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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Training Like an Athlete: On Renewing the Mind



I’m not going to pull any punches here on this blog post. I’m going to admit outright that I am becoming weary of hearing the hopelessness some Christians have for life today, in this world. Too many of us are giving up, sitting down inside our own homes pursuing our hobbies or nursing our anxieties, or hiding behind the excuse of the sin nature, and waiting out our days until we can rejoice and live free in Eternal Bliss.

I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated because we hear the gospel and yet we won’t let it out of the graveclothes. We hear that we’re sinners. We accept it. We hear that Jesus came and died, and we claim the cross. But we forget the really, really good news part of it—and it IS good news.

He didn’t STAY dead. He absolutely rose from the dead and when he did so, that was total victory. The story has been written. The end is won, and if you believe, then the victory is yours too, right now. It’s for now, not just for the future. We are more than conquerors, because he conquered the grave. And he did it in real space and time, at a fixed and established and unchangeable point in history on this very ball of dust we are currently spinning around on too.

How is it, then, that we can become so fatigued and hopeless that he will really ever change us, so our perspective is only ever distantly in the heavens, and not for today—for right here, right now?

How is it? Here comes that punch: It is, I have come to believe, because we are a lazy, lazy people.

We hear that Grace is what God does for us—it’s free. Yes. Grace is free. Absolutely. I didn’t do one thing in all my life to earn God’s favor. Nothing I can offer to him is ever enough to purchase my good standing in his sight. He did it. Christ alone took all my filth for me, and all the Father’s righteous anger and judgment for my filth. It’s gone and I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it for myself. (Believe me, I’ve wrestled with this too—though I am by nature far more of a prodigal than an older brother, I’ve had my own share of polishing up all the “good,” or at least all the “not as bad as those OTHER people” actions and contributions I’d line up like top-heavy dominoes in my own Pharisaical Portfolio of Promise.)

But just because Grace is the free gift of God doesn’t mean that I get to sit down, separate myself out from the vigorous business of living, and wait, just on the off-chance that after imparting Grace to me he might also, maybe, if it pleases him, in his own timing, pull out his magic wand and zap me with a burst of healing that removes all sin, fear, temptation, doubt, depression, and anxiety from me. Until then, I’d better just stay over here, though, eating Doritoes in the spiritual bean bag chair. I guess if anyone comes to me, I’ll answer the door, but I’m NOT letting him or her in.
No, that’s what we want. To get grace and then coast on through to the end of days, when we’ll get to go to the big party, and my, won’t we be fine then, with no more sin to battle.

How do we get here? How do we forget so much that repentance and sanctification and renewing the mind are active and not passive events? We will use the word “relationship.” Salvation is a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” But what do you really mean when you call it a relationship? Think about your closest relationships—those with your best friends, your family members, and the co-workers or fellow students or roommates that you spend six or eight or sometimes more hours a day with. There’s this back and forth thing going on. You talk. You share food. You get in each other’s way. You argue sometimes. You share plans. You ask advice. You give advice (whether asked or not). You plan surprises for each other. You give up or give in to keep peace or to meet a greater goal. Whatever it looks like, it’s a two-way thing and it takes effort and engagement and work. And it’s worth it. It’s not passive.

There’s a reason, then, why Paul tells us to train like an athlete. Near the end of 1 Corinthians 9 he gives all these examples at once: “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” Elsewhere he tells us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Feel the burn, keep going, but don’t you dare give up!

This is not a passive approach to the Christian life. This is not a fear-filled approach either. It isn’t hopeless. But it certainly isn’t easy. I don’t think he is talking, literally, about beating his body, though I wouldn’t doubt that he did press his physical limits over and over again. I don’t see Paul as a couch potato, mentally, physically, or spiritually.

But we Christians can be such a hopeless bunch, and brothers and sisters, it ought not to be so!

Again, I admit I am more an “already” than a “not yet” person. “Become who you already are in Christ,” my pastor says. Just become it already! But we hold back, because we still think it’s our own power and not his, and we know how finite and small it is. Are you dust? Absolutely. But you are no longer your own. You have the very God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, LIVING IN YOU. The word is living and abiding, and it does purify. Adelphoi, believe it!

