A Renewed Mind: The Practice of Humble Thought
There are others who desire to know in order that they may be known: that is vanity…
But there are those who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.
Bernard of Clairvaux
The Pharisees were gathered around Jesus and a lawyer asked him what was the greatest commandment. Jesus knew it but he didn’t quote it exactly the way it was written in Deuteronomy, where God told Israel through Moses to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). Jesus added the requirement “and with all your mind” (Lk 10:27). He interpreted this fundamental Old Testament teaching for his listeners in a way to make sure that they did not leave their minds out of their devotion to God.
Jesus’ teaching on loving God with our minds has ironically become an inconvenient truth for many despite the historic witness and tremendous spiritual leadership of some great minds like those of St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and Jonathan Edwards. A brilliant and contemporary New Testament scholar in his own right, Bishop N. T. Wright sees this reaction to the mind as another battle in the cultural and spiritual war between romanticism and rationalism. People react to what they perceive as the tyranny of intellectual arrogance while others fight back against what they perceive as emotional blackmail.
Today, though, as general interest in spirituality has increased, there has been a concurrent spirit of benign neglect, if not antagonism, toward the spiritual role of the mind in various religious teachings. This is also true among Christians who have rightly reacted to sterile formulations of faith and doctrine that have squelched rather than aided their longings for God. Idolatry of our rationality has prompted some to see the mind as a barrier rather than a means to a deeper spiritual life.
As an example of this, I was sitting in a circle in a retreat center with about twenty other Christian leaders who were interested in pursuing a deeper spiritual life. The topic for the evening discussion was on the role of the mind in spiritual formation. I was very interested in this topic because the life of the mind has played a big and conscious part in my life.
I am a Myers-Briggs “T,” which means that my thinking is a major strength. I was trained as an engineer; I always did well in math. I love to conceptualize, to strategize, to plan and organize. I love to read and think. Suffice it to say that I fit a stereotypical mold of a highly cognitive person (which sounds much better than nerd).
So I was encouraged when the presenter began his time that night by referring to the apostle Paul’s familiar exhortation to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). I was eager for more insight into this dynamic of transformation by mental renewal. Thus I was surprised when he reversed this cause and effect relationship, and said that spiritual transformation is what renews the mind and not the other way around. This did not seem to be a logical interpretation of the text.
But this was not the only time I had been challenged with whether my mind was an asset or a liability with respect to spiritual growth. I had read a series of articles by Henri Nouwen in Sojourners magazine titled “Descend with the Mind into the Heart.” I was tremendously impressed with what he wrote and the integrity with which he wrote it. However, the discomfort that I faced was that the title of these articles seemed to imply, if not overtly teach, that the mind was inferior to the heart; or that the mind was some type of superficial, preliminary pathway to the real and deeper spirituality of the heart. This didn’t seem to measure up to my understanding of the Scriptures that taught that the heart (not the mind) is what is “desperately wicked and deceitful above all things.” Nor did it help me to love God with all of my mind.
Yet, I took Nouwen seriously and listened carefully to what he said. In doing so I discovered that the formulation of the phrase “descend with the mind into the heart” was not originally from Nouwen but from the nineteenth-century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse—whose name gives a clue that he was not in business meetings all day! Furthermore, the idea or conviction for this spirituality went back to the desert fathers and mothers of fourth-century Egypt. These saints, who fled into the wilderness to escape the rampant carnality of their culture, were not consciously trying to integrate their life with the demands of technology and cultural expectations. In fact, according to the twentieth-century monastic leader Thomas Merton, the desert fathers “saw society as a shipwreck from which every single individual had to swim for his life.” Quite an interesting metaphor for a desert life.
So I was not sure that either Theophan or the desert fathers or this speaker had much to say to me about how to use my mind to deepen my spirituality in twenty-first-century life. I didn’t feel called to either leave my life or in some way negate it. I was willing to learn from the desert fathers, but I didn’t want to become one. Instead I wanted to learn what Paul meant about being transformed by the renewal of my mind.
