Know your own mind

by | Oct 24, 2016

We know we have a mind. We know we have a body. But how do the two get on? How do mind and body work together to bring about the harmony we call human life?

In order to live well, thinkers ancient and modern have long recognized the importance of the slogan, “know yourself” (gnōwthi seatuon, γνῶθι σεαυτόν).1This is one of the maxims inscribed in the forecourt of the temple to Apollo at Delphi (Pausanias 10.24.1). The maxim was particularly important to Socrates, according to Plato, who discusses it in six of his dialogues. It is also found in Aeschylus, Xenophon and Aristophanes. In a famous example from Christian theology, Calvin’s Institutes is structured around knowing God and knowing yourself. Many of these same thinkers have puzzled over the relationship between mind and body, and this continues to be a live issue today. Take, for example, the present day advances in brain science. Perhaps the prevailing view over the years has been that “how you think effects what you do”. It is easy to see how the mind controls what you do with your body. However, in the last thirty to fifty years, our brain scientists have come up with some amazing results that help us to also reverse that equation to “what you do effects how you think”. The body also controls the mind.

When we turn to our Bibles, God’s word agrees with the ancient slogan “know yourself”, but it adds a very important difference: you know yourself by firstly knowing the God who made you and who sustains you as you live in his world. So then, as you know your God you know yourself by coming to know your body, and by coming to know your mind. Jesus Christ helps us to see all things differently—our minds, our bodies, our selves—and this transforms the way we live in this world.

In what follows we will look at three parts of Paul’s letter to the Romans that speak of the mind (Rom 1:28, 8:5-8, 12:1-2, as well as 7:18-23). Each of these passages also helps us to understand the relationship between our mind and our body.

Corrupt mind = corrupt body

We begin with Romans 1:28:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Paul has already pointed out that there is more than enough evidence for God’s powerful existence in his creation surrounding us, if only we want to see it. But instead of recognizing from creation that there is a creator, human beings suppress this truth and tell themselves all kinds of other stories about the world, the universe and themselves (1:18-20).

This refusal to recognize God ruins our ability to think straight about him, or about his world, or about ourselves—about anything and everything (1:21–23).

God’s judgement is very fair. He gives us what we want. If we say there is no God, he gives us over to a life without God. This is actually a dreadful state of life, because we were made to live in God’s world God’s way. But no matter how dreadful it may be, we can’t say God is unfair. It has been called God’s greatest tribute to human freedom. If we want to reject him, he lets us reject him and go it on our own.

But what a mess that makes of life! Notice three times the dreadful phrase, “God gave them up” (1:24-25, 26-27, 28). Notice also, in verses 21 and 22, how our rejection of God leads to distorted thinking and distorted minds concerning God, ourselves, our own bodies, other people, and about how life ought to work.

In very recent days we have seen the rise of a group known as the New Atheists (not that there is anything new about atheism, just read Psalm 14). New Atheists, or in fact atheists of any vintage, will often claim that it is their reason that leads to their rejection of God. But, no, it is actually around the other way! Their rejection of God leads to their distorted reasoning about his world.

In fact, as we pride ourselves on thinking so clearly without God, we only gain a rejected mind, a corrupt mind (1:28).

There is a pun going on here, a play on words. It is quite difficult to bring it out in English, but let me try. The two words used here are related: ‘did not see fit’ and ‘debased’. The word family they belong to is related to the testing of precious metals, where the quality is tested, or proven, usually by heating the metal in a flame. If the metal is proven, or approved, it is kept; if not, it is rejected, or disapproved. So in this verse, if we try to bring out this connection so we can hear it, we might translate the verse: “since they did not approve of God”, or “since they tried him out and rejected him”, so “he gave them over to a disapproved mind”, or “a tried and rejected mind”.

This corrupt mind then leads to a corrupt body, because thinking wrongly about life leads to doing all kinds of wrong behaviour in our bodily life. Here Paul mentions two examples of the corruption of our bodies that comes from our corrupt minds.

Firstly, idolatry, with all its wickedness (1:23), worships the creation not the creator (just like the materialist, a secular version of idolatry).

Secondly is sexual immorality (1:24), which is dishonouring our bodies by a misguided expression of our sexual desires. Sex is the wonderful gift of God to be richly enjoyed only in the context of the marriage of one man and one woman. By simply following the desires of our bodies we can express our sexuality without even realizing that men and men, or women and women, are not made to go together sexually, and we can go about our sexual practices with absolutely no clue that this is against God’s created order (1:26-27).

But this is just part of a long list of distortions to bodily life that corrupt thinking leads to. At the end of the chapter Paul rattles off many examples—and he could have even listed more (1:28-31).

We human beings reject our creator, suppress the knowledge about him that is all around us in his creation, and as a result we have a corrupt mind. We disapprove of God, and gain a disapproved mind. We reject God, and gain a rejected mind. We don’t think straight about God, and we don’t think straight about ourselves either. Our inability to think clearly about life leads to chaotic, corrupt behaviour, and so chaotic and corrupt society. Our corrupt minds lead to corrupt bodies, as our distorted thinking leads to all kinds of distortion in our bodily life.

