Real people who live in a real world have real problems. My heart breaks to witness the great trouble that sin has brought into the world. Some of God's children are called upon to endure some truly nightmarish circumstances.
Here is a family whose beautiful teenage daughter was tragically killed just months before her high school graduation. Here is a loving mother called by God to spend her days ministering to the needs of a severely handicapped child. Here are the parents of a daughter whose husband has abused and betrayed her and escaped without apparent consequence. Here is the couple who cannot seem to communicate with civility or the spouse who has just been told the other no longer wants to be married. And here is the individual who discovers that the individual they thought they knew has been addicted to drugs or alcohol for many years.
Regardless of the particular circumstances, every problem touches many of the same spiritual issues. Whether a person has suffered the tragic loss of a loved one, the pain of personal failure and sin, the trauma of marital discord, the fear and anxiety associated with persecution or mistreatment, or the paralysis of depression and discouragement, the pastoral ministry is one of God's gifts to His children to aid in sorting through the rubble of problematic circumstances in order to address the spiritual issues and work toward a Biblical solution by applying the eternal principles of God's holy word.
But ordained ministers are not the only people charged with the responsibility of helping those who hurt. Everyone whose heart has been tendered by Divine grace and whose mind has been educated by the word of God are both called and qualified to "admonish" (the word noutheteo means "to put in mind") others (Rom. 15:14). The need for this kind of ministry is great, but, currently, the laborers are few.
Whenever someone approaches me and says "Pastor, I'm depressed," I understand that, generally speaking, the sad and hopeless emotions he has described are merely symptoms of a deeper cause. Depression is simply the surface issue. Of course, my friend just wants to feel better -- to be happy again. But I am concerned to address the root of the problem.
Now, as a Christian friend, I can do one of three things for him:
(1) I can flatter him and say, "Ah, you're a good person -- nice looking, intelligent, articulate. Don't be so hard on yourself. Things will get better in time..." Such an approach, if my conscience allowed it, might make him "feel better" momentarily, but would merely palliate symptoms -- soon the misery would return, for the cause of the depressed feelings had not been explored and exposed. Indeed, there is a place for giving hope, but hope is rooted in the God of hope (Rom. 15:13), not flattery or positive thinking.
(2) I can recommend this person to someone who might lawfully prescribe medication. Indeed, there is a connection between soul (psyche) and body (soma) -- vis a vis "psychosomatic problems." For example, it is a fact that stress, anxiety, depression, fear, etc. - essentially spiritual issues, in other words -- can cause stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, colitis, headaches, heart disease, stroke, and other physiological or organic problems. The brain does indeed send messages to the ductless (or endocrine) glands to release chemicals into the body under different circumstances. For instance, the emotion of fear or anger generates the release of adrenaline that affects the physical body in very distinct ways. A person who regularly experiences fear, or depression, or anxiety, or deep-seated anger, therefore, will inevitably have physical symptoms of these essentially spiritual problems. Medicine does help to alleviate the symptoms. Lithium or some amine like nor-epinephrine introduced into the body does indeed make the depressed person "feel better" and aids in "coping with daily life." But medicating a person for problems that are essentially spiritual (as opposed to physical) is only a form of "therapy" -- it only treats the presentation problem or surface issue -- it never addresses the root cause of the anger, or the depression, or anxiety, etc. The solution it offers, therefore, is ultimately illusory. Like an aspirin that gets between "the pain and the brain," short-circuiting the nervous system and making the person feel better, so medication may bring temporary relief; however, once the aspirin wears off, the pain returns for the root cause of the disease has not been directly addressed. The danger in using chemicals as the ultimate solution to spiritual problems is that it plays to the natural tendency to be slothful -- to look for the quick fix and to neglect the deeper danger. In the final analysis, alchemy as a solution to life problems is only a "bandaid on a cancer."
(3) The Biblical method of helping a person who presents a problem such as depressed feelings or anger is to attempt to diagnose the root of these unpleasant emotions by tracing these symptoms to the underlying causes, then to attempt to sort through each respective area, addressing each one specifically with the appropriate Scripture passages and practical directions concerning how to implement these Biblical principles in real life situations. As a person sorts through the rubble and identifies patterns of thinking and behavior that need to be changed, he can make amazing progress toward restructuring his life. Such a specific approach builds real hope -- it gives the sense that one is actually working on the cause of his/her problems. Further, accountability to another believer provides the context necessary to produce real change.
