In this article I want to share a life-changing principle from the story of the prodigal son in Luke chapter fifteen. Most of us are familiar with the plot: a wealthy landowner with two sons — the elder or firstborn son, dutiful and resentful, and the younger son, independent and unrestrained.
One day the younger son approached his father and requested his share of the estate. Under Jewish Law, an inheritance was allocated to a son on the occasion of his father’s death. A father had the prerogative to abdicate his wealth prior to his death, but this was the exception rather than the rule. However, what made this son’s behaviour particularly outrageous was the fact that he demanded an early settlement contrary to his father’s wishes, something unheard of in Jewish society. Such arrogance! Such presumption!
Leaving the family farm with a bagful of money, the younger son was probably singing “I did it my way”. Self-willed and rebellious, he probably felt that whatever his father could do, he could do better. “To heck with the constraints and the boundaries; I’m off to make my own way in the world!”
For a short while life seemed to be a merry-go-round of perpetual indulgence. Everything he wanted to have, he had; everything he wanted to do, he did. But inevitably, the money ran out and so did his friends. In desperation, the young man went to work for a Gentile farmer who raised pigs. In so doing, his immorality and apostasy reached full circle. Not only was he in servitude to an uncircumcised heathen, now he was tending ‘unclean’ animals that were prohibited under Jewish Law.
The key phrase of this sorry saga is found in verse seventeen: “When he came to himself…” James Moffatt puts it this way: “When he came to his senses…” The Expositor’s Greek Testament says “Realising the situation; or, coming to his true self, his sane mind…” Marvin Vincent says that the phrase represents “the beginning of repentance as the return of a sound consciousness.”
This was a defining moment, a turning point in the young man’s life and career. Moreover, the radical change in the young man’s thinking became a springboard for decisive action: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.’”
A wise man once said to me, “Your thoughts and your attitudes got you into this mess; persisting with the same thoughts and attitudes won’t get you out of it!” We need to understand that every turnaround in life begins with a turnaround in psychology — a change in our thoughts and attitudes. And taking responsibility for those thoughts and attitudes is the beginning of the long journey home to ‘father’s house’.
At the beginning of the story we see a young man preparing to leave his father’s house and impetuously demanding, “Give me.” At the end of the story we see a very different young man returning to his father’s house and humbly asking, “Make me.” Quite a contrast, wouldn’t you say? Somewhere along the line this young man’s worldview had been turned upside down; a paradigm shift had taken place in his thinking, completely transforming his attitude and behaviour.
The Holy Spirit can change your mind
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul urged the believers in the imperial city not to be conformed to the world around them but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (12.2). The Amplified Bible puts it this way: “But be ye transformed (changed) by the [entire] renewal of your mind — by its new ideals and its new attitude.” Paul called for a new way of thinking and acting on the part of Christians in the face of a system that was trying to squeeze them into its own mould.
However, Paul makes it clear that the renewal of our minds is not something we can accomplish in our own strength. Writing to his spiritual son, Titus, he acknowledged the Holy Spirit as the agent of renewal and transformation:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour. (Titus 3.5-6)
Moreover, in 2 Corinthians 3.18 Paul identified the Holy Spirit as the source of and the catalyst for personal transformation: “We are transfigured in every-increasing splendour into his own image, and the transformation comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (J. B. Phillips).
The good news is that the Holy Spirit can change your mind! He can make your thoughts conform to God’s will and purpose. Paul alluded to this process in his letter to the Ephesians: “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of His calling …” (Eph 1.17-18).
“The eyes of your understanding being enlightened” is another way of describing the renewal of the mind. Interestingly, the Greek word dianoia, translated as ‘understanding’ in the above quoted passage, and elsewhere as ‘mind’, does not suggest a frivolous change of preference (“I used to like strawberry ice-cream, but now I fancy vanilla”), but rather, a deep understanding or insight gained through meditative contemplation. The word literally means ‘to think through’. In other words, it denotes the process of thinking, evaluating, and deciding, which incidentally, is the way a belief is formed.
This was the kind of enlightenment or renewal that took place in the mind of the prodigal son as he worked on the pig farm. Eventually he came to his senses and asked himself, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Where have I come from? Where am I going? What do I need to do to turn my life around?” The answers to these questions set him on the road back to his father’s house and the fulfilment of his destiny.
