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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Captured Thoughts, Renewed Minds

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. -- Romans 12:3, ESV

You know the struggle. "We have the mind of Christ," says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:16. So why the daily wrestling? Why the return to the old ways of thinking? Is there ever progress or victory in this process of transforming and renewing?

Some years ago, I was in a very dark place mentally. The truth I knew wasn't permeating. It wasn't transforming and it wasn't renewing. The journey out of darkness and into light was long and painful. I'm still on the same journey, but I can say there's progress. It's not a straight-line path toward victory, but over much time, I have learned a little bit about where my own responsibility to work out my salvation in the presence of the Holy Spirit can be expressed and practiced.

This morning, a good friend asked me to share with her my notes from a Sunday school class I guest-taught on this subject after much wrestling on my own in the area of renewing the mind. She asked if the notes were on my blog, and since they were not, I've decided to share them here now, years later, in case they might be helpful to any of you. 

Please don't read this as a formula. We know that formulas and rote mechanics do not work. Though I've broken this into steps, it's a relationship and not a rule book that makes it effective. Let me know how I can pray for you if you're in this place. I want to, beloveds. We need one another, as is spelled out below, and we're made for one another.

Paul speaks about renewing the mind. (Romans 12:2) It is a transformational process that moves us from having minds like the world, like our own natural (called fleshly) states, to having the mind of Christ, which Paul says we do have, as believers. (1 Corinthians 2:16) It isn’t automatic, however, that once one believes, the mind is instantly renewed. It is possible to be stagnant in that process or led astray again. (2 Corinthians 11:3 says: “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”) And we know this. We can all say how we have been tempted by deceptions, tempted both to believe and to act in ways that are not in accord with God’s will. We all know that we have a tendency to make things other than God our idols in our daily lives. So our minds need training, and it is a rigorous training. Paul encourages us to work at it. (Philippians 2:12: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”)

How do we do it? What are we being asked to do when we are told to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds”? Do we simply believe what we believed when first saved and wait on the Holy Spirit to do the rest? I would say both Yes and No. Yes, there is waiting on the Holy Spirit to work. But no, it’s not JUST waiting. There is also an active participation in “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” that is also asked of us. (2 Corinthians 10:5) And it is by this taking our thoughts captive that the spiritual battle, which takes place in our thoughts often before it appears in our actions, is waged. It is in our minds that faith is established and held firm when emotions and circumstances seem to fail us. It is in our minds, when our thoughts are submitted to Christ, that we are renewed, transformed, and able to demolish every argument that sets itself up against the knowledge of God—those arguments that would lead us into unbelief, lack of trust in God, and ultimately sin in deed.

There’s a pattern here: What one thinks shapes what one believes. What one believes shapes how one acts. Change what you think and you will change what you believe. Change what you believe and you will change how you act. Change how you act, and eventually, even how you feel will be changed. But feelings are usually the last thing to change. They do follow, though, in time.

This isn’t exactly a formula, but I have learned a process over the last few years to change my way of thinking, and sometimes my way of feeling. Here, I am breaking it down into five manageable steps to work through calling on Jesus and the Spirit for renewing the mind in a transforming way. It may be most effective to hear it from my own experience, and so I am relating some of that here.

What one believes is what one lives by. Over a difficult period of about 15 years of my life, I had come to believe that I was unlovable, unlikable, and therefore worthless. I believed that the only way I could attain a sense of worth was to meet all the expectations of other people, so that somewhere I would find affirmation. That's deadly thinking, and it’s sinful thinking. It is 1) denying God's own declaration that HE has given me worth and that he has already acted in love toward me with the gift of salvation; 2) denying grace; it is totally works-righteousness oriented thinking; and 3) just simply impossible. People's expectations sometimes aren't known even to them, or they conflict one with another, or they even conflict with real godliness. When I began to realize the truth that it was impossible for me to find a sense of worth from human affirmation, which is what I truly believed I needed, I fell apart. All the management of outward appearances, of trying to be someone I wasn’t, of trying to be someone I didn’t even KNOW, in order to be liked, loved, appreciated, failed me.

I remember the day I began to unravel. It was December 11, 2010. Of course, it had been ongoing before that point, but that was the day I recognized that all my efforts at "holding it together myself" were failing. It got much worse for about eight months. I felt like God had abandoned me. I couldn’t “feel” him with me, and that perception of his absence sent me into despair. There’s depression, and there’s despair. And I despaired. I began to think I must have been made to be a vessel of wrath. The despair from feeling separated from God was more than I could bear. It was the worst experience of my life. It wasn’t real, but it was the way that my mind was led astray by the enemy’s cunning, to deceive me about who God is and what he has already done. There was a spiritual battle going on in my mind—the way I was perceiving circumstances, the way I was perceiving God, the way I was perceiving my own need, and all that needed to be transformed.

What I’m about to explain is how God performed that transformation. First, I think because I am his, and always was through these years, I knew I could never let go of some faith. I spoke it out loud to a group: “I do not know how God is going to get me out of the despair, this fractured thinking, this lack of focus and this new incompetence, but I do believe that he can do it.” I honestly could not see HOW he would bring me back to a functioning existence, but I never believed he couldn’t. That’s not hopelessness. It is an admittance of helplessness. It is an admittance of needing a Savior outside myself. He can, and he does work, but at the same time, we are in relationship, and I have a role in it too. I had to work; it was hard, and it took a long time.