A Non-Conformed Mind
The prerequisite for mental renewal for Paul is his warning not “to be conformed to this world [or to this age].” Throughout the history of the church this exhortation has been interpreted to avoid “worldly” activities; however, they might be culturally defined. The stereotype of this approach is reflected in the old fundamentalist doggerel “I don’t swear, dance or chew, or go out with any boys that do.”
Although such a statement may either make us laugh or cry, the mature Christian life is nevertheless characterized by disciplined choices about what is and is not good to do, and that these choices are connected to the mind. At the very beginning of Romans, Paul observes that those who have rejected God have done so by suppressing the truth about God. He says that although they knew God, “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” The result of such aberrant thinking was that they were “filled with every kind of wickedness” (Rom 1:21, 29).
Paul’s witness is striking as it relates to our decision-making processes. As a theological crime-scene investigator, he not only makes the accusations against aberrant and immoral behavior but goes back to trace the culprit for it. And the primary reason he gives for acting wrongly is thinking wrongly, especially thinking wrongly about God. When we don’t acknowledge and worship God as Creator, we not only become futile in our thinking but our hearts and instinctual gut behaviors become impure.
A good example of this is thinking that God must always choose to bless us with success—from finding good parking spots to achieving all of our goals. When we think this way, we become enamored and driven by success as an indication of our faithfulness and a mark of God’s blessing. Unfortunately and mysteriously, we are not always successful, and our external success is not always directly associated with our faithfulness.
We see this in dramatic fashion in Hebrews 11, which catalogs the great “heroes of faith.” Some of these Old Testament saints, like Enoch and Abraham, cross the finish line of their earthly experience with success, while others experience great human failures, even to the extent of being “sawn in two.” Even Moses, the one who met with God face to face, ended his earthly life with the disappointment of not being allowed to cross into the Promised Land despite more than forty years of blood, sweat and tears in his leadership.
A blessed person is one who is delighted and immersed in the teachings of the Lord. Such a person is consciously choosing to have a right relationship with God and consequently exhibits a life of fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity. We use our minds to choose whom we follow, what we read, whose advice we accept, whose lifestyles we emulate. We choose with our minds whether to know God’s teachings and whether to obey them. What we think directly affects what we feel and what we do.
Practically speaking, I find that paying attention to what I am thinking about in my unscripted moments is often revealing as to what is important to me. Listening to my unguarded thoughts is a valuable diagnostic practice to discern what is going on inside of me. When my waking moments are focused on how others view me or on my negative thoughts about them, I am not being renewed. I am living in conformity to the world’s values of status and power.
By way of contrast, Paul encourages the Philippian believers to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). This is not just positive thinking or temperamental upbeatness, but a genuine honoring of God and others. It is characteristic of a renewed mind that is not conformed to the world.
A Spiritual Mind
Renewing our minds is not just resisting evil influences; it is also pursuing and receiving the quiet work of God’s Spirit in the warp and woof our lives. But if we are the created and not the Creator, and God is doing this work in us, what is our role in responding to this divine initiative? What does a spiritual mind look like? How do we set our minds on the Spirit instead of the flesh? Paul helps us to answer these questions when he tells the church at Ephesus that they should not live “in the futility of their minds” but “be renewed in the spirit of your minds,” and then lists what that means (see Ephesians 4).
First of all they should put away falsehood and “speak the truth to our neighbors.” A spiritual mind is one that rejects all forms of deceit such as pretense, exaggeration, misinformation and lying. Rather it is in tune with truth telling. Paul even allows that we can be angry in our truth telling if we do not allow our anger to become sin by nursing it overnight. Such high standards of honesty are not easy for anyone to reach all of the time, especially leaders. We feel the pressure to make ourselves look good and are always communicating to our “neighbors” at work about what is being done and said in our jobs. But truthfulness is at the heart of our integrity.
