Sunday, June 17, 2012

Virtuous Circle


There are five primary means through which we reclaim our royal identity in simple, practical terms, all of which concern ‘renewing our minds.’
“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” –Romans 12.2
“As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” –Proverbs 23.7
Renewing your mind means changing the way you think. It means having your mind washed out, trading the mind you have now for something better, something cleansed and renewed by God’s spirit.
The mind is the control room for your life. Our perceptions shape reality. Our desires manifest into ambitions—either consciously or sub-consciously—that determine our behaviors. All of the energy around us, from advertising and television to coffee shop philosophy and pop song lyrics, has created a world vastly different from the one God intends. Whether we know it or not, we have been enculturated into this counter-creation. We think like that because we’ve been mal-nourished in it since birth.
In order for us to begin thinking God thoughts about sexuality, relationships, politics, wealth, etc., we have to fight against the energies of the world, replacing our old thoughts with something new.
N.T. Wright, in his book After You Believe, describes a virtuous circle, comprised of five components to living Christianly. I have here adapted that virtuous circle to focus specifically on renewing the mind, as well as changing some of the terminology to connect more seamlessly with my materials on spiritual gifts (Archetypes: Uncovering Your Spiritual Identity and The Elements of Spiritual Formation).

As Christians, we believe the Bible is our ultimate authority in all matters of thought and action. Reading the Bible changes us.
It convicts us.
It edits us.
Even though some things in the Bible may be difficult to understand and others may even be uncomfortable, we invite the spirit of God to fertilize us with the biblical material, trusting that the most difficult parts will ultimately prove the most rewarding through the long process of God’s redemptive work in us.
In some ways, reading the Bible is habit-forming. Not only do we develop the habit of learning to read it and applying what we’ve read in real life, but it’s also habit-forming in that the scripturally fertilized life requires a completely different set of habits. The Bible shapes those habits. The Bible reinforces those habits, changing the way we think and the way we live.
Reading the Bible also cultivates humility. Every time we read the scriptures, we learn something we didn’t know. We are exposed to something with which we were previously unfamiliar, even if it’s just the turn of a phrase or a nuance in an author’s style. When we read the biblical narratives, we see the foibles and follies of the biblical characters and realize we make the same mistakes they did.
We are no better than they were. And we, like they, need to find a place of repentance before God in order to continue our spiritual development.
The second way we renew our minds is through stories. The Bible is best understood as one big Story, and living our lives in concert with that Story also allows us to learn from other kinds of stories: movies, fairytales, folk tales, novels, etc.
Stories demonstrate wisdom. We watch characters triumph, and we watch them flounder, all the while inwardly urging them to do what’s right. In this way we safely learn from them about sound decision-making, allegiance, principles, and love.
Thirdly, our minds are renewed through archetypes. I have written previously about my opinion that Christian people tend to cluster according to their spiritual personality, as derived from their spiritual gifts, their learning style, their kind of intelligence[1], and the means through which they most meaningfully connect to God. We renew our minds by finding people who are archetypes of us, like us.
By this, I mean people who are examples to us of how to live like we know we should, or how not to live in the ways we shouldn’t. They are our models, our examples, and our cautions. We’ll never likely find just one person who is the perfect example of our unique gifts and abilities, passions, capabilities and dreams, but by looking at several people who are similar to us—an admired coach, a patron, a father or older brother—then we take the aggregate of those archetypes and learn increasingly how to become the people God has designed us to be.
The fourth way our minds are renewed is via relationship: our church, our family, our friends.
God speaks to us through other people.
He speaks to us through the community of faith, he speaks to us through the people who love us, and he speaks to us through the people who are near us. We have to learn to discern God’s voice in the midst of our relationships. We have to learn to hear him in them, knowing that, while he speaks through them, he’s not necessarily always speaking through them.
For example, Christian people will often point out the sin of other Christian people. Typically we don’t like that. We resist it and refer to that behavior as being judgmental. Certainly this is true some of the time. And yet, the scripture makes it clear we are supposed to identify sin, sharpen each other, call each other to a higher standard (1 Thessalonians 5.11).
We need to foster the kind of honest relationships in which sin-critique is welcomed, respected, and taken seriously as a signpost to holy living. When the people who are part of your circle speak to you about your life, they are speaking with the voice of God, and you should listen. God has placed them in your life to guide you, and he renews your mind through their voice in your ear.
Lastly, God renews our minds through the elements of spiritual formation. These “elements” are the things we do in order to more faithfully follow God: namely, mission, disciplines, and sacraments.
By mission, I refer to the twin vocations of witness and blessing found first in Genesis 12 and Acts 2. God promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the world will be blessed.
What he began in Abraham, he intends to continue through his church.
We are called to bless the world. Jesus instructed his disciples that they were to be his witnesses to the outermost ends of the earth.
What Jesus began with those first followers, he intends to continue through his church.
We are called to bear witness. Blessing and witness together comprise mission, meaning we ought to be outside of the church walls, helping others experience life the way God intends and reminding them that he has promised them something better through his son.
Spiritual disciplines include things like reading the Bible, praying, spending time in silence, journaling, going on a pilgrimage, fasting, meditating, etc. Your mind gets rewired as you participate in spiritual activity intentionally. It’s not enough to just perform these tasks, however. You must invest yourself in them with all of your attention and feeling.
The final element is the sacraments—baptism, communion, and confession. Baptism is a millennia-old ritual, through which we signify that our old lives have ended, and we are now living new lives with Jesus Christ. Baptism is a symbolic reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection and our own spiritual death and resurrection to new life in him. Communion recalls the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed to the Roman and Jewish authorities. That Last Supper itself hearkens back to the ancient Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating God’s deliverance of his people out of Egyptian slavery (Exodus 12).
Communion is about sacrifice and deliverance.
When we consume the bread and wine—emblems of Christ’s broken body and spilled blood—we are ingesting the mystical, esoteric sacrifice of Jesus, resulting in our deliverance from sin.
Confession means coming clean with someone else about our own struggles and successes. It requires us to speak our sin out loud, so we can no longer hide from the ramifications of our disobedience. Sin must be named before it can be dealt with. 1 John 1.9 says, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” The more sin we confess, the more sin we can expunge, removing one of the chief obstacles from holy living.
The virtuous circle trains our consciences, teaching us how to think Christianly. It helps us to arrest our thoughts, “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10.5)
And the virtuous circle helps us to refocus our attention. We have to focus on what God wants, not what we want, selfishly. Once we start to put the virtuous circle into practice, our thoughts begin to change, and our lives change as a result. We reclaim our “royalty” and as a result God gets glory.
We become more fully human as he becomes more wholly glorified.

[1] See Archetypes: Uncovering Your Spiritual Identity; anything on the three learning styles; Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences; Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.

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