The Battle for Your Mind
Desiring God 2010 National Conference
Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God
This message appears as a chapter in Thinking. Loving. Doing.: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind.
A violent battle is raging around us twenty-four hours per day.
In 1965, Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote a book about it called The Invisible War. It is the battle for your mind, and that battle is vicious. It is intense. It is unrelenting, and it is unfair because Satan never plays fair. And the reason why it is so intense is that your greatest asset is your mind.
I have seen the face of mental illness. I have seen what it is like when people are unable to hear God because their minds are broken and cannot seem to connect to God even when they want to connect to God. And I know whatever gets your mind gets you. So one of the most important things we need to learn and teach others is how to guard, strengthen, and renew our minds, because the battle for sin always starts in the mind.
There are many passages in Scripture that we could look at in this chapter, but I want us to focus in on one, 2 Corinthians 10:3–5:
Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh [in other words, we don’t fight with armor, we don’t fight with politics, we don’t fight with money, we don’t fight with all the humanistic ways]. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
The apostle Paul says here that our job in this battle is to “destroy strongholds.” You know what a stronghold is? It is a mental block. Paul is talking about pretentions, arguments set up against the knowledge of God. This is a mental battle. And he says, “Destroy these strongholds.” A stronghold can be one of two things:
It can be a worldview, such as materialism, hedonism, Darwinism, secularism, relativism, communism, atheism. All of the different -isms are mental strongholds that people set up against the knowledge of God.
A stronghold can also be a personal attitude. Worry can be a stronghold. Seeking the approval of other people can be a stronghold. Anything that you make an idol in your life can be a stronghold — fear, guilt, resentment, insecurity. All of these things can be strongholds in your mind. And the Bible says that we are to tear them down.
Taking Every Thought Captive
Now look at the very last phrase in the passage: “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” Take captive every thought. The Greek word aichmaløtizø there means “to control, to conquer, to bring into submission.” We take captive. We make it submit. Every thought obedient to Christ. Make it obedient. Hupakøe means “to bring into submission, to bring under control.”
But how do you do that? And how do you teach other people to do that? How do I make my mind mind? I have noticed that my mind doesn’t always mind. It is often disobedient. It is often very rebellious. It wants to go in a different direction. When I want to think a certain way, it wants to go another way. When I need to ponder, it wants to wander. When I need to pray, my thoughts want to float away.
“The battle for sin always starts in the mind.” Tweet
Paul talks about this in Romans 7, and he says, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:19, 24). The fact is, the reason we have so many ineffective Christians today is that they do not know how to fight the battle of the mind. And I blame pastors like me for that. We must spend more time teaching our people how to fight the battle of the mind.
Four Principles for Winning the Battle for Your Mind
I have been studying this subject for thirty-three years. I did my first study on the mind in 1977, working through all the books of the Bible. I think I could teach on this subject for an entire week. There is so much material on what the Bible has to say about strengthening our minds, renewing our minds, submitting our minds, and bringing our thoughts into captivity. There are at least one hundred principles in God’s Word that have to do with what we are to do with our minds. As I said, your mind is your greatest asset.
But all I want to do in this chapter is give you four simple principles — four of the many, many principles that I have tried to teach to others over the years — for living like Christ and being effective for him.
1) Don’t Believe Everything You Think
We naturally feel that if we think something, it must be true because it comes from within us. But just because you think something does not make it true. As I said above, I have seen the face of mental illness. So many different suggestions can come into the mind. The world puts suggestions in our minds that are false, and we are bombarded with those false ideas all the time. And, of course, Satan makes suggestions all the time. But your problem is much deeper than Satan. Everybody has a mental illness. We are all mentally ill. The mental illness is called sin. And the Bible uses at least a dozen different phrases for the condition of our minds under sin. Our minds are:
- confused (Deuteronomy 28:20)
- anxious, closed (Job 17:3–4)
- evil, restless (Ecclesiastes 2:21–23)
- rash, deluded (Leviticus 5:4; Isaiah 32:4 NIV)
The Bible talks about:
- a troubled mind (2 Kings 6:11)
- a depraved mind (1 Timothy 6:5)
- a sinful mind (Romans 8:7 NIV)
- a dull mind (2 Corinthians 3:14 NIV)
- a blinded mind (2 Corinthians 4:4)
- a corrupt mind (2 Timothy 3:8)
Our Broken Minds
Our minds are broken by sin. Which means we cannot trust even what we think, ourselves. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” We have an amazing ability to lie to ourselves. You do it all the time. So do I. We lie.
