an appendix or footnote, and out of the main text by renewing your mind with scripture; but for the rest of your life, the potential for them is going to be there. An idea you’ve never had may be impossible for you to imagine spontaneously; but an idea you’ve already had, you can easily have again. So you’re going to have a fight.

You can’t un-ring a bell.

You can’t get the ink off the page.

Until the Lord returns and completes the progressive process of regeneration finally, the effects of earlier decisions are probably going to remain with you.

But here’s what you can do: you can push the images in your mental scrapbook into smaller and smaller spaces by crowding them out with good images. You can start with scripture and with praying for the renewing of your mind. You can continue by refusing to associate with evil and actively seeking ways to employ yourself in the good.

The good news is that if you do this, you can at least start to win now. And by the grace of God, the time may come when you are granted to forget some of the things you’ve put into your mental scrapbook, and you may not have cause to recall them again. You may actually be freed from some of them.

And at the very least, you can make sure that from now on the new images entering your mind are the right kind.

*  Schneller, J. “The Moviegoer”, Globe and Mail, Feb. 16, 2001.


  1. I missed this the first time (date) around. I am working my way through past blog posts as I can and so I'm glad this one came up in the "Most page views last week" section. I think this ought to be mandatory reading for youth groups and Jr. youth groups and families and churches and...

    This "brain input" will affect our spiritual strength (becoming weak or strong) as well. As many have said, what "nature" you feed (whether the new, born again, nature we have through Christ OR the old, sinful/fleshly, nature we still have kicking around) that is the one that will be strong. The choice is ours as to which one we "feed" and it is also part of the stewardship we are expected to attend to -- and which we have been entrusted with. We will absolutely have regrets. At the end of our earthly life, our "born again/new nature" will regret having not done more for our Lord in faithfulness and not having spent our limited time knowing Him more through His Word and prayer. Conversely, our old sinful nature that we were physically born with will regret not having sinned more -- and there will be even further regret begrudging every moment that we spent feeding the "new nature." I want my old sinful nature to suffer as much regret as possible in this life because I had the goal in view to "redeem" my time wisely and will (prayerfully) have spent my time working for the glory of God and not the self-glory and selfish pursuits of wicked pleasures. One of those regrets is worth having eternally and one is not. May the Holy Spirit stir my/our hearts to have the "right" regrets. This blog has aided in this pursuit for me and, I trust, for many here.

    1. Wow. Talk about a quality response. Thanks for the added value...and the encouragement, WiC

  2. The imagery and the mental process depicted here is quite accurate except that I think that one other point should have been stressed. I think it is less relevant that we are born with an imperfect and "fallen" nature and much more relevant that the scrap book is basically blank when you are born and is for a long and formative time actually being assembled and filled for you by the environment you find yourself in at birth. This is where all the problems in this world start. You are powerless at that stage of your life and have to live with a possibly horrific mental and emotional scrap book assembled for you. A scrap book in which there is too little or no material of love, caring and nurturing inserted at all or possibly the exact horrific opposite. If you continue to grow up in that environment without positive influence to de-emphasize, or discard that material you will become damaged goods. It is the Holy Spirit and the good influences and experiences he sends you in your life through others who care that can mitigate or even eradicate even severe damage. That is exactly why Christian religious teaching and tenets are needed for the individual and society. It is unfortunate that that insight is missing from the scrap book of so many people. If it weren't we would indeed already have an approximation of heaven on earth.