GIGO theory: Conclusion

(I’ve been critiquing what I call the “GIGO theory”.)

First, let’s review. 

Jesus said:

Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? … That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. (Mark 7:17-18)

In other words, sin doesn’t just come from out there somewhere; it arises within our own hearts.

I said:

It is possible to use the GIGO doctrine to commit the same error … It is spiritually dangerous precisely to the extent that it is coupled with the false hope that we will be able to control all our sin by filtering out outside influences carefully enough.

So let’s get practical.

What difference does it really make whether we believe the GIGO model or the alternative that I’ve suggested?

We’ll start with one thing both views have in common.

1. Viewing pornography is wrong under both models.

The question is, why is it wrong?

Reason #1: modesty. The Old Testament treats being seen naked by anyone other than a spouse as a shameful thing, and warns people against shaming others by viewing them naked. Even though the people in pornographic pictures or movies are participating voluntarily, it probably still violates their modesty in some way.

Reason #2: Although external things cannot contaminate us with sin, they can certainly tempt us to sin. We should not expose ourselves to things that will draw us away from God.

Why will pornography tempt us to sin? Under the GIGO model, it’s because it is filled with images that will contaminate our minds. Under my view, it is because pornography stirs up lust that is already lying dormant within our hearts. That’s a small but important distinction.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

One consequence of this is …

2. We should avoid whatever makes us stumble.

How should we decide when it is OK to, say, watch a certain movie? There are two important questions we might ask. One is whether the movie meets some objective standard of being acceptably holy. A really important consequence of my view is that we should also ask whether it makes us stumble.

That is something that can vary from person to person. Sometimes there will be a movie or TV show that is relatively harmless for everyone else but bad for me. If so, then I should avoid it — not because I am afraid of garbage getting into my mind, but because there is something already wrong in me that the movie will stir up. It’s not a matter of figuring out which things are on some universal list of forbidden things; it’s a matter of knowing myself and my own weaknesses well enough to keep clear of anything that will draw me away from God.

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:29-30.

Doing this will require honesty and humility.

Some teachers of the GIGO model would agree with this point. The next is where we begin to part company.

3. We should not judge others by the things they expose themselves to. 

If you were to use profane language or commit adultery or engage in occult practices, you would be sinning. But what if you simply watch a movie in which one of the characters uses profane language or commits adultery or engages in occult practices? Suppose that you are not any more tempted to do these things after watching than you were before. Can I conclude that it is sin for you to watch the movie? Is it spiritual compromise in some way?

On the GIGO model, the answer is yes. We ask: are these things holy, or unholy? Is it good or bad to swear? To commit adultery? To dabble in the occult? Clearly, unholy. They are spiritual garbage, and you shouldn’t let them into your mind. Engaging in witchcraft is wrong, and therefore so is watching a movie about someone else engaged in witchcraft.

Under the alternative approach, I ask: will this make you stumble or not? Will it hurt your relationship with God for some practical reason? And that’s a question I cannot answer for you. Perhaps watching that movie filled with swearing is spiritual compromise for you. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps reading that book about people who have affairs will tempt you to excuse sin in your own life. Perhaps it will not. It all depends on what it leads to in your own thoughts and actions.

In the meantime, if you claim that watching ___ doesn’t affect you, I should believe you until the evidence proves otherwise, because I don’t know your heart. (If the evidence does prove otherwise, I think I have a right to point that out to you.)

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Romans 14:4.

4. We are not computers.

GIGO means “garbage in, garbage out” and refers originally to computers. If you feed a computer the wrong input, it will produce wrong output. It will do this because that’s what it is programmed to do. It will never stop halfway through the input and say, “Hold one a minute – this doesn’t make sense. I think there’s something wrong with my data here.” Its programming won’t allow it to.

Our natural impulses may be programmed into us, but we have the freedom to follow those impulses or not. For us it is not about right or wrong input, it’s about deception and faith and rebellion and surrender.

We should maintain a focus on the sin in us instead of the sin out there. This will keep us humbler. Equally importantly, it gives us hope and practical advice when we are harassed by images we wish we’d never seen …

5. When we are spiritually troubled by images or ideas we have been exposed to, we can fight back by looking inside.

The GIGO model implies that to overcome troubling images that I have already let into my mind I should try as hard as I can to not think about them.