We tell ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they really are. We tell ourselves that things are better than they really are. We tell ourselves that we’re doing okay when we’re not doing okay. We’re telling ourselves it’s no big deal when it is a big deal. In fact, the Bible tells us that you cannot be trusted to tell yourself the truth. That’s why you need to question your own thoughts and teach others not to believe everything they think.
Just because you get a thought doesn’t mean it’s correct. This is the reason why we have so many fallen Christian leaders, because all sin begins with a lie. The Bible says Satan is “the father of lies” (John 8:44). And if he can get you to believe a lie, he can get you to sin. Anytime you sin, you are thinking that you know better than God. God has said this, but what about that? And so you have to question what you think. First John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We deceive ourselves all the time.
Preconditioned to Misunderstand
I have noticed how the next generation values authenticity. I would like to ask, when has inauthenticity ever been in style? Authenticity has always been an attractive quality. But a lot of those proudly promoting their authenticity don’t realize what it really is. You are not authentic until you can publicly admit how inauthentic you are most of the time. Authenticity begins when you start by admitting that you are inauthentic.
We all have blind spots. Some of us have bald spots, but we all have blind spots. We can’t always tell ourselves the truth, because we don’t stop to really think. Frequently we make snap judgments. We fail to notice important details. We all have more background biases than we realize. We jump to conclusions, and the Bible talks about this in Romans 2. We get trapped by categories — Are you this or that? — when whoever said there are only two categories or only three categories? We miss the big picture.
But one of the big reasons why you need to not believe everything you think is that we see what we want to see. I read whatever I can about the brain, and one of the things I just learned is that the optic nerve, which is the only nerve that goes directly to your brain, actually sends more impulses from your brain forward than from your eye backward. Which means your brain is telling you what you see. You are already preconditioned. That is why you can put four people at an accident and each of them will see something different. We must remind ourselves, and teach others, not to believe everything we think!
2) Guard Your Mind from Garbage
The second thing to learn in this battle for the mind is guarding your mind from garbage. The old cliché from the early days of the computer — GIGO, garbage in/garbage out — is still true today. If you put bad data into a computer, you will get bad results out. If you put mental garbage into your mind, you will get garbage out in your life. Proverbs 15:14: “A wise person is hungry for knowledge, while the fool feeds on trash” (NLT). That might be a good verse to write on a Post-it note and stick on your television. And remember that the next time you think about going to a movie.
Any nutritionist will tell you that there are three kinds of food for your physical body. There is brain food that makes you smarter (food that actually makes you smarter!). There is junk food, which is simple calories — it’s not poison, but it’s just empty calories. And then there are toxic foods, which are poison.
The same is true in what you see, what you hear, and what you allow into your mind. Some food is brain food. It will make you smarter, more godly, and more mature emotionally. Then there is junk food. There is so much you can fill your mind with that really is just stuffing. It is neither good nor bad, as 1 Corinthians 6:12 says, lawful but not helpful. In other words, some things aren’t necessarily wrong, but they aren’t necessary. The Bible tells us to fill our minds with the right things. If you want to be healthy and “successful” in the Christian life and in ministering to others, successful in your ministry, fix your mind on the right things.
By the way, some people say, “God hasn’t called me to be successful. He’s called me to be faithful.” That’s just not true. The Bible says God expects not only faithfulness but also fruitfulness. Trace it through Scriptures. “I chose you . . . that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). Jesus cursed a fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit (Matthew 21:19) — that’s how important fruitfulness is. Faithfulness is only half the equation. God expects fruitfulness as well.
“Put mental garbage into your mind and you will get garbage out of your life.” Tweet
Psalm 101:3 says, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.” I know you would never invite a couple to come over to your house and ask them, “Why don’t you commit an act of adultery right here in front of us?” But you do it every time you watch a TV program that has adultery in it.
