January 9, 2011

A Mind Alive

Do you like God?  That’s kind of an odd question for many of us.  We don’t really put God in the category of things we can like or not like.  God is there.  We are supposed to love Him.  We are supposed to obey Him.  We are supposed to worship Him.  But whether we like Him or not seems pretty insignificant.  After all, Paul describes Jesus in Philippians 2 as having a name at which every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess His Lordship.  That sounds like the kind of God for whom our capricious liking or not liking doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.  And, it might be true that it really doesn’t matter very much from God’s position whether or not we like Him (though I don’t think that’s entirely true), but from our position it matters a great deal.  Who in here has some activity they really enjoy doing?  I’m not talking about watching TV or something generic like that.  I’m talking about something about which you are passionate.  You try and do whatever it is every chance you get.  You learn all there is to know about it.  You practice and hone your skills so that you do it better than anyone else.  My uncle Terry is passionate about Kansas City Royals baseball.  He likes all baseball, but particularly the Royals.  I was talking to him a few months ago and he was telling me all kinds of stuff about the Royals’ farm system and how it’s one of the best in the entire minor leagues.  I could hear the passion in his voice as he assured me that in three to four years the Royals were going to be in the same position Tampa Bay has been in for the last two or three years.  Terry’s mind is filled with all kinds of stats and averages and names and numbers.  Those are the things he thinks about often because he likes thinking about them.  On the other hand, I don’t really enjoy the sport of hockey.  I don’t understand it and I can’t follow the plays, let alone the puck.  As a result of this, I really don’t spend any time thinking about it.  If I flip to ESPN to see what’s on and it’s a hockey game, I change the channel.  If I were forced to sit and watch a game, I would feel put upon and spend most of the time wishing I were doing something else.  Of all the images I want my life to reflect, “hockey fan” is not one of them.

There are, however, other images I do want to make sure I am projecting.  In fact, each of us has in mind a vision of the kinds of images we want to reflect.  Some of these are good, some of them are not so good.  Some of them are fairly superficial, some of them emanate from the core of our beings.  For all of us, though, there is a version of ourselves that we strive for with more effort and intensity than anything else.  Where this accords with God’s vision for us, this is the me we want to be.  All this month, with the aid of John Ortberg’s book by nearly the same title, we are talking about how we can become this person.  And so we are clear, we’re not giving much in the way of attention to the person our flesh wants us to be.  That wouldn’t be all that honoring of God now would it?  Instead, we are aiming our efforts at the version of ourselves that springs forth from the image of God which defines us as human.

We started this conversation last week.  If you’ll remember, we talked then about the fact that becoming such a person is a viable possibility for us.  It will happen not when we muster up the gumption to will ourselves there, but when we let go and surrender ourselves to the flow of the Spirit.  The Spirit will help shape and guide us as we learn to operate within the parameters of who God created us to be.  We talked then about some diagnostic questions aimed at helping us understand the shape of these boundaries.  These questions helped us uncover things like our passion, our learning style, our personality, our pathway for connecting to God, our signature sin, and our phase of life.  If you’ll remember, I closed our time last week by giving you some homework.  Who did it?  For those who perhaps haven’t spent much time thinking about this kind of stuff before did you encounter anything new or revelatory?  Let me encourage those of you who haven’t taken time yet to work through any of this to do so.  It’s not about locking you into some mold from which you will never escape and out of which you must always act for the rest of your life.  It is about shining some light on the shape and function God has designed you with so that you can operate in light of that shape and function.  A hammer is a very effective paperweight, but spending its life as a paperweight keeps it from reaching its fullest potential.

Well, the starting point for becoming the me we want to be is to get into the flow of the Spirit and surrender to His power in our lives.  This doesn’t make us weak or passive or somehow less capable than we already are.  As a mentioned then, Jesus needs to be our pilot, not our co-pilot because we’re terrible pilots.  We’re lucky to even be on the plane.  This surrendering to the Spirit, however, is merely the starting point.  There is much ahead of us in our journey to become the me we want to be.  And the first part of what lies ahead of us is really the starting point for all the things we do: our minds.  Our minds are the place where every thought originates, where every experience gets recorded, where every desire is born.  If we are going to become the men and women God has created us to be, then once we have given ourselves over to the Spirit, the journey must begin with our minds.  The reason for this is very simple: where our minds go, so go our hearts.

