Soon after my powerful conversion in 1971, I joined my first church in Miami Beach, Florida. I was glad for the passionate preaching and Spirit-filled worship I experienced each week in our weekly gatherings. The presence of God in that church made me look forward each week to come and gather with the saints.
But in those days I thought that Romans 12:2 actually read, “be transformed by the removing of your minds” rather than the “renewing of your minds.” The message I heard from my church in those days was “Come on in and park your brain at the door—you won’t be needing it here!” Mind you, that was never actually stated, but it was subtly implied. We constantly heard messages undermining our minds. The clear message I picked up in those early days was that spirituality was achieved, not by exercising our minds to the fullest, but by denying them.
But Paul in this text doesn’t teach that spirituality is achieved by the removing of our minds, but by its fullest renewal. In other words, the mind itself is not the problem; it simply is in need of renewal. But that is not the message many believers have derived from this text and others. Instead, many believers today have adopted the view that the mind is an enemy and that only by denying it can Christians live for God and be fruitful. So we have an entire generation of believers who think exercising their minds to the fullest is antithetical to Christian spirituality.
One Scripture often cited to promote this view is Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Since Solomon exhorts us to not lean on our own understanding in this passage, that is taken to mean that the mind is our enemy and only by denying it its power, can we really trust God. In this way, mindlessness is encouraged as a means of being spiritual.
But that is not at all what Solomon is saying in this passage. On the contrary, he encourages the reader to use his or her reason to the fullest while realizing its limitations. In other words, we should use our reason to the fullest, but understand that we are finite and are therefore limited in our understanding. So far from this passage encouraging mindlessness, it actually encourages the fullest use of our minds. In the end, we must trust God, even when we don’t understand.
Paul teaches that the believer is transformed by the “renewing of our mind.” One means God uses to that end is meditation on the Word of God. That is more than simply reading the Scripture, but exercising our minds in the presence of God to fully understand the text, letting the meaning of it deeply penetrate our hearts. It is clear from the record of Scripture that godly men and women practiced meditation daily (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; Philippians 4:8).
Donald Whitney in his book Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life uses the illustration of a tea bag to describe meditation. He likens the dipping of a tea bag once into the water to what believers receive listening to a sermon. Relatively little of the tea is released into the water (though some is). But if the tea bag is put into the water and allowed to remain, the tea is fully comingled with the water until the water is totally saturated. That (says Whitney) is the difference between hearing a sermon and meditating on Scripture.