This is the process that I think Paul in particular (but also Peter and John) is teaching us throughout the scriptures for how we work with God--with his presence and power--to transform and renew the mind:

1) The first step is recognizing when a wrong thought has entered one’s mind.
A temptation, a lie, a discouragement, a false trust—anything that falls short of God’s standards for our thought life—is what we are talking about recognizing. That’s what we’re talking about capturing. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Have you recognized that your trust is in money? Success? Financial security? Did you expect that a "right" sexual relationship would dispel temptations? That self-medicating would solve, or at least dampen, pain?
I recognized that thinking I was worthless and unlovable was harmful, shaping and maintaining my despair and keeping me from being effective for God’s purposes. At its heart, I wasn’t believing God.
At first, it is easy and natural to dwell on the thought quite some time, and even act on it, before you recognize that it is wrong and needs to be addressed. It’s also easy to be tempted to think it’s “just how you are” and can’t be changed. But with repeated practice, just like practicing any skill, it becomes easier to recognize and capture those thoughts. Over time, it does begin to become “the new natural.” We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

2) Identify the lie or deception in the thought.
Once you recognize and capture the thought, consciously identify what makes it wrong or harmful. By believing I was worthless or unlovable, I was, in essence, calling God a liar. I was believing a lie instead of his truth. Exposing the lie is like naming something. In the Bible, naming something had to do with taking dominion over it. God names the day and the night at creation. Expose it. Bring it to light. Take away its power.  Ephesians 5: 11-14 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them…when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible…

3) Reject the lie or deception and replace it with the biblical truth.
Next, intentionally reject the lie and intentionally replace it with the truth. This is a conscious act of speaking scripture to yourself. Some Bible knowledge is helpful to have, so that the sometimes muddy, unbiblical thoughts can be replaced with clarity in Bible truth. But even if you don’t yet know the scriptures that back up the truth about your particular situation, then this is a good time to begin to search the scriptures, again intentionally, for God’s words that do relate.
I wasn’t believing God’s promise that he had chosen me before the foundation of the world. (Ephesians 1:4) That I was adopted as an heir, a dearly loved child. (Ephesians 5:1) That my faith had equal standing with the very apostles. (2 Peter 1:1) That he had prepared in advance good works for me to do (my life matters in his plan). (Ephesians 2:10) And that nothing could separate me from his love (Romans 8:38) which has already been proven by Christ not turning away at the Cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) These are the truths that counter my own damaging deceptions.

4) Ask for help. PRAY.
This is not about works righteousness. It is not just a “power of positive thinking” process. It IS a power process, though. Positive thinking may help for a little while, but alone, it will fail us too. Pray, pray, pray. Pray at that moment that you’ve caught yourself in the thought. But in your next devoted prayer time, pray again, more intently, consciously confessing with honesty to God where this weakness is for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Ask another person whom you trust to be real and transparent to pray with you and for you too. (James 5:16)
I will add here that I know, believe me, I know, how hard it is to be vulnerable enough to tell someone else the darkest secrets of your mind, and expect that other person to love you enough to stick through it, to support you, to go with you to ask for grace, and to remind you that nothing is bigger than Christ's payment on the Cross. I know this is hard. Outside of God's grace, it would not be likely--maybe even impossible. But that is just exactly the kind of bridge between believers that grace does build. One need not wear one's sin or despair on one's sleeve for all the world, but trusting a few with the whole truth is what our siblinghood is for. You were not meant to carry this alone. Nor was I. And a threefold cord (you, me, and the Holy Spirit) is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

5) Expect Christ’s response.
We are being conformed to the image of Christ. We are being given the mind of Christ. There is nothing at all, no sin, no fear that is beyond the scope of God’s power to take dominion over. This is the very work he has revealed to us that he is focused on: redeeming and renewing sinners. The God who has called us friends (John 15:14-15) will act as a friend. Friends may play very different roles in your life, but if a person is a friend, there is one thing you can always rely on: If you ask a friend for help, a friend will respond. If you ask a friend for presence, a friend will respond. The Holy Spirit will respond. (Philippians 4:19 God will fill your every need according to his glorious riches in Christ.) What did he say our greatest need was? Freedom from sin. He will respond to fill your greatest need.

How long does this process take? How long until you see progress? Honestly, it takes as long as it takes. This is your walk with him. For me, this five-step process of changing what I believe took about a year to show results in my thinking. But it’s not total victory either. It’s progress.

Going through this process many, many times a day for about a year. I think it is important to recognize this: Sanctification is a lifelong process, but that does not mean God is not responding. Sometimes it really takes a long time, a lot of perseverance, waiting, seeking—but not giving up—to be able to see the progress of redemption in our experience. God already knows the number of your days and he is the one who determines “when the days were accomplished.” He already sees you as you will be—in Christ, that is who you are. We are called to press on toward the goal (Philippians 3:14) and continue persevering in the training, like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27). And he will be faithful to complete the work he has begun in you. (Philippians 1:6)

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