The goal of such a context is not to make one person perpetually dependant on the pastor or another believer, but to provide the setting necessary to restore order, both externally and internally, to the complex and seemingly formidable problems that currently exist. In time, the believer will become stronger, growing in holiness, until he/she is eventually self-controlled and able to "keep [himself] in the love of God" (Jude 21) by using the resources that God has given for a disciplined life, i.e. public preaching, Christian fellowship, personal prayer and Bible reading. Such an experience, further, equips the believer to minister to and help others -- to "comfort them which are in any trouble with the comfort that we ourselves have received from the Lord" (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
It is important to note that there is nothing magic about such a setting. Pastors do not have a magic wand or a particular incantation they can utter to make problems disappear. No, instead pastoral ministry is primarily a context in which education in Biblical principles with its corresponding practical application can occur. As an individual learns to think Biblically about problems and about life in general, he grows in his ability to sort through the issues and move toward the appropriate godly solution.
Understanding the Role of Divine Sovereignty
Without exception, the first order of business in the ministry of helping is to sharpen focus on the Sovereignty of God. A high view of God is the ultimate solution to every complexity of life. Faith falters and flesh prevails when people lose a Biblical perspective on the character of God. To be reminded that He is "in His holy temple", ruling and reigning in sovereign majesty, ordering and superintending the affairs of His world with actual hands-on management so that a sparrow falls not to the ground without His notice, is the food that strengthens faith. How salutary is the reassurance that "my times are in His hand" (Ps. 31:15)! My good times and my bad times; my happy times and my sad times; my times of employment and times of unemployment; times of popularity and times of persecution; times of health and times of sickness; times of wealth and times of want; times of companionship and times of loneliness - all are "in His hands".
How vital it is for suffering souls to think clearly about the God they trust! He is a righteous God who will not suffer an injustice to continue forever. He is a faithful God who always keeps His promise. He is a merciful God whose compassions fail not. He is an omnipotent God and nothing is too hard for Him. Through His overruling providence, He is able to overrule even the wicked actions of men for the good of His children and the glory of His name (Ps. 76:10; Gen. 50:20). Indeed, helping hurting souls starts here.
Understanding the Principle of Human Nature
Another basic principle for Biblical problem solving is the ability to think Biblically about human nature. People are complex beings. They are comprised of both a physical and a spiritual dimension-a body and a soul. The "inner man", or the soul, is not the same as the internal organs, i.e. liver, heart, gall bladder, lungs. The physical brain is not the same as what the Bible calls "the mind". If a surgeon were to open your body, he would see a muscle called the heart and an organ called the brain, but he would not see the intangible, yet very real, part of you that the Bible calls "the inner man". Jesus talked about this dual composition of human nature in Mt. 10:28: "Fear not them that can kill the body...but rather fear Him which after he hath killed is able to cast both soul and body into hell." He also said, "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every work that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Mt. 4).
What does he mean? He means that man's needs are not only physical, but also spiritual. He needs food for his soul, just like he needs food for his body. Most people are only concerned with the physical dimension of life. Like the "Rich Fool" in Luke 12:13-21, they think only in terms of the body, forgetting their soul. But, people are not mere animals, bodies without souls; neither are they angels, souls without bodies. They are body and soul -- composite beings.
Grasping this basic truth lays the foundation for understanding human nature and behavior. Why are people as they are? At least four different components affect human behavior.
First, people are temperamentally and constitutionally different. Some people are more shy, timid, and reserved by the sheer nature of their personality, and some are more assertive and confident by nature. Some people are physically stronger and more resilient than others, e.g. "Jack Sprat could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean". Most parents would agree that no two children in the family are exactly alike. Each has his/her own particular strengths and weaknesses, temperamentally speaking.
Add to this natural bent of personality the fact that everyone has a fallen nature. The Biblical story of man is a story of "good gone wrong." The sin nature is predisposed to wrong -- bent toward evil. It tends to minimize, or perhaps I should say distort, one's natural personality strengths, turning them into monstrous substitutions for what God intended for man (e.g. think of how Adam's natural headship and leadership of the woman in God's created order tends to tyranny and despotism - Gen. 3:16), and to maximize one's natural areas of weakness. Because of sin, man naturally chooses "the path of least resistance" when it comes to life choices.
