Do you keep doing the same sin over and over again? Have you found your spiritual growth stagnating because of a recurring bondage to a particular sin pattern? Has behavioral modification fallen short of the actual life change you desire?
When you competently and completely address your inner person, you will experience effective soul care. Sanctification is not accomplished by behavioral change or even with better theology, but by your internal transformation into Christlikeness (Romans 8:29).
Inner change does not come easy. It can feel threatening or even impossible. Bad character traits formed in response to life in a fallen world become man-made attempts to protect yourself.
In Christ, you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and you are asked to leave the old behind (Matthew 16:24; Ephesians 4:22). This article will examine your inner person, especially what is behind the formation of your character. Since depravity is total, all facets of your character must be identified, understood, and redeemed by the gospel for actual change to take place.
You may want to read:
- How to take every thought captive
- Mind Mapping a person who exchanges the truth of God for a lie
- A practical plan to break free from the fear of others
Thinking Forms Character
The secular world teaches your character is formed from a mixture of genetics and environment. Scripture teaches your thinking forges your character.
For as he thinks within himself, so he is – Proverbs 23:7 (NASB)
The term “thinking” tends to narrow the scope of what is taking place. When you “think,” you are not just processing data, but you are interpreting life. The Mind Map helps to illustrate how your thinking (i.e. interpretation of life) determines who you are.
When events in life happen, the inner self observes, thinks, and interprets those events. After the interpretation is complete, you reach a decision and a chosen response. This response has consequences that affect you and others. This creates a repeated feedback loop.
Habitual thinking patterns and behaviors begin to emerge. These habits are a blessing from God because they eliminate the need to think while completing routine tasks consciously. However, sinful thought-habits can also form.
As you repeat learned behaviors, personalities take shape, and after time a person’s character is defined. For example, a young boy grows up with an angry father and observes his father’s behavior. The boy’s heart craves the control and power his dad achieves through the use of anger, and as he grows up, he chooses to use anger.
Since this is modeled behavior for him, it comes naturally to him. Over time he hones his craft, and as an adult, this behavior spills into all aspects of his life. He becomes an angry man. Here are a few important conclusions you can make at this point:
- You see the importance of your inner self. The practice of just changing your behavior is futile unless you address the thought life.
- You have a habituated pre-salvation character that is sin dominated with enslaved thought processes. Your character formed while following the prince of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). You were not free to choose your character; you were enslaved to sin during this time. This fact should allow you to loosen your grip on the character traits you are so reluctant to release.
- This truth should call every Christian to examine their thought life. Everyone is tempted to play the part of a Christian externally while not redeeming worldly thought patterns. Your thought life will lead you in the direction you will go.
Nobody wakes up one morning and decides today will be the day they commit adultery. The sin of adultery is a result of many past cycles of worldly interpretations. The act of adultery is the final step in the process (James 1:14-15). This news, however, is encouraging for those in Christ. With the power of the Holy Spirit, true character change is possible.
Mind Mapping How We Interpret Life
To redeem your character, you must examine worldly thinking patterns so you can deconstruct and renew them (Ephesians 4:22-24). To better understand all the moving parts, the “Interpretation of Life” infographic (bottom) expands upon the Mind Maps. The graphic is intended to provide a basic way to help you understand the process. I identify and discuss the major components.
Contexts of Life – Inside the circle is where you live in a fallen world with indwelling shame, guilt, and fear (Genesis 3:7-10). Your separation from God leaves your soul in a state of restlessness and chaos. You are uncomfortable and lack peace. Many times, these influences hide in the shadows of life, but you must recognize they play a powerful role in your interpretations and desires.
Thinking – This box represents your cognitive ability to interpret, consider, and understand. You analyze the words said, what actions were taken and determine what it all means.
Despite your mind’s tremendous ability, sin has left its stain. Your knowledge is finite, and your thinking is difficult, prone to error, and you often reach wrong conclusions. Disease and physical trauma can also impact your ability.
One damaging way sin works is through strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). Strongholds form when the mind becomes fixated on worldly reasoning, where individuals are held captive by depression, anxiety, escapism, excessive grief, fear, anger, unforgiveness, stubbornness, or victimization.
Heart – Your heart is the effective center of your being and the center and seat of spiritual life. Your heart is the desire-producer that drives your thinking (Luke 6:45).
In a fallen state, your heart rebels against the pattern of life God has commanded in Scripture (Proverbs 17:11). You are self-focused and wise in your own eyes (Psalm 10:4).
When placed in the context of shame, guilt, and fear, a fallen heart will place hope in created things (Romans 1:25). This misplaced hope is the dynamic that creates heart-idols.