Now, sometimes, some of us, in our better moments, can actually realize something is wrong here. In Romans 7 Paul speaks of the moral Jew, or perhaps the moral person more generally. Here we have someone who actually knows in their mind the right thing to do, and yet keeps on seeing themselves doing the opposite in their bodily life. Here is someone of troubled mind, because their bodily life seems to contradict what their mind tells them is the right way to live (7:18b-23).

Well aware of this struggle between mind and body, Paul cries out:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:24).

Notice the strange and significant point that Paul’s cry shows us. What is needed to overcome this tension between mind and body is a whole new body. When faced with this struggle, in order for any change to occur, this “body of death” needs to be dealt with.

Without blinking an eye, Paul also goes straight to the solution. There is good news here, for “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25). Jesus Christ has brought the solution to our problem.

This leads us to our second point. When we come to Jesus Christ, our life changes so that it can be described as…

Not minding the body but minding the Spirit

Our verses here are Romans 8:5-8:

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. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Paul outlines two kinds of minds. It is sort of a before and after picture, although not exactly because both are always in tension until the future resurrection day.

So, one of the things that we can set our minds on is the flesh, where flesh refers to our mortal body (some Bibles prefer “the sinful nature”, but this is not the best translation).

In the ancient Greek world, the body was regarded as a bad thing, an encumbrance to the soul, a ‘prison house’ for the soul. The body (which was bad) kept the soul (which was good) locked up for a lifetime. It dragged the soul down; it stopped us being the kind of people we were supposed to be and that, deep, deep down, we wanted to be. But that is not the New Testament view.

The trouble with the body is obvious to everyone. It is wasting away. Some of the ancient Greeks said, “the body is fit only for the manure pile”. It is full of illness. It is weak and fragile; it has the stench of death about it all our days. How can real life, the soul, possibly be related to the body? Why would you know yourself by knowing the body? But that is exactly what the New Testament would say we have to do.

The body is mortal. It dies. That is what Paul means by “the flesh”. It is subject to the “law of sin and death” (8:2). It is “this body of death” (7:24 cf. 6:12). The mind set on the flesh is a mind set on this mortal body.

This is the mind that lives for the desires of the body, as if life is all about this world bounded by birth and the grave. It is all about what we eat, drink and wear. It is about our bodily sensations and desires. To live for the desires of the body like this actually means we are controlled by sin (6:12).

The mind set on the body is the way to a corrupt lifestyle, and corrupt patterns of behaviour, corrupt actions. In other words, here is another way of seeing how a corrupt mind leads to a corrupt body. Or, to be more precise, this helps us to see why a corrupt mind leads to a corrupt body: because the corrupt mind is set on the things of the flesh, it operates as if what we can see all around us in this world, is all that there is to think about. Life is confined to the brief timespan between the day of our birth, whenever that was, and the day of our death, whenever that will be.

Notice also what is said here about this mind:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh… For to set the mind on the flesh is death… 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. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:5a, 6a, 7-8)

There is no future in this kind of mind. This is life controlled by “the law of sin and death”; it is plummeting towards the grave, death without redemption!

But here is the news of victory! When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, his resurrection brought a new perspective on life, through bringing us a new mind. Those who are justified and forgiven by putting their faith in Jesus Christ have a new mind—a new direction and focus that reaches beyond the grave—and so a new way of living that is true life indeed.

Consider the second half of the verses quoted above:

But those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit… But to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace… You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (8:5b, 6b, 9-11)

The life of the Spirit is the life of resurrection. The Spirit raised Jesus Christ from the dead (cf. 1:4), and those who belong to Jesus Christ now have that same Spirit of resurrection already at work in us, dragging us forward to the resurrection day (8:11).

When Paul talks about ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’, he is not talking about two different parts of a human being. Some of the Greek philosophers of his day operated with this kind of dualism, and some of the early Christians did too, which interfered with the way they got on with each other (see Corinthians!).

No, Paul is not setting up a stall at a New Age ‘Mind Body Spirit’ festival in some kind of celebration of the human being, saying one mind thinks about the body while the other mind thinks about the human spirit and all the things supposedly attached to this ‘higher’ part of life (as if the body things were the ‘lower’ part of life). Instead, here it is our body but the Spirit is the Spirit of God. Our body is mortal, dying, the body of death from which we need to be delivered; the Spirit of God is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead—exactly what our death-problem needs!

Note again verse 11:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom 8:11)

The Spirit is the spirit of resurrection from the dead. So, Romans 7:24 is the cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”, and 7:25a is the victory: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”, therefore Romans 8:11 is the means to that victory, while Romans 8:23 is the result of the victory: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”.

There it is, our own resurrection from the dead, our own renewal and renovation of our body, alive again from the dead. That is the Christian hope. That is what the Spirit is taking us towards. To remember and dwell on and shape our life by that future is to operate with ‘the mind set on the Spirit’, Paul’s second kind of mind.

