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Renewing Our Minds

I want to return to a theme that has been core to the Spiritual Maturity Project from its inception. It is a point so crucial to vital Christian growth, yet so easily misunderstood. To grow spiritually necessitates growing in understanding. To grow in understanding requires time, patience, and sustained study. There are no shortcuts.

Immediately, a question comes to mind: "Grow in understanding what?" Here we must pay special attention. Two key parts of the answer always must stay together. We grow in understanding the doctrinal and ethical content of the Christian faith, but that content is not a bunch of disembodied abstractions. The content of the Christian faith flows from Jesus Christ himself, from his life and teaching. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me..." (Mt. 11:29).  "But we have the mind of Christ" (1  Cor. 2:16). Understanding the doctrinal and ethical content of the Christian faith means understanding the way of God. "Make me to know your ways, O Lord. Teach me your paths" (Ps. 25:4). 

It's extremely difficult for us to keep this basic truth clearly in mind when we think about spiritual growth because of the kind of training we have received in the modern West. The biases of modern, secularized, intellectual life cannot but help to have shaped our relationship with God and the way we experience the Christian life. 

So, let's think for a moment about how we think. The New Testament uses two Greek words that are especially relevant for this reflection. The first is nous and the second is phronema. In most English translations, both terms are translated by one English word - "mind." Here are two examples, both from the NRSV:

1. Ephesians 4:17, 23 " the futility of their [Gentile, pagan] minds" and v. 23, " be renewed in the spirit of your minds..." Here the Greek noun nous appears. It refers to what often is called a world view, a way of seeing, therefore understanding, the world we inhabit. A world view is an interpretive filter. It helps us make sense of our experience. It "explains" things to us and makes them understandable. It orders the contents of our mind, that is, our basic convictions about reality. It guides how we live. In more strictly intellectual terms, nous goes to our basic views about what is considered rational, about what is intellectually acceptable, about what is believable. 

In keeping with this basic view of "minds," commentators tell us that, with the first verse, "minds" refers to the pagan world view in which the Ephesians Christians had been deeply formed prior to their becoming Christian. This use of "minds" is close to what we think of typically as understanding, as our way of making sense of experiences in the world. It comes close to the sort of rationality we associated with schooling in the West.

2. Philippians 2:5, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." Here "mind" is translated with a verbal form of the Greek noun, phronema. The mind of Christ is revealed in this text as Christ's humble, servant heart in taking the form of a slave. Christ's followers are to follow suit, to be committed to one another in servant love. We find in this use of "mind" what we might call practical wisdom, seasoned by strength of character or virtue. "Mind" in this case seems to be less "intellectual" and more "attitudinal," more practical. 

The deep, reflexive tendency in our culture is to divide the meanings of these two Greek words that are both translated as "mind." We have been taught to split the intellectual and the practical. Think "knowledge and skill" or "theory and practice."  A study of the New Testament shows that this split is a big mistake, and I am increasingly convinced (and concerned) that the split has so severely stunted our growth as to be almost fatal.

The corrective is twofold. First, we study. A good dictionary definition of the verb "study" is "to look closely in order to observe..." (Merriam Webster) and, I would add, to understand. We study to know the ways of God, to understand who God is and who we are and the life God gives us to live. 

Study is time-consuming and effortful and simply cannot be skipped or slighted, if we want to grow. We do it alone and together. It is what Christians do, if they want to be real Christians. 

Second, as we study, we notice our hearts' responses. What thoughts come to mind? How do we feel about those thoughts? How do our reactions compare to the picture of spiritual maturity described in the Bible? What, do we think, is "going on" in our souls?

With open hearts, then, we prayerfully seek God for understanding and growth. We want to become like Christ. May our minds be renewed in Christ. It is the way of life. 


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