The Brass Monkey Principle

shutterstock_138194669Have you ever made the following promise to God or to yourself? “I’m never going to do ‘THAT’ again!” Fill in your own blank for the word “THAT.” Many of us make that promise over and over. Eventually we grow discouraged and become resigned to doing “THAT” for the rest of our lives.

Such behavior focuses on the problem rather than the solution. As a result whatever “THAT” is, becomes our master. We become prisoners of the very “THATS” we yearn to avoid.

A college professor taught me how to change my focus and make positive changes in my life. He called the lesson “The Brass Monkey Principle.” “Tonight, when you go to bed,” he said, “I’m asking you not to think of a brass monkey. When you pull the covers back, think of anything you’d like—but don’t think of a brass monkey. And all day today, whenever you think about going to bed, remind yourself not to think of a brass monkey.”

Throughout the day I thought about nothing but avoiding the thought of brass monkeys. Of course, that night, when I pulled back the covers of my bed, brass monkeys were frolicking everywhere.

I harbor a few brass monkeys in my life. I tend to become less than gracious when encountering poor service in the airline industry. During this Christmas season the airlines need to hang mistletoe at each baggage check-in location—because as soon as they take possession of your stuff, you can kiss it goodbye.

I’m not very proud that travel mishaps can ignite within me an unpleasant attitude. So many times I have looked in the mirror before leaving for a trip. I lift my right hand and swear, “I won’t allow myself to lose my cool.”  Translation: I will not see a brass monkey.

One night years ago, I arrived very late and very weary at a hotel where I held a guaranteed reservation. I was informed at the desk that my room had been sold to someone else. The brass monkey reared his ugly head. Rolling my eyes like an adolescent, I began demanding a definition of the word guarantee.

“What does the word guarantee mean?” I asked the poor girl behind the desk. “In your dictionary, does it say that guarantee means ‘we’ll keep your room until someone else asks for it?’” My road manager who had a cooler disposition, saw the steam shooting from my ears. He put a hand on my shoulder, and gently offered to handle the problem. His sane approach resulted in us being upgraded, at no additional cost, to a suite of rooms so big it took in two time zones. We had half of an entire floor.

As we made our way to the new, palatial set of rooms, I found myself whispering, “I’ll never do ‘THAT’ again.” By the time we reached our room, I felt so foolish. In spite of my promises to avoid the curse of the brass monkey, the first bump in the road turned me into a spoiled child.

When Diane first started playing golf, she demonstrated a peculiar gift. If there were water anywhere on the golf course, her ball would find it. One day, after baptizing six balls, we came to a fairway without a drop of water in sight. Diane teed up with confidence and hit her best drive of the day. We watched as it soared gracefully through the air and landed—with a splash!

Puzzled, we started toward Diane’s ball. Reaching its landing spot, we dropped our bags and started laughing. It so happened there was a six-inch indentation in the middle of the fairway for the sprinkler system. There, sitting at the bottom of this itsy bitsy pool of water, was Diane’s ball. Even golf balls abide by the Brass Monkey Principle.

Over the years I have slowly begun to change my strategy. See if you think this might make more sense.

Rather than concentrating on the behavior we want to avoid, why not concentrate on developing the behavior we desire?


Solomon said, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” If you’re constantly thinking of the negative things you’re trying to avoid, you’re going to be obsessed by those things. Even children know that the Little Engine That Could chanted, “I think I can, I think I can.” He didn’t chug up the hill puffing, “What if I can’t, what if I can’t.”

A biblical fellow named Paul complained that he always ended up doing the wrong things instead of the right ones. He nailed it—the solution—right on the head when he wrote:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)  Not a brass monkey anywhere in that list!

Doesn’t that make more sense than sleeping with brass monkeys for the rest of our lives?

What do you think? [reminder]


This post is an adaptation of a story in “Lighten Up” published by Zondervan. Check out my newest book, Lighten Up & Live: 90 Light-hearted Devotions to Brighten Your Day!




  1. 15 yrs ago my place of employment closed and I was out of work.My pastor instructed me to use my time wisely and read and pray, just devour pages rather than study for messages.I asked the Lord to reveal my enemy, his tricks and set ups so that I could wisely and safely avoid them.God revealed to me Himself.We need to “look st Jesus” not the devil.If our focus is on Jesus and we follow him in every aspect of our lives He will lead us through every thing the enemy attempts to derail us with.Thanks Ken.

  2. Very well said Ken. This post is a blessing. I’ll try and practice this. God helping me! Thanks

  3. Ken, thank you so much for posting this. I found it very ironic that your professor referred to short-comings as brass monkeys. I’ve always thought of my sin as a monkey on my back. I’ve experienced one particular monkey for most of my grown life. It has raised it’s ugly head again recently, only this time it’s worse than ever. I like Scott’s comment below, that if our focus is on Jesus, He will lead us through everything. And He will. I’ve felt that I’ve allowed my monkey to separate me from Jesus.
    Thank you for posting this. Please pray for me.

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