The Renewing of Your Mind
You give your anxiety to God, but an hour later its weight is back on your shoulders. You ask God to control your temper, but you blow your top. You pray that you will not lust; you even “reckon” yourself to be dead to sinful impulses. But the next day you can’t push that tall blonde out of your mind.
You surrender yourself to God. And then so soon, so soon, so easily, revert to your old habits. You mean so well; I mean so well. Yet we fare so poorly. Why?
Jesus told a story that illustrates the most important single principle in breaking a sinful habit. A man who had been inhabited by a demon, rejoiced when that sinister spirit was expelled. The wicked spirit then passed through waterless places, seeking rest. Finding none, it decided to return to its original abode. To its satisfaction, the demon saw that its original house was unoccupied, swept, and put in order. It then found “seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there, and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Luke 11:26).
Why did this man fail in his quest for freedom? He didn’t understand the principle of replacement. None of us can overcome evil by simply renouncing it. Rather, we can only do so by substituting the good in its place. Sinful habits cannot be broken without replacing them with righteous ones.
Try this simple experiment. Think of the number eight. Have you visualized it? If so, exercise your will-power and stop thinking of the number eight right now.
Were you able to do it? Of course not. At least, I’m still thinking about that number. Can we, by sheer will-power, stop thinking about the number eight? By no means. Trying to push it out of our minds actually causes us to focus our attention on it.
What a picture of us when we try to overcome sin. We may get on our knees and ask God to take the desire away; we then determine not to think those lurid or greedy thoughts, but there they are again. We resist them once more, trying desperately to push them out of our minds. But we are trapped. Try as we might, we just can’t get them to budge.
Can we really be free? Yes, we can control those thoughts, but not by trying to stop thinking about them! To simply resist evil is to make it grow stronger. Our determination not to think lustful thoughts only reinforces them in our thought patterns.
How, then, can we be free? Let’s return to our experiment once more and think of the number eight. Although we can’t stop thinking about it by sheer resistance, we can push that number out of our minds quite easily. Here’s how: Think of the number one thousand. Then divide it by five. Concentrate on this new information and you’ll stop thinking of the number eight.
You can handle sinful thought patterns in the same way. Fear, lust, covetousness—all of these can be squeezed out of your mind by turning your thoughts to the Scriptures. Freedom comes by filling your mind with God’s thoughts.
I know a young man whose wife died of cancer. She suffered intensely during the last weeks of her life. Yet she and her husband were able to accept this tragedy without bitterness or the slightest trace of self-pity. I asked John, “Why were you and your wife able to accept this so well? Weren’t you ever resentful and angry at God through this ordeal?” His reply: “Yes, we had moments like that. But when they came, I read the Scriptures to my wife. Then we bought the whole New Testament on records and we played it in our house, hour after hour.” That was the secret—expelling angry and anxious thoughts by filling the mind with the Word of God.
What is the best way to take air out of a bottle? Possibly someone could suggest that we build an elaborate vacuum pump to suck out the air. But there is a simpler solution. If you fill the bottle with water, the air has to leave.
To diffuse the power of sin, you need to have your thought patterns replaced by the Word of God. Every temptation, vice, or sinister motive comes to you by your thoughts; these must be brought under the control of the Spirit. Paul wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The difference between worldliness and godliness is a renewed mind. The adage puts it succinctly: You aren’t what you think you are; but what you think, you are!
Let us suppose you could flash all the thoughts you had last week on a giant screen. Within minutes you would know how you are doing spiritually. Your thoughts not only shape your life; they are your life.
A man recently released from prison was having difficulty adjusting to his freedom. He tried this experiment: he took a glass bottle with a distinct shape and crammed it full of wires, some small and some large. After some time had passed he smashed the bottle with a hammer. The result? Most of the wires retained the shape of the bottle. Those wires had to be straightened out, one by one.
The man had established his point: it is possible to be technically free and still retain the traits of bondage. Even though a man is liberated, he must adjust to his freedom and carefully dismantle the habits of the past.