You place hope and trust in God’s creation instead of Him (Jeremiah 2:13). Your thinking is deceived to believe you will obtain peace and rest when you are successful at pursuing your idols, but like all counterfeits, these idols prove false, and your lusts are never satisfied (Proverbs 20:27).
Eventually, your idols end up controlling your life. When threatened, your deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9) twists the truth and justifies your actions.
Shaping influences – This box designates memories, experiences, observations, cultures, family traditions, and so on. They color the way you observe the world and can have a tremendous impact on how you interpret the actions of others.
The presence of sin leaves you with faulty memories and exposes your soul to many evils. Suffering can add to the indwelling shame, guilt, and fear you formed from being born in Adam.
Conscience – The inner sense of right and wrong comes from your conscience. This box designates your God-given ability to judge conduct or motive (Romans 1:20).
The conscience alerts you when sin is present. However, due to sin, your interpretations and actions can dull or sharpen your conscience. If this alarm is ignored or suppressed, the conscience will dull over time. The Bible refers to this as a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2).
The conscience can also become embellished with man-made rules. These rules typically develop from self-righteousness or exposure to legalism. The Bible refers to this as a weak conscience (1 Corinthians 8:10). The consumption of alcohol is a typical example. The Bible does not forbid this activity, but it can become part of one’s conscience.
In some cases, a weak conscience can become oversensitive. The effects of sin or the right environment can create a stronghold leaving the conscience in a constant state of alarm.
By-products – As the process of interpretation is taking place, emotions and expectations (or desires) created. Emotions are part of being human and are one of the ways you bear the image of God. Emotions are not truth, but an indicator of what is going on in your inner person.
Expectations represent felt needs. They are not the physical needs to sustain life, but as Ed Welch describes, they are “connected to the way we evaluate ourselves or to what we get in our relationships with others; needs for significance, acceptance, respect, admiration, love, belonging, meaning, self-esteem, and so on.”
Environment – The outer red ring represents your physical environment; the false counselors (Genesis 3:4-5), that weakness your flesh (Matthew 26:41), and your tendency to love the world (1 John 2:15).
You live in a world where Satan has dominion (Ephesians 2:1-3). He is the father of lies (John 8:44) whose mission is to destroy (1 Peter 5:8). He is behind every false counsel and will leverage the weakness of your flesh to take your eyes off Christ.
Your body is subject to disease and death, which means you will experience pain and suffering. Additionally, your body has an addictive nature to it, making it prone to enslavement by worldly things such as alcohol, drugs, sex, food, or even our emotions.
Finally, the world tempts you with created things. Your selfish heart covets the blessings of others. You are bombarded with advertising, enticing your flesh to live the perfect life now.
What Does It Mean?
The entanglements of habitual sin are usually deeper and wider than first thought. With the use of this model, the discipler is now in a better position to help the person understand and redeem their thinking processes.
From the model, you can see the many influences and interactions at work. Your problems may appear overwhelming, but you must remember the gospel is greater than your sinfulness. (John 16:33)
Illustrating these many interactions in a case study will have to wait for another article, but I would like to briefly describe how the gospel speaks to each of these components.
Heart – In Christ, your darkened heart is removed and replaced with a new soft heart with affection for God (Ezekiel 36:26-27). You now have access to worship the true God, who satisfies you completely (John 4:14).
Thinking – In Christ, your mind is open to understanding the wisdom of God (Luke 24:45) and you gain the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Conscience – Through the Word, the conscience is biblically calibrated to guide thinking and actions. When you sin, you now can rest in the imputed perfect righteousness of Christ (Romans 3:22).
Shaping Influences – With gentleness (Romans 2:4), you interpret your past through a Scriptural grid. As you learn about God’s goodness, you can rest in His sovereign control.
The Context – On this side of heaven, you will never be whole, but Christ does take your shame (Isaiah 54:4-5). He washes your guilt clean through forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9) and eases your fears because God promises He will never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6).
By-Products – Your emotions change as your thinking is redeemed. Your expectations become those of God.
Environment – You still live with a broken body in a fallen world and face spiritual attack, but you have God’s promise of using all things for your good (Romans 8:28-29). As Rick Thomas has said, “God is a bit more dangerous than we care for Him to be,” but He is perfectly good and loving.
Call to Action
When providing soul care to someone struggling with sin, you must address character change. Encouraging the practice of spiritual disciplines and teaching theological truths are all good things, but the corruption of sin is too great. Who the person is needs to change.
Disciplers will serve their friends well if they can identify and help them to establish new ways to interpret life. When this happens, and the gospel becomes the dominant influence in our view of life, sanctification will take place.