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Posted: 5/11/2018
We are Encouraged to Renew Our Minds. But, there are risks.
Renew My Mind: Do I Really Want To?
Apostle Paul
Apostle Paul
by Rembrandt (c1657)Throughout his life Rembrandt was fascinated by the apostle Paul, perhaps because Paul's writings were the most important source for Reformation theology, or perhaps because he personified the Christian ideal of grace received independently of merit. Sitting at a table in his prison cell, the apostle ponders the words he is about to write in the epistle that lies before him. The solemn expression of Paul's strong features underscores the depth of his belief and sense of purpose in his mission to spread Christianity to the heathens. The sword visible above the book is as much the "sword of the Spirit," the term he used to describe the word of God in his letter to the Ephesians, as it is the symbol of his military prowess before his conversion and the sign of his eventual beheading and martyrdom. The gentle light that illuminates Paul's head, hand, and epistle has no defined point of origin. By depicting Paul at half length rather than full length, Rembrandt has brought the viewer closer to the figure of the saint, whose intensity of expression is keenly felt. (Notes from National Gallery of Art)

In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that if we are to know God and God's will, we need to transform our minds:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 NIV)

To me, this means that we have to think differently than we might inherently think or as the common sense of the world conditions us to think. Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways ... (Is. 55:8) The key to being "born again" or "turning around" is not only a matter of the heart, but also a matter of changing the way we think.

Most Christians have experienced this change in mindset — have undergone a renewing of the mind — and realize that they now think about life, the world, and God differently than they used to and probably differently than many with the accepted mindset of the world. There has been a change. A change brought on by the renewing of the mind.

But, is this renewal of the mind a one-time thing; a "been there, done that" experience? I'd submit that this process is something that should be ongoing. It would seem sad indeed if all my faith and beliefs are the same today as they were when I came to faith — or even the same as they were yesterday. Have not my years in churches listening to sermons and studying scripture, years meditating with and upon God not affected and changed the understandings and beliefs of my faith? I do believe, as Paul wrote in Corinthians, that I see through a glass, darkly. (I Cor. 13:12 KJV) My prayer, though, is that day by day I may see more clearly. I do believe that God doesn't change; but, I hope that my understanding of God does change — that I will see my God and His ways more clearly.

Often it is simply in the living of this life that we see the need to examine our beliefs, let our minds be renewed, and cause our understandings and beliefs to change. Pieces of our faith, certain beliefs that served us well in the past — and helped us make sense of this life — may not seem so helpful in middle or old age. Life events, especially tragic ones can cause us question our beliefs: "I thought God would ..." We look to our faith to provide meaning and hope as we deal with the reality of life. When our beliefs ring hollow, not congruent with what we're experiencing, and not comforting at all, our faith is shaken ... it is of little help.

We probably know someone whose faith has been shaken by a tragic event — perhaps even we are in such a state. Shaken by tragedy, God did not act the way their beliefs predicted God would act. In such a state, some use the reality of their shaken faith to rethink the way God acts in our lives. Many find a new-found faith that better meshes with real life. Unfortunately, we probably know many who when they find their beliefs shaken by the realities of this life, give up on faith, let God slide away. They may continue to believe there is a God, but since the answers they thought He gives no longer seem helpful, God becomes irrelevant. I think there may be fewer atheists than there are those who have found that a belief in God really has nothing of value in their real everyday lives.

I think for all of us, questions arise about the beliefs of our faith and these often bring doubt. We can either shove these questions aside — they are of the evil one, we might think — or we can recognize them as stimuli to explore our questions and perhaps renew our minds to new beliefs. (Might God even be the one prodding us with these questions?)

My previous Reflection focused on the all-knowing nature of God. Indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered. It's always rewarding when a Reflection stimulates thinking and questioning in readers. After this God-all-knowing Reflection, one reader wondered: "If God is so all-knowing and knows what is going to happen, then how or why should we pray that what we fear won't happen?" Tell me, who has never thought about that? Why pray, when God already knows the result?

Another reader who has probably pondered the above question writes: "A question that interests me is, 'Is God ahead of us in knowing the future?' We've been taught that God is all-knowing, but I think that knowing the future is a different question than holding the future. I have no doubt," the reader continues, "that God holds the future, but I seriously doubt that God knows the future. I tend to think that God, as the Eternal Presence, stands with us in this Present Moment — accompanying us into a future that is as wide and open as can be."