As a believer, you are legally free in Christ, but you can still be enslaved by the fantasies of the flesh and the vices of the world. You can yield, surrender, and “pray through,” but your mind will revert to familiar territory as soon as your experience wears thin. To leave this self-defeating cyvle, you need to outline specific strategy for experiencing the freedom you have in Christ, and accept the victory that is legally yours.
Prepare for battle
Is this really possible? Yes. But not without locking horns with wicked spiritual forces. Read carefully Paul’s words. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; italics added).
You have the spiritual artillery needed to destroy the fortresses of the mind. Vain reasonings, powerful imaginations, and perverted attitudes can be routed. You have the spiritual equipment to track down every thought and make it captive to Christ.
Military moves are made according to determined strategy. Weapons are made according to determined strategy. Weapons need to be understood before they are used. In this battle with Satan and evil, you need to know the strategy, and be well acquainted with your weapons. Specifically, how can you do this?
1. Identify the alien thoughts that you want replaced. You must name the fantasies, imaginations, and attitudes that you want to get rid of. To say, “I want to be a better Christian,” or, “I want to be more joyful,” will not do. Generalities are not good. Specifics are needed.
I assume that you know the sins in your life that won’t budge. If you have never done it before, now is the time to identify them. Take a sheet of paper and jot down the thought patterns that have to go.
2. Be prepared for the discipline of spiritual warfare. The world, the flesh, and the devil do not surrender without a struggle. The person who is blessed by God is one whose “delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law he doth meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
Sometimes we are told, “We are in a spiritual battle. As soldiers of the cross we must be disciplined; we must put effort and sacrifice into the Christian life.” Then perhaps a week later, another Christian appears to say the opposite. “I was working too hard at being a Christian; God showed me that I must just hang loose—rest in the Lord.”
Though these viewpoints appear contradictory, they really are not. Only a Christian who is disciplined in the Word of God can rest in the Lord. Yes, we can cease our striving an learn to relax in the confidence that God is equal to every situation. But a lazy, undisciplined Christian cannot do this; he falls apart at the seams when tragedy strikes. The believer who is like a tree planted by the rivers of water is the one who meditates in the Law of God every free moment; his thoughts turn to the Word of God like steel to a magnet.
Declaring war on your thought life means that you must set aside time every morning to begin your offensive attack. I suggest 20 minutes as a minimum. Meditation in the Scriptures requires effort; nothing worth having can be achieved without exertion.
You’ve heard the cliché “a chapter a day keeps the devil away.” Don’t you believe it. You can read a chapter with your mind on tomorrow’s business deal or with a heart full of revenge. Real meditation requires quality time. We must assimilate a passage and give it unhurried attention.
3. Be prepared to memorize the Word of God. “Thy Word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11). Rather than memorize verses at random, take your list of troublesome thought patterns and find verses of Scripture that speak directly to them. Memorize these verses so that you have them at your fingertips during the day—you’ll need them. The only alternative to memorizing verses is to type them out on small notecards so that you can have them for immediate reference. These are the passages that God will use to demolish the present strongholds of your mind and construct a new edifice.
Use your artillery
So far you have your sins identified, you’ve decided to set aside 20 minutes for God each morning, and you’ve even got some passages of Scripture to work with. Now what? What should you do tomorrow morning? Your strategy begins the moment you awake in the morning. Those moments between waking up and getting your feet on the floor are crucial. The seeds of discouragement, anger, and lust begin here. While still in bed, thank God for the rest He has given to you. Then give the new day to the Lord. Consciously commit your mind, opportunities, and time to Him. Remind yourself of God’s promises. Here are a few: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Reminding ourselves of God’s promises gives us the proper perspective on life.
