In the movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, a character named Gollum fights an internal battle that we all face too. Gollum was once the owner of a magical ring that the story’s unlikely hero, Frodo, now bears. The ring has a powerful attraction, one that leads to the corruption of him who bears it, and Gollum loved and bore the ring for too long. The story’s hero, Frodo, extends unlikely compassion to this now hideous creature by inviting Gollum along on his quest to destroy the ring. This tears at Gollum, though, as he begins to struggle between what he knows is right and what he craves.
Before he came into possession of the ring, Gollum was a regular Hobbit-like being named Smeagol. But his desire for the ring and his envy of the one who possesses it has degraded him both internally and externally into the most pitiful creature of Middle Earth, so much that he no longer bears any resemblance to what he once was. Accustomed to living in caves and shadows, he is invited by Frodo to step out in a grand adventure of serving a higher purpose. This catches him off guard, though, because until now his only desire has been for his “precious” ring. Although this journey has a noble purpose, when he learns their intent is to destroy the ring, Gollum comes into severe internal conflict. But Frodo reminds Gollum of his real name, and the spirit of Smeagol begins to gain life. He hearkens to Frodo’s voice and gains a renewed sense of identity. The transforming creature pledges his allegiance to Frodo and serves his new master as a scout and provider of food.
As this renewed nature emerges, Gollum’s dark side wrestles for dominion within. In a key scene of self-confrontation, Gollum looks at his reflection in the water and discovers his evil side staring back at him, commanding him to betray his new master. Instead of submitting, though, Gollum fights the image. There is no longer a need to trust in his own trickery to survive because, he tells his reflection, “Master looks after us now.”
The conversation intensifies as Gollum argues with himself. Finally, the dark side wields its mightiest weapon, reminding Gollum of his shameful past and murderous acts. Backed into a corner, the “Smeagol-side” leans on faith in his new master and courageously says to the evil looking up at him: “Go away... and never return.” This is a defining moment for Gollum/Smeagol as all power is suddenly drained from his evil side. Realizing this new authority and liberation, Smeagol cries again, and with louder confidence, “Go away and never return!”
This is our battle too: who we’ve been versus who we are becoming, who we are committed to be. It’s a battle of belief and of commitment. It’s a battle that, for most of us, rages regularly in our own minds and requires our “holding onto the things [our] reason has once accepted, in spite of [our] changing moods.”30 It’s discipline in our minds. It’s heeding in the Holy Spirit’s whisper, the mention of his seal upon us that marks us as God’s possessions. Only by persistence in these things are the loud accusations of our enemy silenced. It is a risk based on the faith that “Master looks after us now.”
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
In the last few chapters, we’ve looked at two radically different worldviews. The first is an eternal worldview, a top-down system. It professes a higher wisdom, from above - not one that is so high that it is unknowable or unattainable, but so high that it is nothing like the wisdom we attain living daily on this earth. This top-down system requires a walk of faith and tells us that there are eternal values to be pursued. It takes great risk to pursue it, because the eternal is not seen and not now. Committing to an eternal worldview involves tremendous risk, personal discipline, and a powerful hope. It is so counter-cultural that it often leads to a feeling of estrangement among our peers and can leave us wondering if we’ve made the right choice. But life lived by this worldview produces positive outcomes in the here and now. It leads to good behavior, gentleness, mercy, sincerity, and ultimately to peace; and it fosters the growth of even greater hope. These can ultimately counter the estrangement we may have to endure for a time.
The value system that comes from below is the world’s system. It is temporal, a bottom-up system, and it requires no risk. If we believe in only what we see and that this world is all there is, it is from this world that we must extract all of our joy, our hope, our purpose, and our sense of accomplishment. We must seek fulfillment in the present tense. If this is all there is, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”31 It requires no trust and demands no dependence, and it doesn’t sound too bad...at least at first. But once this “wisdom” gets a hold on us, it is hard to get free. The results of this wisdom are selfishness, jealousy, and disorder. Its end is ugly and evil. It is a bondage that can send us straight into despair because not hoping in Jesus, we’re forced to put our hope somewhere else, to lay our hope on something that looks “precious” but will ultimately degrade us.
