Changing Your Mind
Romans 12:2“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
We would all like to make some changes, wouldn’t we? Suppose you could change anything about yourself, where would you start? Lots of us would start on the outside. Would you be …
Would you change …
If you could wave a magic wand and change your outward appearance, would it be a light touch-up or an extreme makeover? Would we even recognize you? I think we all go through periods where we desperately want to change our outward appearance. Teenagers live in a state of constant fear that they don’t look good enough and so they tinker with this and try that and experiment with this fad or that fashion or this t-shirt or that hat or whatever the latest hip-hop artist happens to be wearing. But when we grow older, we get smarter. Or do we? We spend hours trying to find just the right dress or just the right shirt or just the right pair of pants so that we will fit in with whatever crowd we’re trying to impress. And we diet obsessively and work out, which is good for our health but can be a losing battle because after we lose that weight and finally look good, it tends to come creeping back again. Finally, you reach the stage in life where it’s easier to simply try to cover it up than to lose it. And in extreme cases, we may just give up altogether and stop caring about how we look.
But as hard as it is to change on the outside, it seems infinitely harder to change on the inside. If there is anything we know about human nature, it is that people change slowly, if they change at all. Think about the struggles of your own life. What would you change about yourself on the inside if you could?
Would it be an impatient spirit?
Would it be a critical tongue?
Would it be envy of those around you?
Would it be a spirit of discontentment?
Would it be lingering anger and resentment?
Would it be uncontrollable sexual temptation?
Would it be financial mismanagement?
Would it be a guilty conscience?
Would it be a tendency to look down on others?
Would it be pride and arrogance?
Would it be prejudice toward others?
Would it be a quick temper?
Would it be profound discouragement?
Would it be an inability to appreciate life?
Would it be an ungrateful spirit?
Would it be a disorganized life?
Would it be an inability to say no?
Would it be a mean streak you can’t seem to get rid of?
We all want to change something, but we don’t know how to do it and we don’t know where to begin. We all dream of being something different and better than the person we are today. Advertisers know this. That’s why your email inbox is crammed with ads promising that you can lose weight now, make money overnight, learn a new language and become a better lover. I received one the other day that said, “Watch unwanted pounds melt away.” I like that metaphor. It sounds like fun. Take this pill or eat this supplement or drink this super-duper energy drink, and Presto! Those unwanted pounds will just melt away. What could be easier? Or those emails (I seem to get at least one a day) telling me that the widow of the former president of Nigeria or Cameroon or Niger or maybe someplace I’ve never even heard of (because it probably doesn’t exist) wants me to help her get $4 million, which she will gladly split with me if only I will send her my bank account information. Such a deal. Help a poor widow, and make $2 million for myself. Think what I could do with $2 million.
Change is hard, isn’t it? That’s why we watch Oprah and Dr. Phil. Go to any bookstore and you will see an entire wall of self-help books. Helping people change is big business nowadays. But when we get up in the morning and look in the mirror, all we see is the same old person looking back at us, “another day older and deeper in debt.” That’s why we move, change jobs, get a facelift, buy a new car, start a new career, get a divorce, find a new boyfriend, go to a new church, join a chess club, start working out, buy a new outfit, and on and on it goes. It’s not as if those things are wrong in themselves. Sometimes we need to make outward changes. But it’s not the outward stuff that trips us up. It’s the stuff on the inside that we can’t seem to fix.
Romans 12:2 tells us that we can be transformed when our minds are renewed. How does that happen?
1) We must be transfigured on the inside.
Note the word “transfigured.” The Greek word for “transformed” in Romans 12:2 is related to the English word metamorphosis. You will recall from 7th-grade science class that metamorphosis is the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and a tadpole becomes a frog. It’s a gradual change on the inside that produces a total transformation on the outside. I used the word “transfigure” because this the same Greek word is used for the transfiguration of Christ when the true glory of Christ began to shine through his humanity and “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them”(Mark 9:2-3). The word means to be changed or transformed from one thing to another. Think of it this way. When Jesus was transfigured, he did not cease to be Jesus. He was still who he had been moments before, but for a brief time, the curtain was pulled back, so to speak, and James, Peter and John saw as much of the true divinity of Christ as any man can see and still live. In that moment they saw the “real Jesus,” the true Son of God from heaven. He did not cease to be a man, but his true identity was revealed to them as “true God of true God.”
