When I was growing up ‘thought life’ was defined very clearly to mean one thing: sex. Every youth group talk or private school chapel that touched on the subject of thought life referenced it in regards to sex. If you were thinking about sex or sex related things, you had a sinful thought life and needed help. If you weren’t thinking about sex or sex related things, your thought life was fine, better look elsewhere for your sinful nature. One teacher did point out that you had the power to reject thoughts, and the power to stop thinking or dwelling on a wrong thought. But this was still in the context of sex.
My parents taught me to pray over my thoughts during quiet times of prayer or during times of spiritual warfare. They taught me to take every thought captive and place it under the blood of Jesus. Which is a reference to 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (NIV) This broadened the scope of the battlefield a little more, but was specific to prayer.
Yes it is important to take care of your thoughts when it concerns sex and prayer, but if you stop and think about it we are thinking all the time. From the moment we wake up to the moment we drift off to sleep we are thinking. Even in our dreams, to some extent, we are thinking. So really the subject of thought life involves every possible area in life, sinful or otherwise. Why aren’t we talking more about managing our thought life? It is probably one of the biggest battlefields of our lives and we are largely left to wage it on our own.
Thankfully Jesus left some teaching on thought life. In Matthew 5 we have the great Sermon on the Mount where Jesus sets up the Levitical Law and takes it further:
“You have heard it said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. … You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28 NIV)
Jesus is talking about the heart here, but He is also talking about thoughts and how they influence the heart. Anger sparks hateful thoughts, which fuel anger to grow and perhaps take root. This root sparks habitual hateful thoughts, which ferment the anger into resentment, and so on. You can murder someone physically once, but you can murder the same person a thousand times in your mind. This could potentially corrupt your heart worse than the act of murder. Jesus loves us, He loves our hearts, so He warns us against this behavior. Jesus also loves our minds and He is safeguarding our minds just as much as our hearts.
Paul takes the baton from Jesus and continues to teach us to safeguard our minds. In Philippians 4:4-8 he lays out four ways to create a healthy thought life.
- “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4 NIV) – Rejoice, worship the Lord with joy and thanksgiving. Influence your thoughts with an attitude of praise and gratitude.
- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6 NIV) – Don’t worry, channel that emotional energy into prayer and more worship. Let prayer occupy your thoughts during times of stress and worry.
- “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8 NIV emphasis added) – Be proactive about your thought life! Choose to think true and holy thoughts. Choose where you dwell in your mind. You have control of your mind, so use that control for your benefit and the benefit of others.
- “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7 NIV emphasis added) – When you engage in the previous three thought-habits you invite God into your thought life. You open the door of your mind to the peace of God. Your thoughts are one of the biggest influences on your heart. So when you are in Christ with your thoughts he safeguards your heart and He safeguards the back door to your heart: you mind.
There is an unspoken 5th part to this whole endeavor. You have to allow God to transcend your understanding. An element of control is lost when understanding is transcended. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. I think this may explain why sometimes you’re doing the work: thinking good thoughts, praying about the things that worry you, always rejoicing. But you don’t ever seem to get to the peace part. You can do all those things while trying to maintain absolute control. However, in order to receive the peace that transcends understanding you have to give some control to God.
I think it is in the midst of this control and transcendent peace that God reorders our minds. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2 NIV) Conforming applies to the way we think just as much as the way we act. Why else would our transformation play out through the renewing of our mind? We do the work laid out in Philippians, we allow God to transcend our understanding with His peace, and God in turn renews our mind. He changes our thought-habits, our perceptions. God takes the tapes that play over and over in our thoughts and He re-records over what is on them with His truth, His goodness, His love. More often than not those tapes are full of lies from the enemy, but when we surrender our tapes to God He blots out the lies and replaces them with His truth and love.
That’s where the peace comes in. When our minds are renewed by God we are no longer harassed and tossed about by our thoughts and lies and internal battles. All that’s left is the peace of God. That verse in Romans goes on to talk about finding the beautiful and pleasing will of God. When we are at peace we are able to see what God is doing and join Him.
I used to have a terrible thought life. It didn’t involve sex, so at the time I thought I was fine. But I wasn’t fine, I was downright destructive. I would fantasize myself right into envy. I catastrophized right into doubt and fear. I tore myself and others down with negativity. The lie-tapes in my head played on a loop until I believed what the enemy had to say about me with all my heart. I was broken, helpless, paralyzed with fear. I was self-absorbed, yet I felt worthless.
I knew God was with me, but He was on the outside of a cold fortress that my thought life helped to build up around my heart. I built it to protect myself, but that’s not what it did for me. Rather it became my prison, it kept me separated from connecting with others and God.
A year or so back God showed me the truth of why I felt so alone, which started a journey for me. An exodus out of the fortress. Altering my thought life was a big part of that exodus. The change came in two parts. The first was to recognize the state of my thought life and repent. I spent an evening naming every specific bad habit, repenting of it, and asking the Holy Spirit to replace that habit with one of the fruits of the Spirit.
For example: Father, I invite your Holy Spirit into my thought life. Where there was no control, let there be self-control. Where there was lies, let there be your truth. Where there was hate, let there be love. Where there was despair, let there be joy. Where there was impatience, let there be patience. Where there was chaos, let there be peace. Where there was judgment, let there be kindness. Where there was spite, meanness, and coldness, let there be your goodness. Where there was cruelty, let there be gentleness. Where there was faith-less-ness, let there be faith-full-ness.
The second part was the transcendent part. I started listening to sermons or bible apps while going to sleep instead of music. I started this because it helped me sleep better. But God took it further than mere sleep. In my sleeping subconscious I pondered the true, good and pure, as Paul suggests, through listening to some form of scripture. God took this and over the course of a year re-recorded over my lie-tapes with His Word. Until one day there was a situation that usually would have started the tapes and derailed me. But the lies weren’t there, I only heard the pastors speaking scripture. God recorded over the lie-tapes. He renewed my mind in my sleep. He healed my thoughts.
Now I spend less and less time on internal battles. I expend less and less energy on negative thought habits. The lies are quieter or nonexistent. I am able to see God’s beautiful and pleasing will more and more as it plays out around me. I believe God when he tells me I have a role in that will. So I’m joining in, and saying, “Yes!”
– Etta Woods