Like Proverbs in the Old Testament, James is the wisdom literature of the New Testament. Influenced greatly by the Sermon on the Mount, James stays focused on seeing things from Heaven’s perspective. James emphasizes the importance of remaining dependent on and submitted to God. James was addressing practical problems that his recipients were well aware of, specifically that their faith was not manifest in the choices they were making. Maybe this is why he asked, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from the desires that battle within you?”32
James says that the other wisdom (the non-God wisdom) is “earthly.” It is natural and demonic. These are hard words. There is no middle-of-the-road wisdom, some way that’s not God’s but not all that bad. Earthly wisdom is (like it or not) of the devil. Satan is the ruler of this world, inspiring its systems and worldview to be opposed to God. This is what is meant by “spiritual warfare.” Satan is the one behind the lie that the visible world is more authentic than the hidden one, that what we see is all there is (or at least superior to what is not seen). It’s an old lie. He used it on Eve in the Garden of Eden to separate her from God and man, and he’ll use it on you to do the same. Any wisdom in this world that is not God’s is a threat to our relationship with him. That’s why James says, “If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.”33
Simply put, you can’t play by two sets of rules. You need to discern your ultimate allegiance. It’s not wrong to engage in business and make a profit; it’s not wrong to plan and prosper. But we mustn’t be presumptuous in our plans about the future. And we must always be on the lookout for the dangerous signs of jealousy, bitterness, selfish ambition, and arrogance, knowing that they produce disorder and every evil thing. All of these danger signs proceed from the heart. They’re not external. These are internal things, but they shape our behavior and demonstrate to which worldview we really adhere.
We have the choice to put away the evil in our lives, beginning with our thoughts. And we can choose to “receive the word implanted, which is able to save [our] souls.” This leads to a regenerate mind; then at least some of our thoughts will become like his thoughts and our will can begin to move into alignment with his. But if we allow this bottom-up system to affect our thinking, our minds can end up fixing on our own will, which is opposed to God. Our own desires will conceive and grow. The end result is death and separation.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
In his book, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga discusses the nature of sin itself. Plantinga defines sin as a “culpable disturbance of shalom.” What a perceptive insight. Sin disturbs the harmony of who we truly are. “Shalom” is about more than just peace. It’s about unity and our rhythm with God. When people are in shalom with one another and with God, there is a convergence of authenticity. Anything that disrupts that is “sin.” This fits well with what James says. The Shalom comes from above. In fact, we cannot create this kind of peace; instead, we are called to preserve it (“preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”34). The evil from below is the thing that disturbs it.
Even Christians experience the temptation to live by a bottom-up system. We live in the world, and none of us are perfectly immune to its influences. The danger signs we just looked at all first appear in the mind and make their way to the heart. They’ll not likely be noticeable in you until they’ve been there long enough to start producing their results in your life with others.
Notice the process here. This is the gestation of sin. First of all, it is conceived in your mind; then it grows, and then it finally gives birth. And when it gives birth, it gives birth to action. So the sin is the concretized mind, the outcome of the thoughts that we allowed, though we knew they were opposed to God. In other words, lust, evil desire, whatever is in your mind will eventually (if given freedom to grow) birth sin. What has lived for a time in the mind becomes real in the actions. And when sin is accomplished, when it’s lived out its course, it brings forth death. In effect, this is the birth of death, and it all starts in the mind.
This is a problem, as a growing number of Christian Americans are allowing their thoughts to be guided more by culture than by their own faith systems. In a 2003 study, researcher George Barna found that almost half of the American population held a non-biblical moral view on at least half of the core behaviors he surveyed35; this while roughly 80 percent of Americans claim to be Christians36. How is this possible, that Bible-believing Christians hold non-biblical perspectives on key moral issues?
Your mind holds the key, and Romans 12:12 reminds us that we are transformed by its renewing. Ironically, though, almost every sermon I hear says, “This is what you ought to do....” We hear that we ought to live out the faith of Old Testament heroes or we should do the things that Jesus told us to; our churches ought to be organized a certain way, and we ought to adhere to certain practices personally and corporately. But we don’t hear very much about how we ought to think, how we manage our own will, about what we allow our minds to focus on, the life that is lived inside our heads.
The thought life is critical. As a man thinks, so he is.37 If we begin with behavior, we won’t necessarily change our thoughts, but rather will just hang new habits on an old nature. If we can get our thought life right, though, good actions are likely to emerge from the divine foundation those good thoughts provide, and the new nature can emerge. The system we’re most familiar with works from the outside in, but the other system (the one Jesus advocated in his teaching ministry) works from the inside out. It demands that we start change by considering first what we believe and think and dwell on. This is critical, especially since we rarely hear sermons about how to manage what is floating around in our brains. Without learning and practicing this discipline, we tolerate a great many thoughts that are not worthy of the person we’ve been called to be.
