Transformation of the Mind

Spring Arbor University JOURNAL, Summer 2003.
This issue of the Journal focuses our attention on the University’s mission that calls for the total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning. Dr. Willard was asked to discuss the role of thinking and learning, and how they relate to the spiritual formation of the believer. More recently published in 2016 as Chapter 1 of Renewing the Christian Mind (HarperOne Publishers).

The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow our minds to dwell upon. It is in our thoughts that the first movements toward the renovation of the heart occur. Thoughts are the place where we can and must begin to change. There the light of God first begins to move upon us through the word of Christ, and there the divine Spirit begins to direct our will to God and his way. We are not totally free in this respect, but we do have great freedom here. We still have the ability and responsibility to try to retain God in our knowledge. And those who do so will surely make progress toward Him; for if we truly do seek God as best we can, he, who always knows what is really in our hearts, will certainly make himself known to us.

Clearly our thoughts are one of the most basic sources of our life. By "thoughts" we mean all of the ways in which we are conscious of things — and it includes our memories, perceptions and beliefs. Thoughts determine the orientation of everything we do and evoke the feelings that frame our world and motivate our actions. Interestingly, you can‘t evoke thoughts by feeling a certain way. However, we can evoke — and to some degree — control our feelings by directing our thoughts.

Our essential nature as active and creative beings depends upon our ability to envision what is not the case, as well as what is. Our ability to plan for the future must constantly run ahead of reality. And this we do in thought. A will that runs ahead depends, of course, upon our ability to think; and what we think, imagine, believe, or guess sets boundaries to what we can will or choose, and therefore to what we can create.

As our senses present a landscape for our body and its actions, so our thoughts present the "lifescape" for our will and our life as a whole. Within that "thought lifescape," which includes our perceptions, we make the decisions that determine what we will do and who we will become.

The realm of thought involves four main factors: ideas, images, information and our ability to think. The two most powerful ones, of course, are ideas and images.

Transforming Ideas

Ideas are very general models of our assumptions about reality. They are ways of thinking about and interpreting things. They are so pervasive and essential to how we think about and how we approach life that we often do not even know they are there or understand when and how they are at work. Examples of ideas may include freedom, education, the American dream, church, democracy, justice, family, God and so on. And if you wish to see ideas in action, look closely at artistic endeavors in their various forms, such as movies and music — which encapsulate most of what is called pop culture — or efforts to persuade, such as in politics and commercials.

Christian spiritual formation is inescapably a matter of recognizing in ourselves the idea systems of evil that govern the present age and respective culture, as well as those that constitute life away from God. The needed transformation is largely a matter of replacing those idea systems of evil with the idea system that was embodied and taught by Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul, who also understood and taught about these things, warned us that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:12) These higher-level powers and forces are spiritual agencies that work with the idea systems of evil. These systems are their main tool for dominating humanity.

By contrast, those who have been rescued "from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Colossians 1:13) are to "let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:5) This is what is meant when Spring Arbor University speaks about its unique commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for all learning. It is an essential way of describing the substance — the underlying reality — of Christian spiritual formation. We are, in Paul‘s familiar language, transformed precisely by the "renewing of our mind." (Romans 12:2)

Soul Earthquakes

To change governing ideas, whether in the individual or the group, is one of the most difficult and painful things in human life. Genuine conversion is a wrenching experience. It rarely happens to the individual or group except in the form of divine intervention, revolution or a significant emotional event. At a group level, the 1960s illustrate this in the recent past of America. And in many parts of the world, Christians are persecuted and killed today because they threaten the dominant idea system of others in that country.

In fact, we are now undergoing an even more profound change than in the 1960s, though it is less noisy, with the emergence of mass spirituality. This change is the equivalent of a "soul earthquake" that leaves nothing unshaken and many individuals hurt or destroyed. From one essential perspective, of course, Jesus himself confronted and undermined an idea system and its culture, which in turn killed him. In the end, he proved himself greater than any idea system or culture, and is continuing the process of a worldwide idea shift that is crucial to Hisperpetual revolution, in which we each are assigned an essential part.

The Power of Images

Closely associated with governing ideas are the images that occupy our minds. Images are always concrete or specific, as opposed to the abstractness of ideas, and are heavily laden with feeling. They frequently present themselves with the force of perception and have a powerful emotional linkage to governing idea systems. They mediate the power of those idea systems into the real situations of ordinary life.

In many Christian churches today the services have divided into "traditional" and "contemporary" primarily over imagery and the explosive feelings attached thereto. The guitar and organ are no longer just musical instruments they are powerful symbols.

Jesus understood the great significance of images. He intentionally selected an image that would brilliantly convey himself and his message: the cross. The cross represents the lostness of man, as well as the sacrifice of God and the abandonment to God that brings redemption. No doubt it is the all-time most powerful image and symbol of human history. Need we say he knew what he was doing in selecting it? He planned it all and is also the Master of images. For their own benefit, his followers need to keep the image of the cross vividly present in their mind.