The Parakletos, the Holy Spirit, that great advocate, counsellor, intercessor, and helper (John 14.16), has a habit of ‘coming alongside us’ in our darkest hours, at the point of our deepest needs, and asking questions that stimulate us to ‘think through’ our circumstances. Addressing Adam and Eve as they hid in the garden, he said, “Where are you?” and “What have you done?” (Gen 3.9,13). Addressing Moses as he contemplated rejection and defeat, he said, “What is in your hand?” (Ex 4.2).
Addressing Elijah as he hid in a cave from Jezebel, he said, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19.9). Addressing an impoverished widow, he said, “What do you have in your house?” (2 Kings 4.2). Addressing Jeremiah as he baulked at the improbability of his prophetic mission, he said, “What do you see?” (Jer 1.11). Addressing the distracted and discouraged remnant of Israel, he said, “Consider your ways” or, as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, “Reflect carefully how things have gone for you.” (Hag 1.5).
Reconciled to God in our thinking
In his second letter to the church at Corinth (some say his fourth), Paul explained one of the key tenets of the gospel — the doctrine of reconciliation. He described how a righteous God reconciled sinful humanity to himself through Christ’s sacrificial and substitutionary death (2 Cor 5.18-21). The word ‘reconcile’ means to remove an enmity and to restore a relationship that has been broken or disrupted, in this case, by sin. Christ, of course, accomplished this through the cross, insofar as he “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9.26).
However, in an extraordinary turn of phrase, Paul implored the Christian believers at Corinth to be reconciled to God and not to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 5.20; 6.1). It would appear that whilst the Corinthian Christians were reconciled to God in terms of their spiritual position (that is, they were justified by faith), they were not reconciled to God in their thinking and behaviour.
A careful appraisal of Paul’s two extant letters indicates that the Corinthian Christians were still thinking and acting like the world around them. In Paul’s words, they were “worldly-minded and behaving like the unconverted” (1 Cor 3.3 Berkeley Version). They were sectarian, litigious, immoral, greedy, and arrogant. Yet at the same time Paul acknowledged that they were not lacking in any spiritual gift (1 Cor 1.7). Quite the contradiction!
In the famous ‘spiritual warfare’ passage of Second Corinthians chapter ten, Paul wrote about weapons that are divinely powerful and are able to demolish strongholds. This has given rise to what I call ‘Star Wars Christianity’ — fantastic notions of so-called ‘prayer warfare’ in which Christians scale the ‘high places’ of cities and nations to do battle with the powers of darkness.
However, the ‘strongholds’ to which Paul referred had nothing to do with the most obvious physical presence in the city — the Acrocorinthus, a 2000 foot high monolithic rock, home to the world famous temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of licentious love. (There is no evidence whatsoever that the Christians of Corinth ever held a ‘Jericho march’ around the Acrocorinthus or waged spiritual warfare on its lofty peaks). The ‘strongholds’ that Paul was contending with were the arrogant ideas and rebellious attitudes of the Christians themselves!
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. (2 Cor 10.4-6)
Vincent notes that the Greek word hupsoma, translated ‘high thing’, is used in the Septuagint and Apocrypha to denote mental elevation; for example, in Job 24.24 where the Septuagint reads “his haughtiness hath harmed many.” In other words, Paul is addressing the issue of high-mindedness — a way of thinking and acting that is contrary to God’s will and purpose (see Psalm 2). Thus reconciliation, in this context, connotes spiritual surrender — a humbling of ones’ self in the sight of God in order to come into alignment with his revealed truth, which in essence, constitutes the definition of righteousness.
The bridge between the old and the new
In a similar vein, Paul urged the Christians at Ephesus to change their behaviour and to live lives worthy of the calling that had been issued to them in Christ.
That you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4.22-24)
The ‘old man’ refers to sinful human nature with its propensity to disobedience. The ‘new man’ refers to regenerate human nature with its capacity for God-likeness. However, between the act of putting off the old and the act of putting on the new, there is a process called ‘the renewal of the mind’. The word ‘and’ is de, a particle which indicates that the process is both transitional and continuative.
The renewal of the mind is thus depicted as a means of transition, an instrument of conveyance, a ‘bridge’ if you will, from our old life in the world to our new life in Christ, or to put it another way, the key to personal transformation and the catalyst to spiritual growth.
Behavioural scientists have only just discovered what the Bible knew all along: that we become what we think about most of the time; that where our thoughts go, there our lives go also. Jesus warned the scribes and Pharisees not to view people as the product of their environment, but rather, as the creators of their life experience: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man … But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts …” (Matt 15.11,18-19).
Like the prodigal son, you can choose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and change your mind. And in so doing, you might just change your life!