September 28, 2003

Managing God’s Estate: Our Minds
Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:1-2

The human brain is a remarkable organ. It weighs only about three pounds, and it looks rather like a mushroom, of all things, encased within the skull. Yet it regulates our thoughts, memory, judgment, and identity, not to mention various aspects of our physical bodies. The brain is so central to human well-being and survival that, in many parts of the world, to be declared brain-dead is to be declared dead.

The human brain actually has three parts. The brain stem, the lowest part, relays information between sections of the brain and the body, thereby regulating basic body functions. The cerebellum, situated behind the stem, controls balance and coordination. And finally, the cerebrum, the upper most part of the brain, is where what we call “thinking” occurs. It is the cerebrum, then, that most clearly separates human beings from other animals. A dog, for example, may see a beautiful flower, but walk away unaffected. When we see that same flower, however, we admire it and reflect upon it, perhaps even place it in a book or iron it between pieces of wax paper.

The human brain consists of some 100-200 billion cells (to be honest, that is a lot more than we need or ever use). Some of those cells, called neurons, form this remarkably interconnected chain through which impulses or information pass. Sometimes, our brains are required to pass on information with remarkable speed. If you touch a hot stove, for example, your brain will notify your hand, sending impulses at speeds as fast as 330 feet per second. If speed isn’t so important, such as with scholarly activities that require more careful thought, impulses or signals are processed more slowly, say about 70-100 feet per second.

The American novelist Peter De Vries, in Comfort Me With Apples, once wrote: “We know the human brain is a device to keep the ears from grating on one another.” He was wrong. The human brain is a special gift that nothing else in creation shares. With it, we establish goals and formulate plans by which to meet those goals. With it, we evaluate our situation and circumstances, and with it we make decisions that affect every area of our lives. With it, we reason. We make choices. We think!

Is it any wonder, then, that when asked about the highest ranking commandment, Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our mind (Matt. 27:37).” Is it any wonder that, at a pivotal moment in his epistle to the Romans, a moment following a lengthy discussion of God’s extended mercy to Gentiles and Jews alike, Paul pleads, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (12:2).

The human brain. Our minds. What a remarkable gift from God. As managers of God’s estate, we are to care for and use our minds for his glory. Once we understand this, we must think carefully about at least these two things: (1) the need for our minds to be transformed, and (2) how such transformation takes place.

The words of both Jesus and Paul assume that our minds, though magnificent, are in need of transformation. Our minds are capable of both godly and evil thinking. Likewise, the things about which we think inevitably result either in godly or evil living. There is a direct correlation, in other words, between our thought habits and our actions. The person whose mind is led by the Spirit can dream dreams, think high and lofty thoughts, and in fact think God’s thoughts. But the person whose mind is wrapped up in the things of the world can sink so low that he is little higher than the beasts of the field. “There are those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds,” the prophet Micah cries, “and when morning dawns, they perform it,…(2:1).”

In the Bible, it was the mind, committed to God, which enabled Joseph to recognize the danger in Potiphar’s house and to flee from the would-be seductress. But it was also the mind which, when filled with the things of the world, led David to secure the sexual services of Bathsheba as well as to devise a scheme by which to get rid of her husband, Uriah. It was the mind, committed to God, which gave Paul a vision of service, and which helped him to present the Gospel to the wisest intellectuals of his day (Acts 17). But it was also the mind which enabled Ananias and Sapphira to think of themselves rather than to give to the work of the church.

More recently, it has been the mind, committed to God, which has enabled the development of missionary strategies to build hospitals, establish schools, and to reach unchurched people around the world. But is has also been the mind, entangled in evil, that has developed strategies for exterminating countless people around the world, whether Armenians, Jews, or Albanians. It was the mind, committed to God, that enabled many of the graduates of our college to go out and serve the Lord in a wide variety of fields, but it was also the mind, frighteningly housed in the heads of two fractured young men, which planned and than acted out the murder of Randi Trimble recently in Camp Hill. The human brain. The mind. It can reach for the stars, or dig down into the mud.

No doubt this is one of the things that scares many Christians sometimes away from developing their minds. We are afraid of where our minds might lead us. To use our minds is a threat to genuine faith, I’ve heard it said, as though Christianity is somehow irrational and unsuited for the learned. To use our minds is to ignore the leading of the Holy Spirit, as though the Spirit somehow by-passes our thought processes and moves only through our emotions. Be practical, not theoretical, students and congregants often cry, as though our actions and deeds are somehow unrelated to what we have first thought about.

Please listen. The human mind is capable of dastardly things, and I myself am sufficiently right-brained to affirm that feelings and emotions exist even in the very heart of God. But the call of Scripture does not involve neglecting or disregarding our minds, but rather bringing them under the lordship of Christ. If we consider it important to have the finest minds seeking cures for our diseases and locating stations in space, why not also dedicate our minds to building the Kingdom of God on earth? If the call to holiness means anything, and if our experience with Christ is to have any permanent effect, then it must include the total transformation of our minds.

