The Renewal of Our Minds.
We noted last time (click here) that we can stop gratifying the desires of the flesh by living by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). The aspect of living by the Spirit in that context is following the Spirit’s desires.
Romans 8 makes a similarly remarkable statement that, “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). In other words, we can do the essence of what God wants if we live by the Spirit. The word “might” in the verse is an accurate translation of the form of the verb there (another subjunctive as in Galatians 5:17) and shows that it is not guaranteed that we will fulfill what God wants, but that through the Spirit we do indeed now have the possibility.
The verses that follow show us that Paul has in mind here a different, second aspect of living by the Spirit. Unfortunately, the NIV makes it difficult to see this because it begins a new paragraph at v. 5 and also omits the word “for.” ESV, NASB, RSV, and NRSV all continue the paragraph and include the “for,” showing that the thought continues from 1-4 on into 5-8. As in Galatians 5:17, the “for” in Romans 8:5 is significant. It indicates that Paul is going to give us a further explanation of 8:4, that is, what it means to live by the Spirit.
This second aspect of living by the Spirit involves setting our minds on the things of the Spirit (v. 5). As we do so, we experience abundant life and peace (v. 6; cf. 14:17). Note well that what we think affects what we experience. This is in stark contrast to those who live according to the flesh and set their minds on the things of the flesh. Those who do the latter experience death even now, are hostile to God, do not submit to him, cannot submit to him, and cannot please him.
Scripture teaches that sin warps our minds (Romans 1:21, 28). When our minds are warped, we not only think about sinful things we want to do, but we also hold distorted notions in our minds. For example we might think we should continue in sin so that grace might increase (6:1), that we are doomed to a life of slavery to sin (contrast 8:1), or think more highly of ourselves than we ought (12:3). Any such thought is wrong in itself, is unhealthy, and will rob us of life and peace. It will also lead to actual acts of sin. We cannot please God with such a mind set (8:7-8). This is why we need to have our minds renewed (Romans 12:2).
The renewal of our minds is also key to our being transformed (Romans 12:2). “Be transformed” in that verse is a passive verb, which indicates transformation is not something we do but that is done to us. God is the One who transforms us (2 Corinthians 3:18). I used to think Romans 12:2 was saying that transformation is God’s part and the renewal of my mind is my part, but it turns out that renewal, too, is a work of God. It is stated clearly as a work of the Spirit in Titus 3:5. Similarly, elsewhere, verbs for “renew” are always passive (“being renewed”). The passive verbs point not to something we do but to something that is done to us (2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 4:23; Colossians 3:10). So both transformation and renewal are works of God, yet we do need to cooperate with him. We might state the second aspect of living by the Spirit as cooperating with God’s efforts to renew our minds by his Spirit. As with the first aspect of living by the Spirit, here again we must not resist, rebel, grieve, or despise him. Instead, we go along with him.
How do we cooperate? I’m trying to be careful what I put into my mind. Perhaps you’ve had the experience, as I have, of catching yourself singing a song you did not deliberately or consciously choose to sing. Perhaps something subtly reminded you of it, but it came out of your mouth readily because we had listened to it so many times it was well established in our minds. I have to confess sometimes the songs that came out haven’t been flattering. In contrast, a woman told me about her aging father whose mental abilities were declining. His speech had become incoherent. Yet still, many of the words he spoke were Scripture. He had filled his mind with God’s word over many years, and so words of God came out of him effortlessly. We cooperate with God by choosing not to put unhealthy thoughts into our minds and to put in wholesome thoughts instead.
Sometimes, though, you can’t help what comes to mind. This is especially true if we have filled our minds full of unwholesome thoughts for decades. Even as our minds begin to be renewed, sometimes a distorted thought arises seemingly out of nowhere or we see something negative or a conversation goes bad. In these cases, I am trying to cooperate with God’s renewal of my mind by not dwelling on those negative or sinful thoughts. I may not have a choice about what comes to mind in the moment, but I do have a choice about whether I dwell on it. The positive antidote for unwholesome thoughts is to “set your minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2) and think about “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” (Philippians 4:8). The old adage that, “It’s okay to think it if I don’t do it,” is a lie of the devil. The mind set on the flesh is death. To live by the Spirit is to choose to dwell on healthy thoughts instead of unhealthy ones.
I’m also trying to cooperate with God’s renewal of my mind by judging my own thoughts. I’ve finally become aware that there are all kinds of thoughts and feelings going on inside me that I wasn’t cognizant of for decades. I’m now praying that the Lord will search my heart, test me, and know my anxious thoughts (Psalm 139:23-24). As I read Scripture, I am trying to allow God’s sharp word to discern the thoughts and intentions of my heart (Hebrews 4:12). When I do identify a distorted, unhealthy thought, I then seek to find and clarify a corresponding positive, healthy thought to take its place. I do this by reading Scripture, reflecting, and seeking counsel from spiritually minded people. Finally, once I have identified the healthy thought, I seek to assimilate it into my thinking. I do this by memorizing a Scripture that states the truth clearly and concisely—not for memorization’s sake, but so that I can repeat the truth to myself regularly and constantly. That has been very helpful when I’m driving or waiting in line or lying awake staring at the ceiling, wrestling with unhealthy thoughts. In addition to memorizing Scripture, I pray that the Lord would indeed put his laws and truths into my mind and write them on my heart (Hebrews 8:10). After all, the renewal of our minds is the work of God.
Since this third way of cooperating with God’s renewal plans for our minds is a bit more involved than the first two, I’ll give an example. Unfortunately, I have had a tendency to be judgmental toward others. Through Scripture, prayer, and reflection, I have been able to identify several unhealthy thoughts that lie behind that sin. Some of those distorted thoughts are that God wants me to be focusing on ways others fall short, that pointing out other’s flaws somehow makes me better, and that I am lacking in value and so need to find a way to bolster my sense of worth. An alternate, true, and healthy thought could be found for each of these by reversing them. Instead, I chose to concentrate on a related healthy thought, namely, that God wants me to be merciful, not judgmental. And I found Scripture that states this truth succinctly: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7). I have been and continue to quote this truth to myself and pray that God will write it on my heart. And I actually have seen some improvement, “from one degree of glory to another, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
I’m convinced that, just as having a worthless mind causes us to live in death and sin in our deeds, so having a renewed, spiritually healthy mind is life and peace and lead leads us to do many good deeds. Cooperating with God as he seeks to renew our minds is a second aspect of living by the Spirit.