Then after you’re out of bed and reasonably awake—I need coffee and breakfast to get my mind in gear—read a chapter from the Bible, observing what God is saying to you. Then spend some time to prepare your mind for the particular temptation you will face that day. Let’s suppose your boss habitually irritates you. An hour after you arrive at work, you wish you could scream If you wait until your boss shouts at you before you decide how you will respond, you’ll probably react in anger. Use the Word of God in anticipation. During your time with God in the morning, recite the verses you have memorized and claim Christ’s victory before you boss blows his fuse.
The same principle applies whether your problem is gluttony, addiction, worry, or greed. Claim God’s promises for that particular day. Tell Him that with His help you resolve to choose for Him, rather than the world.
But remember, if you wait until temptation comes to decide how you will react, you’ve waited too long! Choose beforehand to claim God’s promises for whatever you expect to encounter.
Then, during the day, learn to obey the first promptings of the Holy Spirit. If you are tempted to enjoy a sensual fantasy, deal with those thoughts immediately. Each of us knows when we let our minds skip across that invisible line into forbidden territory. The moment we do so, we sense we are violating the purity that the Holy Spirit desires. That is the moment to say, “I reject these thoughts in the name of Jesus.” And then quote the passages of Scripture you have learned for that temptation. With time, your sensitivity to the Holy Spirit will develop.
Most important, learn to switch topics on the flesh and the devil. Remember the experiment at the beginning of this message? We couldn’t stop thinking of the number eight, no matter how hard we tried. Only switching to another topic could accomplish this result.
You can do this with any temptation you face. Simply use your temptation as an alarm system—a signal to give praise to God. If, for example, you fear cancer (since one out of four people in the U.S. will have the disease, your fears may have a statistical basis), use that fear as an opportunity to give glory to God. Quote Romans 8:35-39 or read Psalms 103, 144, or 145. Then thank Him for forgiveness, for His sovereignty, power, and love. In this way, your stumbling block will be changed into a stepping stone. You’ll be praising rather than pouting.
While writing this message, a woman called me on the phone to ask me to pray that she would overcome her battle with smoking. She’s tried to be free, but hasn’t succeeded. I gave her several suggestions; one was to accept the desire for a cigarette as a reminder that it is time to read three chapters of praise to God. Rather than concentrating on the desire, she can focus on God and His power. Eventually, she will learn that she does not have to yield to this temptation; the very struggle will become God’s way of building discipline into her life.
If your problem is gluttony, decide that your hunger pangs will be a reminder to divert your attention to God’s Word. Memorize a verse of Scripture, pray for your missionary friends, sing a song. By outlining and following a specific strategy to resist temptation, you will eventually be free from its grip.
Finally, do not be discouraged by the frequency of the same temptation. If you have lived a long time with sinful thought patterns, the strongholds of your imagination will not be easily toppled. Furthermore, you must recognize the possibility that you are not merely confronting yourself, but satanic forces as well. Satan’s most used weapon is discouragement. After you have rejected insidious thoughts, he delights in having them pop back into your mind. The most important insulation you have against satanic attack is personal righteousness—confessing and forsaking sin. And as you apply the above principles consistently, Satan and his forces wilbe weakened. Eventually they will flee.
How long does it take for your mind to be renewed? That depends. Some Christians who apply these principles recognize a noticeable difference within a week. Others who are steeped in decades of sin, may need as long as 30 days before they can say, “I am free!” And, of course, no one reaches perfection. The more we meditate on the Word, the more clearly we see new areas of our lives that need to be changed. Subtle motives often surface only after long exposure to the light of God’s Word.
A homosexual who was freed from his former way of life by using the above suggestions confessed that he often used to lapse back into his former thought patterns. “But now,” he says, “when I think the thoughts I used to think, I get sick to my stomach.” He is proof of what God can do in the life of anyone who persistently meditates in the Word of God and applies it directly to areas of spiritual conflict.
I’m convinced that God intends us to be free from mental bondage. His Word is the resource by which our thoughts can become obedient to God.
Even Christ, the eternal Son of God, “learned obedience from the things which He suffered (Hebrews 5:8). “And if He, the Son, sets you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).