But how does such transformation take place? It may be helpful for us to imagine our minds as having two different dimensions, much like an iceberg. You know, of course, that there is much more to an iceberg than what appears above the surface. In fact, most of an iceberg lies beneath the surface, hidden from view.

Our minds are much the same way. Above the surface are the everyday thoughts that we think. But beneath the surface are the impressions of a lifetime. It is as though our minds are video cameras or hard drives, storing up and able to recall virtually everything that we have ever seen or experienced.

The British writer Arthur Doyle (Five Orange Pips) referred to this when he wrote: “A person [man] should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.” Unfortunately, Doyle’s assessment is mistaken in at least one regard—our buried memories do not simply wait for us to “recall them when we want them.” Rather than being old films in the basement at Universal Studios, waiting for some stock boy to retrieve them, our memories often resurface unsolicited, like an unwanted interruption during a regularly scheduled program or a sudden pop-up on our computer screen. Years after the actual experience, thoughts reappear, and we struggle with things that our minds latched onto long ago. Something we saw. Something we heard.

In truth, we can’t undo all of this. We can’t change everything. We need to give the depths of our minds to the Lord, and to ask him in his mercy to cleanse us, work in us, to undo those things which we have spent a lifetime doing. We need to trust the Holy Spirit to do his good work, down in the deepest recesses of our minds.

But the surface thoughts, the portion of our minds that, like the tip of an iceberg, protrudes into the open, that is another matter altogether. With our everyday thoughts, we can begin to exercise a fair bit of our God-given control. We can play a significant role in altering our very thought patterns.

Time after time, the biblical writers instruct us to take our “thinking” seriously. Our thoughts are not simply accidental, nor are we simply to leave them to God, as though we are totally helpless children needing our parents to do everything for us. We can affect the way we think. We can determine in large part what we think about. “Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:5).

Imagine it this way. Our minds are like a garden. Once the sod is removed and the soil turned, the ground is capable of producing a useful crop. If the proper seed is planted and cared for, wonderful plants will appear. But if no seed is planted, or if unwanted seeds are planted, weeds and worse will appear.

The Scriptures call us to be mental gardeners, and to cultivate the remarkable plot of soil that we call the mind. While the Holy Spirit roots out deeply entrenched vines, we now determine what seeds to plant and whether or not to pull some unwanted weeds. We are the gardeners of our minds. We are to be good stewards with our minds. So what are we to do?

We must, first of all, weed out unhealthy thoughts that currently fill our minds. You know the things you think about, and you know that you’d be far better of if you stopped thinking about some of them. Evil thoughts. Obsessive thoughts. Critical thoughts. I was with a friend of mine not too long ago who shared with me his tendency to think negatively and critically about virtually everything and everyone. God had challenged him to put an end to such a tendency.

Now, there is of course a place for critical thinking, but critical thinking needs to be channeled in constructive ways if it is to ever bring about positive change. Otherwise, it merely becomes corrosive, and it spreads.

Secondly, we must stop planting destructive seeds in our minds. Our minds haven’t lost their ability to collect and store data. What we look at, what we listen to, and what we talk about—all that we experience—continues to be processed through our minds.

We must, I admit, exercise caution here. We don’t have to avoid destructive seeds by withdrawing to a sterile bubble. If we are actively engaged in the Christian life, and if we interact reflectively with the world and our calling, if we rub shoulders with broken people, we will hear things we might not say ourselves. We will see things that we might not do ourselves. To avoid all such input would be to render ourselves useless in this world. Sometimes, unwanted seeds simply blow into my garden on a windy day—that is the way life is. But I am not going to build a large wall around my garden to keep such seeds out. I just won’t let them take root.

You see, there is a vast difference between encountering unwanted seeds during the course of everyday life, on the one hand, and deliberately planting such bad seeds in our minds, on the other. While unwanted seeds may blow into my garden, I am certainly not going to plant weeds there intentionally.

And thirdly, we must fill our mental gardens with the things of God. Don’t just remove the bad—plant the good. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).”
Meditate on Scripture. Read good books. Initiate wholesome and engaging conversations. Speak to each other with Psalms. Watch movies that deliberately and clearly portray images of life’s most important lessons. Ask yourself, and at times other people, whether or not something is genuinely beneficial. Is it worth thinking about? Take responsibility for your mind.

Our brains are remarkable organs. They are relatively small, but with virtually unlimited capabilities. For God to have given you and me our minds—that 3-pound, mushroom like mass on our shoulders—shows a great deal of trust, doesn’t it? Now, manage God’s estate. Be good stewards with your minds. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your mind. Think God’s thoughts in what is often a spiritually brain-dead world.