Perhaps one of the more obvious discoveries of my life is that the majority of the thinking that I do is passive, not active. When I read my Bible each day, I am often actively holding up specific beliefs against the light of God’s word to see if I believe anything wrongly. Simultaneously, through the mere act of reading well, a hundred other truths are making themselves at home in my mind, even if I’m not wrestling with any one of them in the moment.
Active learning or active thinking is not the type of thinking most of us are doing the majority of our time each day. And yet, we are all thinking about something all day every day. Thinking is something we do when we’re conscious. It’s something we do even when we’re vegging out in front of YouTube or Netflix.
J. Gresham Machen says, “When any new fact enters the human mind it must proceed to make itself at home; it must proceed to introduce itself to the previous denizens of the house. That process of introduction of new facts is called thinking. And, contrary to what seems to be quite generally supposed, thinking cannot be avoided by the Christian man.”
Whether we are reflecting on a fact at any given moment or not, we are always thinking, and that thinking shapes us in profound ways.
What Tutors Have You Hired?
As we casually scroll social media, or watch the cult-classic sitcoms, or binge on the latest British drama, or entrance ourselves in 24/7 news coverage, we have hired tutors to instruct us.
These tutors are continuously presenting facts and knowledge of varying disciplines (sociological, political, theological, scientific, and more). As we listen, we welcome into our minds whatever teaching they have on the docket for the day. And, often, when we’re watching television or listening to podcasts, our mental guard is down, and so the “teaching” can get a stronger and more subtle foothold.
These tutors don’t teach for free either. They require payment, either directly through your paid subscription to their service or indirectly through the information they obtain about you. Just as college students pay tuition to sit in a classroom and learn from teachers and professors, so we pay “tuition” every time we enter a movie theater or pay for Hulu or DirecTV. The only difference is that rather than calling the shows an education, they are called “entertainment.” By thinking of shows as entertainment rather than education, we assume that we are entering a space free of thinking — a space where we can suspend reality in favor of enjoyment.
But just as Machen says, whenever new facts enter our mind, we are engaged in a type of thinking — whether we want to be or not. Watching shows is one of the most passive forms of thinking, which makes it one of the most powerful. Because we are not engaged in active thinking, we allow any number of morally suspect thoughts to enter our mind unhindered. These thoughts immediately get comfortable in their new home — they start settling in and hanging drapes.
To say this is a cunning move by our adversary is an understatement. Under the guise of entertainment, evil thoughts often move into our minds and entrench themselves unopposed.
Passive Thinking’s Vital Role
When most of us think of becoming more holy, especially regarding our mind or our thoughts, we probably think of an active battle like the one Paul describes: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Taking every thought captive to Christ is how we wage war in the mind. We actively isolate and identify our thoughts so that we can take them hostage. We hold our thoughts up to God’s word. Do we agree with what God says, or are we arguing with him? Do we love what he loves? Do we hate what he hates?
Whenever we find ourselves out of step with God’s word, let the killing begin. Destroy that argument; wage war on that opinion; take captive that thought. This is an essential battle tactic for every Christian to learn, but it is not the only battle tactic.
Whenever we read the Bible well, far more is happening than we perceive in the moment, just like when we watch our favorite shows. God’s thoughts are entering the human mind — more than we can count, much less isolate — making themselves at home, and introducing themselves to whatever ideas they find. While we may focus on a verse or two while reading a chapter, we are standing under a waterfall of teaching, and absorbing much more than we realize.
Where Righteousness Feels at Home
We want our minds to be a hospitable place for righteousness to dwell. How do we do that? We do it in the same way the immoral entertainment industry tries to educate and acclimate our minds to unrighteousness. Our minds become a home for righteous thinking when we regularly and submissively soak ourselves in God’s word — either by reading or listening — and let God himself (through his word) be the tutor that shapes and transforms us most. God’s word is more powerful than a movie. It is more insightful and compelling than social media.
Fill your mind with God’s thoughts by acclimating it first and foremost to the stories and laws and letters and poetry of the Bible, rather than the stories being sold to you by the world. Put yourself daily in the stream of his cleansing and purifying waterfall of holiness and grace in Scripture. Reading is often passive, just as watching is often passive. But reading is also a form of thinking, just as watching shows is a form of thinking. Both affect the atmosphere of our minds, either for good or ill — for clean air leading to pure thoughts or polluted air leading to perverse ones.
The Bible isn’t the only place we can go for this kind of sanctification, although it is far and away the very best place. There are also stories and biographies and movies and documentaries and nonfiction and poetry and sermons that all help us to think better. They put thoughts in our mind that we very much want to settle in and put up drapes. They change us and sanctify us in ways we don’t always understand in the moment.
What Stories Are Shaping You?
When I read Andrew Peterson’s “Wingfeather Saga” with my children, I am putting myself in a stream of good water, allowing it to wash off some dirt that has built up in my mind. Reading of Nia, the strong and gentle mother, strengthens my arms with endurance. The saga reminds me of why God made me. It expands my imagination so that loyalty, honor, sacrifice, and truth are habituated into my mind — righteousness becomes the normal air for my thoughts to breathe.
Destroying evil thoughts and lofty opinions really begins with passive thinking. It begins by refusing to put ourselves in the polluted streams of entertainment, and acclimating and habituating our minds to righteousness through God’s word and the echoes of his stories we find in other stories. We know when to destroy the strongholds of wrong thinking when we’ve tasted what right thinking tastes like, when we’ve fed on it, when it’s nourished our thoughts and imaginations.
We will learn, again and again, that his thoughts are not like our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8), and then experience the absolute joy of surrendering to his superior ones.