You would never invite somebody, “Why don’t you murder somebody right here in my living room?” But you do it every time you watch a TV show in which somebody murders. How do you guard your mind against garbage? How do you help others guard their minds against garbage? Some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out. They think they can allow anything into their mind, and they will be just fine. They’re kidding themselves.
Two Ways to Guard Our Minds
Philippians 4:6–8 gives us two ways to guard our minds from garbage: conversational prayer and concentrated focusing:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, 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 do you know when you have the peace that “surpasses all understanding”? When you give up trying to understand fully why God does what he does and simply trust him. This peace “will guard your hearts and your minds.”
The first way you guard your heart and mind is “in everything” to pray. Then Paul says to 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.” Notice that he says to pray about everything. If you were to pray as much as you worry, you would have a lot less to worry about. Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. This kind of prayer is like a running conversation — which means we are not on our knees. We don’t close our eyes.
I have trained myself to do this. I talk to God all the time. I’m talking to him while I’m writing to you. You can develop a two-track mind. The average person can speak about 150 words per minute, but the average mind can understand about 350 words per minute — that is a 200-word per minute boredom factor. So you can certainly talk to God and talk to somebody else at the same time. So pray about everything. Maintain a running conversation.
Second, Paul says that we should fix our thoughts. “Think about these things.” How do you do that? By concentrated focusing. This is one of the keys to overcoming temptation: don’t merely resist it; replace it. Whatever you merely resist persists. The more you hit a nail, the harder you drive it into the wood. And when people say I don’t want to think about this, what are they doing? They are thinking about it! And whatever gets your focus gets you. James tells us that “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). So don’t merely resist it.
When I was a little kid, and I knew my mother had baked cookies, I would go up to the edge of the kitchen counter, and she would say, “Now, Ricky, don’t eat those cookies.” I would say, “I’m not, Mom. I’m just looking.” I’m looking. I don’t want it. I don’t want it. And then I would grab it and eat it. Don’t just resist; replace. Change the channel. Refocus. In the words of Thomas Chalmers, it is “the expulsive power of a new affection” that turns your mind away from the things that the Devil wants you to focus on to the things that God wants you to focus on. Guard your mind from garbage is the second key.
3) Never Let Up on Learning
The third thing to learn and teach to others in this battle for the mind is to never let up on learning. Become a lifelong learner. Love knowledge. Love wisdom. Learn to love the act of learning. The word disciple means “learner.” You cannot be a disciple of Christ without being a learner. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden [by the way, that sounds like a felt need!], and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:28–29). What do you do when you take on a yoke? You share a burden with another animal. You lighten a load. And Jesus wants us to learn from him.
“God expects not only faithfulness but also fruitfulness.” Tweet
Many people act as though their education ended at their last graduation. I have met some pastors who have not cracked a book since seminary. They have never studied anything else. They have never taken another class since finishing school. Are you kidding me? To be a disciple means to be a learner. All leaders must first be disciples. So leaders must first be learners. The moment you stop learning, you stop leading. Growing churches require growing pastors. The moment you stop growing, your church stops growing.
You can learn from anybody if you just know the right questions. The Bible says, “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5 KJV). In other words, you can learn from anybody if you just learn to draw out his or her knowledge. And how do you do it? You draw it out by asking questions. We all know things that others don’t, and others know things of which we are ignorant. That’s why the Bible says, “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).
But if you are going to really learn, you need one quality in particular: humility. Why does God resist the proud and give grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5)? Because the humble are teachable. I would rather admit that I don’t know it all than to pretend that I know it all and not learn. You can learn from anybody.
I learn from churches larger than Saddleback. I learn from churches smaller than Saddleback. I learn from guys older than me and from guys younger. I learn from people who don’t like me. I learn from critics. I learn from people who totally misunderstand me. You can learn from anybody. Learning from your enemies is a way to be smarter than your enemies, because if your enemies learn only from themselves, but you learn from them, then you will know more than they do — what they know plus what you know!
