The Art of Substitution

Make Me central in your consciousness by praying continually:
simple, short prayers flowing out of the present moment.

Jesus CallingFebruary 22

What had started as a pleasant evening ritual for my friend Meg—a glass of wine or two while watching the evening news—had quietly turned into a controlling habit. Over Thanksgiving, Meg’s daughter told her that alcohol dependency was causing “wreckage” in the family, and she had to do something. Shocked, humiliated, defenseless, Meg checked herself into a rehab facility.

During Meg’s stint at rehab, she learned a valuable strategy: the art of substitution. Sheer will power wasn’t sustainable. Self-denial would only get her so far. Instead of focusing on denying herself a pleasure, Meg learned to replace that desire with something positive. A glass of wine was substituted with a favorite non-alcoholic beverage that Meg had to plan, prepare for, and purchase. It all started in the mind. Catch that cue, she was taught at the facility, and substitute the craving with something healthy. 

Simple, yet deep.

Re-direct your thought life

And so very biblical. Substituting, or re-directing our thought life, is a steady drumroll throughout Scriptures. “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (James 4:8). “A mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). “Look to the Lord and his strength, seek his face always” (Psalm 105:4). Consider those verbs—they’re bold! Take captive, be transformed, renew, control, draw near, seek.

In the 1930s, missionary Frank Laubach created an experiment to train his mind to return to the Lord every minute or so. His goal was to be in continual communication with God, praying without ceasing throughout the day, as ordinary and vital as breathing in and out. He made a habit of praying for strangers throughout his daily activities—watching an airplane in the sky, standing in line at the post office, hurrying through a busy train station. “It’s a matter of shifting your mindset,” he wrote, “so God is always on your mind.”

Have God on your mind all the time

Laubach kept track of his experiment in a wonderful little book called A Game of Minutes. “Experience proves that a minute with Thee always brings fruit, often wonderful fruit. Experience proves that a minute apart from Thee is wasted or full of thoughts of malice and vice” (or in Meg’s case, full of thoughts about that five o’clock glass of wine). 

How is it possible to have God on your mind, all the time? It’s not as hard as you might think. It’s a matter of using cues to trigger the habit.

One friend uses the chimes of a grandfather clock in her living room. When the hour strikes, she turns her thoughts to the Lord. Here’s another example: While playing doubles tennis, I’ve developed the habit of praying for each player as she takes a turn to serve. I pray for all that I know about her, all I can glean, anything she had volunteered about herself. I pray that nothing will stop her from seeking the Lord. If you’re wondering if my tennis game has either improved or collapsed, I’d have to say neither. But habitually returning my attention to the Lord, even during times when my mind and body are fully preoccupied, has spilled over into other parts of my life.

Use Lent to walk closer to God

As the Lenten Season gets underway, many believers choose to deny themselves a habit of pleasure as a way to prepare their hearts, minds, and bodies for the coming Easter. This year, consider offering that indulgence to the Lord, but replace it with a new habit. Use those forty days to develop a closer walk with God. After all, staying tuned into God’s frequency is our primary purpose. Throughout Jesus Calling, Sarah Young points to this concept: “I [Jesus] communicate continually through My Spirit, My Word and My creation. Only humans are capable of receiving Me and responding to My Presence.” [September 29th]

At the end of The Game of Minutes, Laubach concluded that he planned “to make this experiment for the rest of my life.” So do I. While I’m far from where I’d like to be, I’m on the path of increasing attentiveness to God’s presence, all the time, and I’ll never go back. The fruitful benefits are profound, positive. And eternal.