This is an updated version of a Bible study I did in 2006 on the role of the mind (thoughts) in spiritual formation in Christ. It is inspired by Dallas Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart. This article on the mind (thoughts) is part of a series from my class for counselors on “How People Change.” (See my other articles on the heart, feelings, body, social, and soul.)
In his Greatest Commandment Jesus teaches us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
Mind and Brain
Our mind includes all of our cognitive capacities: thoughts, ideas, images, and beliefs. Our feelings are closely intertwined with our thoughts. Other key terms that relate to our minds include: envision, study, remember, reason, and believe.
Our mind is bigger than our brain; it’s more than matter, as it also encompasses experience. Our minds can interact with visible and invisible reality. When we believe something it’s not just professing something as the “right answer”, but its knowing things as a reality, as actually true.
The heart (will or spirit) works off of the mind; we access our heart and then direct it (make choices) by focusing our thoughts and inclining our feelings (thoughts and feelings are both part of the mind in Dallas Willard’s model). All the aspects of human nature are most readily influenced by what we do with our thoughts.
The Role of the Mind in Spiritual Formation
The great Apostle-Psychologist Paul says of the ungodly, “Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind… They have become filled with every kind of wickedness… and depravity” (Romans 1:28-29). In contrast, he says our great opportunity is to, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This will produce greater health in us spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Dallas Willard teaches that what we think about at any given time is our first freedom because at any time we can chose to think on whatever we want and experience the effects of that. He says that Transformation in Christ-likeness begins when the Word and the Spirit enter our hearts through our minds.
To expand our mental capacities for God we need to train and renew our minds through disciplines for the spiritual life like study, meditation, and memorization of Scripture – especially long passages of Scripture that get you into the flow of God’s life. This is how we internalize God’s truth and the structure of it to be in-formed by him. Our minds are like a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise and we see this with memorization in that the more we practice this the better we get at it.
We also need to sanctify our imaginations for God. In the course of a day we receive so many harmful images of sensuality, anger, and chaos. But we can turn away from these and instead use our minds to focus on and hold onto positive, God-blessed images, like “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Meditating deeply and prayerfully, over and over, on the Psalm 23 images and scenes of your relationship with the Lord as your Good Shepherd and God will bring deep restoration to your soul.
With our minds we can conceive of becoming more like Christ. For instance, we can think on one thing while doing another, even learning to do something by habit without thinking about it consciously. This is the basis of practicing the presence of God. We can stay in increasing conscious contact with God and his goodness if we exercise our minds: remembering what he’s done for us and what he’s said, reasoning with him, and disciplining ourselves to keep thinking on his presence with us moment-by-moment.
Bible Verses Teaching Us to Renew Our Minds
“Study this Book of the Law continually” (Joshua 1:8, NLT).
“Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind” (Psalm 26:2).
“On my bed I remember you; I think of you though the watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6).
“Remember the wonders he has done” (Psalm 105:5).
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23).
“An upright man gives thought to his ways” (Proverbs 21:29).
“As he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7, NASB).
“I applied my mind to know wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 8:16).
“‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD” (Isaiah 1:18).
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” (Isaiah 26:3, KJV).
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are… my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and snow come down from heaven… so is my word that goes out from my mouth” (Isaiah 55:9-11).
“The mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6, NASB).
“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
“Think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3)
“Thinketh no evil” (1 Corinthians 13:5, KJV).
“Demolish strongholds… against the knowledge of God… take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)
“Take the helmet of salvation [on your head] ” (Ephesians 6:17).
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5, KJV). Or “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself” (Philippians 2:5, MSG).
“Whatever is true…lovely…praiseworthy, think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
“Set your minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2).
“Have a strong and steadfast belief in the trustworthy message” (Titus 1:9, NLT).
“Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24, NLT)
“Keep your eyes on Jesus… Study how he did it” (Hebrews 12:2, MSG).
Bible Verses on the Effect of Thoughts on Other Parts of the Self
Feelings: “Think about [good] things… And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
Heart: “As he thinketh in his heart so is he” (Proverbs 23:7, KJV).
Social: “Think of ways to encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24, NLT).
Body: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light” (Luke 11:34).
Soul: “Knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Proverbs 2:10).