Proverbs 18:15 (icb) says, “The mind of a smart person is eager to get knowledge [that’s a mark of intelligence!], and the wise person listens to learn more.” We need to be eager to learn and willing to listen. Learn this old cliché: “God gave us two ears and one mouth,” so we should listen twice as much as we speak. Proverbs 10:14 says, “Wise men store up knowledge” (NIV).
In Scripture, knowledge is the only thing we are supposed to store up. Jesus says we are not to store up money. Don’t store up treasure. Don’t store up material possessions where moth and rust decay. But store up knowledge because knowledge is far more important than money. You can always get more money, but knowledge is something you are going to take with you to heaven. You will leave all your material wealth behind, but a wealth of knowledge goes with you.
Suggestions for Growing in Knowledge
One of the ways you can store up knowledge is to start a family library — a godly family library — and leave it as a legacy to the next generation. In my family, four generations back gave their library to three generations back, who gave it to two generations back — my dad — who gave it to me. I began collecting books when I was sixteen years old. For many years, I read a book a day. Today I have over twenty thousand volumes in my library.
As a teenager I heard, “The impact on your life will be largely from the people you meet and the books you read.” So I decided to get very intentional about both of those — whom I would meet and what I would read. And when you begin to build a library of godly, Christian books, you are leaving a legacy for the next generation. Twice in the book of Proverbs we are told to “store up my commands within you” (Proverbs 2:1; 7:1 NIV). If you are going into eternity, you are going to take that with you.
If you’re serious about growing in knowledge and growing in your mind, here’s the approach I suggest:
- Read 25 percent of your books from the first fifteen hundred years of church history. So many people act like nothing happened between the times of Paul and Luther. God was at work all that time, and we are dismissing the God of the church to think that he was not having his Word faithfully taught during those times.
- Read 25 percent from the last five hundred years, since the Reformation.
- Read 25 percent from the last one hundred years.
- Read only 25 percent from contemporary authors of the last ten years.
A lot of people know all the contemporary books and none of the classics. Jesus did not just begin building his church in the year 2000. He has been working in and through his body for two millennia, and you can save yourself a lot of time if you will avail yourself of the whole tradition. It is wise to learn from experience, but it is wiser to learn from the experiences of others. It is also easier! It saves a lot of time and saves us from making the mistakes of others.
Read, Read, Read
I’m constantly reading. Every year I read through the complete works of a great thinker. In 2009 I read through twenty-six volumes of Jonathan Edwards. In 2010 I read through Church Dogmatics, the complete works of Karl Barth. I’ve read through John Wesley and through several other leaders. It is prideful to think that leaders from the past don’t have anything to teach us. There really is nothing new under the sun. If it’s held forth as new, then it’s not true, because truth is eternal. It was true a thousand years ago. It will be true a thousand years from now.
“If you were to pray as much as you worry, you would have a lot less to worry about.” Tweet
Truth is never invented; it is only discovered. And if God has shown it as truth, somebody else in the church has seen it before. In fact, if you ever come up with a truth that nobody else has ever seen, I can tell you this: you’re wrong.
The Bible says “Wise men store up knowledge” (Proverbs 10:14 NIV). And here’s Proverbs 19:8: “Whoever gets sense loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding will discover good.” We must make time to think. Plan it in your life. Strategize for a balance between doing and thinking. We need both of them in our lives.
Five Levels of Learning
Let me overview quickly what I call “the five levels of learning.” This is the pedagogy of discipleship that I have used for thirty years. It’s a major reason why our church has been able to bring so many people in the front door and send so many out the back door on ministry and mission. I believe you can judge the health of a church not by its seating capacity but by its sending capacity.
You don’t judge the health of an army by how many soldiers sit in the mess hall and eat every week and listen to your Bible study. You judge the health of an army by how many are on frontlines doing battle in the world. We want to be able to bring them in, build them up, train them forward, and send them out. And to do so, we must be able to teach people not only to love the Word but also to do the Word (James 1:22–25). Here are what I call “the five levels of learning”:
1) Knowledge 2) Perspective (Wisdom) 3) Conviction 4) Character 5) Skill
The first two have to do with knowing. The second two have to do with being. And the third one has to do with doing. You can use these as a template for all of your discipleship — moving people from “come and see” to “come and die.”
