Three Ways to Purify Your Thinking
Article by Scott Hubbard, Editor, desiringGod.org
If we are in Christ, God is remaking our minds.
Once, we were “darkened in [our] understanding” (Ephesians 4:18). We may have been smart, even brilliant, but we shut the doors and windows of our minds against the knowledge of God. We preferred illusions over truth (Romans 1:18). We crafted alternative realities where God was not glorious, Christ not worthy, sin not damnable, and holiness not desirable. Our minds, created to be like a garden of the Lord, became a field of thorns, a scorched land.
But in Christ, God is reclaiming his garden. He’s opening the doors and windows and letting the light back in. He has told us that one of the great tasks of the Christian life is “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23). Pluck weeds and plant trees. Gather rocks and plow fields. Prune vines and build walls. Purify your mind.
Purify Your Mind
The purifying of our minds happens, in part, as we learn to habitually set our minds in certain directions — as we turn our mind’s eye from the worthless to the beautiful, from the defiled to the pure, from the false to the true. Like all repentance, such turning is not a onetime work, but a daily one, an hourly one, even a moment-by-moment one. Nor is it easy: changing our habits of thought is like carving new ruts in old roads. It will not happen spontaneously.
As we do set our minds in certain directions, and make holy thinking a habit, the effect will be like gradually opening the curtains: light and warmth from the God of glory will come in, making our thoughts bloom like flowers and rise like oaks of righteousness.
God tells us, in the book of Phillipians, to consistently set our minds in three directions: on glory above, on beauty below, and on people around.
1. Set your mind on glory above.
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:19–20)
Paul reminds the Philippians of their heavenly citizenship directly after he warns them not to be like “enemies of the cross of Christ,” people who have “minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18–19). By earthly things, Paul does not mean the gifts in God’s good creation, but rather sinful pleasures (see Colossians 3:5). Those who set their minds on earthly things have scrubbed heaven from the horizon of their minds, preferring to fill their heads with dark pleasures.
The antidote is to look up: lift your eyes to glory above, and walk often in the fields of heaven. But Paul will not let us speak vaguely of “glory above.” A mind set on high is not filled with a spiritual haze, but with a Person: Jesus Christ. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior.” “Set your mind on glory above,” then, mainly means, “Set your mind on Christ and all that is yours in him.”
Think much of the Lord Jesus. Consider how he left his Father’s side and took the form of a servant. Ponder how he relinquished his rights in order to die for desperate sinners. Remember how he is now clothed in a glorified body, bearing the scars of our redemption and crowned with the highest name. Meditate on how he will one day “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” and make everything broken about us whole (Philippians 2:6–11; 3:21). Only then will we know something of what it means to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
Search for this Jesus as you read your Bible day by day. Cast your mind in the mold of his goodness. Carry his promises with you in all the chambers of your head. Return often throughout the day to think of glory above.
2. Set your mind on beauty below.
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)
A mind set on heaven does not cease to think of earth. No: heaven sends us hunting through creation for all the marks of our Father’s handiwork. Thinking on beauty below is a matter of Christian obedience.
Too often, however, I substitute “whatever is lovely” for “whatever gives immediate gratification.” Many of us are content to set our minds on pleasures that sprint through our souls without leaving a trace. We need heaven to recalibrate our earthly tastes, so we move past snap delights to “approve what is excellent” — truly, enduringly excellent (Philippians 1:10).
Those with minds set on glory above will not ultimately be satisfied with trivialities below. We will search to find a deeper echo of the tune, something that sends us past the crust of life to the core. We will look for something to awaken us to the wonder of being image-bearers of the high God, in a broken but beautiful world, with the gospel on our lips and glory in our hearts (Philippians 1:27). We want something that will absorb us, that will take us outside ourselves and send us into Reality, with all its hard edges and bracing air, all its grand and intricate glory, all its raw and cultivated splendor.
We might, as our Savior was prone to do, regularly get out beneath a big sky and look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the movement of clouds, and the habits of sheep. We might lose ourselves in some story that rekindles in us the glory of everyday life. We might find some hobby that rivets us and, for a few moments at least, makes us forget about ourselves as we run, hike, play, fix, write, craft, cook, and then kneel down to give thanks to the Giver of it all.
3. Set your mind on people around.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)
As we go on the hunt for beauty here below, we would be blind if we passed over those walking wonders all around us — those children of Adam, destined for immortality in either heaven or hell, whose interests Paul tells us to look to (Philippians 2:4).
This command to “look . . . to the interests of others” means more than “consider meeting others’ needs if they’re in your path and you have time.” This looking is, rather, proactive looking, attentive looking, the kind that would not happen apart from serious, creative thought. Look to means “Think, dream, plan, and study how to do the most good to those around you — and then get to it.”
We know this because Paul gives Jesus as our model of looking to the interests of others (Philippians 2:5–11). The cross was not a good work Jesus stumbled across, but one dreamt up in the merciful imagination of the triune God, and executed at extreme cost to himself. We are looking to the interests of others only if we reflect something of Jesus’s initiating, creative, and costly love, and are “genuinely concerned for [the] welfare” of those around us (Philippians 2:20).
The most well-balanced people in this world are those whose heads are so full of God and others that they have little time to circle around their own misfortunes. For many of us, then, perhaps the healthiest thing we could do with our minds is to absorb ourselves in the hopes, struggles, successes, and heartbreaks of another.
Think About These Things
The call to purify our minds is one we only begin in this life. Even the saintliest among us must stand guard over their mental garden, continually shooing away the crows of corrupt thoughts. Our thinking will bloom as it ought to only when we sink our minds into the soil of Mount Zion.
But much of our peace in this life, and much of the fruit we bear for God’s glory, comes as we heed the call to “think about these things” — to set our minds on glory above, on beauty below, and on people around. These are the windows that bring light and warmth to our minds, until the day Light himself will purify our minds completely.