The Life-Changing Magic of Reframing

Father Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa (1925–2006)

When Romania was taken over by the Communists in 1944, they began rounding up Christians and sending them to prison. One young Christian who found himself caught in the communist backlash was George Calciu.

George Calciu was first imprisoned in 1948 and sent to Pitesti Prison. Pitesti was part of an experiment on new torture methods designed to eliminate all vestiges of humanity from the human soul. The goal in these hideous experiments wasn’t simply to pressure the prisoners to renounce their Christian faith; rather, the goal was to break down their entire sense of self, to cause them to forget who they even were. The inmates were compelled to deny that they loved God, that they loved their country, that they loved their mother and father—in short, to renounce everything that made them human.

Despite his strong faith, George Calciu capitulated and repeatedly denied Christ simply to stop the torture. For him, this was the worst part of his time at Pitesti. While torture damaged his body, denying Christ damaged his soul and left him hopeless.

After three agonizing years, these experiments were stopped because of pressure from the West. George was moved to a more conventional prison where he was brought back to spiritual health by witnessing the faith of priests who had been imprisoned.

After he was released in 1964, George married and became a priest in the Romanian Orthodox Church. This period of his life culminated in giving seven sermons to the youth, criticizing communism and defending the Christian faith. Fr. George knew that by preaching against communism he would be imprisoned a second time. However, he actually welcomed the prospect of a second imprisonment. He longed for the opportunity to go to prison again and this time not to deny Christ. He was determined to become a martyr rather than capitulate again.

In God’s providence, Fr. George actually survived his second imprisonment, which lasted from 1979 to 1984. By the time he was finally released under pressure from the West he had spent a total of twenty-one years in prison. Fr. George eventually settled with his family in Virginia where he served as priest to a small church.

When I was studying about Fr. George’s life for my workshop at last year’s OCAMPR conference, one of the things that impressed me the most was that he managed to retain a posture of gratitude in the midst of extreme suffering. Later in his life when he gave interviews, he explained that even in the nightmare of communist prisons, there were things he could be thankful for. He explained that he had learned to see everything that happened as a manifestation of God’s love to him. For example, he told of being visiting by a little cockroach which eased the pain of his isolation. He commented,

“You know, God sent all kinds of beings in order that we would not be alone. I am sure that in every movement, every insect, every conflict with the guards—it was the hand of God that tried to save me, to help me, to make me sure that I was on the right path.”

Fr. George would sometimes talk about his longing for the days of prison since God had touched him in a powerful way. Because his life had been given back to him after he expected to become a martyr, every day was precious for him. Every day he was alive—even while in prison—was a day to be received with gratitude.

“…if I came out of prison, I knew that these days, these years of living, after being in prison, were a gift from God. I knew I had to be killed in prison. They had decided that. But God had other ideas. I think that these days, these years, are given to me by God as a gift; and I pay nothing for this gift. I pay no interest on these years of living.”

This sense of constant gratitude was contagious for everyone he met.  Frederica Mathewes-Green shared that “his most distinctive feature was his smile; he had a beaming smile. He was often amused by life, and ready to laugh.”

Being Mindful about Mindset

Why is it that some people, such as Fr. George, are able to remain positive and emotionally resilient in the face of extreme suffering, while other people go to pieces in the face of trials that are comparatively mild? There is no single answer to this question, but part of the answer comes down to the fact that Fr. George’s strong faith in Christ enabled him to practice a technique known as “cognitive reframing.”

Don’t be scared off by the fancy term. “Cognitive reframing” is simply the activity of disrupting negative thoughts with thinking patterns based in reality. Fr. George could have framed his life with frustration and discouragement, thinking, “I lost over two decades of my life in prison.” But instead, he framed his life positively, based on the reality that every day was a precious gift that had been given back to him by God. Fr. George did not ignore the bad that was happening around him; rather, he chose to focus on the good, and to think about the positive context in which negative circumstances could be situated.

The Apostle Paul talked about this principle in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, where he instructed them to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gave more detailed instructions about what that involved in practice:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Negative Frames vs. Positive Frames

The mindset we have about our life creates a context in which we interpret what we experience, perhaps without us even realizing it. Often when we think we are reacting to objective circumstances, we are actually reacting to the conscious or unconscious narratives we have imposed on those experiences. “Reframing” offers a way to be self-conscious about our mindset and deliberately to look for positive ways to frame our experiences. As Saint Paisios (1924-1994) once observed, “Everyone interprets events in a way that is consistent with his own thoughts. Everything can be viewed from its good or bad side.”

