For the Christian longing to see the character of Christ in their lives, the struggle with sin can be frustrating and exhausting. We see clearly the standard of living we’re called to in the scriptures, but struggle to live up to that standard is difficult. Even the Apostle Paul wrestled with this:
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Romans 7:15-25 (ESV)
It gets even crazier for Paul (and for us). Not only did Paul find himself struggling to please God, but there were also times when God’s word itself seemed to spark struggles. Go back just a few verses in the same chapter of Romans you’ll see what sparked Paul’s exasperation regarding his inability just to be obedient to God’s law:
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.
Romans 7:7-9 (ESV)
Is that crazy or what?!? This is Paul, formerly Saul. A Jew of Jews and a Pharisee of Pharisees, chosen by the risen Christ to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. He is a man who died as a martyr. A man who loved the risen Savior more than anyone. And you can hear the frustration in his voice as he laments over the struggle to live a godly life.
And yet, the book of Romans (and all of Paul’s writings, for that matter) are filled with so much encouragement for the believer who wants to please God. Paul is telling us, you can do this. I think part of the process is coming to understand what it means to have the “mind of Christ”, something he wrote about to the Corinthian church:
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:14-16 (ESV)
Let Paul’s encouragement to the church at Corinth sink in for just a moment. “But we have the mind of Christ.” There is so much richness in that statement for the believer. It doesn’t matter where we find ourselves at any given moment nor how discouraged we might be at our struggles. As a redeemed child of God, we have something that can help us find wisdom, strength, and a renewed passion for following Christ: we are capable of understanding and accepting the things of God, things that can only be discerned on a spiritual level.
Fighting The Battle Of Tthe Mind
As we looked at back at the beginning of this article, what we have is pretty much what Paul had: a mind that often feels more like a battlefield than a place of peace and clarity. So, how do we get from the battlefield to a place where we can move through the world with anything approaching the focus of Christ? How do we keep from leaning into sin instead of calling upon God and His Word?
Well, the process begins by accepting and confessing a simple truth. We become what we think about most:
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Romans 8:5-8 (ESV)
We’re constantly reminded by Paul that we have a new nature. We are no longer slaves to sin. We are free from all those old habits. But the old nature still has our cell phone number. And it’s always calling at our weakest moments and most inopportune times. The challenge for us is: how do I keep from answering that call?
It’s all about where we “set our minds.”
Paul’s argument in Romans 8 is not that Christians can’t or won’t obey God’s law. We are all fully capable of doing so. We’ve all won those battles. The problem for most of us is that we can’t seem to keep winning those battles consistently.
Paul’s respect and love for God’s law are on full display throughout Romans. But he also makes it clear that while obedience to the law cannot save us, the key to obedience begins with where we set our minds. There are only two choices: the flesh or the things of the Spirit. For Paul, no other options exist for the believer. The great theologian, Charles Hodge sums up the battle lines in this way:
“There can be no such thing as salvation in sin; no possibility of justification without sanctification. If partakers of the benefits of Christ’s death, we are partakers of his life. If we died with him, we live with him.”
Hodge is referring to Paul’s words in Romans 6:
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Romans 6:5–11 (ESV)
We are dead to sin. We are alive to Christ. This is the place where we draw a line in the sand and fight. But how do we fight, especially when we carry the scars of so many failed attempts at the point of conflict?
In Paul’s thinking, if I’m struggling with sin and obedience to God’s law, it’s because I’ve missed the fundamental step of setting my mind on Christ. This is vastly different than repeating to myself any kind of prayer or mantra that flows along the lines of “I cannot give in to this!”
Consider this example, which might not seem to be a big deal to some but is a massive struggle for me: chocolate. Yeah, I know chocolate is ok in moderation. But for me, the lure of chocolate has all too often given way to the devouring of an entire bag of M&M’s. Not the small bag. I’m talking about the BIG bag. It does me no good at all to tell myself, “That’s gluttony. That’s a sin.” It also does me no good to focus on the consequences to my health and weight. The more I focus on the object of my desire the harder the struggle becomes. In truth, trying to resist sin in this way is still setting my mind on the flesh.
Finding victory in this struggle has been tied directly to my ability to focus on something infinitely better than chocolate: Jesus.
Is Jesus better than chocolate? Obviously, He is!
When my taste buds are screaming for that sweet sensation of hard candy shell melting into chocolate bliss, it takes an effort of will to set my mind on the things about Jesus that are more rewarding than indulging in a bellyful of candy. But this is the distinction Paul is making when he writes about setting our minds on the things of the Spirit.
Setting our mind on Christ and on the things of the Spirit is hard work at times. But like learning any new habit, that hard work eventually becomes instinctive. So here are some practical tips on helping wrestle with your flesh:
1. Tackle One Thing At a Time
It takes energy and effort to change bad habits into good ones. Once you learn a new habit, it becomes precisely that: a habit. You do it without thinking about it. Most scientific studies say it takes at least 30 days of conscious and consistent effort to make some new behavior a habit. The truth is that for deeply ingrained lifestyle issues it can take from 6-months to a year.
2. Focus On How Christ Has Filled Your Hunger/Thirst In The Past.
A generic “Jesus is good” image isn’t enough. Find something specific that you’ve experienced in your walk with Christ, something that gave you relief and hope when it happened. Wrap your thoughts around that image of Christ. Keep in mind the words of the psalmist:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1-2 (ESV))
3. Fill Your Mind With Things That Will Point You Toward Christ
This is as “where the rubber meets the road” as it gets. I’m going to share something that has (and still is) become a turning point in my personal struggles to find the mind of Christ. I used to keep my iPhone on my bed stand. I found myself surfing social media or news feeds. Occasionally the availability of it would open doors to old temptations, and I would find myself wasting hours on some mindless chase of images ranging from mundane to illicit. Months ago, I made the decision that my iPhone was no longer welcome in my bedroom. It stays on my desk in the living room. I replaced those final moments of activity before sleep with a reading from John Baille’s A Diary of Private Prayer. So now the last thing I put into my mind before I turn out the light to sleep is a soothing prayer:
This has taken discipline. It’s been difficult at times. Well near impossible at some moments. But it was just one battle. It was a place where I drew a line in the sand and said, “Here is where I’m going to fight.” What I’ve found over these past months is nothing short of remarkable. My mind has changed in noticeable ways. It is still changing. The battle still rages, and I can feel it, sometimes so acutely it snatches away my breath. But I can see change. And that leads me to a final, critical point of encouragement.
4. Be Patient But Also Be Relentless
You’re not going to win every battle, especially early on. But as you train your mind to settle on the things of the Spirit, you will find that the Spirit responds. Your hunger and your thirst will change. God has promised you this is true:
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6 (ESV))
You don’t fight alone, friends. You do not stand against the old nature without help. God has given You the Holy Spirit and the promise that you’ve already won. So pick one battle of your mind. Then stand and fight.