My alternative suggestion leads to a very different strategy. As I see it, those images are troubling me because something in me is responding to them. Some part of me believes the lies they tell. What I need to do to fight back isn’t to forget them; it’s to search my heart to find out what I need to repent of. Why do I find myself agreeing with what I’ve seen? What truth do I need to surrender to?

Notice how neatly this response meshes with each of the passages with which we began the series.

Proverbs 23:7 For as he thinks within himself, so he is.

That is: if you are troubled by images and thoughts you don’t want to have, consider that it is what you are (meaning your present character, not your identity in Christ) that affects what you think. What is it about your present desires, values, and beliefs that is driving your thoughts? Only by changing your heart can you make long-term progress in changing how you think.

Romans 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

That is: when the world presses you from the outside with all its pernicious influences, resist by changing who you are inside.  Note that it does not say to renew your thoughts (what you think about) but your mind (how you think).

 2 Corinthians 2:5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ …

That is: overcoming disturbing thoughts is not a matter of filtering out content but of dismantling fortresses. We have to do the hard work of dismantling false worldviews and off-kilter value systems brick by brick.

Philippians 4:8-9 Finally, brethren, 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 and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

That is: rather than trying to build a pristine environment which contains nothing offensive, we need to learn to hunt for something worth dwelling on in every situation. It’s not so important whether I encountered something sinful in that book I read. It’s very important whether I connected with it. It’s not what was in the book but how I responded to it that makes the most difference.

That officially concludes my GIGO series. Thanks for staying tuned in!


There is one thing I never addressed, and that is a collection of Scriptures that, in my opinion, provides the strongest possible support for the GIGO doctrine. The central passage in that collection is Psalm 101. I believe it is best interpreted as being about  peer pressure; i.e., about guarding ourselves against destructive relationships rather than against destructive statements or images. I may cover these passages soon, but not as part of this series.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3     Part 4    Part 5    Part 6     Part 7    Part 8

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GIGO theory: Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23

(This is part of the GIGO series.)

OK, let’s take a careful look at Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23.

A map of the two passages

We’ll start by walking through the passages to see the basic structure.

I’m using the New American Standard Version, but I’ve added some paragraph breaks of my own to make the structure more visually obvious. If a word is in italics, it does not mean it should be emphasized. It means that rather than being a direct translation from an equivalent Greek word, it has been supplied by the translator in order to make the whole phrase more understandable.

Even though I usually I just quote fragments of the section I am talking about, I have left the references in so that you can roll over them to see the complete passages if you want.

1. Background knowledge

Mark begins by giving us some important background information.

“… some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders …”

See Mark 7:1-4.

2. The Pharisees bring an accusation against Jesus’ disciples.

 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

See Matthew 15:1-2 and Mark 7:5

 3. Jesus tells the Pharisees they are hypocrites.

Jesus makes two points. They are listed in one order in Matthew and in the opposite order in Mark.

For one thing, he accuses them of considering their traditions more important than the Law from which those very traditions were derived. He gives a specific example about honoring one’s father and mother, and concludes:

“And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

See Matthew 15:3-7 and Mark 7:6-8.

In addition, he calls them hypocrites.

“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

See Matthew 15:8-9 and Mark 7:9-13.

In Mark, the whole passage is summarized again with these words:

 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

See Mark 7:13.

Notice the significance of the contrast between the Law and the traditions of the elders.

4. Jesus tells the crowd a parable.

After talking to the Pharisees, Jesus tells the crowd a parable to help them understand what is going on. We’ll talk about the parable a lot later, but for now I just note that Jesus tells it.

 “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

See Matthew 15:10-11 and Mark 7:14-16.

5. The Pharisees are offended.

Matthew (whose book focuses especially strongly on the bad relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees) adds one more saying of Jesus accusing the Pharisees of spiritual bankruptcy.

Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?”

But He answered and said … “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”

See Matthew 15:12-14.

6. Jesus explains the parable.

Here is Mark’s version.

And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?”

(Thus He declared all foods clean.)

And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.

All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

(Mark 7:17-23.  See also Matthew 15:15-20.)

The status of the Old Testament law

Jewish believers were required to follow the Old Testament law in every detail. Christians are not. Yet the law is part of the Christian Scriptures. So what is the exact relationship between Christians and the Old Testament law? The story recorded in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 is relevant to that question, which is almost certainly one of the reasons Matthew and Mark both chose to include the account in their gospels.