The evidence for this in Scripture is abundant and clear.  In Jeremiah 17:9, speaking of the heart like we would the mind today, the prophet declares that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it.”  Later, when writing to the church in Rome Paul commanded us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  Paul could have said a lot of different things there when describing how the transformation from the patterns of this world to become a holy and God-pleasing living sacrifice take place.  He could have said, “Be transformed by trying really, really hard.”  It could have been, “Be transformed by keeping every letter of the law.”  It could have been a number of things, but it wasn’t.  He said that this transformation takes place when we renew our minds.  The reason for this should be clear: where our minds go, so go our hearts.  Well what does this mean?  It’s a fairly simple idea, really.  The word “renew” means “to make new.”  So, we need to do whatever is necessary to make our minds new according to the patterns of the kingdom instead of the patterns of this world.  The real question is how we accomplish that.  Well, drawing again from Ortberg’s wisdom, this morning I want to offer you three approaches to renewing your minds.  Before getting there, let me offer the same disclaimer I gave you last week.  These three are not the only ways to renew your mind.  They do not come with any kind of a guarantee of success.  They are general strategies which when applied specifically to your unique, individual situation have the potential to bear much fruit when done in concert with the work the Spirit is already doing.  They possess a great likelihood of transforming not only your mind, but also your heart.  Thus, you should take them up very carefully and only if you plan on becoming the me you want to be.  After all, where our minds go, so go our hearts.

The first approach to mind renewal is to let our desires lead us to God.  Let me pick back up the idea with which we started our conversation this morning.  What kinds of things do you like to do?  Who in here enjoys playing golf?  Who enjoys some sort of needle work?  Cooking?  Fishing?  Hunting?  Wood-working?  Who enjoys spending time with your spouse?  (For the rest of you, we’ll deal with marriage next month.)  Okay, who here actually enjoys spending time with God?  Hear some words from Ortberg on this: “…if I do not like being with God, I simply will not be with him much.  It is good to be honest about this because if you don’t like God, there’s no use trying to fake him out.  The point of this is not to make you feel guilty that you should want God more.  ‘Should’ simply does not have the power to get you there.” (81) Think about that.  What kinds of great things have you ever accomplished because you should have done them?  I’ll rather boldly wager to say nothing.  No incredible feat has ever been done because it had a “should” attached to it.  In this vein, then, the idea that any kind of spiritual growth is only (or at least primarily) going to happen because it has a variety of “should” attached to it is a twisted lie in our minds.  Of course we should grow to become more like Christ, but if a “should” was all it took to make it happen we’d had achieved a perfect world long ago.  This is a point at which we are very much in need of renewal.  Indeed, where our minds go, so go our hearts, and given that “want” always wins out over “should,” if in our minds spiritual growth resides strictly in the “should” category, then we will never pursue it with anything more than the half-hearted effort necessary to keep up the first layer of who we want to be I mentioned last week.

So here’s a crazy idea: what if we let our desires lead us to God?  Do you believe we serve a good and gracious God?  Do you believe James when he tells us in the first chapter of his letter that God can neither tempt us nor be tempted Himself?  Okay then, how many of you have ever had a desire for something, felt badly about it, and prayed that you no longer had that desire?  Anyone ever sit in church and spend the whole time wishing you were home watching the game you recorded last night or working in your garden?  Where did that desire come from?  Well, if you really enjoy watching sports or gardening, perhaps the desire itself (though perhaps not the timing) was from God.  You see, God doesn’t give us desires that are inherently wrong.  People very naturally desire things like food, sleep, sex, recreation, and worship.  None of those or others like them are necessarily bad.  But, somewhere along the line we mentally separated off some arbitrarily defined “worldly” desires from some equally arbitrarily defined “churchy” desires.  We attached the “want” label to all of the first category and a “should” label to the second.  Well, where our minds go, so go our hearts.  Our hearts went very naturally in the direction of the “want” category because we don’t like “shoulds” being placed on us without our consent (ironically, “shoulds” that have our consent are actually “wants”).  As a result, when we feel called to grow spiritually in some way (as you perhaps do this morning), we muster up some real effort and try really hard to force ourselves to live in that “should” category for a while because we don’t really want it.  Yet as I told you last week, this becoming the me we want to be isn’t about trying harder.  It’s about surrendering.

