The Discipline of a Christian Mind
A Christian friend you know and like has a way of talking about her high flying career in a way that makes you feel awkward. You can’t quite put your finger on it but sense that there is something not quite right. Another Christian friend gives you a similar sense of unease when they let anyone who’ll listen know that they consider that they made a wrong choice back in their young twenties and they have been paying for it ever since. They never quite express it but the resentment you sense they have is something a Christian should not feel towards God.
A Christian applying their mind in a disciplined and Christian way to each situation would have something vital and helpful to say about career idolatry in the one case and contentment in the other
This is an article about Christian discipline. We all discipline ourselves in different areas. For some its getting up early, for others its remembering to set the video so as not to miss something on the box
Applying Godly discipline to our lives may sound unpopular in this laissez faire age we live in….. but it matters. Applying discipline has to start with the mind for the very obvious reason that the things we do are determined by the things we think.
We are all thinking, all the time, whether we are Christians or not. Try thinking about nothing for 10 seconds and you’ll know what I mean. But a standard Christian assumption is that if we are Christians we automatically think Christianly. It may be a shock to realise that we don’t. There is nothing automatic about it. Harry Blamires puts it quite succinctly: “While Christians may worship and pray as Christians, they do not think as Christians”.
Take our behaviour for example: People do not get rid of all bad habits overnight when they become Christians. Nor too do we suddenly get rid of all bad thinking when we trust Christ. In fact at the point we trust Christ a labour intensive job starts. All the worldly thinking we have had for so long needs to be actively rooted out and replaced with Christian thinking.
When a person becomes a Christian they have began a battle to think Christianly. The problem is that if we have never really considered our minds a battleground, we won’t have begun to fight.
In most sports there is a big difference between training and playing a match. In the one, your guard may be down, your thoughts elsewhere and your commitment less than full. But when a match against an opposition is on, the mindset changes. We are geared up for the clash. We can see the opposition. They stand out in their brightly coloured shirts. Everyone knows that the battle is on.
It is my contention that Christians for the most part have never really acknowledged that they are in a match for their minds. That the whistle has gone and that there is an opposition fighting very keenly against them. The result is that we won’t have begun to compete. The opposition will be crawling all over us. The aim of this talk this evening is to get us contending for our minds.
To get us going in the battle to think Christianly, lets turn to the first two verses of Romans Chapter 12 and hear from the bible.
1. Therefore in view of God’s mercy, I urge you brothers, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship.
2. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good pleasing and perfect will.
If we are going to think Christianly then we need to be:
Verse 1: Paul is about to launch into application of all that has gone before: ‘Therefore’ he says. But instead of launching straight in, he reminds his hearers that the right motivation for doing what he is about to say needs to be clear.
He knows as well as we do that if a person is doing the right thing for the wrong reason the chances are that the task they are doing will not get done properly. Doing something out of a sense of grudging duty is a far cry from doing the same thing out of willing gratitude. In the one we will try and get away with the minimum necessary. In the other we will do the best we possibly can.
It is our gratitude to God for his mercy that Paul wants to be the Christian’s motivation for obedience. Notice that it does not say ‘In view of God’s fearsome judgement’. Nor, In view of your guilty conscience or your desire to fit in, or to make the world a better place, offer yourselves……. No, wrong motivation will stifle the very relationship God so wants us to have with him.
It is because of God’s mercy that we are forgiven, set free from the penalty our sin should incur and set right with him. The discipline of having a Christian mind, Paul is keen to point out from the start, will only grow from a right view of God’s mercy.
Paul has spent the first 11 chapters of his letter to the Romans spelling out the gospel which is, precisely God’s mercy to undeserving sinners.
The key word in chapters 9-11 has been mercy. (9:16). ‘For salvation depends not .. on our effort but on God’s mercy. (9:23) God’s purpose is to make his glory known to the objects of his mercy’. The heartbeat of the gospel and of this letter is God has graciously dealt with the barrier to a right relationship with him; he has punished sin in his son. And now the sinner CAN stand forgiven and in perfect relationship with him.