In the epistles, Paul emphasizes that through the death of Christ we have been set free from the Law. We are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). That’s a really important doctrine, and one I feel strongly about, but it isn’t the focus in this passage, so let me set it aside for now.

What does come into play in this passage, and what is often the focus in the gospels, is that during his earthly ministry, Jesus implied that He had the authority to be our new “Law-giver”. He claimed to have all the authority necessary to add to, interpret, or perhaps even modify the Law.

I say “perhaps” because one might argue that Jesus never modified the Law (Matthew 5:17-18). Yet He seems to claim the right to do so one some occasions, such as when he says “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Even in this passage, when Jesus explains the parable, Mark adds the parenthetical comment that: “Thus He [Jesus] declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19b).

Nevertheless, even if Jesus did not modify the law, He certainly claimed the right to interpret it (compare Matthew 5:19ff; also 2 Corinthians 3:12-18). A lot of Jesus’ teaching was aimed at giving people a clearer understanding of what the Law really meant.

That is the primary issue Jesus addresses on this occasion. The Pharisees and scribes, in spite of their great learning, have completely misunderstood the point of the food laws. They did this not because they were intellectually sloppy but because they were morally blind.

The “tradition of the elders” refers to the fact that the Pharisees had added a massive number of additional rules and regulations that went far beyond the actual food laws recorded in the Pentateuch. Jesus accuses them of making these – their own traditions – more important than the very Scriptures on which those traditions were supposed to be based.

That’s part of what Jesus is doing in this passage. That’s his negative point.

The other part, though, his positive point, is the parable he addresses to the crowd. In that parable he is trying to help them reach a correct understanding of the food laws.

In other words, He is not simply saying, “This is the right interpretation because I say so.” He is saying,“Don’t you see that the Pharisees must be wrong in their interpretation? Don’t you see that the Scripture cannot be saying what they think it is saying?”

The Pharisees think that the disciples’ failure to ritually cleans their hands before eating makes them guilty of unholiness before God. Jesus says that is not true. He wants the crowd to realize why not.

The parable

As was typical of him, Jesus did not simply tell the crowds “This is what it all means: …”, but instead gave them a parable. That way they would be forced to figure out for themselves what his point was. The thing about Jesus’ parables is that most of them only make sense to people who are willing to humbly admit their own sin. Most of the parables only open up to those who open their hearts.

That is why Jesus says:

Hear and understand …

Listen to Me, all of you, and understand …

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear …

And later to the disciples:

 Are you still lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that … ?

Here is the parable itself:

It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. (Matthew 15:10-11)

[T]here is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. (Mark 7:14-15)

The point of the parable is that the root of sin is in our hearts, already there.

As he explains to the disciples:

Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?

… That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.

All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:17-23)


These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matthew 15:20)

Think about the food laws for a moment. We know today that it makes sense to wash your hands before eating for health reasons. Eating with unwashed hands can contaminate your body with germs and make you sick. The Pharisees thought something similar was true, but they were not concerned about germs and hygiene. They were concerned about holiness. They assumed that, somehow, failing to cleanse oneself ritually before eating led to contamination with unholiness.  Presumably Jesus (and Matthew and Mark) would have approved of washing our hands to clean off the germs. What was problematic was the Pharisaical assumption that we need to wash our hands ritually to clean off the sin.

Jesus says, just think about it! Isn’t it clear that all your sin comes from inside you? To those who are not blinded by spiritual pride, it should be obvious that we are filled with unholy thoughts and desires. Just think about what sin is, and where it comes from, Jesus is saying, and you’ll see that the Pharisees’ take on these commandments makes no sense. Ritual uncleanness does not make us unholy before God. It cannot – because sin arises from the heart, not from the physical objects around us.


Does any of this apply to the GIGO teaching? Definitely not directly, but I believe it does indirectly.

The key is that we must avoid repeating the Pharisees’ error. Why did they think they could control sin by ritual cleansing? Because they thought of sin as something out there, something that could contaminate them when they came into contact it with it, and something that they could avoid by controlling their environment. Jesus says, how absurd! Of course sin is always a matter of our own choices, of the human heart, of the wrong desires that are within us.

It is possible to use the GIGO doctrine to commit the same error. If sin is a matter of being contaminated by things outside of us, it makes it so much easier to manage. We can control our spiritual lives by controlling our input. Everything is neatly measurable and quantifiable. Even our thought lives can be handled without requiring any real introspection, any soul-searching, any deep repentance. We just filter what comes into our minds from outside. It’s very tempting to go that route.