If we are going to accomplish this growth, then, we have two options before us.  We could take the approached commended by a variety of other world religions, most notably Buddhism, and try to get rid of all our desires.  The problem with this, to borrow an image from Ortberg, is that it’s like trying to get rid of the wire grass in your garden by filling it with cement.  The wire grass will be gone, but so will the garden.  The other option before us is that we could take the things we desire very naturally and let them lead us back around to God.  Taking some of the things we you learned about yourself from your homework last week, instead of trying to force yourself into the “shoulds” of spiritual growth in areas and in ways you simply don’t like, why not try looking for ways to allow the Spirit to help you grow while pursing the activities to which you are very naturally drawn.  Now, there are desires we have that are so twisted by sin that we need to get rid of them, but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Let us renew our minds to be able to see how our desires can actually lead us to God.  For where our minds go, so go our hearts.

Well, if the first approach to renewing our minds is to learn to harness the desires we have (which come out of our minds) as individualized tools for growth, we still need to deal with the kinds of things we are feeding our minds.  The phrase “junk in, junk out” is a cliché, but it is not without wisdom.  Our hearts go where our minds do so we need to make sure we are providing the right kind of fuel we need in order to go in good directions.   We must guard both what we allow into our minds as well as the things about which we spend the most time thinking.  This leads us to a couple of more approaches to renewing our minds which I want to treat simultaneously.  We must learn to think great thoughts and to feed our minds with excellence.  These two are very much dependent upon each other.  We need to feed our minds with excellence in order to think great thoughts and when we are thinking great thoughts we will be feeding our minds with excellence.  If it is true that where our minds go, so go our hearts, then these two strategies will help keep our hearts in a good place.

So how do we go about pursuing these two means to the greater end of renewing our minds?  Well, in another of Paul’s letters we get some helpful advice.  In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul closes out his comments with a variety of encouragements, but one stands out clearly for our purposes this morning.  In 4:8 Paul writes: “Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  How many of you have ever struggled temptation before?  When going through this period of struggle, how many of you fixated on the temptation?  You thought about nothing but trying to avoid it.  You even obsessed over how to root it out of your life.  Anyone go there?  Alright, how many of that group found yourselves not only falling into the temptation, but wanting to do it more often?  You still felt really bad about it, in fact the guilt may have been nearly paralyzing, but you felt like you couldn’t stop yourselves.  Why was this?  Why do Paul’s words in Romans 7 ring so true with our experience of battling our sinful nature in this life?  Because where our minds go, so go our hearts.  We need strategies set in place that will help steer us away from our characteristic sins as we talked about last week, but once we have these set, we need to give all of our attention to the life God calls us to live.  We need to think great thoughts and fill our minds with excellence.  If we fixate on sinful habits and activities, even on avoiding them, we will unavoidably find ourselves falling into them with greater and greater frequency.  Where our minds go, so go our hearts.

Okay then, so what are some tools we can use to fill our minds with excellence and spur the thinking of great thoughts?  Well, we can do things like take up the disciplines of focusing on the positives of our situations and celebrating them.  There are some people who—and I say this only partially tongue-in-cheek—have the spiritual gift of pessimism.  No matter what the situation is, they manage to find and fixate on the worst parts of it.  They spiritualize this with the thought process that they are diligently taking up their cross and trudging through the miseries of this life; in fact, they should probably get an award for their persistent perseverance of the brokenness of this world.  The truth, though, is that these folks have let themselves become black holes for joy.  They suck all the joy out of the room when they enter with their constant pessimism.  The truth is that while there are certainly a lot of reasons to be pretty dour in this life, there are far more reasons for be joyful.  And if we are filled with the Spirit and have the future promised in Revelation 21 ahead of us then every moment in this life should be a moment of celebrating either the echoes of the next or the faithfulness of God to bring it about in spite of reality’s current garb.  Where our minds go, so go our hearts, and if our minds are focused on the negative all the time, our hearts won’t be open to the joys of growing to become the me we want to be.

