The point of all this mental exercise I’ve been writing about is to feed the mind with good images, thoughts, and information to develop a mind like Christ. Genuine and consistent Christ-like behavior comes from the mind of the Spirit—God’s thoughts in you.
By that I don’t mean a spiritual lobotomy where your thinking is no longer your own, but where your own thinking is the same as His. From there, you can form intentions that match His will. Destructive images and false information will gradually be replaced with good thoughts, words, and deeds.
A Powerful Link Between Ideas and Feelings
Thoughts create and shape feelings that we subsequently act on. Take the revived uproar in this country over gun control as one example. (For an interesting look at theological implications, you might like this article, Deliver Us from Evil (in a Hail of Bullets).) The issue has degenerated beyond respectful conversation because people on both sides are ruled by their feelings on the matter.
What they’re acting on is fear. One side holds a deep, abiding fear of losing rights and would gladly give up life to save those rights. The other holds a deep, abiding fear of losing life and would gladly give up rights to save it. Concepts like freedom, safety, and life evoke powerful images and emotions.
Mentally unstable shooters on a killing spree are acting on their own images and information, however warped it all may be. When they can no longer resist the ensuing feelings, they “snap.” (The same goes for “normal” people who suddenly have an affair or embezzle from their bosses.)
So both sides of the debate are deadlocked in contemptuous rants and name-calling spewed at opponents—morons and dumbasses—which is its own kind of murder rather than love or respect for enemies. Normally sane people become verbal hit-men with high-capacity magazines loaded with words, firing indiscriminately at any threat to their respective ideals.
This is what it looks like when people, individually and collectively, are owned by feelings rather than mastering and owning them. Emotions become gods that must be satisfied and served. And the ruined human being that blindly follows feelings is, effectively, a spiritual chump pulled around by the nose.
Lost and Confused
I think most of us might feel lost without our fears and angers, lusts and power trips, wounded spirits, and cherished reputations and images. We treasure them because we can’t picture life without them. In fact, we build our identities around them. So the idea of giving them up usually means giving up our identity, the biblical concept of death to self in a nutshell.
In the transformation process, you’ll likely lose friends who can’t understand why you’ve gone off the deep end. A transforming person loses like-mindedness with teachers, co-workers, family members, and an entire social network that doesn’t see or want to see. The following verse from Jesus used to confuse me, but now makes perfect sense:
Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of [ready for] me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mat. 10:34-39)
Fear of loss is one sneaky form of pride—the learned disposition to insist on having your way. Yet fear can be defeated by joy and the sense of gain, profit, and well-being; but you can’t get that until you can see it. And you see it by dwelling on it in your thought-life where an ever-present God meets, reassures, and sustains you regardless what happens.
A regenerating person thus feels less and less the need to return insult for insult, for example. Or the need to call people dumbass or moron. Or the need to satisfy and please their anger, lust, woundedness, pride, or whatever. They’re slowly seeing a new person, a new identity, a new creation in Christ living a new kind of life from above.
I can tell you first-hand that this shift feels at first like a free-fall off Mt. Everest. You don’t know anymore who you are because you’re essentially defying what you were taught was right. C.S. Lewis described falling like a “house of cards” in his switch from atheism to Christianity. Jesus knows that a faith-crisis is a scary collapse and warns about building and practicing on sand rather than on rock (Mat. 7:24-27).
The good news is that recovery is quick and powerful.
1. To begin mastering feelings, give some deep thought to how you see and identify yourself. For example, several years ago I would have said, “I’m passionate, a perfectionist, and I insist on high standards.” Translation: I’m opinionated, judgmental and merciless, and impose my ways on you.
This kind of person isn’t able (ready, worthy) to be like Christ because we can’t stand to be wronged. Forgiveness and grace are biblical buzzwords that can’t actually be practiced in real life, so we talk about them but don’t think or feel them and gain experience.
Others might say, “I’m a laid back, free-wheeling, no-holds-barred person.” Translation: I’m lazy, irresponsible, and thoughtless. This kind of person also isn’t able to be like Christ because they’ve formed no purposeful intent. Life just happens and they often feel like victims. Beneath the protective masks are angry, disengaged souls no more forgiving than their Type A counterparts.
So, both need God’s vision of love, power, and gain. Both can find it by exploring new ideas of who’s really well-off (and who isn’t) in God’s kingdom, whether they identify themselves as conservative, liberal, Christian, American, or any other term that evokes strong emotion.
2. Consider that the trick isn’t to resist your feelings, but to change them into something you don’t have to constantly fight. Passion always produces commitment, so instead of killing it (the usual suggestion), understand how feelings work. For example, the same passion that manifests as judgmental contempt can also manifest as blessing those who curse you, provided you see this as in your own best interest, which it is. Everyone’s passionate about that.
Recall that Jesus motivated people by pointing out that gaining the whole world is useless if you forfeit your soul (self) in the process. He may have a strange way of putting it, but death to self and losing life to save it are about doing what’s in your own best interest. With practice under God’s grace and motivation, you can safely master your mind and reshape feelings without huffing and puffing your way through.
3. Try mulling over Paul’s advice in the context of cherished feelings and ideas. Ask God to help you understand so you can see the wellness you’ll gain when you lose these:
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your [negative] earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry…. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.
“But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and coarse language…since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Col. 3:5-10)