By Charles F. Stanley
Have you ever vowed to put an ungodly habit behind you, only to fall again soon after? Feelings of guilt can lead to a renewed commitment to never do something again. But the very next day, the cycle repeats itself as we give in to the same temptations. Our defeat leaves us wondering, What’s wrong with me? Our despair at repeated failure produces a sense of hopeless resignation and confusion. We want to know, Lord, why can’t I change?
All of us have experienced the problem of wanting to honor God and yet reverting back to old, sinful ways almost immediately. Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be more liberating and victorious than this? After all, the Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Why, then, does habitual sin take hold of us? Wasn’t Christ supposed to change all this? If we are new creations, why do we still act like old ones? We feel as stuck as a ship run aground.
So how do we shake free from our sinful behaviors? First, we need to examine the way change occurs in the Christian life. Salvation is an instantaneous work of God, which happens the moment we receive Jesus as Savior. But from that point on, we enter a continual process of transformation called sanctification. The Lord’s goal is to mold us into the image of Christ, but this process requires our cooperation. That’s what the Bible means when it says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). If we neglect this responsibility, we’ll find ourselves struggling with the same issues over and over again. But if we submit to the Holy Spirit, He’ll exert His influence in every area of our lives. Old sinful habits will pass away and be replaced with new godly behavior.
The path to transformation
Becoming the people God created us to be is an inside-out process. Because our thoughts govern each area of our lives—emotions, decisions, actions, attitudes, and words—any lasting transformation must begin with the mind. If all we want is to modify our conduct, we’ll never experience long-term success. What we need is a new way of thinking.
This can be accomplished only by what the Bible calls renewing the mind (Rom. 12:2). It’s not a sudden transformation but a lifelong process. At the moment of salvation, the Lord doesn’t erase all our negative and sinful thought patterns any more than He automatically removes our physical imperfections. If you had a scar on your arm before you received Christ, most likely you will still have it afterward.
We are all a reflection of whatever we’ve been thinking throughout the years. From early on, we are taught to respond to situations in a certain way, with a particular response pattern, and this impacts every area of our lives. In some cases, we can see how people’s expressions reveal the way their minds have developed throughout their lifetime—etching continuous worry, pain, and guilt on their faces.
Take a look in the mirror. Do you see the joy of Christ in your eyes? Or are the destructive effects of sin betrayed by your appearance? The good news is that whatever your thoughts have been in the past, God can teach you to think differently. He gives His Spirit to lead you through a process that produces real healing and lasting change.
Where thoughts originate
So, what triggers negative thought patterns? The Lord has given us physical senses so we can interact with each other and our world. The capacity to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is an amazing gift from God, which affects how our thoughts develop and what we think. However, because we are continually being influenced by the fallen world around us, we don’t always use these abilities in a way that honors Him. We experience a sight, sound, smell, flavor, or touch that gives us momentary pleasure and we begin to think, What would it be like if I…? This begins the downward spiral—our senses trigger thoughts, which elicit destructive patterns of behavior.
James 1:14-15 explains, “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” That is why we must be discerning about what we listen to and watch. It is also why the apostle Paul tells us to lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted, and instead be renewed in the spirit of our minds—to put on the new self which is created in God’s likeness (Eph. 4:22-24).
A second source of sinful thoughts is from the Enemy of our souls. Have you ever been thinking about some plan or task, only to have a vile, ungodly idea pop into your mind? You may wonder, Where did that come from? These are Satan’s attempts to distract us with his ideas and twist the truth, inciting us to disobey God. His purpose is to destroy our character and lead us astray.
The way we respond determines whether we fall to his enticements or stand strong against him. Will we, as Paul says, dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute” (Phil. 4:8), allowing our minds to be transformed by these things? Or will we take the bait?
