In addition to our freedom to choose, the human ability to think is a marvelous gift from God. Using our minds is not a sin or curse. Thinking always affects choices and the will (heart, spirit), yet we can also use the will to choose what we mentally dwell on.
One of the most misused verses among Christians is Proverbs 3:5, “Lean not on your own understanding,” which is often code for, “Don’t think.” Yet thinking is precisely where, with God’s help, we take charge and gain self-control over sinful behavior that once seemed beyond control.
We’re often trained from youth to put on our “best behavior” and we carry that training right into adulthood. So anyone can change short-term behavior—like New Year’s resolutions, for example.
But long-term transformation out of ruin into Christ-like wellness begins in the mental arena of ideas, information, images, and knowledge. People perish and are “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hos. 4:6) Spiritual renewal requires thinking. A people without understanding comes to ruin (Hos. 4:14), but we’re transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom.12:2).
So if I want to change my behavior into something more compassionate or patient or generous, I don’t do it the hard way by trying to change bad behavior. Instead, I start by changing my thoughts.
Jesus gave a lost and ruined world the information it needs to know God, learn truth, and find maximum life and well-being in God’s kingdom. This put him at odds with “experts” and scholars who eventually crucified him to shut him up, which backfired miserably when Jesus refused to stay dead.
To think means to test facts, information, or ideas. Jesus spoke of truth and knowledge versus false information and assumptions. Seeking to understand the facts and information he proclaimed in his gospel is how you seek the kingdom and seek the Lord. In search of truth, we ponder and reason, contemplate meanings, explore concepts, and gain his larger picture of life because thoughts always form images and feelings.
Disciples set Christ and his truth before them, always thinking and dwelling on what he teaches, digesting it like food. This isn’t the same as reading a few Bible verses each day and calling it “devotions” so I can be a proper Christian. Pharisees, atheists, and Satan himself know the Bible backwards and forward. And plenty of “proper” Christians are Scripture virtuosos, but don’t ever seem to find God’s Spirit within them.
First-pass or surface readings of most Scripture passages are not as clear as some people claim. There are many things to consider when studying Scripture; and devotion to truth means reading slowly, deliberately, and repeatedly—not to fill a daily square, but to understand it and change.
It involves challenging our notions of reality, considering possibilities, or rejecting false assumptions (one form of dying to self). It requires a discerning, disciplined mind and a teachable spirit willing to ask questions.
Strong faith comes from thinking well. Blind faith, weak as a leaf in a windstorm, comes from poor thinking. The stingy, shriveled spirits of some “believers” are no better off than the non-Christian Scrooges of the world, and evil counts on people who can’t think clearly or won’t use their minds for good. Can this really be what God has in mind?
Ask and you shall receive; seek and you will find. To think intelligently about God results in worship, which, in turn, enriches our vision of life and sense of camaraderie with Him. That, in turn, brings heightened experience of His presence, which bolsters confidence and joy, which inspires devotion to living well and promoting His good in the world.
Stretch yourself by reading an article, Facebook rant, or opinion page (maybe even this blog?) and asking God to help you analyze your reaction. Then, without beating yourself up or puffing yourself up, ask yourself some questions. Am I thinking clearly? How does this line up with what I already know or feel about the subject? Why or why not? Have I made assumptions? What would God want me to learn?
For example, Republicans can read something from a Democrat’s view; a Democrat can read something from the Republican perspective. Any hot-button social issue—from gun control to same-sex marriage to taxes—can be used as a spiritual discipline.
Notice the feelings this exercise produces in you—probably anger, contempt, or disgust. That’s because feelings are birthed in the mind. When they grow up, they move into the heart/will/ spirit. And that’s where behavior, good or bad, comes from.
Unless you understand this link, your actions won’t change long-term. Unloving, judgmental behavior—which isn’t the same as discernment—will own your soul and keep you in ruin, aggravation, or fear. And the means of learning to love neighbors even when you disagree with them will remain beyond you despite putting on your best behavior.
If you’ve grown weary of that, Paul’s advice is another wonderful discipline. “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.” (Phl. 4:8) Does this always have to be something religious or spiritual? No! Anything that’s excellent or praiseworthy will do.
Dwell on things that bring you comfort or make you cheerful. Try excusing yourself from arguments or removing yourself as best you can from constant, aggravating situations. You can’t control others, but you can control what you choose to set your mind on or engage in. That’s why it’s called self-discipline. The growing sense of control by itself will do wonders to brighten the spirit and rest the soul.