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Humanity became a walking dichotomy: God’s creation, but distorted in every way. One of the ways we became distorted was in our minds. Part of what “alienation from God” means is our minds are not right.
Just because a person may know who God is, it does not mean his thinking is in line with God. The worst case that we see of this in Scripture is the demons (James 2:19). Knowing God does not guarantee the right thinking that should lead to the right faith (Romans 10:17).
Even after we become regenerated and are made right with God, our thinking continues to lag behind our identity in Christ. Part of the idea implied in progressive sanctification is our thinking will become more and more in line with how God thinks. The implication is that our thinking is still not completely right.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. – Romans 1:23
The noetic effect of sin means our minds were darkened, futile, and foolish. Paul knew this, as we see in Romans 1:23. We also see him giving us some practical advice in Philippians 4:8–laying out a format to help us change our thinking.
Most Christians know their thinking is off center. I’m not sure how aware they are of the depth of wrong thinking or how to correct wrong thinking. The goal for them–and us–is to correct poor Bible knowledge and the application of that knowledge.
The more precise you are with your theology and its application, the more holy you can be, the more sound you will think, and the more harmony you will experience with others. While correct knowledge and application are not everything, they are big things. Our faith is altered and corrected in proportion to how we think about God and His Word.
In a typical counseling session, part of my job is to help a person correct poor biblical thinking. They may know God, but they are usually not aware of how various negative shaping influences have altered their thinking. I’m not only talking about the foundational shaping influence of not being born again but many other shaping influences that have shaped their minds before and after salvation.
The most obvious influence is the person’s parents. Other “authorities” are their genetic capacities and competencies like IQ. And nearly all the people that I have counseled had inferior religious experiences. Sadly, religion is one of the most potent and adverse effects on a person who struggles with poor theological thinking.
And, of course, one of the most potent shaping influences is fear. Fear is the most oft-repeated appeal in the Word of God. Our Father does not want us to fear any longer. He knows we’re all susceptible to this problem.
One of the more common ways a person fears, at least at some point of their spiritual journey with God, is their confidence in God’s Word regarding their salvation. Almost all of us have doubted whether God had genuinely saved us.
This tension is because our hearts were darkened, futile, and foolish. Then God saved us. But as children of God, our minds were not perfected. We were “mentally lagging” in our understanding of the perfect righteousness that we received from Christ.
In such cases, our thinking needs to be changed and brought in line with the Word of God, the new authority over our minds. To help with that, I have created a fictional case study about a person who doubted his salvation. His name is Biff.
In addition to questioning his salvation, he came to me struggling with depression and discouragement. The more we talked, the more I realized these were symptoms of a deeper problem. Underneath the depression was a heart of fear. But that was not the bottom of it all.
With more questions and extended conversations, it became apparent that Biff had a culprit that motivated his fear. Biff was an “unbelieving believer” (Mark 9:24). Biff was not wholly sure God was satisfied with him.
Biff came from a legalistic religious culture. It was a fear-based culture of “do’s and don’ts,” lists, and rules. He practiced his religion with a genuine love for God, but he never could shake this poor theological premise of law-keeping.
He layered his religious experience on top of a poor relationship with his daddy, which was a pre-existing condition. Biff’s dad was quiet in speech, passive in action, but never withheld his displeasure in his son when he felt Biff needed correction.
Biff interacted with his dad very little unless he messed up, which is when he “got fussed at.” Experiencing love, grace, mercy, and appreciation from another human being was a foreign idea for Biff.
He brought this type of thinking into his rule-based religious experience. As you might suspect, being part of a religious movement that placed high marks on performance was “perfect” for Biff.
Though his dad never would appreciate him for his behavior, his religious culture did. This new environment is where Biff excelled. He received a steady diet of rules and regulations through the preaching, which he digested and imitated with zeal.
The more rules that he obeyed, the more he felt appreciated. They told him what Bible to read, what kinds of clothes to wear, what types of music to listen to, what places were acceptable to go, what books were permissible to read, and what churches were approved to attend.
He loved it. It worked. He was right with God and man. All he had to do was “hit their prescribed marks.” Biff’s religion was ready-made for a person who had a strong desire to please.
And he was a quick study. He figured out the ropes and became a top-notch performer in his religious circle–but something was missing. On the inside, Biff knew his thinking was off center.