First, we need to learn knowledge. God says in Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” When we don’t know the Word of God, we can be destroyed. And we need to know not only the Bible but also church history. That’s why our church features each week on the back of the bulletin a figure from history, just a little bio. Also, we have a theological word of the week on the back of our bulletin because we want the people to know theological words and the great saints of church history. That’s part of knowledge.
Sadly, you can learn the Bible without really knowing it; in other words, you can know all the facts without really knowing the content. You don’t really know something until you apply it. That’s why Jesus implies to the Pharisees that their problem isn’t that they don’t know Scripture but that they don’t know the power of God (Mark 12:24).
Think about what a rebuke that was to the Pharisees who had memorized the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. They had memorized it, yet Jesus says that their problem is that they don’t know the Scripture. They needed to teach others their knowledge, teach others to love knowledge, and get rid of anti-intellectualism. (By the way, we need great Christian intellectuals today more than ever before — people a lot brighter than I! — who battle on the intellectual level against the many competing worldviews.)
2) Perspective (Wisdom)
The second thing we need is perspective. The Bible calls this perspective “wisdom.” Wisdom is found in seeing life from God’s viewpoint. It is seeing from God’s perspective. Knowledge is knowing what God does; wisdom and perspective are knowing why he does it. Knowledge is the bottom rung; perspective is the next building block above it.
Some churches are great at Bible knowledge but fail to teach their people perspective. They don’t teach wisdom. I love this paraphrase of Isaiah 55:8 in The Message: God says, “I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.” Obviously that’s true! Psalm 103:7 says that the Lord “made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel” (KJV).
God revealed his acts. The children of Israel saw the miracles. They saw the Red Sea split. They saw the water at Marah. They saw the doves and the manna and much more. They saw the acts of God. But Moses knew the ways of God. He knew why God had done those things. They had knowledge, but Moses also had perspective. In knowledge, the goal is to know the Word of God; but in perspective, the goal is to have the mind of God as much as possible. So we want to develop for ourselves, and to help others develop, the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14–16; Philippians 2:5–11).
The third thing we need is conviction. Conviction is the third building block, as these build on each other. We pursue knowledge of the Word, then perspective on why God does what he does, and, in doing so, we start to develop convictions.
What is God’s perspective on temptation? What is God’s perspective on evil? What is God’s perspective on our past, our present, and our future? What is God’s perspective on sin? What is God’s perspective on Satan? Once we start getting perspective, we begin developing convictions.
Conviction is not opinion. Opinion is something you argue about; conviction is something you die for. And what we need today as much as ever are men and women of godly, biblical convictions. If you know hardly anything about history, you can still know that the people who have had the greatest impact on our world for good or evil were not the smartest, not those who had the most knowledge, not the wealthiest, not the most talented, but those who have had the deepest convictions for right or wrong. And, of course, it is Jesus who has made the most impact, and it is Jesus who had the deepest convictions of all.
If you want to know how much Jesus loves you, look at the cross. With arms outstretched and nail-pierced hands, Jesus says that the cross is how much he and his Father love us. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “I love you so much it hurts,” he says. “I love you so much that every drop of blood falling to the ground says, ‘I love you.’” That’s conviction.
Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 7 about being settled in our own minds, which means having godly convictions. And in Hebrews 11:1, faith is said to be “the conviction of things not seen.” Let me give you some examples.
- “[Nothing] . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39). That’s conviction. It’s not an opinion; it’s a conviction.
- “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28–29). That’s a conviction, not an opinion.
- “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). That’s a conviction.
- “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Timothy 1:12 KJV). That’s a conviction. We need men and women of conviction.
- And there is this great conviction: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15 KJV). I don’t have to understand it, Job says, but I’m going to trust God no matter what.
In conviction we want the heart of God. We don’t want only to see what God sees but also to feel what God feels — about the world, about the lost, about his Word, about his church. We need to learn knowledge. Then we need to add to that God’s perspective. But then we need to add to the convictions that come out of knowing the mind of God.