Hold that thought and let’s add to it what happens when a caterpillar enters the cocoon, only to emerge later as a butterfly. It is not that caterpillar changes its basic nature. Metamorphosis reveals what was always there in the genes of the caterpillar.
Caterpillars can’t fly.
But they were born to fly.
How do you solve this conundrum?
When the caterpillar has been changed into a butterfly, it becomes what God always intended it to be.
Hold that thought and let’s add one more to it. Tadpoles become frogs. They don’t become butterflies. Only caterpillars become butterflies. Metamorphosis reveals the essence of a thing; it does not change the essential essence.
Caterpillars can’t hop like frogs.
Tadpoles will never soar like butterflies.
Metamorphosis reveals the essential character of whatever was put there by the Creator in the beginning. Now let’s apply this to every believer in Jesus. When we come to Christ, we have the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). That’s an awesome thought—that we who know Jesus as Lord and Savior have the “mind of Christ” within us. In this context it means that we have the ability to estimate the true value of things. In the art world, there are certain people who are fulltime appraisers. They can look at a painting and say, “That’s a forgery. It’s worthless.” Or “That’s worth $5,000 at auction.” Or “That’s a Rembrandt. It will fetch at least $7 million.” Appraisers are well paid because they have the ability to spot the real value of a painting. I don’t have that ability. I can look at a painting for hours and never know that it is a forgery. It’s exciting when you learn the true value of something you own. That’s why the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow” has become so popular. Every episode features someone who bought a lamp or an old trunk at a flea market for $40 only to discover that it’s really worth $7,000. We watch the show and then we go rummage through our garage, hoping to find that valuable piece of junk we almost threw away last week. We watch because we want to know the true value of what we own.
Dr. Aletta Bell
Paul says that because we have the mind of Christ, we can properly appraise the real value of things. Ten years ago I took a trip to visit Dr. Aletta Bell, a missionary doctor who served for decades in the poorest province of India. When she was a medical student, she felt the call of God to spend her life in a distant land, serving at Duncan Hospital in Raxaul, on the India-Nepal border, in conditions most Americans would find extremely difficult to endure. Here is what I recall most from that visit. Dr. Bell showed us the tiny apartment that was really more like a cubicle where she lived. She dressed like the Indian women around her, and she ate Indian food just like they did. Each morning she used an electric coil to heat the water for her shower. Over the years she treated thousands and thousands of patients, most of them living in what can only be described as abject poverty, the vast majority of them Hindus. Beyond all question, she was amazingly gifted both as a medical doctor and as a gifted leader. The people in and out of the hospital revered her. I do not doubt that some people wonder why she would “throw away” a promising career in Canada (her homeland) to work in an understaffed and under-equipped hospital in a place like Raxaul, India. Why give up a comfortable life in North America for life on the mission field? In the end, the answer was simple and clear. Dr. Bell appraised the work of God’s Kingdom in India as being of greater value than staying in North America She didn’t despise the money she might have made; she simply understood that God was calling and she had to go. Obeying God was of more value (and ultimately more satisfying) than staying close to home. I should add what seems to me to be a most important fact. When we were with her, she was almost unreasonably happy to be there. I have rarely met anyone with a deeper joy in the Lord than Dr. Aletta Bell. But should that really surprise us? Those who have the mind of Christ know the true value of things—and make their decisions accordingly.
Before we move on, let’s consider one other verse—2 Corinthians 3:18. Outside of the accounts of Christ’s transfiguration and Romans 12:2, this is the only other place in the New Testament where this particular Greek word is used. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Note that we are “being transformed” into the image of Christ. Years ago we used to sing a chorus that went something like this:
Little by little every day,
Little by little in every way,
Jesus is changing me.
And the chorus went like this:
He’s changing me, my blessed Savior.
I’m not the same person that I used to be.
It’s been slow going, but there’s a knowing
That someday perfect I will be.
I think that’s exactly what Paul has in mind in Romans 12:2 and in 2 Corinthians 3:18. It’s the logical outcome of having the “mind of Christ.”Go back to the illustration of the art appraiser for a moment. You aren’t born with the ability to know the difference between a Rembrandt and a fake. It takes years of study and a long apprenticeship, and you have to prove yourself along the way. But if you are gifted and determined, if you are willing to pay the price, you can be “transformed” into an appraiser. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen over time. The same is true in the spiritual life. We have the “mind of Christ,” which means we have the ability from God to estimate the true value of things. As we reject the ways of the world ("don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold"), we learn over time to see things as God sees them. This isn’t instant or automatic, but since it is God’s desire, having a transformed mind is within the reach of every believer.