Add to this natural personality bent and sin nature, the experiences that a person has had in life. Every person met, movie watched, book read, sermon heard, etc., has exercised an influence on the person you are today -- either positively or negatively. Early home life, parental attitudes toward life, methods of solving problems and reacting to life, etc.-each are factors in the equation of an individual's current thought patterns. Every person is trained by example in this way. The purpose of highlighting this particular feature is not to justify "pinning blame" but to help a person to understand his/her own tendencies and proclivities. It doesn't help anyone to pin blame - we must look for solutions! Teachers in school, interaction with classmates, relationships with siblings -- all of these inputs affect the way a person perceives his/her world. We learn to think of life and react to it by what we witness in others.
Finally, a person who has been born again has a further component in his/her composition that affects the way he lives, thinks, and behaves. The new nature that God implants within the soul loves God and godliness, wants to please God and glorify God, and desires to grow in its knowledge of and relationship with Him.
Understanding the Principle of Warfare
These principles explain why people are as they are. Based on their natural tendencies, coupled with the sinful nature and the experiential inputs and examples in life, people develop habits of reacting to life.
What is the "knee-jerk" reaction to an insult, for example? Early on, people habituate themselves to react to an insult in one of two ways: (1) They learn to "clam up", internalizing their anger; or (2) They learn to "blow up", ventilating their frustration. They may either try to protect themselves by sinking into a despondent frame of mind or by defending their sense of honor. Hebrews 12 speaks of both kinds of sinful reactions to Divine chastening: "Despise not the chastening of the Lord nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him". Both habits are attempts to manipulate the situation so as to minimize future occasion for personal pain and unhappiness. The Christian must recognize that the dynamic behind these natural reactions is his own sinful nature.
Romans 7 depicts this dynamic as a warfare between the "flesh" (that is, the old person) and the "spirit" (the new person). It is a continual and irreconcilable war played out in the theater of the inner man (i.e. the mind and emotions). All of God's people are in a battle. It is the fight of our lives. It will never cease to be a fight as long as we are in this world. Satan wins the war when he can get a person to sink in despair so that they give up the daily fight. His ultimate lie is "What's the use; it's too hard; you're not making any progress; it's not going to work; you can't control the power of the flesh; just give in; quit; do what comes naturally." Many, many people have become casualties on the landscape of history simply because they listened to him instead of listening to God and living by faith. Proverbs says that the secret to success is getting up each time you've been knocked down and trying again: "The just man falleth seven times, but riseth again." Defeat is defined in terms of desertion, and in a very subtle way, giving up the fight may very well be an act of rebellion against God.
Though it is painful to hear, the Christian life will always be a battle. It's hard to live a godly life in an ungodly world. It's hard to resist what comes naturally and to follow Jesus Christ. G. K. Chesterton once said, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but has been found difficult and left untried." The most frequent metaphor NT writers employ to describe the nature of the Christian life is the image of warfare -- "Fight the good fight of faith...Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ...Put on the whole armor of God that you maybe able to stand against the wiles of the devil" etc.
Every day, I have to fight -- against my attitudes, moods, natural tendencies, ego, passions, etc. The world makes it more difficult to be faithful on the battlefield of life, for it bombards us with ideas, icons, and opportunities for indiscretion that feed the old nature. Like the elderly gentleman, the believer's attitude toward sin must be tenacious. "I'll bite the devil 'til my teeth fall out; then I'll gum him to death for the rest of my life." When the Bible says "Be strong in the Lord," he must hear that as an imperative to -- dare I say it -- toughen up.
Now, granted, most people don't feel very tough. But we're in a battle, whether we like it or not. That's the nature of living in a sin-cursed earth. The hope before us is heaven -- a world that knows no sin - ah, blessed thought! The challenge we face now is to be faithful soldiers of the One who is the "Captain of our salvation". Learning to view our struggles in terms of a spiritual warfare is essential to gaining victory over them.
How does one resist the natural tendency to do what comes naturally and to follow Jesus Christ. Paul says, "Walk in the spirit and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh" (Gal. 5:17). The secret to living in the Spirit is to learn to live proactively instead of reactively. To "plan ahead" for each day by feeding the mind and heart with good inputs -- to "prepare in advance" for each day so that we can "respond" to life instead of merely "reacting" to it.