So the first question we have to ask ourselves is just how grateful are we? Jesus makes clear that; It is those who have been forgiven much who will love much. Those who don’t, won’t. Luke 7:47.
Unless we understand how serious our sin is we won’t bother to think Christianly. If we don’t grasp what it cost God to deal with Sin, we won’t bother to think Christianly. Unless we see how great it is to have a hope of heaven guaranteed us, we won’t bother to think Christianly.
All these things are simply the fruits of a thorough understanding of the gospel. So to keep our motivation on track we need to keep turning back to the gospel and taking every chance we can to be reminded of God’s mercy. When the gospel comes up in a sermon or bible study again we should be grateful and thank him and not sigh tiredly as though we want something new
A sure sign that we are likely to have our thinking shifting off course is if we have become complacent about the gospel. If we talk about having ‘evangelical roots’ but have moved on since. Lose sight of the gospel and our motivation for disciplined service will lose direction.
We must be motivated for service by God’s mercy.
First : Motivated by Mercy.
Conformity, that is, with the world
Paul says, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world.” Another slightly freer translation has these words as saying “Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould”. Anyone who has fought to get an sleeping bag into a sack that is far too small for it will have a good idea of what Paul is getting at. Paul is adamant that the ‘squeeze to fit’ process is happening to Christians. And we are to fight it. We are not to be conformed. But we are too often unaware of the process or worse still, like the look of the pattern the world offers and make no attempt to prevent it happening. So two questions then to forearm and forewarn us against the worlds squeeze : 1: What is the process? and 2. what is the pattern?
First, the process of being conformed:
Isn’t a habit by definition something we do without really thinking any more? Habits can be good. Anyone who has learned to touch type knows an action can be honed by practice to be efficient and possible to do with our eyes closed. But habits can be bad. It’s a sobering thought that habits whether good or bad start with a just one thought and end up becoming, by repetition, the patterns that are part of who we are.
What do we do by force of habit? What happens day after day for hour after hour without us really thinking?
Watching Television comes top of the surveys: TV sets in most UK homes are on for approximately 6 and a half hours a day and the average viewer watches just over three hours a day. Interestingly in US figures, Christian homes average only 15 minutes less a day than the rest.
Neil Postman, an American media expert wrote a fascinating book called ‘Amusing ourselves to death’. In it he says that between the ages of six and eighteen, the average child spends 15-16000 hours in front of the television. It’s a shocking figure on its own but when it is compared to the number of hours they spend in school: 13000 its even more worrying. Postman says that in the US during the first 20 years of someone’s life, he or she will have seen 1 million adverts at the rate of about 1000 a week.
As to TVs effects the results are infamous: Shortened attention spans, diminution of linguistic ability, reduced capacity to think abstractly, and the blending of childhood into adulthood.
To attract and hold its audience the TV industry feels it has to parade the taboos of culture, adultery, promiscuity, homosexuality, incest, violence, and sadism. As a result these lowest of activities become commonplace and even morally cachet.
I have never seen a real dead body, but the occurrence of violence and death on television is so commonplace that I have been hardened to expect to see one every day. Is that right?. My sense of outrage at injustice, foul language and immorality is being constantly detuned by television. Unless I counter it by somehow breaking the habit, I will conform to the world
The Cinema whether it’s the local UCI or your own home video is another vehicle for programming the mind. You don’t have to come out of a James Bond film wanting to try your hand at parachuting or abseiling to realise that Films exert an undue influence on us.
Have you ever thought how many films have you watched that present a moving story in such a way that the audience are meant to sympathise with the adulterer, the thief, or the cheat. How many films have the anti-authority figure as the hero? and since when was it OK to say that the means justified the end?. If we are not awake to the influence of film and TV on our minds, we will be conformed to think just like the rest of the world and any Christian distinctiveness of mind will disappear.