Once we begin to develop convictions, we start developing habits — and the sum total of our habits is what we can call “character.” We cannot say that we have the character of honesty unless we are habitually honest. We cannot say we have the character of kindness unless we are habitually kind. Character is the sum total of our habits.
If I were to say to my wife, “Honey, I’ll be faithful to you twenty-nine days of the month,” she knows, and I know, that partial faithfulness is unfaithfulness. It is only faithfulness if it is my habit to always be faithful to her.
You develop character by developing the habits of love and joy and peace and patience — those nine qualities from Galatians 5 — kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (verses 22–23). What are these fruit of the Spirit? They are a perfect picture of the character of Christ. If we want to become like Jesus, then we must seek the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. The goal is to become more like God in our character, not to become gods. We never will become God — no matter how much fruit we produce. We will never be mini-gods. We are not God. That’s the oldest lie in the book, that we “will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). We need to learn character.
When we begin to develop character and do good habitually — daily Bible reading, regular fasting, regular prayer, regular days of prayer, regular witnessing — when these become the habits of our lives, the more we do them, the better we will get at them. And so we come to the last level of learning: skill.
“When we don't know the Word of God, we can be destroyed.” Tweet
Skill comes through doing something over and over and over. Ecclesiastes 10:10 says, “If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success” (NIV). That is one of my “life verses.” If you are chopping wood, it helps to have a sharp ax. If you have a dull ax, it takes more energy to cut the wood. But if you have a sharp ax, it doesn’t take as much energy.
“Skill will bring success.” It doesn’t say here that prayer will bring success. It doesn’t say that desire will bring success. It doesn’t say it’s dedication. But skill will bring success. A farmer can pray all he wants, but if he tries to harvest a wheat field with a grape picker, the job will not get done. We must have the right skills.
I know many men who are godly and love Jesus and preach the Bible, but their churches are dying on the vine. The Bible says skill will bring success. We are never wasting our time when we are sharpening our ax. That’s why I challenge you to go to conferences and learn from anybody and everybody. We don’t only need to know the Word of God, but we also want to have the mind of God and the heart of God and to develop the character of God — and we want to do the will of God. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
I have said it before, and I’ll write it here again: we need another Reformation — and this one needs to be about deeds, not creeds. Many have misunderstood me and said, “Oh, he doesn’t believe in creeds!” I believe in creeds. I preach on creeds with frequency. But the issue is not creeds alone. Creeds must be turned into deeds. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. We must do and teach the kind of behavior that goes with sound doctrine. We must be doers of the Word.
We only believe the parts of the Bible that we actually do. You may say, “I believe in witnessing.” Do you do it? No? Then you don’t really believe in it. “I believe in tithing.” Do you do it? No? Then you don’t really believe in it. “I believe in having family devotions.” Do you do it? No? Then you don’t really believe in it. We only believe what we actually do. And our problem is that we know far more than we do and we teach people too much. Mark this. We might be teaching people so much that they aren’t able to apply it.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. First thing Sunday morning I would go to Sunday school, and there I was supposed to get an application that changed my life. Then I would go to morning service, and I’d get another application that was supposed to change my life. Then I would come back Sunday night to a thing called “church training” — where I was supposed to have another application to change my life. And then in the evening service was another application to change my life.
That’s four in one day! Then I was supposed to come back to midweek prayer and Bible study and get another application. Maybe there would be a Thursday morning study at which I’d get another application. And then I was to have a quiet time seven days a week, each with an application. That’s about fourteen applications a week.
Friend, our lives do not change that much that fast. I am doing well if I get one good application a week. The problem in many of our churches is that before we genuinely apply last week’s message, or this morning’s message, we are already coming back and learning (or teaching) something else.
We are taking notes and filling notebooks and thinking that because we are writing things down, we are really getting it. But we’re not. A wide gap exists between knowing and doing in American Christianity — and perhaps its cause is too much teaching. Before we actually apply what we have learned, we are on to the next thing, and we cannot handle it. We cannot change that much that fast.
