Discerning the direction of our thoughts
The direction of our thoughts will determine our destinations. If we take off with the wrong ideas onboard, we may go off course and deviate from God’s narrow path to eternal life. We may even end up on a direct flight straight into destruction. The Bible shows that we need to guard our minds vigilantly and discern God’s will for us.
Matthew 7:13 ESV “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.
Romans 12:2 ESV Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This picture of vigilance can be likened to the high-level security and surveillance we find at any airport. Just consider the number of checks we have to go through before we are allowed to board a plane. Not only are our identities checked, but also our eligibility to fly. Our bodies and bags go through X-ray scans.
Yet many of us have minds that are like airports which are filled with illegitimate passengers that we have not checked or scanned. We let all sorts of thoughts in and allow them to run wild. We don’t check their origins or if their contents are dangerous. No wonder we can “crash” in life, feeling hopeless, unloved, anxious, rejected, and depressed. We all need to be conscientious in the ways we discern the direction of our thoughts.
Proverbs 4:23 NCV Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life.
If we need a reminder of how serious God takes our thoughts, we just need to look back at Noah’s time. The people’s thinking patterns grieved God’s heart so much that He could no longer tolerate their evil imaginations, motivations, and thoughts any longer. This led Him to send a great flood to destroy everything on earth that He had once called “good” and “very good”, saving only Noah and his family.
Genesis 6:5-8 ESV The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
From this, we see that our thinking processes can have very serious consequences. We can cause God great pain by the nature of our thoughts.
God’s Word shows us how we are think
As we follow Jesus, we must take the time to scrutinise our innermost thoughts and intentions according to what the Bible teaches us, in order to ensure they are not grievous to God. We are to put on the “mind of Christ”, one that is focused on Him and aligned with His views on other people, ourselves, and the world around us.
Hebrews 4:12 ESV For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
1 Corinthians 2:16 ESV “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
As believers, we are called to have an eternal and more humble view of our lives, one that is focused on God’s will. This means we are called to look at things from His eternal perspective, rather than our earthly ones. The Bible instructs us to set our minds on the things of heaven, not the things of earth. We are called to discern what is true in spiritual terms, rather than what is physical and temporal.
Romans 12:3 NIV For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Colossians 3:2 ESV Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
This is a mindset that is ridiculed by the world. We may even be called “foolish” and “out of touch” for thinking about God’s will first. There is peer pressure to be earth-bound and carnal in our thinking but this is pressure we need to be careful not to succumb to. For us to start to think more like Jesus, we first need to develop the habit of taking “every thought captive to obey Christ.” Notice that the Bible specifies every thought.
1 Corinthians 2:14-15 ESV The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.
2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
While this may seem overwhelming or even impossible for new believers, the good news is that as we obey God’s Word and His Spirit, we will find that this is completely possible.
As we follow God’s ways, we will find that our minds will be:
- No longer confused | 1 Corinthians 14:33 ESV For God is not a God of confusion but of peace…
- Perfectly peaceful | Isaiah 26:3 ESV You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.
- Able to discern between what is good and what is evil | Hebrews 5:14 ESV But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
- Able to understand everything that comes from the Lord | 2 Timothy 2:7 ESV Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Carnal mental patterns to die to
God’s thoughts and ways are very different from ours, and it will take time and effort on our part to be aligned with His.
Here are some ways our brains are wired that may obstruct this from happening if we are not careful to discern the direction of our thoughts.
1. We are used to being the centre of our thoughts
Firstly, we all tend think about ourselves a lot. We make our own plans and our own decisions. Taking the time to consider someone else’s views and feelings does not come naturally to us. Hence, we may struggle to consider God’s views first too. It takes self-discipline to develop the habit of pausing and asking God to show us what He thinks of any situation.
Psalm 94:11 NIV The LORD knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile.
2. We idolise human intelligence
Secondly, we tend to idolise our own opinions and intelligence. We may even think God must react in a certain way because “this is how I would do it,” forgetting we have a stunted and extremely narrow view of reality compared to God. We can only understand what we can see within a fleeting moment of time in history, but God sees everything in the past, present, and future – all at once. He knows the true intentions of every person on earth and why they do the things they do. We have no such understanding but somehow that doesn’t stop us from thinking that we know what’s best.
1 Corinthians 3:18-19 ESV Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
3. We follow human opinion leaders
Thirdly, we tend to make other people the benchmark for our beliefs and values, instead of looking to Jesus Christ as our one true role model. We revere our parents, teachers, business leaders, scientists, or bible teachers and go to them for answers, rather than seek God’s answers as our number one priority.
1 Corinthians 3:4-5,23 ESV For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each… you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
4. We shut out unpleasant truths to protect our hearts
Fourth, we may have grown accustomed to lying to ourselves as a means to cope with unpleasant events. We suppress our negative emotions and convince ourselves that “everything is okay.” When we deny our own emotional needs and numb our hearts, we will often find that we will also struggle to ‘feel’ convicted by God’s Word.