Another mark of the spiritual mind is how we speak to and about each other. Instead of responding to our colleagues with anger, wrangling, slander or malice, Paul says we are to be kind to one another, tenderhearted and forgiving to one another. This too is not easy, because we may not want to lead that way. Such a style may be perceived as weak or may threaten our patterns of success. Bishop N. T. Wright tells the story of the scholar who wrote scathing reviews of his colleagues’ work, but then started attending conferences where he met the people he was reviewing and discovered he really liked them—so he stopped going to the conferences!
A Prayerful Mind
What has been most helpful to me in trying to develop a spiritual mind is to specifically pray my frustrations and tensions with colleagues to the Lord. It doesn’t work to deny negative feelings that inevitably occur in leadership. I am a sinner and I work with sinners, so we are sure to sin against each other. It should not be a surprise then when others disappoint us or we disappoint them. Suppressing these inevitable feelings does not help us live with integrity. The feelings do not go away but will pop up later, even in a different context. Sometimes we send or receive hurtful emotional messages that were really intended for someone else. Long-term, unacknowledged and unexpressed feelings become a time bomb waiting to explode under the stresses and pressures of organizational life.
So when I experience an inappropriate action or display of anger in either myself or in others, I choose to think and pray that perhaps there is something else going on beyond the immediate situation. There may be long-standing issues from family of origin or immediate family difficulties or a personal struggle with sin. The immediate issues prompting the anger do need to be addressed, but praying for the person and myself is spiritually and practically redemptive. In a real and deeply spiritual way, instead of letting my heart and feelings control my actions, I need to raise my heart to my mind and let a prayerful mind tutor my heart as to how best to respond to interpersonal difficulties.
I find the example of Moses with Miriam to be insightful in this regard. Moses had married a dark-skinned Cushite woman, Zipporah. Miriam and Aaron responded to Moses’ interracial marriage by speaking against him to others and thus starting a palace coup. They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2).
This verbal insurrection displeased God, who was so angry with them that Miriam became leprous and Aaron became petrified. And here is where Moses’ leadership shines the strongest. Instead of letting any feelings of betrayal govern his actions and allowing Miriam to live with her punishment of leprosy, Moses prays to the Lord, “O God, please heal her” (Num 12:13). Somehow, Moses had the discernment and the security to want a healed Miriam rather than a bitter, diseased woman around him. He prayed rather than schemed.
The second reason to pray my grievances is that I know from the remarkably candid admissions of the psalmists, like the complaint against those “who hate me without reason,” that I can trust God to hear my negative thoughts. They do not take Him unawares or invalidate our prayer communication. In fact, they deepen it and provide the spiritual resources to subsequently pursue honest discussions with our colleagues.
I don’t believe that Christian spirituality should lead to conflict or be conflict avoidant, but it should rather promote conflict resolution that is prayerful and not just procedural. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that it is not only valuable to pray with the Spirit in a sense of devotional ecstasy but also to “pray with the mind” (1 Cor 14:15). A spiritual mind is one that uses our cognitive abilities in prayer to help work through our relational struggles and difficulties.
A Prepared Mind
Another dimension to mental renewal comes from the apostle Peter. Although he was a fisherman in contrast to the scholarly Paul, he too wrote about the importance of the mind. In his first letter to Christians scattered by persecution he uses the pithy instruction, “Prepare your minds for action” (1 Pet 1:13). The King James Version translated his words to “gird up the loins of your mind” for action. They were not to be intellectually lazy but prepared for serious thinking. Later, in the third chapter of his letter, Peter tells his readers to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” The world then and now is not shy in challenging us to give reasons for what we believe, and they are quick to notice any shallowness or hypocrisy in how we respond.
Unfortunately, we are not always so well prepared. In 1994 the noted evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he boldly stated “there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Intellectual laziness not only affects our reputation and influence in the world, but it also affects our spiritual life. J. P. Moreland writes that “the contemporary Christian mind is starved and as a result we have impoverished souls.” The late Pope John Paul II put the situation both broadly and pointedly, saying, “We need spiritual values. We need a revolution of the mind.” Neither Peter nor John Paul II was talking about mere intellectual firepower. They were talking about a thoughtful and active Christian faith—minds prepared for action.
