By all accounts, we seem to be the most distracted civilization in the history of the world. We are increasingly fragmented in our attention and relentlessly pulled away from many of the basics that make us human.
The trouble is especially pressing for Christians. We believe that the inner person is more important than the outer, and that where we focus our minds and hearts today counts forever. The very essence of what we believe to be true about the world hangs on where we direct our attention.
In such a day, it is of growing importance that we acknowledge we really can direct our attention. We are not defenseless in our chaotic surroundings. We are not animals. Our minds are on a leash we hold. You really can control your thoughts.
The Holy Spirit is in the ministry of producing in us self-control. As Martin Luther so memorably said, you may not be able to keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.
Set Your Mind Up
One of the most pressing practical issues in the Christian life — right there on the page in the New Testament and experientially today — is where and how we set our minds. Where we direct our minds, and what plane of reality to which we tune our hearts, makes all the difference between hearing from Jesus, as Peter did, “Blessed are you” (Matthew 16:17), or, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).
Why was Peter blessed when he declared Jesus to be the Christ? “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). Instead of tuning his ears to mere mortals, and the conversational distractions of the day, Peter took his decisive cues from God.
You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head. But you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.
Why, then, just five verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, did Peter stand in the place of Satan? Jesus doesn’t leave us in the dark: “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). Blessing or cursing, hearing from God or acting like Satan, all came down to where Peter set his mind.
Life and Death at Stake
The New Testament makes plain that where we set our minds is digital, not analog. They are set either on the things of God or on the things of man. To put it in terms of Colossians 3:2, we set our minds either on “things that are above” or “things that are on earth.” Or as Paul writes in Romans 8, either “the things of the flesh” or “the things of the Spirit”:
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5–8)
It’s an increasingly pressing question in our age of diversion: Where will you regularly set your mind — on the things of God or man, on heaven or earth, on the Spirit or the flesh? Those who set themselves on the Spirit have “life and peace” (Romans 8:6), and no longer are locked in a prison labeled “cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). While Paul says of those with minds set on earthly things, “their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame” (Philippians 3:19).
No Place Like Home
One way we might talk about what it means to set our minds is to ask where our minds are “at home.” Just as most of us have a place we call “home,” where we typically go to bed and wake up and return to, by default, when we’re not someplace else on purpose, so also our minds (and hearts) have a way of returning to some “home” when we’re not pressing them into a specific use.
Colossians 3 gives us an important insight into what it means to set the mind upward. Why set our minds on the things “above”? Colossians 3:1 makes that clear: above is “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Why this regular reorienting of our lives on Christ? Because he is our life. Verse 3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Will we be endlessly distracted by the trivialities of our day, or will we set our minds on what really matters?
If we are in Christ, he is our life. And he calls us to engage in the world where we live, as he prays to his Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Jesus says, “I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). It would be disobedient for us to try to extract ourselves from our very earthy callings in life. And it would be tragic to lose our relentless focus on the very Source of that life, seated in heaven.
You Can Set Your Mind
“Setting our minds” as Christians does not mean we only ever think of God and heaven, but it does mean that as we engage in our earthly callings — in our homes, at work, in the world — we don’t mentally turn our backs on him. Granted, he will not be the explicit, conscious focus of our every waking thought, and he doesn’t expect such. He gave us finite, human minds, with restricted abilities for focus. But we do always want Jesus high on the horizon of our consciousness, ever in our field of sight, consistently resetting our minds to fit us for our callings here below.
You can set your mind, and you will set it somewhere — or if you leave it alone, it will go somewhere. The question isn’t whether your mind will find a home to return to, but what that default will be. Will you be preoccupied with one small thing after another: a favorite sport or team, how you look, how much money you make, how well-known you are, what you’d like to possess, what improvements you’d like to make in your earthly lives? Or will you put in the mental effort to make your mind’s home be the things of the Father (Matthew 16:23), the Son (Colossians 3:1–3), and the Spirit (Romans 8:5–7)?
Will we let our age of diversion nibble away at our very humanness? Or will we fight, in the strength God supplies (1 Peter 4:11) by his Spirit, to reset our minds to what really matters, and so makes us truly effective on earth?