Cognitive reframing can be as basic as simply reminding ourselves that somehow God is still in control; that somehow He is working everything together into His sovereign plan for us even though we may not always understand how (Rom 8:28). The point is that by being deliberate about our mindset, we can begin disrupting negative thoughts by finding alternative ways of viewing the same experiences.

In St. Theophan the Recluse’s book The Spiritual Life, he has an entire chapter about turning the burdens of life to spiritual profit. He refers to the work of a bishop who took 176 situations and reframed them with a spiritual interpretation. The idea is to get so good at this type of reframing that when something annoying happens to us, we just automatically frame it in spiritual terms. It becomes a kind of challenge – “how can I find something good in this? What can I find in this situation that can turn my grumbling into gratitude?” I encourage you to have fun with reframing, almost as a type of game.

Here are some examples of common negative frames juxtaposed with positive ones.

Negative Frame: “Difficult things always happen to me.”
Positive Frame: “Yes, this is a difficult challenge, but God has given me many resources for coping with this. (1 Cor. 10:13) Moreover, my Heavenly Father may be trying to teach me something, perhaps so I can grow in the type of lowliness, gentleness and longsuffering that Paul talked about in Ephesians 4:1-2.”

Negative Frame: “These trials are ruining my life and making me miserable.”
Positive Frame: “James 1:2-4 tells me to count trials as pure joy because they lead to perseverance and maturity. Praise God for another opportunity to grow spiritually!”

Negative Frame: “Having to deal with this is probably going to wear me out.”
Positive Frame: “Having to deal with this could help me become strong in the faith.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Negative Frame: “This is just one more example of how things are always going wrong in my life!”
Positive Frame: “Okay, things are going wrong in my life right now, but I still have a lot to be grateful about.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Negative Frame: “This could turn out really badly.”
Positive Frame: “I don’t know how this is going to turn out but I do know that whatever happens will give me the chance to be stretched and to grow in perseverance, character and hope.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Negative Frame: “I’m such a horrible person.
Positive Frame: “I’m so thankful that I can always repent and receive forgiveness from God.” (Ephesians 1:7)

Negative Frame: “My job is so stressful and makes me miserable.”
Positive Frame: “I’m thankful to have a job at all. Things could be a lot worse.” (1 Tim. 6:6)

The difference between a thought-life characterized by the negative frames vs. a thought-life characterized by the positive ones doesn’t lie in the actual circumstances that a person experiences. Both frames can be reactions to the same events. But whereas the reactions on the left can lead to depression, paranoia, self-pity and hopelessness, the reactions on the right lead to gratitude, hope, self-compassion and peace. (I have given further examples of negative frames in my TSM article Six Thinking Errors and How to Avoid Them.’)

Try it yourself. Next time something difficult happens to you, write down the negative way you’re tempted to frame it. But then write down a positive way you might frame the same circumstance. The key is to be mindful about your mindset, instead of just defaulting to one of negativity.

Notice that the positive frames are all based on God promises and teaching. This is important, because the key to reframing is not simply to think positive thoughts, but to have a mindset grounded in the reality of God’s Word. Reframing is not about disrupting negative thoughts with happy images of rainbows, bunny rabbits and chocolate; such sentimentalism will not lead to spiritual growth. Rather, the key to Christian reframing is aligning your thinking with the objective reality of God’s promises. In the next section I want to share three specific promises from God’s Word that can help you in this process.

How to Reframe Using Three Simple Promises

A number of years ago, I heard that there was a wise Russian Orthodox monk living in a small hut in our village. My friend Arsenios and I decided to pay this monk a visit and ask him some questions about the spiritual life. During our visit, the monk didn’t say much, as he was busy building a chapel. However, he did direct us to an ancient Christian text, which was a collection of the teachings given by the desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, who died in 620. “If you want to grow spiritually,” the monk told us, “you should study this text.”