Understanding the Role of Thought Patterns
We are living in a "feeling-oriented" society, but it is essential to remember that feelings are not reliable. Emotions are untrustworthy. They are like the ebb and flow of the tides. They change with the circumstances. When pressure is great, or you awaken with a headache, or if you happen to encounter one of those difficult people that God has strategically placed throughout the world, or if the skies have been overcast and dreary for four days running with no glimpse of the sun -- all of these kinds of circumstances affect a person emotionally. How should a Christian respond to adverse circumstances like these? Well, if he/she lives by feeling -- that is to say, if a person allows circumstances to control his/her mood and makes no deliberate effort to gain control and master his/her mood -- then there will be no spiritual stability and consistency in that persons life. A quaint poem illustrates the principle:
Three men went up on top the wall -- Feeling, Faith, and Fact; Feeling had an awful fall, And Faith was taken back. Faith was so close to Feeling That when he stumbled, Faith stumbled and fell too. But Fact remained and held Faith up And that helped Feeling too.
The Christian is a person who is governed not by his circumstances but by the truth that he knows. He does not look within himself to monitor his emotional state. He/she does not ask himself, "Am I happy? Do I really have pleasant feelings for my marriage partner? Am I enjoying life?" This is precisely the error that most people make in life. They are so introspective and turned in upon themselves that they become preoccupied with themselves. They are constantly analyzing their own attitudes and problems and relationships and circumstances, asking themselves questions like "Am I really happy in this relationship? Do I or do I not really love the Lord? Have I really forgiven this person or not?" What these people really need to do is to forget about themselves and quit thinking about themselves and redirect their focus to their God: "Whatsoever things are true...just...pure...honest...of good report, if there be any praise and if there be any virtue, think on these things and the God of peace will be with you" (Phi. 4:8-9).
The late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, "We are so subjective, and we live in this unhealthy 'psychological' generation that starts with man and ends with man. Most of our troubles are due to that." He believed that the Christian who is in a constant state of defeat is there because he is being controlled by his subjective feelings instead of by an understanding of the truth. Deliverance from this condition depends on a total change in approach: Christians are to look not at themselves and their problems but at what God has done for them.
The following example, cited in Iain Murray's biography of his life entitled The Fight of Faith, illustrates Dr. Lloyd-Jones'approach:
"Joan Hougham...gives this statement of the counsel she received from ML-J: 'His five-word prescription was unbelievably simple, though he well knew it was the hardest thing for me to do. Refuse to think about yourself. I felt like Naaman shattered by his instructions from Elisha, but like him, as I obeyed, I found release...I saw the Doctor several times; his humility was such that on one occasion he told me that my experience and struggles had helped him in his preaching. He encouraged me to write to him, each letter was answered personally, written in his own hand, and enclosed a repeat prescription. Never shall I forget his kindness and encouragement."
The fundamental need is to see the relevance of Christian doctrine to the practical problems of daily life. People need to learn to take the great "facts" of the word of God (e. g. The Sovereignty of God, the Priestly Intercession of Christ, the Promise of His presence, the Hope of Eternal Glory, etc.) and to then preach the gospel to themselves by reminding themselves that these things are true. This art of learning to reason from the facts of Scripture to the circumstances of life will strengthen Faith, and that will help Feeling too.
Therefore, in order to control the thought life, we must regularly feed our minds with the word of God. Reading and meditating on Scripture is a spiritual necessity, not a luxury! "Commit thy ways unto the Lord, so shall thy thoughts be established" (Pro. 16:3).
A person's thought life is the single most crucial area of life. How vitally important it is to think God's thoughts after Him -- to adopt His perspective on life and the world. "God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."
Let's get more specific. How should a believer think about the issue of changing circumstances? How does a Christian respond when health changes, or when he suffers the loss of a job, or when a relationship breaks up, or when he must relocate, leaving old friends and familiar surroundings, or when kids grow up and leave the nest, or when he stands at the graveside of someone who is dear to his heart? What does it mean to think Biblically about change?