The mind set on the flesh/body is the mind dominated by the desires of this mortal body, which is destined for the grave. The mind set on the Spirit is the mind dominated by where the Spirit of God is taking us to, dominated by the hope of resurrection from the dead, not our bodies being done away with but our bodies being redeemed on the great resurrection day still to come in the future.

Those set free by the Lord Jesus Christ no longer live minding the mortal body and its deathly desires, as if that is all life is about. Instead they live minding the Spirit, hoping for the resurrection day, longing for the redemption of the body, groaning with the Spirit towards that day. And here is a great surprise: once our corrupt mind led to corrupt lives (1:28); but as we groan towards that day, so we are being conformed to the will of God (8:27), and there is no corruption there!

This leads us to our next point.

Renewing the mind; renewing the body

The next use of the language of mind in Romans is in 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Look at what Paul urges the Romans to do. Once we know the wonderful mercy of God found only in the Lord Jesus Christ, life begins to change. The mercies of God are the motivation to change, but, even more, in the end it is God’s mercy that actually works the change in us. The Spirit of resurrection is at work in us to bring about this change (8:11). In the midst of our bodily life we are now moved by the Spirit of God, and he is the Spirit of resurrection. In God’s incredible mercy, we are no longer destined to rot in the grave but will rise again to new life with new bodies on that glorious resurrection day. That is our future! That’s what the Spirit tells us deep within. That’s the destination to which he will inevitably bring us. There is nothing that will stop him getting us there! Nothing in heaven or in earth (8:31-39).
That ought to change us. That will change us. There are two sides to this change.

a. Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, which is your spiritual worship (12:1)

All of bodily life now becomes the place where you worship God. Not in temples, or churches, or holy places; not in religious services, or particular religious activities, or pious practices. Worship happens anywhere and everywhere that your body happens to be. And that is a lot of places! You are worshipping God wherever you are. The holy place where true worship can be offered, and must be offered, is now your bodily life. Your body will rise again from the dead, so live the resurrection life even now (Rom 6:11-12).

b. “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:2a)

As we set our minds on the Spirit, as we long for the day of resurrection, as we groan towards the day of our bodily redemption, our minds are renewed, and so in the here and now our bodily life is transformed to be the arena of true worship. So renew your mind!

Look at the results of this renewal of the mind and body: “that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2b). Here is that same word again that we saw in 1:28. Remember, the rejection of God led to a rejected mind; the disapproval of God led to a disapproved mind. And that disapproved mind led to a corrupt bodily life. But now, the mind renewed by God’s mercies, the mind set on the Spirit of resurrection, leads to the approval of God’s will.

Know yourself, mind and body

The Ancient Greek slogan said that you can’t live properly unless you “know yourself”. Many contemporary philosophies and psychologies would say this is exactly right: true and proper life only arises if you can know yourself.

But sometimes those ancient and modern philosophies put more stock on the mind than the body, the soul rather than the flesh. Sometimes they diminished and despised bodily life, and saw that that was incapable of renovation—all we could hope for is the release from the body into the higher life of the soul, and often it therefore didn’t really matter what you did with your body at all. After all, it was destined for the manure pile.

The gospel of Jesus Christ would agree with the slogan, know yourself. But you can only know yourself by coming to know your God, through being embraced by his mercies in the Lord Jesus Christ. And once you know yourself by knowing your God, you know both your mind and your body.

Firstly we are aware of the negative side. Our bodies are mortal, dying, and so they are drawing us to obey their desires as if that is all there is to life. But this leads us to sin and to corruption. Our rejection of God leads to a corrupt mind and a corrupt body. The mind set on the flesh will not, cannot please God, and it only results in destruction of life now and death and judgement tomorrow.

This negative side of life leads to the lament: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

But the positive side comes in the very next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And then, thankfully and joyfully, there is another so much more positive side to knowing our body and our mind. Jesus Christ promises us resurrection from the dead and redemption of our bodies, and already the Spirit of resurrection is at work within us, bringing about the life of resurrection in the here and now. The mind set on the Spirit, groaning towards the resurrection day, is life and peace. Our bodily life is transformed, as our mind is renewed, so that, finally and at last and for the very first time, we can approve the things of God’s will, and life is lived just the way it was meant to be, as we await the glorious day of resurrection.

By the renewing of your mind, transform your body.

By the transforming of your body, renew your mind.

Know yourself, mind and body, by knowing God, the God who has poured out his mercies so generously for us in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our merciful God raised Jesus from the dead and he promises to also give life to our mortal bodies. That is what our minds ought to be fixed upon.

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References   [ + ]

1. This is one of the maxims inscribed in the forecourt of the temple to Apollo at Delphi (Pausanias 10.24.1). The maxim was particularly important to Socrates, according to Plato, who discusses it in six of his dialogues. It is also found in Aeschylus, Xenophon and Aristophanes. In a famous example from Christian theology, Calvin’s Institutes is structured around knowing God and knowing yourself.
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