If we are going to fully return to God–as individuals, families, churches, communities, and beyond–the place that change will begin is in our thoughts. Though that might sound simple enough, we normally don't act as if it is true. Think of how many times someone has tried to urge you to change something, not by altering the way you think about it, but by some other means–primarily our emotions and our wills. Though innumerable attempts are made at guilting us into things, or getting us to grit our teeth and just try harder, neither of those are sufficient for lasting change. (If this is too abstract, just think about the the last time someone tried to convince you to do something solely by saying you don't do that thing enough–whether exercise, buying jewelry, going to church, saving for your retirement, or anything else. Even if you've acted on one of those appeals in the past, did the behavior last for you?) Tomorrow we'll discuss why the appeals to our willpower don't work, but since we're approaching this week's theme of returning to God in a step-by-step manner, we can never underestimate the primary power of what we put into our minds. In Renovation of the Heart (which provides the framework for all of this week's reflections), Dallas Willard says, "The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon." He also says, "Thoughts are the place where we can and must begin to change."(1)
Why is this the case? Because our lives inevitably follow the course of the things we think about. We live at the mercy of the stories, images, and ideas that fill our minds. They affect everything about the kind of person we are becoming. And, as Dallas said, we have tremendous freedom in selecting the things that we allow in to our minds and what our minds will dwell upon.
To make this a bit less theoretical, hopefully a recent experience of my own can help you make a connection with similar ways that your thinking affects the entirety of your life:
I recently had a stretch of seven business days, six of which contained some medical test, procedure, or minor surgery. Everything ended up just fine, but even though my attitude was very positive when the appointments began, I had about a day and a half when my resolve had worn down and my attitude crashed. It seemed like every test keep leading to something else to be done, and suddenly a multitude of "what ifs" bombarded me. Rather than redirecting my mind to other things, which would have been the wise and more sensible thing to do, I let my mind dwell on the "what ifs," and fear began to sink its claws in. "What if...my wife... What if...my kids... What if... our income..." While the what ifs and their accompanying fear were bouncing around in my mind, I found myself being anxious (which I'm usually not), impatient with others (which I am too often, but have made good strides in learning to avoid), and unmotivated by things that are normally very life-giving to me.
Thankfully, I was fresh off of a good discussion in our Apprentice Group about worry and how, in God's kingdom, we can actually learn to live without it. So, even though more of my mental energy than normal was going toward worry, I was aware–with good information still fresh in my mind–of what was going on and was able to counter it. I am very grateful that one of the things we do in those Apprentice Groups is to memorize chunks of Scripture–not just an isolated verse or two, but long passages. With those passages stored in my mind, I was eventually able to redirect my mind to them rather than my worries. When my mind was occupied in more positive ways, the fear and anxiety subsided and I began again to enjoy the people and activities that are such gracious gifts in my life.
Hopefully you can identify. Our emotions follow our thoughts. Then our wills make decisions largely based on those emotions. Then we enact those decisions in physical ways (some of which we're aware and some we are not), which inevitably affect others around us. All of this, over the months, years, and decades of our lifetimes adds up to a soul that is either able to live well with God, itself, and others, or one that is not.
I've heard Dallas say something along the lines of, "You are already in the process of becoming the kind of person you will be forever." That's true, and of all the things we'll talk about this week that we can do as part of our road map for returning to God, today's is the most foundational: everything about who we are begins to go in a Godward direction, or away from God, beginning with what we put into our minds and what we allow them to dwell on.
- "What are three 'thoughts' that have occupied your mind this week? Why those thoughts, and not some others? What have their effects on your life been?"(1)
- Begin to train your mind to dwell on God more often by slowly memorizing a passage of scripture, such as Colossians 3:1-17, Psalm 23, John 14:1-27, or Romans 8:1-15. (I know what you're thinking, but yes, you can do it. God will help.)
- Or, find a time this week to read through one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John) in one or two sittings. If you're crunched for time, Mark is the shortest–you can probably read it in about an hour and a half or less.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer (1) See Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]