Another weakness of the church today when it comes to learning is that often we pastors are not teaching our people to be self-feeders. We do all the feeding instead of teaching the sheep how to feed themselves. We each need to learn for ourselves the skills of doing a systematic Bible study, a thematic study, and a book synthesis. How do you analyze a chapter? What are the steps in doing a word study? What are the steps in how to do a biographical study? We preachers can do a lot of ought-to preaching without giving our people the how-to’s.
While I was growing up, my dad was on the staff of a seminary. So I heard more sermons growing up than most people. And as I heard all these sermons, I would write over and over again as I was taking notes, “YBH, YBH, YBH” — yes, but how?
Interpretation without application is abortion. We may be teaching people to have big heads and little hands and little hearts and little feet. We must apply the Word of God. Jesus gave the how-tos; he taught people how to do it. Isaiah 26:3 says, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” Your mental state depends on what you think about. Keep your mind fixed on the Word of God, the mind of God, the convictions of God, the character of God, and the skills of God.
4) Let God Stretch Your Imagination
One final area I would like to address before closing this chapter is the imagination. If we are going to learn, and teach others, how to fight the battle for the mind, we must learn how to let God stretch our imaginations. This is a part of the battle. This is part of thinking. Everything that happens in life begins with a dream. Somebody has to imagine it first.
This is a gift that God gave to us: the ability to dream and envision and imagine something before it comes into reality. Every building we see was first imagined by an architect before it was built. Every piece of art was imagined before it was painted. Every song was imagined before it was written. Every athletic award, every gold medal, the athlete imagined before it ever happened. Every church that’s been started, somebody — either a group of people or a single church planter — imagined that church first. Rarely does anything happen until somebody starts dreaming.
“Interpretation without application is abortion.” Tweet
We need to become great, godly dreamers. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint.” The word “vision” relates to dreaming. It means a kind of revelation, a vision from God. And where there’s not this vision, this God-directed dreaming, the people “cast off restraint” — literally, they get “out of control.” When we do not have an overarching vision or dream or goal for our lives, our lives are out of control. What we need today are great dreamers.
My prayer is that Acts 2:17 will be true in your life and in your church: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
Let me ask you quite frankly: What’s your dream for your next ten years? Have you even written it down? Thoughts get disentangled when they go through the lips and the fingertips. If you haven’t written it down, you haven’t really thought about it. Writing makes a man more precise. What is your dream for your family? What is your dream for you personally? How are you going to be different ten years from now?
Our church recently entered into what we’re calling the “Decade of Destiny.” We have written out our dreams for the character changes we want to see in our lives over the next ten years. What would you attempt for God if you knew you couldn’t fail? What we need today are great imaginers.
Each generation needs its C. S. Lewises and J. R. R. Tolkiens, and G. K. Chestertons, and Tolstoys, and Dostoyevskys. We need great dreamers, great Imagineering people. Be that where you are. We need these in science. We need the Boyles. We need the Pascals. We need the Maxwells in physics and the Keplers and the Calvins. We need it in business. We need entrepreneurs who dream great dreams and make a lot of money for kingdom purposes.
When I talk about dreaming great dreams, I am not talking about changing doctrine. The Bible says in Jude 3 that the biblical faith was “once for all delivered to the saints.” The gospel is there, and we don’t change it. To do so is heresy. But for those of us who are leaders, whether in the church or simply in our homes, what we don’t see with our physical eyes is far more important than what we do see. I can attest to that after nearly forty years of leading. We can only do the impossible if we see the invisible.
You may have heard people say that what the mind can conceive, the hand can achieve. That’s not fully true. There’s a kernel of truth in it. But Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. For what you imagine has no limit. Logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere. Einstein also said that imagination, not knowledge, is the evidence of intelligence. And Napoleon said that imagination rules the world. What we need today are people creating new innovations in a new society to reach new generations. The message must never change, but the methods have to change with every generation.
Where does innovation come from? It comes from simply asking the right questions. The only difference between an innovator and anybody else is not that the innovator sees more than what everybody else sees but that he asks questions that nobody else does. Perhaps the biggest limitation on your growth and your ministry to others is your imagination. God cannot fulfill your dream if you don’t have one. God cannot bless your vision if you don’t have his vision for your life. God cannot help you reach a goal if you don’t have a goal.