Accordingly, ideas and images are the primary focus of Satan’s efforts to defeat God’s purposes for humankind. This is the basic idea behind all temptation: God is presented as depriving us by his commands of what is good. As a result, we think we must take matters into our own hands and act contrary to what he has said. This image of God leads to our pushing him out of our thoughts and placing ourselves on the throne. The condition of the ruined soul and world naturally results. The single most important thing in our mind is our idea of God and the associated images.

Thus A.W. Tozer did not exaggerate when he said:

"…Our idea of God [should] correspond as nearly as possible to the true being of God...A right conception of God is to practical Christian living, what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignorant thoughts about God."

The person and gospel of Jesus Christ — building on these simple lyrics, "Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so"— is the only complete answer to the false and destructive images and ideas that control the life of those away from God. The process of spiritual formation in Christ is one of progressively replacing the destructive and inaccurate, with the images and ideas that filled the mind of Jesus himself. With Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning, institutions such as Spring Arbor University play an essential role in the development of healthy spiritual formation within the body of Christ. For Christ is the only one capable of communicating to and developing within the believer an accurate image and idea of God. To begin elsewhere is to build upon a defective foundation.

Using the Ability to Think

To undermine the power of those ideas and images that structure life away from God, we must use our ability to think.

What is thinking? It is the activity of searching out what must be true, or cannot be true, in light of given facts or assumptions. It extends the information we have and enables us to see the larger picture, both clearly and wholly. It reveals falseness, inaccuracy and error to those who wish to know. It is a powerful gift of God to be used in the service of truth.

Martin Luther, thinking and standing in the power of God before his examiners at Worms, said: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason … my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen." The earliest printed version of his statement added the famous words: "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise."

And so we must apply our thinking to the Word of God. We must thoughtfully take that Word in, dwell upon it, ponder its meaning, explore its implications — especially as it relates to our own lives. We must thoughtfully set it into practice. In doing so, we will be assisted by God’s grace in ways far beyond anything we can understand on our own; and the ideas and images that governed the life of Christ through his thought life will possess us.

Thinking vs. Faith

Perhaps we are in a time when thinking rightly is more important than ever. The prospering of God’s cause on earth depends upon his people thinking well.

Today we are apt to downplay or disregard the importance of good thinking as opposed to strong faith; and some, disastrously, regard good thinking as being opposed to faith. They do not realize that in so doing they are not honoring God. They do not realize that they are operating on the same satanic principle that produced the killing fields of Cambodia, where those with any sign of education — even the wearing of glasses — were killed on the spot or condemned to starvation and murderous labor.

Too easily we forget that it is great thinkers who have given direction to the people of Christ in their greatest moments: Paul, Augustine, Luther and Wesley to name a few. At the head of the list is Jesus Christ, who was and is the most powerful thinker the world has ever known.

Many Christians today will be surprised to learn that Isaac Watts — the composer of well-known hymns such as "Joy to the World,""When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," along with many others — also taught logic. He wrote a widely used textbook in his day titled, Logic: The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth. Those hymns we enjoy so much owe their power to the depth of thought they contain. That is one reason we need to return to them constantly.

Of logic itself Watts said:

The great design of this noble science is to rescue our reasoning powers from their unhappy slavery and darkness; and thus, with all due submission and deference, it offers a humble assistance to divine revelation. Its chief business…is to diffuse a light over the understanding in our inquiries after truth.

Bluntly stated, to serve God well, we must think straight, as crooked thinking — intentional or not — always favors evil. By contrast, to take the "information" of Scripture into a mind thinking straight, under the direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, is to place our feet solidly on the high road of spiritual formation under God.

Dwelling Upon God

To bring the mind to dwell intelligently upon God as he is presented in his Word will have the effect of causing us to love God passionately, and this love will in turn bring us to think of God steadily. Thus he will always be before our minds. As Thomas Watson beautifully wrote long ago:

"The first fruit of love is the musing of the mind upon God. He who is in love, his thoughts are ever upon the object…By this we may test our love to God. What are our thoughts most upon? Can we say we are ravished with delight when we think on God?…Oh, how far are they from being lovers of God, who scarcely ever think of God!

As students at Spring Arbor University engage in the practice of placing Jesus Christ at center stage in every branch of human knowledge, they are simultaneously being encouraged to train their thoughts ever upon God. In this way they enter not only a life of study, but also a life of worship.

To think of God rightly, as He is, one cannot help but lapse into worship; and worship is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person. Worship naturally arises from thinking rightly of God on the basis of revealed truth confirmed in experience. We say flatly, "Worship is at once the overall character of the renovated thought life and the only safe place for any human being to stand."

Article Tags is co-sponsored by the family of Dallas Willard, Dallas Willard Ministries, and FiveStone.