It means that instead of dwelling on the pain of change, and giving in to the temptation to roll these thoughts over and over in your mind, the believer deliberately alters his perspective by reminding himself that life in this world was never intended to be permanent. A pain-free and trouble-free existence is an optical illusion -- it's not realistic. Like the ancient Hebrews, we are like nomads or bedouins in the desert. We should not put our tent pegs down too deeply, but be ready to move when God in His providence determines to lead us to the next step in the journey. He does indeed weave change into the fabric of daily life in order to remind us of the pilgrim character of our lives in this world. We belong to the next world, and part of the process of sanctification is learning the lesson that He and He alone is changeless.
"Thru life and all its changing scenes, and all the grief that intervenes; Tis this supports my fainting heart, That Thou my Sanctuary art."
What about mistreatment? How should a Christian think about the issue of injustice and mistreatment? The natural reaction is to fight back, to get even, to take up for ourselves. But the Christian is a person who does not have unrealistic expectations. He knows that in a sin-cursed world, he will inevitably be misunderstood, falsely accused, or victimized. Even our Savior suffered the pain of mistreatment. 1 Peter 4:19 says, "Let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well doing as unto a faithful Creator." Psalm 37 also helps us to think Biblically about mistreatment. The Christian remembers that just one glimpse of Him in glory will more than compensate for every perceived injustice down here.
Well, perhaps these examples will suffice to illustrate what I mean about the need to think Biblically. That's the challenge we all face. That's where the battle is fought -- in the theater of our thought patterns.
Understanding the Dynamics of Positive Change
Under this heading, I will develop the following sequence of thought:
1. People develop habits of reacting to life. God calls upon us to recognize sinful habits and to repent.
2. Change involves "putting off" old habits of thinking and living, (Scripture calls this "the mortification of sin"), and "putting on" new habits, or replacing the natural tendency to react with the Biblical and godly alternative. This is called "consecration".
3. The key to effecting this kind of positive change, or character transformation into Christ-likeness, is rooted in what one feeds into his/her mind. It doesn't happen by magic. Making progress in holiness is a matter of "abiding in Christ" through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible intake, Christian fellowship, meditation, public worship, etc.
Let's address each area separately.
1. People develop habits of reacting to life.
Horace Mann said, "Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it every day until at last it is so strong, we cannot break it." I agree with the analogy, but disagree with the conclusion. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, life-dominating habits -- what old writers termed "besetting sins" -- can be broken. Philippians 4:13 should be the motto for every believer: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Learn to say to yourself, "Yes, I can be a nice person; I can control my temper; I can handle the pressures of the day; I can forgive my brother; etc. 'through Christ who strengthens me'."
But still, Mann is correct about the formation of a habit -- every day we weave a strand until it becomes a cable. There are four basic characteristics of a habit. A habit is something that a person does:
Ø automatically (like tying shoe laces)
Ø unconsciously (like which sock a person puts on first, the left or the right)
Ø skillfully (like driving an automobile)
Ø comfortably (like the way a person folds his arms, i.e. whether he puts left over right or right over left depends on which is most comfortable).
The point is that early in life, people learn what will maximize personal comfort and they begin to do things in the same way each day without consciously thinking about their actions. Can you imagine how long the simplest tasks in life would take if we didn't have this capacity for habit and had to consciously think about each little step to take?
This capacity for habit also touches the emotional dimension of life. People develop habits of thinking, behaving, and reacting to life based on many different influences -- e. g. the way they observed their parents reacting to various situations, defense mechanisms arising from personal fears or unpleasant experiences in the past, etc. But at the root, these habits of thinking and living arise from the sin nature within us. The most "comfortable" reaction to any given situation is the course of action to which a person is naturally inclined. Just as water naturally follows the path of least resistance and flows to the lowest point, so people naturally react to life situations in the way that is the most natural. But there's the rub -- man's "natural" reaction is a sinful one. Man has been habituated as a sinner.
Let me illustrate. When someone criticizes me, it gives me personal pain and distress. I don't like pain and distress, so I've developed a natural habit of reacting to criticism in order to protect myself -- I retaliate. That's a sinful habit. Now here's how the dynamic works. The pain over past criticisms makes me fear future criticisms and guilt over those times that I've retaliated in kind causes me to fear the confrontation even more. So, in a very subtle way, I develop another habit of tailoring my action so as not to subject myself to criticism in the first place. This either takes the form of compromise or a total paralysis of action. For instance, criticism over things I've written makes me fear future criticism, tempting me either not to write at all or to write in an attempt to please my readers. Do you see how the dynamic works? That's just one of a myriad of different illustrations that could be cited to show how man's sinful nature habituates his approach to life.