St. Dorotheos’ counsels were given for the benefit of younger monks who had gone into the desert to devote themselves entirely to prayer. As abbot of one of the many monasteries that sprung up in the region, St. Dorotheos’ offered instruction on everything from how to pray to the attitude we should have towards those who wrong us. But one of the most recurring themes in St. Dorotheos’ teaching is the absolute security Christians can have from believing that God is orchestrating all things for our benefit. The Saint based this teaching on the following three promises God gives in His Word:

  1. The love of God that has been poured out on us is so strong that no conceivable hardship can separate us from that love. (Romans 8: 35-39)
  2. Everything that happens to us is organized by Divine Love for our benefit, even if we can’t understand how. (Romans 8:28; Matthew 10:29-31)
  3. In response to this love, we are enabled to replace anxious thoughts with a moment-by-moment awareness of all that is lovely, noble and good. (Philippians 4:6-8; 2 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Luke 12:29)

These three truths are found throughout Scripture, and it is a worthwhile activity to go through all of the Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount and the epistles, to make a note of every passage where one of these truths can be found. Then ask yourself the following questions: do I really and truly believe that no hardship can separate me from the love of God and that everything which happens–however difficult it is for me–has been arranged for my benefit?

Reflecting on these Scriptural promises, Saint Dorotheos observed as follows about the spiritual life:

“And he must believe that nothing happens apart from God’s providence. In God’s providence everything is absolutely right and whatever happens is for the assistance of the soul. For whatever God does with us, he does out of his love and consideration for us because it is adapted to our needs. And we ought, as the Apostle says, in all things to give thanks for his goodness to us, and never to get het up or become weak-willed about what happens to us, but to accept calmly with lowliness of mind and hope in God whatever comes upon us, firmly convinced, as I said, that whatever God does to us, he does always out of goodness because he loves us, and what he does is always right. Nothing else could be right for us but the way in which he mercifully deals with us.

“If a man has a friend and he is absolutely certain that his friend loves him, and if that friend does something to cause him suffering and be troublesome to him, he will be convinced that his friend acts out of love and he will never believe that his friend does it to harm him. How much more ought we to be convinced about God who created us, who drew us out of nothingness to existence and life, and who became a man for our sakes and died for us, and who does everything out of love for us?

“It is conceivable that a friend may do something because he loves me and is concerned about me which, in spite of his good intentions, does me harm; this is likely to happen because he does not have complete knowledge and understanding of what my needs and destiny are. But we cannot say the same about God, for he is the fountain of wisdom and he knows everything that is to my advantage, and with this in view he arrange4s everything that concerns me without counting the cost. Again, about the friend who loves me and is concerned about me and conscientiously looks after my welfare: it can certainly happen in certain circumstances that he thinks I need help and yet he is powerless to help me. Even this we cannot say about God. For to him all things are possible; with God nothing is impossible. God, we know, loves and takes care of what he has fashioned. He is the fountain of wisdom and he knows what to do to promote our welfare and nothing is beyond his power. Hence we must be convinced that all he does, he does for our benefit and we ought to receive it with gratitude, as we said before, as coming from a beneficent and loving Master—and this even if some things are distressing, for all things happen by God’s just judgment …

If what St. Dorotheos is saying is correct, then every time I allow anxiety about the future to create stress, every time I grumble about the hard providences God sends my way, I am actually believing a lie since I am essentially saying (or maybe just feeling) that something other than God’s design for my life would have been better. To grumble is to commit the ultimate folly of saying I know better than Infinite Wisdom what is needed for me, or that I know better what the pathway to my own flourishing should look like.

Believing God’s promises does not mean we will never feel lonely, confused, vulnerable or insecure. Rather, it means that we can turn to God in and through these conditions. As we do so, we can begin to reframe our difficulties by seeing all that happens to us as organized by Divine Love for our benefit. Consequently, we can believe that there must be a positive purpose to even the most challenging things we experience. We can begin to see our trials as opportunities instead of obstacles (James 1:2-3).

One of the reasons that Fr. George grew to have so much joy is that he believed these promises. Convinced that everything he experienced was part of God’s perfect plan for him, he was able to see obstacles as opportunities to grow spiritually. He was enabled to him to view everything that happened as a manifestation of God’s love. Fr. George knew that although he didn’t understand it, and although he couldn’t explain what was happening, somehow it was part of God’s perfect plan for him.