What an interesting thought! I have always wrestled with the difficulty of believing God is all-knowing, yet also believing that we have free will regarding our actions: if what I am going to do is already known, then where is my free will? But, considering "The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men ... Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself." Madeleine L'Engle, Christian Writer the reader's thought that perhaps God KNOWING the future and God HOLDING the future might be two different beliefs, seems to stimulate thinking and productive 'renewing of my mind' to better understand God and His work in my future. I need a belief that I can hold on to when things get tough or I can't make sense of God and my life.

Sometimes the questions that cause us to wonder about our faith are not so much questions about the nature of God as are the previous two. Often, we feel prodded to wonder about many of the changing social issues and norms — how should I as a Christian respond; what about the response of my church? Should traditional church beliefs ever change? Years ago, many wrestled with the idea of women serving in ordained positions. (Some still do, and the question is being asked more often in the Roman Catholic Church.) Many today wrestle with similar questions about the topic of gay marriage. "My church does not permit gay marriage; but, might it be acceptable in God's eyes?" some might wonder.

I submit that thinking and wrestling with these types of questions may be just what God is prodding us to do; pushing us to form a more solid and reliable faith in Him and this life he has given us.

But, do we really want to do that? Do we want to think that deeply? Perhaps when prodded, we put off thinking. Maybe a bit like Scarlett from Gone With The Wind might say, "Fiddle-dee-dee! I'll think about that tomorrow." Many of us spend considerable time and energy examining our financial portfolio, the progress of our careers, even where to spend the next vacation. We read, discuss, consult — renew our minds? — and change our attitudes and behaviors regarding such topics. Is not our faith and life in God worthy of such examination and possible renewal?

Recently, I read a fascinating short book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Alan Jacobs, ©2017, Currency, 'an imprint of Crown Publishing.' I highly recommend this short book (around 150 pages); it is concise, gives good thoughts, and seems particularly valuable because Jacobs is not only a scholar-scientist, but also a solid Christian (of the Anglican tradition). The author, Alan Jacobs, a Christian scholar from Baylor, says that "humans have a deep disposition not to think. ... We always seek justifications for not doing so." Carl Jung Quote He suggests that often we don't think about our spiritual questions (as well as important secular questions) because such thinking is difficult. It's not easy. In some cases, we may be just too lazy or not want to take the time to think.

But, even putting aside our not wanting to take the time and energy for mind-renewing, there are some real barriers that might cause us to avoid taking the risk to bring our beliefs into the realm of questioning and thinking. It can be risky ... and have unintended consequences. If we are to examine, we need to realize what we are getting into. Jacobs writes, "To think, to dig into the foundation of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it [this thinking] will make us happy or even give us satisfaction."Jacobs op. cit., p.36

Another barrier or risk some have learned the hard way is that our openly questioning of beliefs can isolate us. I know that it is healthy to wrestle with beliefs in the company of others, especially others within the faith community; but, there can be a risk. I have been in church groups that support and provide good give and take, which help to hone and shape my examining. But, also I've been in groups that if what seems the "accepted biblical/church answers" are questioned you know some will be wondering whether you really are a person of faith, or at least will have a couple of bible verses at hand to get you back on the right track (their right track). Such an atmosphere can stifle not only our thinking, but even our desire to explore our own questions. Jacobs says that we are deeply social and that our desire to "belong" in our group can affect whether we pursue our thinking. He goes on to say that we think in ways that reinforce of feeling of belonging, and we avoid thoughts that jeopardize that feeling of belonging.

What about the group or groups you are a part of? Is the group one that might be helpful as you wrestle with questions, or would it be more of hindrance to your honest questioning? Perhaps this thought experiment might shed some light. Suppose you said to the group that you have been wondering, as in one of the earlier reader questions, whether God really does know the future and even has a specific mapped-out plan for me? Or perhaps, saying, "I've been wondering about our church's position on gay marriage and thinking about that?" Would your raising the topic bring skeptical glances and silence, suggesting that you might really not belong here much longer? Or would the group support your questioning, perhaps one even saying, "I've wondered about that, too. Maybe over the next few weeks, we can read, discuss, and pray about that question."

If, even realizing the risks, frustrations, and hard work involved, we do want to give life to our questions and perhaps renew our mind, prodded by Jacobs' comments and my own experience of living; I'd like to offer a few comments and suggestions that might be helpful in thinking these difficult thoughts.