In Ephesians 4:22-32, Paul identifies certain behaviors as instinctive habits to a person's "former conversation (or lifestyle)". That brings us to the second point.
2. Change involves dehabituation, or "putting off" old habits of thinking and living, and rehabituation, or "putting on" new godly habits in their place.
The theological terms employed to speak of these activities are "mortification" and "consecration". These are the two sides of the coin the Bible calls "sanctification". Ephesians 4:22-24 states the general principle, then verses 25-32 make specific application of this "put off/put on" dynamic. The "old man" is the fallen nature -- the sinful person you were before God called you into new life. The "new man" is the new nature that God has created in the soul. The point of Paul's admonition is clear: "You are a new man in Christ; now live like it by deliberately rejecting the habits that characterized your old life and by replacing them with new habits."
Notice he does not say "taper off" or "cut down gradually" -- He says "Stop it!" Let him that stole, steal no more. This takes a conscious and deliberate decision to quit sinning. For the person who drinks, that means making the determination not to drink again. Now here's where many people go wrong. They make it easy to fall back into the sinful behavior by "making provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof" (Rom. 13:14). But the only way to make positive change is to take drastic steps with sin -- whether it be a sinful behavior, like drunkenness, or a sinful attitude, like self-pity or pouting. Drastic maladies call for drastic remedies. One doesn't treat cancer with a bandaid.
This is precisely Jesus' point in Mt. 5:29-30: "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; if thy hand offend thee, cut it off..." Jay Adams calls this "the doctrine of radical amputation". Jesus is saying, "Take radical steps to deal with the steps that lead you to sin." If alcohol is a problem to you, he says, then cut the process short by getting rid of every drop of alcohol in your home and refusing to go into an establishment that offers it for sale. "Mortify (the word is the root of our noun "mortician", meaning "to put to death") your members: fornication, uncleanness...covetousness" (Col. 3:5; see also Rom. 8:13). Nail the flesh to the cross every day! That's the meaning of Christ's call to discipleship: "If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." Putting off the old man, or mortification, involves saying "No" to the natural inclinations. Now this is admittedly painful. Jesus compares it, again, to the plucking out of an eye or the cutting off of a limb. The flesh will scream "bloody murder" and say, "No, I want that!" It will not die passively or quietly. But self-denial is basic to Christian living.
We don't need training to quit sinning. We just need to quit. But we do need training to be godly. Notice Isaiah 1:16-17: "Cease to do evil; Learn to do well." Every day, we must put off the attitudes and thought patterns that arise spontaneously from the sinful nature and learn new godly biblical habits of thinking and living in their place.
Consider Ephesians 4:22-32 again. Paul says, "Stop lying; then make a decisive effort to tell the truth. Don't allow anger to turn into ill-will and resentment, but close-out the anger account each day and refuse to carry the balance over from one day to the next. Stop stealing; start working and commit yourself to giving to others; Stop speaking biting sarcasms and acid comments and concentrate on speaking words that will be to the benefit of others...", etc.
Someone said that it takes approximately 40 days of regular work to establish a new habit. I think that's probably accurate. But even then, because the old nature will never be completely eradicated this side of the grace of glorification, we must be aware that it is always on the lookout for an opportunity to reclaim its lost territory and to reestablish its former dominance.
3. The secret to change is "renewing the mind".
It is important to notice that between Ephesians 4:22 ('Put off') and Ephesians 4:24 ('Put on') is Ephesians 4:23 ("And be renewed in the spirit of your mind"). What does this mean? It means that a Christian must feed his mind with good thoughts if he will have the resources necessary to break old habits and replace them with new ones.
If a person will be self-forgetful instead of self-absorbed, great-hearted instead of narrow-spiritied, patient instead of quick-tempered, gentle instead of abrasive, courageous as opposed to timid, hopeful as opposed to cynical, pleasant instead of sour, etc., he must take in the kind of information necessary to feed the new man on a daily basis. He must "Think again!"
