What’s the role of the mind in overcoming sin?

How do we overcome sin, especially habitual sins which frequently defeat us? This is a challenge for many Christians and there are many different answers. I’m preparing for a sermon in a few weeks on Ephesians 4:27-24, verses which hold two major keys for victory over sin. One of those keys I want to talk about in this post: the importance of renewing our minds.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

The first thing that struck me about this passage is how important right thinking is to Paul. Paul is urging the believers in Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling they have received” (4:1). That means a radical change, a departure from one way of life and entrance into another, a change of identity.

He urges them to stop living like “the Gentiles.” Here he uses this word as a stand-in for those who are separated from the life of God (see 4:18). Their lives are characterized by (1) a spiritual condition that is hardened against God, (2) a mind that is futile, darkened, and ignorant, and (3) a lifestyle that is characterized by a lack of moral sensitivity. If there’s an ordering of events here it would likely be that the spiritual condition leads to a darkening of the mind, which leads to a lifestyle opposed to God, but both my experience and the text lead me to believe that these are more interrelated.

My interest here is the emphasis Paul puts on the second part, the role of the mind. Paul describes the fallenness of the “Gentile” thinking in three ways. First, their thinking is “futile”, that is, it doesn’t get them anywhere. There’s motion, but no progress. Having denied God, they have denied reality. In denying reality, their thoughts get no traction, they’re ultimately futile. Second, their understanding is darkened. It lacks light and illumination. Third, they’re “separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” Sometimes ignorance makes someone more forgivable (“they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.”) But Paul isn’t describing ignorance in this way, but as something which makes them more guilty. They’re not ignorant because they haven’t had a chance to learn, but because they rejected the learning available to them.

Paul’s purpose isn’t to set up an “us-versus-them” polemic here, but to urge those Gentiles who had put their faith in Christ to “put off” this old way of thinking. It’s not “us-versus-them” but “who we were” vs “who God is making us to be.” How does this transformation from old to new happen? Well, if the problem is in the mind then the solution will also be in the mind. They were taught to be “made new in the attitude of their minds.” Having had their spiritual condition already transformed through salvation, they needed now to allow the transformation of their minds.

This renewal happens by understanding what they have been taught, namely, “the truth that is in Jesus.” This happens decisively when we hear and respond to the gospel, but Paul also has a continual process in mind. In other words, we need to be regularly taking in truth, remembering the truth that we have learned, and applying truth to our lives.

How does this apply to overcoming sin? We can, and should, deal with our sinful behaviors directly. However, sinful behavior is often fueled by lies. “I can’t stop sinning so why bother trying” is a lie. In the first place, those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin. In the second, the reality that we will never be perfect should never stop our pursuit of holiness. “This sin doesn’t hurt anyone” is a lie. All sin has destructive consequences and at the minimum it is harmful to you. Some lies are more subtle, even subconscious. No one would say that a woman is a mere object, but when men look at porn that’s how they’re treating them. It’s a denial of their full humanity. There are many other lies, or corruptions of the mind, which fuel sinful behavior. To deal with the root of the behavior, then, we need to deal with our minds – they need to be renewed.

We need to regularly meditate on the truth of the gospel. In the gospel we see the seriousness and destructiveness of sin alongside the grace of God, both to forgive and to enable obedience. The truth of the gospel undermines the lies we believe to justify our sin. We need to watch closely what goes into our minds. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still rings true. Just as regularly feeding on the truth works its way into behavior that is pleasing to God, regularly feeding on lies, or on those things which will make us spiritually callous or morally desensitized leads to behavior that is displeasing to God. Paul is wise when he calls us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Philippians 4:8)

Of course, we can know all the right answers and still be riddled with sin. We need an inner transformation that goes beyond mere cognition. We need a shift in the will. At the same time, we’re foolish to neglect the role that our minds and thoughts in our spiritual formation. Want to overcome sin? Start by allowing God to transform your mind.

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