Brain Washing, Thought Control and Other Forms of Spiritual Transformation

He said it in passing and mostly in jest, but I am afraid one might have gotten the impression there was a kernel of truth in it: Our responsibility as Christians is to be brain-washed.

The preacher — of a church my wife and I have begun attending, and genuinely like — was talking about spiritual transformation. He was expounding upon a fairly well-known passage found in the twelfth chapter Romans: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

He said it in passing and mostly in jest, but I am afraid one might have gotten the impression there was a kernel of truth in it: Our responsibility as Christians is to be brain-washed.

The brain-washing he was referring to had to do with those last four words: We are responsible for renewing our minds: It is by deliberate effort to alter what we think that spiritual growth is achieved. We “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5) in order to come to spiritual maturity. We rid our minds of every impure thought so that the good remains. In short, we grow by cleansing, or shall we say washing, our brains.

Of course many of us would object to the idea that spiritual growth in the Christian life is no more than brain-washing. Brain washing is bad, and what we are doing in the Christian life is good. But this raises an interesting question: What exactly is the difference? How does our understanding of the part we play in spiritual growth differ from what an outsider might call being brain-washed — nothing more and nothing less?

A definition from Merriam-Webster states that brain-washing is “a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas.” I would like to simplify this definition for the purpose of our discussion: Brain-washing is the process of attempting, by direct human effort, to intentionally change what one believes, especially what one believes most deeply. That does sound a lot like what we call renewing our minds, or at least what we understand it to be.

Brain-washing is the process of attempting, by direct human effort, to intentionally change what one believes, especially what one believes most deeply. That does sound a lot like what we call renewing our minds

Granted, in the case of renewing our minds, no one is forcing us to change our beliefs: We are doing it to ourselves. But the important thing is not so much who is doing it but what is being done: If we think spiritual transformation — at least our part in it — is about forcing ourselves to think differently, then spiritual transformation becomes nothing more than a form of thought control. We are telling ourselves what to think, and in many cases what to feel. What’s more, we believe the spiritual life is all about doing so. It is about getting a handle on “our thought life.”

Calling our efforts in the Christian life thought control may seem extreme but it is widely embraced. A prominent pastor in a global ministry stated in a podcast recently that the secret to success in the Christian life is found in the very passage we are examining and went on to say that “our will has power over our thoughts” and “we can tell ourselves what to think.” According to him, it is by the power of the mind, and concentrated human effort, that spiritual transformation is achieved.

If so, then Christian transformation is no more than self-induced indoctrination, which is the foundation of any form of brain-washing. Is this what the Christian life is?

For many of us, the Christian life is about telling ourselves what to think, and in many cases what to feel. If so, Christian transformation is no more than self-induced indoctrination, the foundation of any form of brain-washing.

I am not so sure. I would like to propose that spiritual transformation in the Christian life is much different, and far more personal. I would propose first that in the Christian life, it is God who does the renewing. We are not trying to change how we think or feel; God is changing how we think and feel.

Second, I would like to propose that our part in all of this is submitting to the process. It is allowing ourselves to be placed under His will and coming into agreement with His work. It is responding to the words of Jesus when he says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It may be a smaller role, but it is no less vital.

I would like to propose that in the Christian life, it is God who does the renewing. We are not trying to change how we think or feel; God is changing how we think and feel.

The problem with our reading of passages like the one we find in Romans is that we read into them the very problem Jesus came to deliver us from: Self-effort and self-sufficiency. We think it is up to us to make something happen. This is reinforced by a world in which it is all about the power of the individual, their control over their own environment, and their ability to ensure their own happiness. It is a world in which the individual has been left alone to figure things out.

The problem with our reading of passages like the one we find in Romans is that we read into them the very problem Jesus came to deliver us from: Self-effort and self-sufficiency. We feel we are on our own left to figure things out.

But if we take a closer look at our passage, we find that we are not alone and that it is not about us being the ones to bring about change. The verse tells us to “be transformed”, not to “transform ourselves.” That distinction alone is critical. It means that we are not the ones responsible for transforming ourselves; something or, in our case, Someone else is.

Further, the important part of this passage for us is not found in the last four words but in the very first statement: “Therefore, I urge you in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Paul is saying, “In light of the fact that God’s mercy is readily available to you and actively at work in you in the Person of the Holy Spirit, offer yourselves wholeheartedly to Him.” Our part is in the offering of ourselves, not in the changing of ourselves.

But is it not our job to “take every thought captive”? Not exactly. It is always helpful to look at a passage of Scripture in context. If we do so with 2 Corinthians 10 we find that the Apostle Paul is describing his ministry of apostleship and, in a broader sense, our ministry as believers to the world around us. What we carry as Christians — our spiritual gifts and calling —is mighty for tearing down spiritual strongholds. This is the effect each of us has in walking out our divinely-established purpose in God.

What we carry as Christians — our spiritual gifts and calling — is mighty for tearing down strongholds. Taking every thought captive is the effect of us walking out our divinely-established purpose in God.

But this is a far cry from the idea that it is our job to control our own thoughts. Yes, we tear down strongholds, both in ourselves and in others, as we keep in step with the Spirit, allowing Him to have His way in our lives and going where He leads, exercising the gifts He has placed within us. But the tearing down is the result, not the cause. We do not control our thoughts to be closer to God; our thoughts come under His control as we draw close to Him.

None of this divests us of the critical part we play in spiritual transformation. But in order to play our part, we have to know what it is. We cannot walk on stage thinking we are the director, when in fact we are a supporting actor. Our words and actions will be all wrong; the play will simply not go as planned. We will find ourselves departing from the Divine Script.

And that leads me to my final point: The process we submit to is not a process but a relationship. As it was for the disciples before the religious teachers of their day, our words and our actions are not evidence of brain-washing, indoctrination and control, but rather that we have been with Jesus.

Hidden in Plain Sight

When I was in college, I was confronted with the idea that religious faith was dark, absurd, backward and superstitious. The basis for this accusation was that there was simply no evidence for God. That centuries of inquiry had turned up not a trace of evidence for His existence, and any person with an ounce of intellectual honesty would have to face up to this fact.  Continue reading “Hidden in Plain Sight”