The common quip is true even in a spiritual sense: "Garbage in/Garbage out". But it is also true to say, "Nothing in/Garbage out," because by nature we are predisposed to sinful attitudes and behaviors. If I do not read God's word every day, I am operating in the energy of the flesh. It's comparable to trying to run my car on water instead of gasoline. It's just a matter of time before the engine locks and ceases to function at all. Personally, I need constant input and stimulation. I am not a "self-starter" and in all candor, though I've met people who claimed they were, I do not believe that there is any such creature. No one is automatically or spontaneously spiritually-minded. I require daily Bible intake, preaching tapes, good literature, singing tapes, fellowship with believers, and regular public worship just to keep my mind in the right frame. I wish I was more spiritual than that, but I'm not. I am growing in this area, though. I am developing new habits, if you please, in terms of the fact that it is generally easier to control my attitudes and moods now than it was several years ago -- and growth, not a quantum leap or second blessing, is the Biblical metaphor for transformation in Christian character.
Interestingly, the word "renewed" in Ephesians 4:23 is the Greek word ananehao. It means "to think youthfully". Paul is saying, "Remind yourself of who your God is and what He has done for you and all of the cynicism and scar-tissue built up through years of disappointment, frustration, and battle fatigue will fade away, and the carefree and hopeful perspective of youth will return." There is indeed a "fountain of youth" (Ps. 103:5). When people drink from this "living water", they can be forever young (Jno. 4:14; 7:37-39). Even in old age, they will still bear fruit (Ps. 92:13-14). In a day like ours when "even the youths" are cynical, still those who "wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint" (Is. 40:29-31).
How can a person drink from this fountain of living waters? By staying connected to the life supply -- the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches (Jno. 15). Severed from the vine, the branch cannot bear fruit. There will be no "love, joy or peace", no "longsuffering, goodness or faith", no "gentleness, meekness or temperance" -- no fruit of the Spirit manifested in the person's life who has been disconnected from Jesus Christ (Gal. 5:22).
Instead of producing fruit, the individual who allows himself to be distracted from the moment-by-moment habit of fellowship with Christ will only produce the "works of the flesh" (Gal. 5:19-21). Such will be the natural and inevitable outcome of a Christless life. He will not have to try to manifest these-the works of the flesh will spontaneously manifest themselves, for people are habituated as sinners. But by "abiding in Christ", the Christian can bear fruit.
Perhaps you wonder, "But how do I abide in Christ? How do I stay connected to the vine so that His life can flow through me and produce love, and faith, and joy, and kindness?" By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible intake, Christian fellowship, Biblical meditation, public worship, etc. God has given us resources like prayer, the Bible, other believers, the assembly of the saints, etc. not as a spiritual luxury but as a spiritual necessity. I must utilize these resources or I die. I cannot live without them.
The key, then, to successful discipleship is living proactively instead of reactively. Instead of waiting for a crisis to arise and then reacting "off the cuff", we should plan ahead for all eventualities -- preparing in advance for each day by drawing close to Christ in the morning. A person who does not spend time in the word of God and in prayer every day, feeding good thoughts into his mind and heart, simply cannot live a godly life. It is an impossibility. Apart from me, says Jesus, you can do nothing.
How do you help someone who is reeling beneath the burdens and difficulties of life? You say, "There is lifting up" (Job 22:29). You point that individual to the principles of the word of God and exhort them to trust in the God of the word. Will all be benefited by such an attempt to minister help to them? No. Only the individual who humbly submits to Scripture and commit himself/herself to obeying it: "When men are cast down, then thou shalt say, 'There is lifting up', and He shall save the humble person" [emphasis mine].
Tom Landry once entered the dressing room of the Dallas Cowboys after a humiliating defeat. He told his players, "Men, I told you how to win the game. You didn't do what I told you. That's why you lost." Then he made his exit. It is vital to a "helper's" sanity to remember that the person he/she is trying to help is ultimately responsible for implementing the counsel of Scripture.
In the final analysis, we cannot control whether or not another person submits to the help God gives in His word. People have a will of their own. None of us can be God in someone else's life. The individual who resists and rebels against the principles of Scripture, opting instead to follow his own impulses, will not be helped. But we are not responsible for the results. We are simply responsible to faithfully sow the seed. We are merely the "stretcher bearers" who, by faith, bring our paralyzed friends to the Master, even if we must tear a whole in the roof to get to Him. Jesus alone is Jehovah-rapha, the Lord our Healer. Perhaps when He sees your faith, He will be merciful to your friend, forgiving his sins and saying to him, "Rise, take up thy bed and walk."