Matthew 13:15 ESV For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
5. We rationalise our sinful motivations
Fifth, we don’t recognise that by nature, our thoughts tend to be carnal and wicked. All of us have considered cursing, taking revenge, or telling other people off at one time or another. No one is sinless. God’s Word reminds us that we deceive ourselves by thinking that our thoughts are pure. We cannot hope to renew our minds based on our own efforts.
1 John 1:8 ESV If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
6. We allow our emotions to colour our perspectives
Sixth, we need to be aware that our fears, judgments and bitter expectations can lead us to form a skewed view of the Bible or of reality. Our wounds or negative thought patterns can affect how we read God’s Word and understand His will, for instance. If we read the Bible through a lens of bitterness, we may end up focusing solely on God’s wrath and revenge, and neglect His love and mercy. If we read the Bible through a lens of shame, we may feel so condemned that we stop reading it altogether. None of these are what God wants but we are find it hard to see it any other way. Our unconfessed emotional pain and sinful thoughts will hinder our ability to think clearly or view things objectively.
The challenge with renewing our minds to become more Christ-like is that most of us are not very aware of our thinking patterns. So much of it is subconscious and automatic. For example, we hold our toothbrush with the same hand and brush our teeth in the same way every day – without giving it a second thought. There are many things our brains will subconsciously “control” for us, based on years of conditioning.
Learning to discern our thought patterns
Here are some suggestions on how we can discern the direction of our thoughts and renew our minds to follow Christ, rather than our old instinctive carnal patterns.
1. Slow down
Because our thoughts can lead us to conclusions with eternal consequences, it is unwise to rush forward with any idea or opinion. First, we need to develop the self-discipline to slow our thoughts down and ponder how we respond to anything.
Proverbs 15:28 ESV The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
2. Revere God and choose Him first
The Bible shows us that the fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom and insight. This refers to a reverence for God that chooses His ways over and above the pressure from people to revert to our old ways of thinking.
Proverbs 9:10 ESV The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Proverbs 29:25 ESV The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.
3. Develop a habit of checking our thoughts with the Holy Spirit
Some of us don’t pause and think about what we think about. Conversely, some of us tend to overthink. Neither is healthy for us.
The far better way is to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in our thinking patterns. He will tell us many great and hidden things when we call upon Him. God is our perfect Teacher.
Psalm 25:4-5 ESV Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
Jeremiah 33:3 ESV Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.
Matthew 23:1,8 ESV Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, …But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.
For example, we can ask Him:
- “Holy Spirit, is this idea from You?” | 1 John 4:1 ESV Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…
- “Holy Spirit, why am I feeling such negative emotions as a result of this event / comment / place / action? Is there some subconscious wound from my childhood that needs Your healing and restoration?” | Psalm 94:19 ESV When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.
- “Holy Spirit, why am I afraid of trusting You? What is the lie I believe in my heart?” | 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
Ephesians 5:8-10 ESV … Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
4. Build an automatic screening system
There are several types of thoughts which are certainly not from God. These are easy to discern. Some examples include:
- Fear | 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
- Doubts about God | Luke 24:36-38 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
- Condemnations or accusations | Romans 8:1 ESV There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Ideas about revenge and how to “get even” | Romans 12:17-19 ESV Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
- Anything that stirs up anger and bitterness | Hebrews 12:15 ESV See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
- Thoughts about death and suicide | Ecclesiastes 7:17 ESV Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?
Another way to test our thoughts is to check if our ideas or thoughts lead to the fruit of the Holy Spirt. In fact, every thought that we accept into our hearts and minds should result in God’s peace when we are rooted in Jesus Christ. He will sustain us even when the world around sends us many confusing, conflicting, and corrupting messages.
Philippians 4:7 ESV And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Psalm 55:22 ESV Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
5. Learn to ask God “what” rather than “why”
One healthy habit to develop is to ask God “what” His will is, rather than ask Him to justify or prove Himself. It is not wrong to ask Him for His purpose but if our attitudes are accusatory, then we may need to discern where those thought patterns come from. Is there some hurt or grudge against God that we need to confess to Him and ask for His healing and forgiveness?
God’s ways are higher than our ways, and it can be futile to only ask Him “why” because we may not have the capacity to understand until we can look back in retrospective years from now. This is why we are asked simply to obey and be blessed by following Him.
Isaiah 55:8 ESV For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
Luke 11:28 NIV He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
6. Choose what we think about
A thought life that is submitted to Jesus Christ will not “run wild.” Instead, we would be self-controlled in what we choose to think about. In other words, we would choose to fill our minds with things that are true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious; things to praise and not to curse. That is when we will find our minds filled with the peace from God that is beyond understanding.
Ephesians 4:13-14 ESV until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
Philippians 4:6-9 ESV Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
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