A goal is a kind of statement of faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please” God (Hebrews 11:6), and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). The Bible says that “according to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29). And when we set goals, we are saying, God, I believe you want me to accomplish this with your help by this time. I am challenging you. I am daring you. I am begging you: dream great dreams for God, and teach others to dream great dreams for God.
It’s not enough just not to believe everything we think. It’s not enough just to guard our minds from the garbage. It’s not enough to keep on learning and developing character. We must also let God develop our imagination. Because we must outthink and out-dream and outsmart the world for the glory of God — not for our private good but for the glory of God and the good of others.
Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” — more than we can imagine. More than we can dream. Infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes. I think I’m a pretty big dreamer, but God says, “Think of the biggest thing you can think of, and I can top that. I can outdo that.”
A Challenge to Thinkers and to Doers
Many of you are natural thinkers and love the world of thoughts and ideas. You may not really like people, but you love the world of thoughts and ideas. Maybe your idea of growth and of ministry is to stay in a study all week. For some pastors, this would mean going through a vacuum tube out to the pulpit, then preaching, and then taking the vacuum tube back to their study. That would be heaven for them.
Perhaps you are naturally a great thinker — God wired you that way. And then others of you are naturally great doers. You’re figuring out how to do it — winning people to Christ, baptizing them in large numbers, planting churches, equipping servant leaders, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, educating the next generation, going out into the hurts and highways and byways of life and taking up the cross where people least expect it. You’re a doer.
Here’s what I want to say to you, friend. Those of you who are thinkers, you need to do more. Those of you who are doers, you need to think more. It’s not one or the other. It’s both-and.
Let me leave you with this little acrostic: THINK. Here are five things to remember in our own lives and to teach to others.
“T” stands for test every thought. Psalm 139:23–24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Ask God to search and test your thoughts. Don’t believe everything you think. Test every thought.
“H” stands for helmet your head. Put on the helmet of salvation. In California you can’t ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. You don’t have to wear elbow pads or knee pads, but you do have to wear a helmet. Why? Because if you get your head hurt, you are in deep kimchi. And the Bible says, “Take the helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6:17).
Until we are saved, we don’t have any protection against the fiery darts that the Devil unleashes on our minds. Repentance means changing your mind — not just changing what you do. It’s first and at its heart mind change. Repentance is changing the way you think. It is a mental shift. Put on the helmet of salvation.
“I” stands for imagine great thoughts. Think about all the great promises of God. Everything is possible to him who believes. What an amazing blank check we have in Christ. Imagine great thoughts.
“N” stands for nourish a godly mind. Make sure that you are growing and developing. Psalm 119:15 says, “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” Mediate and fix. Study and reflect.
“K” stands for keep on learning. The Bible says, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). Do others see progress in your life? Are your words and conversations more powerful, more meaty, deeper, stronger, more practical, more life-touching?
Note: Pastors reading this chapter may want to ask questions like the following of their sermons: (1) What is the knowledge of God and the knowledge of his Word that the people are learning in this sermon? (2) What is the perspective I’m teaching them in this sermon? (3) What are the convictions I want to get across? (4) What are the character qualities I want to develop? (5) What are the skills?
The Christian life is not just knowing; it’s being and doing.
Thank you for those who have read and engaged this chapter. I pray that you would raise up a new generation of godly intellectuals who know your Word, understand your mind, feel your heart, live out your character, and do your will with skill.
Give us a new generation of imagineers. Give us new imaginations in science and in business and in missions and in architecture. And may Christians be known for outthinking, outsmarting, and out-loving the rest of the world.
I pray a blessing on every man and woman reading these words. Bless their families. Bless their churches. Bless their ministries. Protect them from the Evil One. And as the battle for sin is fought in their minds, may they not merely resist but refocus. May they fill their minds with the washing of the water of the Word. May they be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they may know your will — which is good and pleasing and perfect.
In Jesus’s name I pray.
More Messages from Desiring God 2010 National Conference
The Way the World Thinks: Meeting the Natural Mind in the Mirror and in the Marketplace (R. Albert Mohler Jr.)
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