Jesus said it was because he was going back to the Father that his followers would be able to do greater things than he had done. (John 14:12) He is speaking, I believe, about the great growth of the church that was and is still being experienced through us—through you and me and the family that slips into the pew at 11:05 and out by 11:55 as well as the ones who arrive 45 minutes early to make the coffee and stay an hour late to lock up. We are his active hands and feet here today, and we are called to action, to relationship, to go wherever it is he sends us.

But no, we are not sinless yet. It’s still no excuse to sit still. We are not brave. We are not confident. We don’t feel capable. We’d just plain old rather not. All of those excuses are lies for the one who is indwelt with the Spirit.

So, I have learned something about this process of renewing the mind over the last year. Some of you who read this know a bit of my story. Some know nothing. One or two know almost everything. You don’t need the details. But know this: I know what it is to be afraid. I know what it is to be paralyzed by conditioning to fear. I know what it is to believe lies that I am not truly secure in my God’s hand. And I know that the mental and spiritual training it takes to break free from that into the kind of trust that puts God first and foremost is the one key to being able to get up out of the spiritual bean bag, and set aside the excuses for inaction, and take down the boundaries and fences that prevent us from acting like we truly are empowered by the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the Universe, so that we can put that power on display before the world, and through that display, others will see and know that he alone is God and this is not from ourselves. This is how the church grows, and that is the primary work we are here, spending our days, doing. Following in his steps. It is for this purpose you have been called. It’s more important than putting food on the table. It’s more important than pursuing a hobby. It’s more important even than nursing the wounds this life has inflicted. Growing the church. Reflecting God’s power and restoring love to the world and building up one another for that purpose.

About 14 months ago, my paralysis was pretty much complete. Almost. Except for God himself still in me. I could say, “I don’t know how he’s going to bring me out of this, but I believe he can.” I really could not see any hope for myself, but I never stopped believing that God was able. And he was. But I had to participate too. And that’s what I want to share with anyone who is willing to work at his or her own renewing of the mind.

The spiritual battle that we endure in this life is really far less one of the physical struggles than we like to imagine. It goes on inside the mind. But we are more than conquerors, and we don’t own our own minds. Satan doesn’t own our minds. God does. Your private thoughts? That too is a lie you’ve believed. Your mind as well as your body belongs to God, so give it to him. Just do it! Stop holding back and give it to him! Here are the steps:

1. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5 is a critical passage.
Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
Every.single.thought.
Remember, we are lazy! If a fear-filled thought, or a sinful thought, or a depressed or anxious thought comes into your head, and you entertain it there for awhile, you are NOT taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. We must be diligent—like an athlete in training, to monitor our thoughts all the time, and to take them captive when they stray.
With training, this becomes much more of an involuntary action, but at first, it won’t come naturally. At first, you may let the thought linger. You may dwell on it, especially if you think it is “harmless,” or if you rather enjoy it. But you won’t get stronger that way.
When one of the lies of the evil one shows up there in your head, you must first learn to recognize it. Recognize it is harmful—that’s what evil means, anyway. Harmful.
Whether the thought is one of devaluation or one of outright sin, the process works, and it starts with capturing the negative thought. (Yes, guys: this EVEN works on lustful thoughts; you are NOT off the hook simply because you were designed with testosterone pumping through your body. You are still responsible for your thoughts and they are NOT too fallen to be controlled by the power of God at work in you. Sorry. You’re not “just wired” that way. That in itself is an evil thought that needs to be submitted to obedience to Christ.)

2. Identify the lie that is in the thought.
2 Corinthians 10: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” We must destroy the arguments that are planted in our heads, keeping us fear-filled and impotent. God is a God of hope. He is not a God of despair. If you are stuck in despair (and I know, it can happen; I was), then it is not his truth you are hearing in your head. If you are stuck in a sin, or frozen for fear that you might be led into sin, then you are not hearing his power and promise. You are believing a lie. Identify it. Test everything; hold on to the good. Reject the lies and extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.

3. Replace it or counteract it with the biblical truth.
Actively counter the lie with the truth it is trying to undermine. No—you are not worthless. Christ died for YOU. He gave you his own worth when he did so. No—you are not an accident. He foreknew you from before the foundations of the Earth. No—you are not incapable of ceasing to lust after someone. Remember how Paul instructed Timothy to relate to every individual in the Body as family members, even the young single women as sisters “with absolute purity.” He would not ask us to do something he could not empower us to do. He called Lazarus forth from the grave and commanded his friends to “unbind him and let him go.”  When you replace the lie with the truth it tries to counter, you are unbinding the power of the gospel. The truth IS power.