Surely books are all right. And magazines and newspapers for that matter? The written word is a safe medium isn’t it. Well you ask yourself concerning the last contemporary novel you read or magazine you browsed through in the doctors waiting room. The storyline may have been intriguing and the characters well developed but just how helpful are those racy scenes that conjure up unhelpful sexual images in our minds? Not at all I’d say. But then why do we Christians still read them? We have been squeezed into the Worlds pattern? Are we being squeezed into thinking that just because something is on the bestseller list it is worth reading?
The process of confronting conformity comes down to what we choose to practice. We choose what will become habitual by decisions we make in our minds. To make the right decisions we need to be feeding our minds the right input and guarding what enters is crucial.
The pattern I want to look at is what the world ends up looking like. If you know what uniform the world is dressed up then it will help yous distinguish it from others. In the Army it is part of the preparation for going to any new operational theatre to learn to distinguish between the uniforms and insignia of the troops you’d be working with. I did a stint in Bosnia and getting clear in our minds what pattern uniform each of the Bosnians Serbs and Croat were wearing was crucial. The last thing we wanted to be doing was mistaking one for the other.
I want therefore to give a tactical briefing before launching you all out on operations tonight. What is the world wearing? It may be you can identify some of the world pattern in your own gear. If you do the faster you get it off the better.
So three brief pictures then of the Worlds pattern of thinking:
1 The World is concerned with the temporal not the eternal., the NOW and not the THEN. You don’t have to look much beyond the raging consumer society in which we live where material possessions and the means to acquire more are what is driving people. Workaholism is rife. In many offices it is assumed that families come second to work. Promotion is based on loyalty to the firm. Anyone who goes home at a reasonable hour, that is before 6pm, is looked down on.
Abuse of position, trust and power are expected of those who make it to the top. And in such an environment it is costly for a Christian to go against the flow. Image, greed and pride; These are often the forces that are driving our non-Christian friends, but are they driving us too? Christian men and women are too easily drawn into the rat race without thinking. We imbibe the values, priorities and promotional aspirations of our friends all too easily.
It seems most Christians are just not thinking of eternity at work. It’s a dead time when the now is all that matters. No: Don’t we believe that we worship God with all of our lives? Sadly it seems that the place Christians spend the majority of their lives, at work, is a forgotten even ignored place of worship. We just don’t think.
When a Christian shows they do have their sights on the eternal and say leave a job in medicine to go into full time gospel work, they get grief. Its not just pagan friends who tell them it’s a waste. It can be Christians as well. A friend of mine who negotiated a 4-day working week in order to give a day to Christian ministry at church, got flack from his unbelieving parents but also surprised and slightly put out responses from Christians too.
What about schooling? More and more parents who have their sights set on eternity are choosing to school their children and home. Seeing that they are fighting a losing battle to instil and promote a Christian worldview with the secular pluralist and relativist worldview that saturates our education systems they choose to live on one less income and commit to home-schooling. It will not be everyone’s choice but why is it Christian people are the ones that they face some of the toughest opposition from?
Could it be that the example being set is just too uncomfortable for others to want to face? And is it an indication of people losing sight of eternity.
Why is it a struggle to encourage keen Christians to bring their friends to the evangelistic meetings and services laid on for them? Its often simply because they have lost sight of eternity. Popularity with friends now counts more than the eternal state of those friends in the future.
Contentment is an issue in the world. The craving after more and dissatisfaction with what we own is endemic but should it be among Christians? Surely not if we have ‘Christ in us the Hope of Glory’ Colossians 1:27. Paul learned the secret of being content in all circumstances. Can we honestly say we have? Is our frustration with the small kitchen the lack of an extra bedroom an appropriate response to the mercy God has shown us in Christ.