No matter how our minds are bombarded by unwanted temptations, we must remember that as believers, we do not have to be enslaved by sin. We are not helpless victims, but sons and daughters of almighty God. We have within us the Holy Spirit—a positive, powerful influence that is mightier than the Enemy can ever hope to be. Because we are indwelled by God’s Spirit, we have the power to extinguish the Enemy’s flaming arrows (Eph. 6:16). We are also able to know the mind of Christ, take our thoughts captive to Him, and have victory over every temptation.
How your mind is renewed
God calls us to be watchful and guard our minds at all times. If we don’t, worldly values and purposes will subtly creep in and influence our lives. Whenever we allow ourselves to be conformed to the world, the Enemy gains a foothold in our thinking. And the more we yield to those thoughts, the stronger his hold becomes.
We must wisely choose which thoughts we will accept and which ones we’ll reject. It’s not enough just to resist the Enemy’s lies; we must also deliberately fill our mind with truth from God’s Word. Jesus used this technique when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). He countered each challenge with Scripture, saying “It is written . . .” When we are ready with a verse that refutes one of Satan’s falsehoods, we have the most powerful spiritual ammunition possible.
So consider: How diligent have you been about guarding your mind? Have you permitted the world to influence your thoughts? Or are you allowing God’s Word to shape your reasoning and values? You cannot coast through the Christian life. An unengaged mind is an open invitation for sin. If you’re distracted, having trouble praying or reading the Bible, your thoughts are not where they should be.
Perhaps you feel as if you’re the rope in a tug of war between God and sin, constantly being pulled in two opposing directions. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Rather, confess and repent as quickly as possible (1 John 1:9). During those times, remember that you are engaged in a long process, and that you cannot renew your own mind. Trying harder and making promises to God will only discourage you, because in your own strength, you will never be able to change. True transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit—and it takes time. Therefore, submit to His leading, heed His warnings, and obey His voice.
Four Requirements for a Renewed Mind
Fill your mind with Scripture—focusing on the Lord’s character, ways, and commands.
Resist temptation and flee from it by understanding the thoughts and feelings that trigger a sinful response in you.
Check the source of your thoughts—are they from God, your flesh, the world, or Satan?
Rely on the Holy Spirit to empower you to resist sin and break free from its bondage.
As believers, we can expect this process of transformation to continue until we reach heaven; however, the important issue is that we begin today.
Just as your area of struggle began with one act of yielding to temptation, so your path to victory can begin with one act of submission to God. Through the power of the Spirit, start saying no to thoughts that don’t belong in a believer’s life. At the same time, say yes to appropriate thoughts. When you fill your mind with truth from God’s Word, you’ll gain discernment and be able to more readily identify the thoughts and feelings that cause you to sin.
As you persevere in choosing which thoughts to allow, the bondage of sin will diminish and your mind will be renewed. This transformation, which began internally, will now be worked out externally as behavior changes. When you think right, you’ll act right. Areas of your life that you were powerless to adjust on your own will be refashioned. And Christ’s victorious life will be beautifully demonstrated through you so that others will see and be drawn to Him.
Questions for Further Study
Ephesians 4:22-24 gives three steps for change. What are they? Which words are used to describe the old self? The new self? How does renewing the mind enable us to “put on the new self”? What would happen if you skipped that step?
Read James 4:7-10. As you think about an area in your life that needs to change, what does God command you to do, and what does He promise to do in return?
You don’t have to fight your battles alone. Jesus Christ died on the cross to free you—mind, spirit, and body—from the grip of sin. And through the power of His resurrection, He offers an abundant new life in Him.
No transgression is too great for the Lord to forgive. Scripture tells us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Invite Jesus into your life, and let the transformation begin. You can use the following prayer or your own words:
Lord Jesus, I believe You are truly the Son of God. I confess that I have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed. Please forgive all my wrongdoing, and let me live in relationship with You from now on. I receive You as my personal Savior, accepting the work You accomplished once and for all on the cross. Thank You for saving me. Help me to live a life that is pleasing to You. Amen.