The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 10, 2021
The Bible teaches that following Jesus is anything but an effort in self-improvement. It is rather God’s effort to bring about our improvement. When we permit Him, and invite Him, to change our heart, God all by Himself starts to make us better from the inside out.
Yet, God – out of love for us – refuses to do all the work. Though our work entirely derives from His prior work for us and in us, we play an essential role in our improvement. We create the conditions in which our new changed heart can change every other part of us. Our collaboration is necessary for the completion of the transformation God initiated at our core.
Today’s scripture locks in on two aspects of that collaboration: We must manage our thoughts, and manage our deeds. For the direction of our mental focus sets the direction of our life, and our repeated practice of right action furthers our becoming right in every respect.
While the work we do to fulfill our new potential from God only follows up on the work God has already done, our doing our work is indispensable in the process by which God has chosen to help us realize our best self.
Verse eight here commands us to do our work to embed in our brain new habits of thought centered on God and God’s concerns.
If we want to measure how far we’ve come in doing this, we can introspect and watch where our thinking keeps taking us. Or, better still, we can watch what we do when we don’t have time to think but act without premeditation. That shows how we’ve trained our brain, consciously and unconsciously.
Fighter pilots react immediately to rapidly changing situations while hurtling through the air faster than the speed of sound. They do that by what they call “trained instinct”, something they’ve developed by a long, sustained commitment to a regimen of correct protocols. After all, if a threatening aircraft is closing in, you’ve no time to reason through to what to do. Fighter pilots have to take instantaneous action without thinking and rely on instinct: not their natural instinct, but the ingrained instinct drilled into them through years of repeated practice in making the right responses, responses that become habitual and almost automatic.
We often move through our days faster than the speed of sound. How we’ve been managing our mind manifests itself in how we respond when, without any chance to think, we resort to our trained instinct.
We may not like what our trained instinct shows about what is in our mind and on our mind!
Consider this analogy. If you want to find out if you have cockroaches in your kitchen, you don’t loudly stomp up to it, yell out to announce your arrival, and then leisurely meander in. No, you sneak up stealthily and suddenly jump in to catch whatever’s there, unaware.
C.S. Lewis observed how we often excuse a sharp word we say or a mean action we take by noting that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected it caught us off guard – like a cockroach not duly warned! While being surprised might be an extenuating circumstance that makes the bad behavior less egregious than one chosen ahead of time, what pops out of us unbidden reveals what’s inside of us hidden.
Our mental perspectives, presumptions and preoccupations impact who we are and what we do, and thus always show up in how we live. Hence, to elevate our living we must elevate our thinking. We must make our mind dwell on what is true, honest, honorable, pure, worthy of praise, God-pleasing in one way or another.
So, according to verse 8, we must keep our minds engaged in God-pleasing patterns of thought. According to verse 9, we must also keep our living engaged in God-pleasing patterns of action. We must “keep on doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen” in godly folks like Paul and other role models.
Doing what our mind knows is right helps make our soul right. Once God gives us a new heart, we can become thoroughly new by what we repeatedly do. So, whether we feel like it or not, whether it strikes as us a pleasure or a bother, let us not grow weary in doing good. Let us treat everyone with respect, consideration and kindness even if we’re feeling cranky. Let us deal with others fairly even if we lose an advantage thereby. Let us give God the time we’ve promised Him even if at the time we urgently wish to do something else. Then our works will work on us and shape our character aright – like the Arizona man raised in a racist home who, having come to see that his prejudice against Native Americans was ungodly, resolved to work on unlearning his upbringing. So he volunteered to serve in a Reservation school; and, as he humbly repaired toilets and mopped floors for the schoolchildren, God over time dislodged him from his inherited racism, and replaced his animosity with genuine generosity of spirit.
First Timothy 4:7 commands us to train ourselves in godliness. Let us train our souls, our thinking and our doing, that we might become who God gave us the heart to become: happy people of love and righteousness.