4. Ask Christ to forgive you for falling prey to the lie before now and to help you to believe the truth.
I believe! Help my unbelief! And if I confess my sin (of doubt, of wavering) he is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse me of all unrighteousness. I am responsible for my thoughts, but he will not continue to hold it against me when I confess it. However, I am in training. I need my trainer to help me move ahead past this one, and to be ready to face it if it comes back again.

5. Expect him to respond.
This step is just as important as all the others. This step moves the other four above from works righteousness into true faith-living. Expect Jesus to respond, to act on your behalf.
Ask and do not doubt. He is your friend. And he is the most powerful friend there is. And he has already proven that he will use his power for your good. So ask and do not doubt. There is no place for hopelessness when a believer is seeking renewing of the mind. There is no room for “I’ve always struggled with this (issue, sin, fear, etc.; fill in your own blank) and this is just the way I am” if you believe in the God who raises the dead. This is the very business he is in, and when you are asking him to help you do that which he came to do, you can expect him to do it!
Friends can be many things. Some are tough and hold you accountable. Some are gentle and compassionate and comforting. Some supply personal needs. Some provide fun and refreshment. Most probably can’t do all those things or at least not perfectly. But if there is one thing a friend does, if that person is truly a friend, it is to respond when asked. So if you, who are evil, know how to respond to a friend when asked, how much more will he come to your aid?
Expect Jesus to exceed all your expectations when you ask him to help you. Expect and do not doubt.

Now, repeat, numbers 1-5. How many reps does the spiritual athlete need to make to see progress? (We have to ask because, remember, we are lazy. Oh please, please, please…let me just do this once and be healed.)
Wait. Do I have to do this every day? Yes.
Do I have to do it morning and night? Yep.
How many reps? Honestly the only answer is: as many as it takes.
For how long? For always. For as long as there is breath in your nostrils, you will need to practice and refine the skill of taking your thoughts captive, identifying the lies, replacing the lies with truth, repenting and asking for help to believe, and then expecting his response.

But it is worth it. It builds the relationship with him, invigorates it, frees the believer—yes, it is true, you really can be freed from what holds you back now! This is sanctification. Get one issue in hand, and there will be another one, but the paralysis goes. You will be able to live for him instead of just sitting out your days waiting for the instant maturity that comes at death. You will be able to walk and run and even leap sometimes! You will NOT be a boiling pot all your days, just struggling to keep the lid on so you don’t boil over. This process will turn down the heat. The process is power, because it is God who is at work within you, to will and to act, as you go through those steps, working out your own salvation.

So get up. Get up out of the spiritual bean bag of mental paralysis, take your mind—which is being renewed, remember you have been given the mind of Christ—and go—into this world, into your community. Go where he sends you. Do what he sends you to do.

Let’s go out and be the church. To one another, to the world, for his glory. It is for freedom you have been set free.

On your marks, get set…

4 comments:

MacoMan said...

This reminds me of someone I know. He was going through the most awful circumstances in life and with his faith, desperate at every turn. He said, "I thought I heard (not audibly) God sort of say to me, 'Have you had enough?' And I responded at that moment, 'No, I haven't. I know what you doing, and as painful as it is, I still know what you are doing - bring it on, I want more of it!"

This man clearly understood that he was being crucified by the world while he was being crucified with Christ.

This man knows something about his Friend because his Friend is in relationship with him, and in that relationship, he knows he is losing something to gain everything.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, while looking through hundreds of blogs daily, the theme of this blog is different (for all the proper reasons). If you do not mind me asking, what's the name of this theme or would it be a especially designed affair? It's significantly better compared to the themes I use for some of my blogs.

--Rebecca said...

It's just one of the choices blogger offers in the basic selection. I liked the brightness but simplicity of it.

--Rebecca said...

MacoMan--
I haven't seen you around the blog in quite some time. If you get comment notifications from entries you commented on, I hope you receive this. I have appreciated your input and would love to hear from you again.