“I don’t know how to change!”
A variation of that phrase is repeated often within the walls of my office. It’s usually said with a sense of desperation or sometimes surrender. It is sometimes said by me.
True change is never easy. In fact, if it weren’t for the Spirit of God I don’t know that change would ever really be possible. But the apostle Paul tells us we can be changed, we can be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). The failure of so much counseling is that it focuses either on behavior or blame (i.e. it’s not your fault, let’s blame your parents or your brain). There’s a place for such considerations, but not as the fundamental approach to change.
The root of all problems is found in the heart, and because the heart and the mind are so interconnected Paul tells us to zero in on what we think about to find transformation. It is because of this fact that I take people to Philippians 4.
Philippians 4:4-9 is packed with helpful things to meditate upon. Here Paul addresses specifically an issue like anxiety, but the text has such a broader application that all of us can read it and renew our minds. Paul writes:
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."
A quick survey of the text will help us understand its usefulness more clearly.
Paul begins with an imperative: rejoice in the Lord always. It seems an odd thing to command someone to rejoice. After all, there is often nothing to be found in life that can make us joyful. In fact the repetition of the command suggests that this would have been something difficult to do. Rejoice always? That seems a ridiculous expectations, doesn’t it? But Paul does not write from a naive reality. He is writing this letter, which has the main theme of rejoicing, from behind bars. Paul is in prison as he writes, and yet he writes the command nonetheless. How can he expect us to rejoice in this fallen world? Partly because he does not root our joy in our circumstances. Rather, he says, rejoice in the Lord.
Sin is easy to justify and easy to indulge when our focus is on our circumstances. If my joy is rooted ultimately in my bank account, or job, or children, then when those things disappoint me or disappear then my joy will be gone. I will find every reason to excuse sin and to turn from God. But when my joy is rooted, always, in the Lord than nothing can rob me. It’s not to say I won’t still experience great sorrow and heart-break, but I can endure it. I can press on through it. I will be able to pursue faithful obedience to God even in the midst of it, because my joy is rooted in who He is. Rejoice always in the Lord, because unlike my circumstances, God is always reliable.
Next Paul tells us to let our “reasonableness” be known. The Greek word here has quite a richness to it. A variety of translations have been offered: kindness, graciousness, gentleness, forbearance. The general idea may be something akin to contentment. Contentment is not easy to acquire.
We live in a culture that is constantly telling us we need more, we deserve more, we should take more. But if our joy is found in God, if our joy is in the Lord always, then we will find that we can be content. Often sin roots in our hearts because we have a sense that we deserve more than we have been given. But the Bible teaches us the only thing we really deserve is hell. Anything other than this is a blessing, a grace from God. We ought to be thankful! A thankful and humble heart is less inclined towards sin than one rooted in selfishness and greed. A mind that is meditating on these realities, striving towards contentment, can be transformed.
And ultimately, Paul tells us, the reason we can have hope for this change is because, as he says, “The Lord is at hand.” We don't wrestle with sin alone, we have the very presence of God working alongside us, in fact working in us. As Paul writes elsewhere: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." (1 Corinthians 15:10)
We can change, we can renew our minds with right thinking, because ultimately God is at hand working in us to will and to obey (Philippians 2:13).
CC Image • amira_a on Flickr