The world cannot pray, at least not in any meaningful way. The Christian is no different when despite having a permanent open line to God they rarely use it. We give Eastenders prime time and God our 5 minutes with bleary eyes over the breakfast cereal or last thing at night. Shouldn’t eternity have a bearing on what we do with our prime time.
If prayer is the means God has invited us to be involved with him in bringing people to life why is the church prayer meeting so poorly attended by thinking Christians? Is it because we’ve forgotten that for Christians the eternal comes first?. When we do pray is the balance of what we pray for grounded in this life or in the next? I mean are we just praying for People to get well and be happy or do we pray as Christians with our sights set on heaven for people to be transformed now and saved from hell then?
If Christians are strangers and aliens passing through this life (1 Peter 1:1), have we cut the ties to this life that the world wants to bind tighter? If we know there are no possessions we can take with us, should family heirlooms hold us in such a grip and wouldn’t insuring our car for anyone to drive be a good sign that we aren’t holding on too tightly. Where does a Christian mind on Financial planning get a look in? How do we view debt? Do we take seriously Jesus words that we can’t serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24.
Here is an exercise worth trying this weekend. Using last month’s diary, take a pen and highlight the things that are directly concerned with eternity; The meetings to encourage other believers, the friends you’ve met having prayed beforehand that you’d be able to share the gospel with. The Sunday meetings. Do our diaries really look much different to our non-Christian friends? Are they evidence of our concern for eternity or something less? Lets think big.
2. The World rejects the idea of SIN and the reality of God’s judgement. Sin is rebellion against God. We all are guilty before Him and but for Christ we all will face His justice. The problem is that if we see Sin as any less serious than that, we are being conformed to the world: Sin is just the mess we have made that needs a bit of wiping up. NO! It’s much more serious than that. God is God, Sin is Sin and he will hold us to account.
Because the world around us writes accountability to God out of the equation, it naturally puts pressures on Christians to join them in the heady excitement of unaccountability. It is a hard pressure to resist.
Suggesting that you won’t do something others assume is perfectly normal ‘on principle’ will draw astonished looks and maybe even ridicule. Getting drunk, joining a business freebie at a dubious venue, pilfering the stationary. Who’s going to know? they ask ‘It’s a big company and everyone’s doing it’ they say. Either you join in or you lose your promotion….. The pattern the world wants us to conform to just is not aware that we are accountable beyond the office, beyond the legal system and only ultimately to God.
Do we then actively flee evil or leave it lying around knowing temptation could get the better of us. The world has no qualms about men’s magazines, unlimited internet access and late night telly. Shouldn’t we?
Laws based on moral and ethical judgements found in scripture are being scrubbed out of the statute books at a rate of knots. Sin as rebellion against God is being downplayed.
Christians are being conformed to this pressure when we play down our own sinfulness, compare ourselves to others and not with God’s perfect standard. And we leave out of our gospel conversations the hard truth about sin guilt and punishment in order to get to the comfort of the cross. That kind of shortcut leads nowhere.
3. Tied very closely to this is the worlds belief that Truth is relative and not absolute. Instead of recognising truth as being supernaturally grounded, the world asserts that the only judge of what is true is the individual themselves. Some go down the rationalist route, others the romantic route but all claim an autonomy and independence of any revealed truth. ‘That may be true for you but it isn’t necessarily true for everyone’ our friends say.
So ratings and opinion polls have become the arbiters of truth and any mention of religious truth and the secular mind will conveniently declare it just a matter of opinion. We Christians are in danger of conforming to the worlds pattern here when we start to want to blur the edges of God’s revealed truth and say that either pragmatism or compassion demand that we move on from it. We need to watch out of we find ourselves saying, the bibles message needs updating. It just cant speak into our modern world. The world has changed and it needs to too.
Romans 12 1 and 2 surely make it clear to us that there are active things that we can do to stop ourselves being conformed to the world. Conversely doing nothing will have us inevitably conforming to it. We are to be motivated by mercy, confronting conformity and LASTLY thinking transformation
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is His good pleasing and perfect will.