As he read verses about how he had not based his relationship with God on his works, he became confused (Titus 3:5). Though his religious culture affirmed a non-works, “all of grace” teaching, it was clear to him that what he did or did not do mattered. He told me,
How could my works not matter to God when they were the basis for having a relationship with my religious friends? If I watched the wrong movie or listened to the unapproved music or went to a “bad church,” my approval rating among my friends tanked.
Without seeking to understand me or help me, they judged me and began to distance themselves from me. If I did conform to my Christian culture’s preferences, I could enter back into their good graces. If I did not, they would shun me because they said I was a dangerous influence on their friends.
It is so hard to understand. Does God grade me this way? My friends were like my dad. I began to think God was this way too.
It was not long before Biff’s relationship with God grew cold. In time he chucked his religion altogether and began living a licentious lifestyle. His former religious friends did what he expected them to do: they judged him and separated from him.
In their minds, they were justified in their response to him because they warned him, saying that his behavior would lead to sinful living.
What his friends did not understand was their religion pushed Biff toward his crisis in faith. In Biff’s mind, his father, religion, friends, and God were all the same: right behavior was a condition for a relationship.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
By the time Biff came to me, he was spiritually distant, as well as angry and cynical. God was on the sidelines, from Biff’s stunted perspective. Trust was not a possibility. It was a trifecta of rejection: religion, family, and God–all based on his performance.
Biff was depressed and discouraged. He had lost hope. We spent hours hammering out a new theology. Though he came to me outwardly distant, it became apparent that he wanted help. He was in search of the true and living God. He needed a change of mind.
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. – Philippians 4:8
I wanted Biff to have a mind change regarding his understanding of God accepting him. I wanted him to see that it was not based on his behavior, but on the behavior of the Son of God.
Biff’s behavior would never merit a proper and pleasing relationship with the Father, but Christ’s works would do that. I wanted Biff to understand the gospel practically.
Thoughts: Changing Stinking Thinking
During one of our counseling sessions, I began to map out Philippians 4:8 for Biff. I wanted him to practically see how to move from lousy thinking to biblical thinking. You can follow this process with any bad thought you have. Here are the steps I mapped out for Biff.
Thoughts – What is your unbiblical idea? What is it about your thinking that needs a biblical adjustment? Write it down on a piece of paper.
(I represented his response on the far left of the mind map–the blue oval that has the words “my thoughts” written in it. The particular thought that I’m interacting with for Biff in this mind map is whether Biff is a Christian? You can run any wrong idea through the Philippians 4:8 filter.)
Filter – Once you have established the thought you want to change, you now have to see if it fits any of Paul’s six categories: Is it true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable?
An unbiblical thought will not make it through this filter. To press your idea all the way through to the far right of the mind map–”Now I can think on it”–you’re going to have to adjust your thinking according to the Word of God
Scripture – For Biff, I gave him verses that were true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable regarding this idea of salvation. His thought of losing his salvation was none of these ideas that Paul is teaching us.
I gave him seventeen verses or passages that spoke to this idea of being saved, getting saved, how to be born again, who regenerates you, and what God requires for salvation.
All of the verses affirm that (1) you cannot lose your salvation, (2) it was not based on a person’s works but (3) is a total reliance on the actions of another. Because Scripture is our authority through which we filter our thoughts, Biff had a new way of thinking.
All of the verses were either right, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. This kind of biblical thinking was a far cry from how Biff had been thinking.
Excellent and Worthy – Based on the authority of God’s Word, Biff had something to think on that was excellent and worthy of praise.
Think – As you can see, Biff moved from the left side of the map with his wrong thinking. He began to push through the Philippians 4:8 grid, and as he did, his thinking began to adjust according to God’s Word.
By the time he made it to the right side of the page, his thoughts had changed from how “Adam had shaped them” because of the fall, bad parenting, and poor religion, to a new kind of shape by the Word of God.
He repented of his stinking thinking and began to think like an informed biblicist. You can do this too. If you’re not familiar with God’s Word, it may serve you to find someone who is, so they can help you adjust whatever in your thinking needs changing.
If you are comfortable enough to do this alone, go for it. My appeal would be for you to share how God is changing your thinking. Also, feel free to print this mind map and article so you can interact with both more effectively.