Living in this backward system as we do (and as we are rarely admonished not to do), we act and then rationalize our actions. We hear sermons filled with what Dallas Willard calls “the Gospels of Sin Management,” and we practice it. We maintain our “personal sin profiles” in such a way as not to cause embarrassment to ourselves or others. We keep our sin “low-profile” as best we can and only share “safe” confessions and prayer requests with others. Who’s to know what you’re really thinking, anyhow? Right?
Our character will eventually expose some of what we’ve been thinking. It will demonstrate for a watching world whether we are thinking predominantly, about sin or if we are, rather, making every effort to keep God’s Word in the forefront of our minds.
The first step is to recognise the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day38.
C. S. Lewis
In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argues that once we’ve decided to believe in something (based on the evidence for it) we must be reminded of that evidence regularly. No belief, Lewis says, will “automatically remain alive in the mind” without being fed. This is true, and this is why disciplines like Scripture reading, prayer, and meditation are so important.
But thought life is underplayed in our current American Christian culture. We have so under-stressed the practice of some spiritual disciplines that our wills have grown flabby and weak. We fail to train our minds toward holiness. Instead we just allow them to roam where they will without really making any choice about it.
But there is good news. There is a choice to make. You can choose to listen to yourself (follow the thoughts where they may lead you), or you can choose to speak to yourself (decide where your thoughts are going to go). Listen to yourself, and you’ll hear the whining and complaining of your flesh, still full of the old nature’s hatred and bitterness. Your flesh will naturally lead you off into all the wrong things. That’s listening to yourself. You will meditate on something, whether it something you’ve chosen or something you’ve just stumbled on. Your mind will always be ruminating on something.
The good news is in the other option: speaking to yourself and choosing what you will think about. While right actions don’t always lead to right thoughts, practice can create habits, especially when we practice on our attitudes. Attitudes are manifested in actions; but actions, over the course of time, can work toward changing attitudes as well. It can be possible to think yourself into a new way of doing, and it’s possible to do your way into a new way of thinking. Speaking to yourself gives you an opportunity to make a conscious choice.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Notice Paul puts thoughts before actions here. And that’s a very important thing. Rather than downplaying the thought life, Paul speaks to that issue first. (By the way, this is true of most of Paul’s letters. His epistles are usually divided into two parts: theology and practice. He spends the first part of a letter talking about good doctrine and the last part talking about how that doctrine should effect certain behaviors. This usually hinges on the word “therefore.”)
Ask yourself this question, and give yourself an honest answer: If left to yourself, do you meditate on what’s true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, reputable, excellent, and praiseworthy? Does your mind gravitate toward those kinds of things? No, no one’s mind naturally goes in that direction without practice. If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with our focus on the opposite end of all these godly values. Watch the news or read a newspaper. Those things don’t sell by focusing on the true, the good, and the beautiful of God’s wondrous creation. To the contrary, they sell by titillating and feeding the carnal temptations of our flesh.
Sadly, we are often far too sloppy regarding the things that matter. We tolerate more than we should and seldom practice any serious self-control. We allow the input of a form of wisdom which is not from God and fail to train our minds in God’s wisdom. (And this bottom-up system is a form of wisdom. There’s no need to deny it. Just as the serpent in the Garden of Eden was described as more cunning than all the beasts of the field, so is this wisdom shrewd.)
And it has snuck in. It’s been so quiet that we didn’t even notice that it was becoming the dominant worldview in our country, even among Christians. But it is. In another 2003 survey conducted by George Barna, it was revealed that only 4 percent of American adults employed a biblical worldview as the basis for their decision-making (some have criticized Barna’s definition of a worldview, but the point remains the same). Among Christian groups, the figures were only slightly higher, none of them exceeding 13 percent with a biblical worldview39,40. About these findings, Barna said:
[O] ur goal should be to act like Jesus. Sadly, few people consistently demonstrate the love, obedience and priorities of Jesus. The primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus.
Behavior stems from what we think - our attitudes, beliefs, values and opinions. Although most people own a Bible and know some of its content, our research found that most Americans have little idea how to integrate core biblical principles to form a unified and meaningful response to the challenges and opportunities of life. We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.