2) We must reprogram our minds.
“But be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” How do you renew your own mind? It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but it can happen. Several days ago our son Mark called us from China where he is teaching English at a university. During our conversation (he was calling over the Internet), he got a phone call and said, “Just a second.” We could hear him talking with someone in Chinese. He carried on a conversation for a minute or two and then said, “Okay. I’m back.” Now where did he learn to speak Chinese? Not from me. I know maybe one or two words. He didn’t take Chinese in high school or college. But in a little over a year, he has learned enough Chinese to talk to his friends on the phone. That’s amazing to me because everyone says Chinese is a hard language to learn. But Mark has picked up enough just from living in China that he can make his way around and talk to his friends in their own language. Is he unusually gifted in language study? I don’t really know the answer to that question because I think Chinese is the only other language he can speak besides English. Did it happen because he was living in China? Yes, but there are plenty of people who live in other countries for years and never learn the local language. Mark has learned Chinese a) because he chose to live in China, and b) because he wanted to learn the language. Desire isn’t the only factor, of course, but it matters a great deal. It also helps to be fearless and to be willing to make mistakes and to have friends who can help you without making you feel like a fool when you say something wrong.
I said this was amazing to me. Three years ago no one in our family knew a single word of Chinese. Josh learned quite a bit during his year in Beijing. Nick is taking second-year Chinese at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He told me the other day that he’s learned to recognize almost 350 characters. And Mark works with Chinese teachers and teaches Chinese students every day. So all of our sons know more Chinese than their parents, which isn’t saying much, but I point that out because I can speak English and that’s it. I took some German in college and can still remember how to say, “You’re crazy!” in German. Mrs. Graves taught Spanish in high school and I actually did learn a few sentences that have stayed with me.
Don’t overlook the fact that it is our “mind” that must be transfigured. The “mind” includes the intellect but goes beyond that. Your “mind” is more than your IQ or your ability to understand complex problems. The mind by nature is darkened because of sin. It is depraved (Romans 1:28), filled with wicked thoughts (Jeremiah 4:14; Matthew 9:4) and evil imagination (Genesis 6:5), hostile to God (Romans 8:7), defiled (Titus 1:15), its thoughts are empty and worthless (Ephesians 4:17), and it is easily filled with human pride (Colossians 2:18). Before we go any further, it would be good for you to stop and look up every single Scripture reference in the preceding sentence.
That is God’s estimate of the human mind apart of his grace.
It is the truth about every human mind from the moment of birth.
It is true about you personally—not just about other “bad people” out there somewhere.
Apart from God, and unless he somehow intervenes, that’s your mind.
Extremes to Avoid
Even in that fallen condition, the mind still works, which is why unredeemed man is capable of enormous intellectual achievements. But because of sin, the mind now bends toward selfishness. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to reorient the mind in a new direction. How, then, will we ever “be transformed” by the renewing of our minds, if our minds are so utterly corrupt apart from God’s grace? It’s a good question, and in answering it I think there are several extremes we must avoid. First, we must not think that real “mind change” is impossible. Some of us may be so stuck in our lust or our bitterness or our general grumpiness or our immaturity or our selfishness or our greed or our pettiness or our misfittedness (a word I just made up that seems to describe a few people I’ve met along the way) or our irritability or our addictive behaviors or our love of money or our laziness or whatever else it is that bothers us and holds us back and keeps us chained or crabby or frustrated and unable to make any progress spiritually so that year after year after miserable year we seem to be in the same old ruts, if that’s the way you feel about your own life, I don’t blame you for thinking that real change is impossible. But you’re wrong because God says you’re wrong. You don’t have to stay the way you are. You can be changed from the inside out. God intends to change you, and he is in fact doing it. So don’t give up on yourself no matter how lousy you feel about your own lack of progress.
Second, don’t think that you need some sort of “miracle experience” or some crisis moment in order to be transformed. For most of us, spiritual transformation happens over a long period of time, a little at a time, a step at a time, a day at a time. “Little by little every day. Little by little in every way, Jesus is changing me.” Seeking instant transformation actually can be dangerously misleading. I’m have no problem with calling people forward to “rededicate their lives” to Christ, but that’s only the first step in a lifelong process of inner transformation. And you don’t have to walk an aisle or raise your hand to have your mind renewed by the Lord.