Another approach to filling our minds with excellence so that we can think great thoughts is to guard jealously what we allow access to our minds.  I’m going to preach to myself for a bit here and if you find this applies to you as well go ahead and listen in.  In this life there is simply no such thing as neutral media.  Much if not most of the media popular right now in this country, irrespective of genre, glorifies sinful behavior patterns in some way.  Sometimes this is overt.  Sometimes it’s more subdued.  But it’s nearly always there.  When we allow these images into our minds, they shape the ways we think.  When we engage with them uncritically—which most of us do—this shaping is not generally positive.  If as a parent you have ever told your kids to guard who they allow into their circle of friends because kids with bad habits will influence them in bad directions, you need to heed your own advice.  If you are good friends with Desperate Housewives or The Sopranos or any of the various popular crime dramas then you need to be on guard for the junk going into your mind and how that’s influencing your thinking and your theology.  Shows which present, even in a less than condoning light, the objectification of women or the irrelevance (or worse, idiocy) of good dads or the absolute equality of all viewpoints plant seeds in our minds which when allowed to grow will prove to be briars and thistles, choking the life out of the orchids and roses planted by the Spirit.  Such minds are in need of renewal because where our minds go, so go our hearts.

Yet these are simply strategies and not tools.  Perhaps the greatest tool is one that most of you are holding as we speak.  The Bible is one of God’s single greatest gifts to His people.  Here at Central we believe that not only does the Bible contain the very words of God, it is His self-revelation to us.  He reveals who He is and gives us a glimpse of who we were created to be.  It is a compendium of the wisdom of the ages.  It is true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise.  The Bible is a great work of literature, but its value goes way beyond that.  It is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  By some work of His grace that we will probably never grasp in full, through the words of Scripture we are able to interact on an incredibly intimate level with the righteous and holy God who created the world and sustains is even to today.  Everything necessary for us to know about the life lived in pursuit of Jesus Christ can be learned here.  It need only be applied appropriately.  And yet, though I don’t want to see any hands, I wonder how many in this room which contains a lot of folks who have been following Jesus for a long time can say with complete honesty that not only do they frequently interact with these incredible words they look forward to each opportunity.  Why is this?  If we really believe as we say that the Bible has the potential for such incredible power in our lives why would we miss even a second of time that we could be immersed in its light?

Why indeed.  Perhaps because our hearts have gone where our minds have taken them.  When the divide was erected between things spiritual and things secular, Scripture reading fell squarely into the spiritual camp.  Thus, when we spend (and desire to spend) the vast majority of our time in the secular camp as nearly all of us do, then reading Scripture is an activity with a “should” attached to it.  In other words, we have turned this incredible gift of God into a burden.  We approach the word with thoughts like, “How much do I need to read of this in order for it to really count towards my spiritual growth?”  Or worse yet: “How much of this do I need to read in order to keep God from being mad at me?”  Do you see how these kinds of questions come directly from Bible reading being a “should” instead of a “want”?  The real question we need to be asking is this: “With what can I fill my mind so that it will flourish?”  Whatever it is that honestly answers that entire question is something with which we need to fill our minds.  Many of us stop short at simply filling our minds.  This is because, as Ortberg observes, “It is easier to be smart than to be good.” (113) Paul did not tell us, however, that in order to avoid conforming to the pattern of this world we need to be really well-informed on all manner of subjects.  He told us to renew our minds.  Our concern, then, is not to simply fill our minds, but to fill them with things which cause them to flourish.  I am telling you authoritatively this morning that Scripture is one of the answers to that question because, where our minds go, so go our hearts.

Let me read for you one more time the words of Paul to the Philippian believers.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Now, Paul did not speak those words to give the Philippian believers a legalistic litmus test, but as a call to freedom.  This is not something by which we can justify ungodly thoughts by arguing that, “well, they satisfy at least one of those categories.”  This is neither something by which we can limit our freedom in Christ by arguing that if it doesn’t meet every criterion we need not think it.  This is a call to freedom and to the renewal of our minds.  If we are going to become the me we want to be then once we get into the flow of the Spirit, we must renew our minds.  We must throw of the teachings of our culture that God is largely irrelevant except as a convenient villain when things don’t go our way.  We must learn to not merely love and obey God, but to like Him.  For in each of the things we like we can find glimpses of the great Creator God who created all things for our pleasure.  We can let not only great thoughts but our passions and desires, hobbies and habits create space for us to interact with this great God.  As we get into the flow of the Sprit in the ways for which we were designed with renewed minds we will be well on our way to becoming the me we want to be.  We will be that much closer to fulfilling the whole law (with Christ’s help) which we accomplish when we love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength.  Indeed, where our minds go, so go our hearts.