As we have said before, the goal of our life on earth is to seek sanctification--the state of thinking, feeling, and acting like Jesus in all things. While it is never completed in this life, it is what we were created to seek. Our lives are a search to be as close as we can to Jesus.
Paul says to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. That means sacrificing ourselves daily in the pursuit of Christian wholeness. It isn’t something we do for a time and then give up, neither is it something that we must complete before God loves us. He loves us and accepts us now, but He wants better for us. Doing, thinking, feeling and betting more like Him is what it means to live a better life.
The Holy Spirit makes us better day by day. But the Holy Spirit cannot accomplish this in us without effort on our part. You can buy someone a membership to a gym and free lessons from a life coach, but they won’t get in shape unless they use them. In the same way God can provide us with the means of becoming like Him, but unless we exercise our Spirits, the Holy Spirit can do nothing to help. He will not override our will by making us conform. We have to be willing to have hearts renewed before any renewal will take place.
The means of pursuing God’s perfection is through the practice of Spiritual exercises. Now we all know what exercises are—we may not do them but at least we know the term. If we want to get stronger and healthier physically, we must take walks, go to the gym, use the treadmill, and so on. If we want to get stronger and healthier in our relationship with God, then we must do our exercises. It is the only way.
There are many kinds of spiritual exercises, just like there are many kinds of physical exercises. Physical exercises are divided into different categories—cardio-vascular exercises such as walking for endurance, strength-building exercises such as weight lifting for strength, and flexibility exercises such as yoga for balance and flexibility. Spiritual exercises can be divided into three categories, too—exercises for the head (mind), heart (emotions), and hands (actions).
Head, heart and hands must be balanced. We may be strong in certain areas, but we need them all, just as we should not use this as an excuse for being lazy in developing any area. Spiritual health and overall improvement in our spiritual life requires that we develop all three.
The first place we start is with the mind. We need to develop our minds for Christ. Paul states in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That means we should build strong brains and fill them with God’s Word. We must do this because the mind of the World is trying to squeeze us into its mold, to make us conform to the world’s way of thinking and acting. To push back, we must have something strong inside, and we must develop our minds to hold fiercely to God’s truth.
Unfortunately, many Christians have no interest in the thinking. Modern Evangelical Christianity has a history of anti-intellectualism. Mark Noll writes.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless churches and parachurch communities. Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not known to be exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations”
When Christians distrust their minds, they try to substitute enthusiasm and mindless activity for careful thought and reason. They become lazy and flabby in the brain. Even so they are convinced there is nothing wrong with them, and go on in blissful ignorance of what they are missing by not renewing their minds.
Compare this to physical exercise. Suppose someone says, “Let’s all go on a hike.” Those who like physical activity would be raring to go! But the rest would just make excuses or lay around the house. Some would be too distracted by familiar forms of entertainment, such as television, books, or video games. Some would find walking too boring. Others would refuse because they didn’t think they could walk very far. But any walk is better than no walk, if you want to have a healthy body.
The same thing is true of the mind. Any thinking is better than none. When it comes to minds, we either use them or lose them. If we are going to grow more like Jesus, then we’d better be willing to use our brains.
One of the great myths about thinking is that it’s boring. It’s a lie of the Devil! There is nothing more exciting than the challenges of the mind. James Sire gave this definition of an intellectual.
“An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to developing them, criticizing them, clarifying them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ones pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning them with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball, but also suiting them for service in workaday life—A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.”
Let me let you in on a secret--thinking is fun! It is playing with ideas. Many people don’t want you to think, because they are afraid of what you might discover. They are the ones who suggest that thinking is boring or hard, and that you shouldn’t do it. They want to tell you what to think, so they do everything in their power to keep you from thinking for yourself. C. S. Lewis once said that the Devil doesn’t do so much by putting ideas in our heads as by keeping them out. But thinking for God’s glory is one of the great blessings of life. It’s not boring at all.
But what do we think about? That’s easy--think about the Word of God. Psalm 119: 11 says, “Your Word I have hid in my heart that I might not sin against You.” The Word of God, when ingested into our lives, provides the foundation for all Spiritual life and thought.
How do we ingest the Word of God? First, we should read it. Make a commitment to read the whole Bible all the way through. Most of us don’t know the Bible as well as we think we do. Even if we knew it once, we’ve probably forgotten more than we know. Make a part of your life to read the Bible through as often as you can, and to read it with comprehension.
Second, Study it. Don’t just read the Words, study the words. Take the time to know what they mean. That means learning the background of the Bible—the names, dates, places, and especially the stories of the Bible. It does no good to know the words, if you don’t know the books and chapters. The mental exercise of Bible study will sharpen your minds and transform your hearts. I am convinced that you cannot do a thorough job of reading and knowing the Bible alone. You need a small group of people with whom you can share, learn and even disagree. Hiding God’s word in your heart requires that you struggle with the ideas and meaning, and not just take it for granted.
If we are to use our minds to glorify the Lord, then we should also develop a heathy skepticism. When someone says an idea is in the Bible, then we should learn to seek evidence. Don’t think you or anyone else is right unless you can produce evidence that supports it. Accepting everything that others say about the Bible without seeking out the truth is not using our brains. It is not faith—it is laziness.
Third, study about it. Theology is not just studying the Bible but studying what we learn about the Bible. It is taking the concepts of the Bible and arranging them in an understandable way. It’s not just the words or concepts of the Bible that is important, but it is also how those words and concepts come together, and how they apply to our lives. An intellectual Christian will not just read the Bible, but will read what people say about the Bible. He will study theology and the application of theology to life. He will not just read one view, but will also read people who disagree.
A friend once told me that he believed in the “fried chicken” method of reading theology. When we eat fried chicken, we throw out the bones and feast on the meat. When we read a Christian book or commentary, we don’t have to swallow everything to learn. Learn to question according to God’s word.
Fourth, memorize it. Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the man who does not stand in the way of sinners or sits in the seat of the scornful, or dwell in the place of the scornful, but his delight is in the Law of the Lord and on that law he meditates day and night.” The word for “meditate” in Hebrew can also be translated as “memorize.” When we memorize something it stays in our brain. It becomes part of us, and can interact with every other idea. Try to memorize at least one or two verses a week. That may sound impossible, but in time you will find that it becomes easier with practice. When you have the Word of God in your minds, it can influence every thought, feeling, and behavior in ways you might never suspect. One day it could just save your life.
A woman was in church when I was preaching on Romans 8: 28, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” That afternoon she was riding dirt bikes with her husband. Halfway through the track, she lost control and went over an embankment. She was lying in a ditch, paralyzed from the waist down for what seemed like hours.
Later when I visited her in the hospital, she told me that the only thing she could think about as she lay there was Romans 8: 28, “All things work together for good for those who love God.” She held on to that verse, believing God was going to let good come from this. That verse kept her alive, she said.
Scripture can only help us if we know it. Use your minds to study the Bible. It will pay off for you in the end.