Third, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you just try harder, you’ll get better. Trying harder generally sets us up for failure. This is not a call to pull up your bootstraps and just give it the old college try one more time. When Paul says “be transformed,” he uses a passive form of the verb. He doesn’t say, “Transform yourself,” which would be utterly impossible. I don’t have the power to change my depraved mind into the mind of Christ. Only God can do that for me.
But does that mean I don’t play any part in the process? Not at all. The work of renewing my mind is God’s work, and ultimately only he can do it. But he calls me to cooperate with him by disciplining myself so that the transformation will actually take place. John Ortberg offers this helpful explanation:
1 Corinthians 9:25 says, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Here is the reason many people give up on transformation or accept boundary markers as pseudo-transformation: we spend ourselves trying to be transformed, when the Bible calls us to train to be transformed.I like the two illustrations he uses because they fit my own experience. Just this week I got an email from a friend who plans to run in the Chicago Marathon this Sunday. I didn’t even know he was a runner until I got the email, but evidently he’s been in training for months, working on his diet, following a strict regimen of running so many miles each week, building up and then tapering off so that he’ll be in peak condition this Sunday. I’m very impressed by that, and if the truth be told, I’m a little depressed or envious (I can’t decide which) because I’m sure I couldn’t run five miles no matter how much you paid me. I can bike 26 miles with no problem, but running is something else entirely. I guess I could do it if I wanted to, but I’ve never had the desire and certainly never put forth the effort. I’m very proud of my friend for his enormous effort, which is going to a good cause since he is also raising money for World Vision. I’ve already spoken of Mark’s ability to speak Chinese at a serviceable level. Let’s put it this way. I’ll probably run a marathon before I learn to speak Chinese. God bless my friend and my son for their significant accomplishments.
There is an enormous difference between trying to do something versus training to do it. Take for example a marathon. How many of us could run a marathon right now? Even if we tried, really, really hard? But many of us could run a marathon eventually, if instead we trained for it.
While I cannot speak Russian, no matter how hard I try, I can be transformed into a fluent Russian-speaker with training. I’ll need to pass my eyes before a new alphabet over and over. I’ll need to recite with my mouth and with my mind a new vocabulary. Eventually, the training will allow me to become a new speaker.
Training means arranging life around those activities that enable us to do what we cannot do now, even by extreme effort. Significant human transformation always involves training, not just trying.
Dr. Ryrie’s Formula
But neither happened by accident. No one is “transformed” into a marathon runner or into a Chinese speaker by chance and it doesn’t happen overnight. Desire must be combined with discipline. Here’s a little equation I learned from Dr. Charles Ryrie in 1972 when he spoke to the summer counselors at Word of Life Island. He put the following equation on the blackboard:
T + HH = SG
Time plus Habits of Holiness equals Spiritual Growth. That seems as solid to me now as it did 34 years ago. The transformation of the mind takes time, and it takes a determination to develop those habits of holiness. If I were going to add anything, it would be this:
T + HH + GE= SG
GE stands for godly encouragement. I doubt that anyone will grow spiritually without being around others who can encourage you to make wise choices on a daily basis. For all of us, that will mean being part of a local congregation. For most of us, it also means being part of a Sunday School class or some sort of small group where we can develop relationships with other Christians who will both encourage us and also hold us accountable.
Let me close with the reminder that we have the “mind of Christ” and yet Philippians 2:5 says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We are to have what we already have, which is not a contradiction, but rather a call to continuing transformation so that we will little by little move from the caterpillars we are to the butterflies God wants us to be.
It will not happen by accident.
It does not happen overnight.
It cannot happen without the Holy Spirit.
It happens when we make a personal commitment.
It happens with the godly encouragement of other Christians.
It happens as we become what God made us to be.
It happens as we behold the glory of Jesus Christ.
“This is how the mind is renewed—by steadfastly gazing at the glories of Christ for what they really are” (John Piper). So we must pursue the Lord, to know him better and better. Then and only thing will be you be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Pray like this: “Lord, open the eyes of my heart so that I will know you better. Renew my mind so that I will estimate the true value of everything in the light of eternity.” Kate Wilkinson penned this much-loved hymn that beautifully expresses the truth of our text:
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His power.
May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.
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