Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
When I was chaplain at the Mayo Clinic Hospital I frequently received calls from patients and family requesting a visit. Often as we talked I found them wanting to change their circumstances and/or wanting to change their feelings about their circumstances, (i.e. fearful, anxious, and angry). Seeing some of their circumstances I could readily empathize with them! But usually they faced circumstances they could not change, and had feelings they could not change. Try telling yourself or someone else to stop being anxious or afraid and see how that works!
However, there was something they could change, and that was their thinking. They had power to change their thinking about their circumstances, and by that they could often change their feelings. They would find themselves feeling less afraid, less anxious and less angry. It’s much what the ancient philosopher Epictetus said: “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take of them.”
I consider the many times in the New Testament the apostle Paul models what it means to change one’s thinking, and by that to change one’s feelings. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul tells about his “thorn in the flesh” that “torments” him (2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul was no stranger to pain and trouble, but the “thorn in the flesh” pushed Paul to his limits. So Paul does what most of us would do in his sandals: Paul asks God to change his circumstances. He says he prayed “three times” (an idiom meaning, “again and again”) that God take away the thorn. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
But rather than change Paul’s circumstances the Lord sought to change Paul’s thinking about his circumstances. God sought to update Paul’s mental software with the best information. God told Paul:
- “My grace is sufficient for you”
- “Power is made perfect in weakness”
With that new information downloaded Paul learns new ways of looking at his circumstances, and by that experiences new feelings. Paul says that he experiences ‘gladness’ and ‘contentment’ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Paul’s circumstances do not change, but his thinking about them does. And that makes for a big difference.
As Americans we cherish the precious freedoms protected by the First Amendment regarding religion, speech, press, assembly, and petitioning the government. But there is one freedom that we will always have, a freedom that no government needs to protect: the freedom to choose what we think, what we will set our minds on.
Viktor Frankl was a distinguished psychiatrist who did slave labor in Auschwitz and Dachau. Frankl lost most of his immediate family to the gas chambers in the camps. But it was in those horrific camps that Frankl says he learned a great life lesson:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning )
Frankl learned that we always have the freedom to think and to choose what our minds dwell on. As today’s Scripture text indicates, the transformed life always centers on renewing our minds and thinking: “ be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. That means daily downloading God truth into our mental software, updating our data bank with God’s way of seeing life.
One of the things this means for me is that whenever I am fearful, worried, or angry, I see those feelings as red lights alerting me to examine my thinking. What is it in my thinking causing me to react to circumstances by feeling afraid, worried, and angry? I try to stop and think about my thinking! And by thinking about my thinking I can bring it in line with God’s thinking about my circumstances. As I do that I begin to experience God’s promised peace and joy.
Try as we might, we can’t always change our circumstances. But like the apostle Paul and Viktor Frank we can choose how we will think about them. Let us then live as people transformed by the daily renewing of our minds!
Grace and peace,
P.S. Water from Rock’s Advent devotional “And the Word Became Flesh: Daily Reflections on the Incarnation for Advent 2015” is available now. Order copies for yourself, your family and friends, study group, Sunday School class, church, etc., by using our order form.