God can be with us in our thinking ... even when our thinking is wondering about God:
Realizing the risks, we would be wise to ask the Spirit to be with us as we question and think. Let's expect God's Spirit to help! Perhaps a starting point is in prayer. Be specific with God about your questions and wondering. "God, I can't understand ... Help me seek and think. Help me live with uneasy answers." If we ask God to help shouldn't we trust that He will provide guidance?

Think and question with others:
Given the caveats earlier about the risk that thinking with some groups can pose, it is helpful to find others of good and open nature you can think alongside. When we think in isolation, we can often not see the flaws in our thinking that a friend might point out. Seek out, too, the best, and fairest-minded people you know whose views you currently disagree with. LISTEN — without immediately responding. Value learning from others rather than debating them. Don't discuss just to seek victory!

Realize the possible futility of discussing your questions with some other people:
While we need to seek out others to help us in our thinking, it is best to face the reality that some people (even groups, or even churches) can stifle any questioning. They already have the answers, and will only lay on guilt until you think the way they do. You can still be friends and brothers/sisters in Christ; but, your questioning is serious enough (maybe even sacred enough) not to subject it to the stone walls of some others. In a similar vein, avoid people who simply fan the flames of one side of the issue.

Thinking and renewing our minds does not have a destination, a stopping, a 'we're finally here!':
This can be a frustration for those of us who like closure, to get things nicely tied up. But, it can be helpful to think about how we might be growing in faith, rather than wrapping it up. Jacobs references Thomas Aquinas when he cautions that we need to avoid the temptation to deciding we have finished thinking. "To cease thinking is an act either of despair — 'I can't go any further' — or of presumption: 'I need not go any further.'"

Don't obsess with your questioning and thinking:
This is a bit related to the previous suggestion. We need to realize that good, productive thinking — the kind that can "What is needed for a life of thinking is hope; hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are." Alan Jacobs, How to Think renew our mind — is a long-term endeavor. We need to plant the seeds of questioning, and give them time to cultivate, be open to God's watering. We need to take our time so this life's events and our interactions with others might feed our thinking and questioning. As a gardener wouldn't every day measure the height of the growing plant, we don't want to continually take our spiritual temperature about how we're growing in understanding about our questions.

There may be some core beliefs, within certain boundaries, we may not want to subject to questioning:
This may sound totally counter to all I have written here; but, I think there may be a few tenants of our faith that are so core that we don't want to think critically about them ... or if we do, realize the risk and be ready to retreat to our secure sense of belief. I have a few of these. One is the belief that the Jesus I hear about in the gospels was fully human, living in the same flesh, blood, and spirit then as I do now. He was not God pulling on the mask of humanity or the divine trying to act human. That belief is so core to my faith that I don't really want to spend spiritual energy questioning that. My beliefs that reside within safe boundaries are few. I think we are in trouble when just about all our beliefs are inside the boundaries of examination. While I find it helpful to question much in my world of faith, I do recognize there are some very core beliefs, that if I start messing with them, I could find my entire faith in a shambles. A blog I read regularly is that of Pete Enns, biblical scholar at Eastern University. He usually pushes on many generally accepted beliefs, especially about scripture — with a definite edge to his tone. However, Pete also recognizes and respects this sense of boundary. In the Resources below, I've referenced a post that talks about boundaries.


Paul's directive to ... be transformed by the renewing of your mind is, in my view, one of the most important tasks we as Christians have. And I think this an ongoing task, and one that should be high on our list of priorities. Even though today I may see through the glass dimly, continually renewing my mind might help me day by day see just a bit more clearly. And, while the process in this life may never end, though the Resurrection I live in the Hope that one day I shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12b)

That question the one reader posed: "Is there a difference between God KNOWING the future and God HOLDING the future?"... That's a question I really want to begin to ponder. I think wrestling with this one holds potential for better understanding in and trusting this God we walk with and the life He gives us.

Do you have a question or doubt you really want to think about? Maybe seriously pondering it will lead to a renewing of the mind. There may be risks involved; but, I hope you won't be fearful of raising the question ... and will feel secure that God is with you in renewing your mind to strengthen your faith.

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Resources Related To this Reflection

Yeah, But Where Are the Boundaries?
Pete Enns Post

Link to this specific Reflection: