Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Mindful Faith

Too often, we regard faith as a sort of hazy, misty abstraction rather than a practical discipline. In a previous essay, “A Faith-Full Mind,” we explored scripture to seek a less abstract conceptualization of faith. We worked through how faith saves and what it means to live and walk by faith. In this essay, we’ll dig deeper into these concepts, with an emphasis on practical application.
In “A Faith-Full Mind,” a central theme that emerged was the role of the mind. Not only is faith a belief, but it is also a state of mental focus. When we speak of mental focus, you may be reminded of the concept of “mindfulness.”  In many conservative Christian circles there is a discomfort with practices such as mindfulness because they are often associated with traditions like Buddhism and other explicitly non-Christian religious and spiritual activities. But at its core, mindfulness is simply a psychological practice of mental focus. Most mindfulness practices direct that focus on the present moment, often through directing attention to the physical senses. This often is paired with a more passive awareness of mental phenomena, such as thoughts or emotions; a classic approach invites the subject to imagine their thoughts and emotions passing as clouds in the sky (as opposed to actively engaging them, making judgments about them, or attempting to change them). Mindfulness—along with related practices such as meditation, breathing-based relaxation, and self-hypnosis—is associated with a number of mental and physical health benefits, particularly in the realm of stress reduction. In a neurocognitive sense what is occurring in these techniques is that we are taking advantage of the fact that the brain can only truly focus on one thing at a time (multi-tasking is essentially rapidly shifting attention across competing stimuli), and the technique seeks to give the brain something that is at least neutral—and if possible relaxing and restorative—to focus on.
We were created with a capacity for focus, and when we are focused we function better mentally, emotionally, and physically. This truth is helpful to consider as we continue to explore practical applications of the biblical principle of living and walking by faith. Sometimes when we reflect on concepts such as faith, there is a tendency to overspiritualize. As we learned in the last essay, faith is our access point to spiritual and supernatural realities, but faith as an action occurs in our minds.  
Hebrews 12:2 directs us to keep our eyes on Jesus. But what eyes? What does that mean? Do we need to carry around a picture of Jesus and keep looking at it? (Actually, yes, sort of!) Consider the following scriptures:
  • Colossians 3:1-2: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” [emphasis added]
  • Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.” [emphasis added]
Harkening back to our discussion of mindfulness, the highlighted phrases certainly are calling us to exercise the mindfulness part of our brains in pursuit of spiritual realities. But how do we know what the “things above” and “pure, lovely” and “commendable” things are? Is it a gut feeling? This is where that “picture of Jesus” comes in.  

  • Psalm 119:11: “I have treasured your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."
  • Joshua 1:8: “This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to meditate on it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do.”
We create and can “look at” an internal picture of Jesus by reading, memorizing, and meditating on Scripture.
Another way to use the mind to walk by faith is prayer. 1 Thess 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you.” A few writers on spiritual disciplines have described the core of their practice as being a sort of ongoing prayer, a constant conversation with the Lord, which is dominated by proclamations of gratitude and thanksgiving, but in which every single thought is shared in an ongoing conversation with the Lord. A. W. Tozer has written in The Pursuit of God of turning one’s internal eyes toward Christ who lives within. He notes that God is omnipresent, he exists throughout every aspect of his creation, so failing to be aware of God’s presence isn’t an absence of God’s presence, it’s a choosing to not be aware of it, choosing to focus on something not-God.
So there is a mental discipline of filling our thoughts with God’s thoughts, as revealed in his word, and of engaging in an ongoing conversation with him through prayer. This is a moment-by-moment focusing of the mind, an intentional and recursive directing our attention to the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is our communication link to the Father and Son. It’s vital we remember that Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God and knowing Christ. We only know what they “look like” through his word. This is why other spiritual disciplines such as Bible study and hearing the word preached are so essential. If we’re “knowing” someone or something other than what comes directly from the pages of scripture, there’s a real danger that we’re worshiping a false god.
Most often this false god is some version of our own natural desires. As we saw when we reviewed Romans 7 in “A Faith-Full Mind,” those desires, that capacity for evil, are always right there with us. If we haven’t trained our minds to recognize the true God, we’ll find other gods within. Paul warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:8-12 of one such god. The desire to be rich is just one example of a common, human desire, one that is ubiquitous in our culture (and even our churches), but which can keep us from the ongoing, intimate relationship with God that he created and then saved us for. When we are turning our inward eyes to that which is within without training them to recognize God and his Christ, we will make gods of any number of natural desires, and will instead live according to what is right in our own eyes (Proverbs 21:2; Judges 17:6).
When we are grounded in God’s truth as revealed in his word, and we have believed what he says about us and our sin, have received by faith Christ’s replacement sacrifice on our behalf, we can now walk by faith. We do this by continuing to grow in wisdom and knowledge of God through his word and then continually, moment by moment, turning our mental focus toward him. This mental focus is the touchpoint at which the mundane becomes the spiritual. When we are focused inwardly on this portrait of Christ we’ve constructed from his word by meditating on memorized scripture, when we are praying without ceasing in an ongoing prayer characterized by gratitude and rejoicing, we are communing with him through the presence of his Holy Spirit living within us. This is walking by faith.
Our focus so far has been on obtaining a biblical picture of walking by faith and identifying the practical components of living in that way. But there is also the subjective aspect of this way of living. What follows are several images and metaphors for walking by faith. Some of them have been given to us in the pages of the Bible. One is consistent with biblical truth, but the allusion itself is not explicitly described in scripture. But all represent another dimension of how we can use the mental abilities God has given us to keep ourselves grounded in communion with him.
When I practice breathing-based relaxation, I find that as I sit still and quiet and begin to execute the mechanics of regulating my autonomic arousal, my mind often decides it’s time to start wandering around looking for trouble (worrying, making plans, etc.). Needless to say, if my mind is not engaged in the technique, I’m not going to get particularly relaxed. So, my brain needs some sort of hook to pull it back when it wanders. That can be as simple as returning my focus to the mechanics of the technique, for example paying special attention to the air coming in through my nose and filling up my lungs. But I find if I give myself something more involved and more salient, such as a mental scene which taps into all of my senses, my attention is held even more strongly, and I achieve a much deeper relaxation response.
In the same way, the following metaphors have helped me not only conceptualize what it looks and feels like to walk by faith, but they also give my mind rich and salient images upon which to reflect, better holding my attention on the things of God. These metaphors also help to illustrate the subjective, emotional aspects of walking by faith, what walking by faith may feel like (or at least what it has felt like in my experience).
Abiding. In John 15:4-5, Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” When I’m walking in faith, I feel connected to Christ, just like the branch he describes. The only effort is just to keep the end of my branch, the root of my branch, attached—mentally and spiritually—to Christ. As I remain connected to him, things are happening through me that are essentially effortless. For example, resisting temptation is much simpler. Rather than fighting off the temptation directly, I turn my whole inner being toward Christ, because the mind focused on Christ and his Spirit does not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). Similarly, I don’t have to try to synthesize joy; the joy flows from Christ’s trunk to my branch if I’m connected to him, abiding in him, mentally and emotionally focused on and engaged with him. The effort is put into remaining focused on him, everything else flows out of that.
Light. 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8: “For you are all children of light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or the darkness. So then, let us not sleep, like the rest, but let us stay awake and be self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled and put on the armor of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation.” When I’m walking by faith, there is a heightened awareness of spiritual darkness and spiritual light. For me, it feels kind of like that scene in “The Matrix” when Neo suddenly can see through the system, and instead of the images of people and objects and space, he sees the source code, strings of binary everywhere. Emotionally, it’s very powerful. For one thing, there is no sense of fear (I mean, I’m already dead [Galatians 2:20], so what can anything in the world do to me?). For another, the people and problems we face every day become transparent and their temporariness is apparent. There is a heightened sense of the eternal. The person or problem in front of me is seen in the light of their eternal worth before God, and I become much more attuned to opportunities to bear eternal fruit.
Flow. There’s also a sense of flow in walking by faith. Jesus once stood up in church and yelled, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” John goes on to add, “He said this about the Spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were going to receive the Spirit.” (John 7:37-39) When I’m walking in faith, there is a flow. I often think of the Christian life as a stream. Saving faith gets you into the water. The stream has a current that pulls you supernaturally toward God and his righteousness. The current is slowest near the banks and grows stronger as you move toward the center. The world and the old self are represented by the banks. I can be in the stream (that is, have received salvation by faith), but be stuck in the shallow, slow water by the bank. This is most often because I am clinging to things on or from the bank, like branches hanging over the water, desires which tempt me back toward the things of the world. But when I let go of those things, I move, and the more I let go of—the less I am clinging to the desires of the flesh or the cares of this temporary world—the more I am drawn toward the center, where the current is the strongest.
Only the new self can exist in the center of the stream. As the current begins to pull me more and more toward the center, the more I become aware of the things I am clinging to of my old self. The only way to continue toward the center of the stream is to keep letting go of everything, literally every desire that is not for God and his righteousness. Just as we saw in Romans 7, evil desires are always around, hanging over the stream like branches from the shore, reminding me of what I am leaving behind. In my walk as a follower of Christ, while I’ve experienced the center current of the stream, I don’t spend as much time there as I’d like. Sometimes I get distracted by and grab hold of a branch from the shore; sometimes I get lost wallowing in the muddy shallows of the bank. But when I’m in the center of the stream, God is continually showing me new currents which can pull me even closer to him. These new currents require letting go of more desires, usually smaller and smaller desires, things that when I was on the banks, or even in the shallow water, I wouldn’t have even recognized as sinful.
Moving toward the center of the flow is simple, as the main action required is simply letting go of things from the shore and turning toward God at the center of the stream, replacing desires for worldly things with thoughts and desires for God and his righteousness. But it’s also very painful at times, because those desires are part of me, and leaving them behind hurts. Often when God is actively drawing me more toward the center of the stream, it comes with significant emotional pain. In my experience, putting to death the desires of the flesh feels as vivid as it sounds, a sort of emotional surgery in which I have tumorous growths cut out of my skin and bones without any anesthesia. But at the end of the pain is a very real—and very freeing—sense of having truly died, that literally the only life I have is the one I have by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me.
2 Corinthians 5:5-9 “So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. Therefore, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to be pleasing to him.”
There is a saving faith in which salvation is received as we agree with God about our sinful state, confess our need for a salvation that only he can provide, and believe in our heart and mind and words (Romans 10:9-10) that Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf cleanses us from all our unrighteousness. But faith is also a living, moment-by-moment experience of turning our inward eyes toward God, by praying continually and reading and memorizing and meditating on God’s word, so that his thoughts replace our thoughts in a continual renewing of the mind. The byproduct of this is the fruit of the Spirit; we know we’re not walking in the Spirit when our focus is on satisfying our human desires.
I hope these thoughts have been helpful. I pray for you, dear reader, this prayer that Paul prayed for the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:16-19): “I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”