December 3, 2014

Grace or self-discipline?

The next seven days in my devotional guide contain discussions about disciplined thinking. It begins with the difficulty of balancing self-discipline on my part with trusting the Lord to keep my mind thinking His thoughts (He did give me the mind of Christ). The author of the devotional points out that when truth becomes unbalanced, it soon becomes error.

For example, the Christians in Galatia had been saved by grace, but then fell into a pattern of trying to earn or keep in God’s favor by keeping rules, particularly those of the old covenant. They failed to balance God’s part with their part and became legalistic. Paul wrote to them with stern words . . .

“I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (Galatians 5:3–9)

I’ve wrestled with this too. Who does all the work to keep my mind on track? Does God save my mind from wandering off into forbidden territory? Or do I do it? A lesson in high school comes to mind. The teacher said to the class, “Picture an apple in your mind.” He gave us a moment or two, then said, “Now don’t think about that apple.” We quickly realized that trying not to think about something is difficult. The only way to do it is replace the apple with thoughts of something else.

Since then, I’ve learned that this is a biblical principle. Tempting thoughts come and go, and I am not to act on them, but I’m not to dwell on them either. Yet putting them out of mind isn’t easy, and cannot happen unless I replace them with good thoughts.

Paul also wrote these wise words . . . “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.” (Philippians 4:8)

The enemy brings lies, I combat them with truth. The media and people of the world often try to toss ugly ideas, impure thoughts, cruddy jokes, and other nasty stuff into my head, but God holds me responsible to turn away from all that and put my mind on the pure and lovely things of life.

The gospel and faith in Christ make salvation and eternal life a free gift. Actually, I am called to a freedom from the condemnation of the law and the penalty of sin. I don’t have to put off bad thoughts in order to “keep my salvation” yet indulging in such things puts me into bondage to them. Paul also wrote . . .  

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Galatians 5:13–18)

The flesh will always have desires that go against the will of God. The only way to escape them is to be filled with the Spirit, remembering that God is not a killjoy. He wants me to know both freedom and deep joy. Looking back over the past week, I can clearly see that my times of stinking thinking are the killjoys. On the other hand, when my mind is thinking as God describes in His Word, then I’m full of joy and enjoying great freedom.

Some of that good thinking requires discipline on my part. However, without the grace of God, I’d not have the discipline to stop “thinking about the apple.” Self-control is from the Holy Spirit, so even when I can keep my head on straight, it is the wonderful and gracious mind of the Lord Jesus Christ who makes it possible.

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