I like the story told by historian Patrick Henry about his mother-in-law, who instead of praying “make us ever mindful of the needs of others” prayed “make us ever needful of the minds of others.” Although both petitions are good, the mistaken prayer expresses a keen insight into the learning process. We do need the minds of others to prepare our own minds.
To do this, we need to protect our time for serious reading. This is becoming more difficult to do in an electronic age that saps our discretionary time with constant e-mails, text messaging, sports updates, and phone calls. But we need to take time to read authors who can both nurture our souls and prepare our minds for action. Such reading takes focused time and reflective thought. Outstanding leadership usually requires outstanding readership.
A major consequence of a mind prepared for action is a mind that does battle with worldly wisdom. Going back to Paul, we hear him challenging the Corinthian Christians to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Another way of stating this perspective came many centuries later. Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper powerfully declared “in the total expanse of human life there is not one single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’” A prepared mind is actively involved in this great intellectual reclamation project for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Taking captive thoughts and making them obedient to Christ is a redemptive process. It is not just baptizing secular thoughts with Christian language, but is taking expressions of truth and shaping them into the purposes of God and for the glory of God. It is not a Christian veneer, but a Christian vision of discipleship that follows Jesus as Savior and Lord in how and what we think.
A Christian mind does not even have to have Christian language to honor God. Jesus’ proverbial lily of the field does not have a proof text tied to its stem, yet it glorifies God by being what it was created to be. Having a prepared mind implies that we are equipped to reflect God’s glory in our thinking and in the use of our minds. Vigorous and rigorous thinking are part of the calling to Christian leaders.
A Humble Mind
Perhaps the best indicator of a renewed mind is that of a humble mind. The apostle Peter writes to his followers, “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet 3:8).
A humble mind might sound like an oxymoron because we may be more used to intellectual arrogance or argumentation. We may be guilty of this ourselves or see it clearly in others. Humility is also a difficult virtue to think about. Once we are conscious of it, we are in danger of losing it. How do we pursue humility with humility? How do we follow Peter’s exhortation to have a humble mind?
I find encouragement in the life of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. He is a great example for not only Sunday school lessons but everyone working in a leadership environment. Although Daniel was a prisoner of war, taken captive by the Babylonians, he was faithful to his God and to his successive pagan employers, Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius. Daniel approached his governmental jobs with humility and used his mind in a humble way that led to great success.
However, the greatest and perfect example of humility is that of Jesus. Before Jesus met with his disciples for the Last Supper in John 13:3-5, we see the epitome of humility—the leader, teacher and Lord, stooping to do the menial task of foot washing. But Jesus’ willingness to “get down and dirty” was prefaced by an accurate self-knowledge of whom he was and where he was called to go. Jesus was not acting in a self-effacing, “I’m not worthy” kind of false humility. He was acting from strength of self-awareness, and it led directly to serving the disciples. In other words, a humble mind is not an ignorant mind, but a mind that is used for the sake of others. Paul states this most dramatically when he wrote to the Philippians that we should “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).
A humble mind is not a disembodied mind. It is not a heavenly mind without earthly good. Rather, it seeks knowledge in order to love and serve others. All of our jobs have opportunities to love and serve others with a humble mind.
Descent with the Mind
Theophan the Recluse wrote about “descending with the mind into the heart.” Maybe he got it right after all. Upon reflection, I realized he didn’t say “descend from the mind into the heart,” suggesting that the mind should be left behind in our spiritual journey. Rather he said we should “descend with the mind.” The mind is to be our companion along the way. As I seek to move from my external appearances into a greater inner awareness, I need my mind to go with me on this journey. I need my heart to be tutored with biblical truth and I need a spiritual and prepared mind to lead me into holy nonconformity. Ultimately, I need to be transformed by a renewed and prayerful mind that is characterized by humble thought.