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Controlling Our Thoughts

We choose what we think about.

Sometimes we behave as though we are victims of our thoughts. Our minds are filled to the bursting point with news and stories and problems and worries and troubles and fears and responsibilities and cares and regrets and tidbits of information. We feel as though this is happening to us—we are the bullseye in the dart board of life and the entire world is taking aim directly at us and our brains. We are fixed, inert, helpless to do anything but take the shots.

But friends, God has told us a different story. He designed us, and made us, and loves us. Be encouraged—He has given us the ability to control our thoughts and not let our thoughts control us!

How do I know that? Philippians 4:8 tells us what to think about. Paul gives a list (and we will go over that list in a moment.) But here’s what I want you to see first: at the end of this list he says, “Dwell on these things.” An alternate translation is, “Ponder these things.” “Ponder” means to think deeply and carefully about something. One dictionary defines it this way: “1.To consider something deeply and thoroughly; meditate (often followed by over or upon). 2.To weigh carefully in the mind; consider thoughtfully.”1 By commanding us to dwell on or ponder these things Paul makes it clear that we are responsible to choose what we think about.

We are responsible to discipline our minds to think about specific things.

Here they are:

  • Whatever is true
  • Whatever is honorable
  • Whatever is right
  • Whatever is pure
  • Whatever is lovely
  • Whatever is of good repute
  • If there is any excellence
  • Anything worthy of praise

What a list! Are those the things we are choosing to think about deeply and carefully throughout every day?

Or is the following our default list?

  • Whatever is false (This includes worries, fears, and thinking we know what others are thinking, assuming thoughts are in someone else’s mind. These are usually not true, because they haven’t actually happened.)
  • Whatever is dishonorable
  • Whatever is wrong (in the world and in my world)
  • Whatever is dirty
  • Whatever is ugly
  • Whatever has a bad reputation
  • If there is anything messed up
  • Anything worthy of complaint

Take a minute and evaluate your habitual thoughts over the past several days. How did you do? Which list most accurately describes most of your thinking?

Does this mean that to think rightly I have to put on rose-colored glasses and pretend life is always beautiful and wonderful and problems don’t exist? Clearly, that is not what Paul is suggesting. Life in this fallen world is filled with lies, ugliness, and bad news.

How do we navigate? How do we think this radically in a broken world?

We “gird up the loins of our minds” (I Peter 1:13). That’s not exactly a phrase we use every day! Here again an alternate translation helps us see this truth more clearly: “Prepare your minds for action." “Girding up your loins” is a metaphor that we are to apply to our thought processes. In ancient times men wore loose-fitting tunics that they had to tuck into their belt to be free to fight or run without becoming tangled in the loose material. It means "to pull in all the loose ends of one’s thinking by rejecting the hindrances of the world and focusing on the…grace of God.”2 In other words, we are to strengthen ourselves by taking control of our thoughts and choosing to think about what God has said instead of what our circumstances “say.”

How do we do this? What are some practical ways that we can choose what we think about? Here are some suggestions:

  • Begin your day by focusing on God and His Word. Even if you choose to have most of your Bible study at another point in the day, begin your day in praise, prayer, worship, and thinking about God’s truth.
  • Choose a verse, a biblical phrase, or even a word for that day that you will intentionally bring your mind back to throughout the day. Biblically informed hymn lyrics are also good. Some I have chosen recently are:
  • "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” (1Thessalonians 5:16-18).
  • "God’s glory is His goodness” (from Exodus 33:18-19).
  • “I will bless the Lord at all times” (Psalm 34:1).
  • “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” (from “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”).
  • “No good thing does He withhold from him who walks uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
  • Use your drive time to listen to Scripture or to sing and meditate on hymns and worship songs.
  • Preach to yourself! Take everything you know that is true about God and His Word and apply that truth directly to your specific thoughts and circumstances. Here are two examples of what that might look like:
  • When you face a trial or get difficult news, develop the habit of running to your Heavenly Father first and preaching to yourself His truth: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2).
  • When you are tempted to be overwhelmed by troubles, bad news, or temptation actively remind yourself: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as it common to man, and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13).
  • Closely monitor what you listen to, watch, and read. Do you really need that much news? Is using that app or scrolling through that feed really helping you live out God’s priorities for your day? Is the time you’re spending truly helping you love God and love others, and filling your mind with truth and beauty?
  • Make every day a scavenger hunt, looking for the lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy all around you. Yes, our world is fallen and marred, but we still have amazing reflections of God’s goodness, wisdom, creativity, and power everywhere we look. Creation in all its majesty and intricate detail proclaims the goodness and power of God. Also look for what is praiseworthy in people. The reflection of the image of God can still be seen in so many ways. And because God created man with the ability to also create, there is much that is true, honorable, right, and lovely in music, literature, architecture, and art. Open your eyes and focus your thoughts on these gifts!

As we diligently discipline ourselves to think like this, God changes us. Instead of being fretful, easily led astray, filled with worries and anxieties, we are, instead, filled with truth, wisdom, gratitude, and praise. Psalm 1 is another a passage that calls the believer to guard who he follows and what he thinks about. It speaks specifically of the blessings on the person who delights and meditates in the truth of God’s Word. He’s stable, fruitful, and productive. In his commentary of Psalm 1 Derek Kidner makes an observation that underscores the importance of our thinking: “Whatever really shapes a man’s thinking shapes his life.” 3

We choose what we think about. Let’s choose well.


Notes

  1. “Ponder”, Dictionary.com, last modified 2020, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/ponder?s=t
  2. John MacArthur, “Notes on I Peter 1:13”, MacArthur Study Bible, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Bibles, 2006)
  3. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, (Westmont, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014)