‘The process and pattern of the world is so deeply ingrained in us it is hard to imagine breaking with it but that is just what be transformed means. It’s nothing less than an inward and outward metamorphosis that we are to undergo.
See how the verse sets up a stark contrast between the pattern of this world at the beginning of verse 2 and the good pleasing and perfect will of God at the end of it. Its good to be reminded at this point that God is not a spoilsport or killjoy. Rather that His is a good, pleasing and perfect will. There is nothing that could be better for us than to test and approve what that is and get on and do it. No matter how much the world and the billboard adverts, the Sunday supplements and the latest blockbuster from Hollywood tempt us to think otherwise, obedience to God’s will is the best thing for us.
And the engine room of the whole transformation process is our mind. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. It’s a great comfort isn’t it that God does not bypass our minds in the process of getting us to do his will. We are not turned into robots with no choice. No. He is a loving and kind God who graciously works with our conscious co-operation and permission. This is going on as we begin to reset our thinking by his standards, adjust our clocks to his timings, reset our priorities with loyalty to Him at the top.
How are our minds to be renewed? Surely it must begin with using what he has already given us to get to know him intimately. God has revealed what his standards, his timings and his priorities are in Scripture. So we need ti immerse our minds in that.
Paul writing to the Philippian church set out a study plan for them that they might be transformed . He suggests in Philippians 4:8 to focus their minds on what is “true, whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable - think about such things.” He ends with the loaded charge “if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” that they are to think on such things. And the word think there is a word that is used for the deliberate considered prolonged contemplation of something.
What magazines do folk subscribe to? The week the economist? We subscribe because we are interested and if you are anything like me when that monthly mag arrives the rest of the mail and often other pressing things can get left in the wings as we dip in. I get Cross Country Magazine. It’s the international free-flyer magazine with great articles about hang-gliding and paragliding. It gets my careful scrutiny, deliberate and prolonged contemplation. As a result I have a good understanding of the people places and workings of the hang-gliding and paragliding world. I read the reviews of new wings and of flying sites. I read the safety warnings and scan the holiday destinations.
We are all aware that we can’t be profoundly influenced by what we do not know and so the renewing of our minds will only happen as we take an active interest in immersing ourselves in God’s word. Don’t hear me heaping on a bible reading legalism here. The Bible nowhere demands we read it through once a year. And some cannot read well or fast. But do hear an appeal to be making every effort to be filling your mind with that from which we can discern God’s good pleasing and perfect will. It is not going to come from anywhere else. If we let slip a regular reading and studying of God’s word then we are in effect ‘editing God out’. Something else will fill that slot and we will never have a fully Christian mind.
Along with the reading of the word we ought to be reading good books. Others have walked the paths we so want to tread and reading Great Christian writing is the way we benefit from the wealth of their thinking. There are no new heresies under the sun and so arming ourselves with the arguments that won the day in centuries past is actually a great time saver! Setting ourselves to read two or three good books a year is a great start. At least don’t let the number of secular books we read outstrip our Christian book intake. It takes discipline to sit down and read the bible or a good Christian book rather than be entertained by a newspaper.
Our minds are amazing instruments. They have a greater capacity than a thousand busy London telephone exchanges. In fact the mind is greater than any amount of computers because it can possess the mind of Christ and think God’s thoughts after him. What a tragedy then that we have this mind and have it redeemed and yet do not have a Christian mind. We must protect our minds. We must refuse to allow our culture to write the program. We must make an effort to be transformed by the renewing of our minds according to God’s program through reading his Holy Word. There has to be some divine sweat “train yourselves to be Godly. For physical training is of some value, but Godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the world to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
If we have recognised that the whistle has gone and the gloves are off then we’ll get our defences up and start boxing clever. The opposition is real and our minds are the battle ground.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-- his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)