Some people become experts in the chaos and make quite a good living dispensing this form of wisdom. However, it is important to recognize that this wisdom bears no resemblance to the wisdom that accompanies an eternal paradigm. God’s wisdom is first holy and pure. It doesn’t have any hidden agendas, and it doesn’t play by two sets of rules. Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing. By practicing this focus of will, speaking to ourselves and training our faith, we gain a heavenly wisdom. That wisdom is peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, and without hypocrisy. What you see is what you get. It doesn’t waiver. It commits to a truth and then clings to it. This wisdom causes its adherents to keep their promises, even when it hurts.
So as you go on to move toward God and turn away from these attitudes of jealousy and selfish ambition, you become a renewed person who demonstrates mercy, good fruits and an unwavering desire to avoid hypocrisy. These are the fruits of a thought life that is disciplined and focused on eternity. We make the choice to conquer, in ourselves, the disorder and jealousy and every evil thing and choose that which produces harmony and peace.
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 Christ41.
The battle must first be fought in our minds. Of course, other battles will ensue. There will be battles for our affections when what we want strives to overtake what we believe. And there will be battles in practice, when we find that acting on our beliefs is a little more difficult than we had anticipated. But training ourselves in faith, knowing what we believe, and reminding ourselves of the reasons we came to a decision of faith in the first place, can hold us steady and spur us on. And, as C. S. Lewis points out, it can keep us from being “just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.... [O]ne must train the habit of faith.”42
A friend of mine who owns a construction company was involved in the bidding to construct an aquarium, an enormous project that would likely have resulted in big profits for him. But after he had committed to take the job, it was realized that one of his most trusted employees had made a terrible mistake and submitted a bid that turned out to be outrageously unrealistic. The company had committed, sure; but who keeps a promise they didn’t mean to make? Earthly wisdom would have told my friend, “keep an eye on your bank account and make a decision that’s going to build it up.” There comes a point for all of us, however, at which we are forced to make a choice between what ultimately serves only us and what serves the One we claim to be serving. My friend was at that point, and he made his choice.
[L]et your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
He led the charge in going ahead with the project as promised. He did the work for the price on the accepted bid, even though it would end up costing him huge financial loss. He had the option of backing out. There were loopholes. He could have reneged on the arrangement legally if he had wanted to. Yet the words of God that had been planted in his mind and heart now seemed to be speaking back to him; something within him was saying that he had made a commitment, and that mattered more than the money. It wasn’t about his own interests. It was about something more.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
My friend is not a perfect person. None of us are. But something happens when the meditation of your heart and mind has an eternal focus. In his case, he caught that integrity was critical, and an eternal kind of ethics flowed from his eternal focus. He had given his “yes,” and it would not be a “no.” He kept his promise, even when it hurt (Psalm 15:4), because something told him that, all things considered, keeping his word was of a higher importance.
The irony is that sometimes what we lose here on earth provides for gain in eternity. I don’t know if he eventually gained back all the money he lost on that deal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find there were believers on the other side of the negotiating table when the deal was finished because of the courage and faith my friend demonstrated.
When he chose to turn his business decision into a step of faith, something happened. Suddenly, the decision wasn’t just about him and another company he was doing business with. Suddenly, the decision was about the Kingdom of God. When he abandoned the desire to do what was right just for him, a ripple effect was created.
If we train our hearts and minds in the principles of God’s eternal wisdom, we will be changed. We will face decisions differently. We may be able to make bold choices like my friend did when opportunities to do so arise, and our actions, too, may ripple into eternity. If we fail to train in faith, that other wisdom will sneak in. It’s inevitable. Maybe it already has in your life. But it’s not too late. You can face your reflection down and yell at the selfishness, bitterness and envy you see and demand that it “go away and never return.” There is no fear in doing so, because Master looks after us now.
30 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1943, 1971) p. 123.
31 1 Corinthians 15:32.
32 James 4:1
33 James 4:4
34 Ephesians 4:3.
36 According to an ABC News/Belief poll at this website: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/beliefnet_poll_010718.html
37 Proverbs 23:7.
38 Lewis, p. 124.
40 For the purposes of the research, a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.
Among the most prevalent alternative worldviews was postmodernism, which seemed to be the dominant perspective among the two youngest generations.
41 2 Corinthians 10:5.
42 Lewis, p. 124.