In my opinion the GIGO teaching is technically wrong, but I have no real beef with it as long as those who teach it stay away from the error of the Pharisees. It is spiritually dangerous precisely to the extent that it is coupled with the false hope that we will be able to control all our sin by filtering out outside influences carefully enough.

In the next and final installment I’ll talk about making all this practical.

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GIGO theory: Philippians 4:8-9

The first post is in the series is here. The most recent post in the series is here.

The last passage used as a standard prooftext of the GIGO doctrine is Philippians 4:8-9.

Finally, brethren, 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 and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The typical interpretation of verse 8 is to use it as a filter to determine the acceptability of any thought that crosses our minds. If a thought is true, honorable, etc, then let it stay. If it isn’t, eliminate it. That is a worthy goal, but it isn’t the best and fullest interpretation of these verses.

First, note that the verse begins with “finally”. This is the conclusion of the entire instructional section of the letter – after this, Paul moves on to wrap up some personal details and then concludes the epistle. The sense is, “after everything I’ve written, let me sum it all up with one closing exhortation …”

Second, some lists in Scripture are primarily meant to distinguish several categories from each other; other lists in Scripture are used to make the same point again and again in different terms, strengthening its impact. The list here – whatever is true, whatever is honorable, etc – seems to be the second type. Paul isn’t giving us eight different standards here; he is giving us one standard restated eight different ways to strengthen the meaning.

Third, the point of the whole list is to look for what is good. The emphasis of the list is that anything that is good should count. “Whatever … whatever … whatever … whatever … whatever … whatever … if there is any … if anything…”   I believe this passage is not talking about using verse 8 as a filter, passively, for the thoughts that happen to occur to us. Rather, he is telling us pursue what verse 8 talks about: we are to actively search for things that meet the criteria. I think he is saying, “Look for anything that is worth imitating, and ponder it.”

Fourth, consider how verse 8 relates to verse 9. If verse 8 means to actively search for what is good, verse 9 is a very logical follow-up. He says, “Look for what is good around you. And don’t forget to think about my example too. Follow it as much as possible.”

So here is how I propose we look at it. Paul started the book by praying that they would grow in loving discernment, so that they might approve the things that are excellent (Philippians 1:9-10; compare Romans 12:2). Then he gave them four chapters of excellent instructions to follow. Finally, he encouraged them not to stop there. “Look for anything you can find that is good,” he said, “including my own example. Ponder those things, and imitate them. As you do so, God will be with you to guide and bless you.”

How does this blend with the GIGO model? Unlike the last two passages we considered, this passage really is directed toward individual thoughts, not whole systems of belief. As such, it supports that aspect of the GIGO teaching that says we need to keep our conscious thoughts focused on what is godly. It differs from the GIGO model, however, in that it is not about protecting our thoughts by keeping out what is bad so much as filling our mind with what is good. The danger Paul has in mind is not that we would let in something we shouldn’t, but that we would overlook something we should have spent time thinking about.

So much for the most common passages used to teach the GIGO theory. I’m still considering where to go next in the series, but there is a lot more to say. I want to look at a couple of verses that directly counter certain aspects of the GIGO model; I’d like to look at a couple of other passages that I believe provide stronger support for the model than the ones usually used to support it; and I’d like to get more specific about what I suggest as an alternative.

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GIGO theory: 2 Corinthians 10:5

(This is part 4. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.)

2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ”. A lot of times this passage is taught as though it means, “I am guarding my thought life carefully, so that whenever a stray sinful thought passes through my mind I can eject it”.

It is true that Christ’s Lordship in our lives extends to everything about us, including not only what we do but everything we think. We are supposed to be obeying Christ with our thoughts and attitudes as much as with our actions. However, that’s not at all the point of this particular verse, which has been taken pretty seriously out of context. Here is the whole paragraph:

I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete. (2 Corinthians 10:2-6.)

Paul is not talking about taking his own thoughts captive – he is talking about taking other people’s thoughts captive. He is warning the false teachers at Corinth that when he comes he will use the spiritual power and authority God gave him to tear down all their corrupt doctrines and punish those who have distorted the truth.

This is an exciting verse if you are doing Christian apologetics. There are lots of heretical theories out there, lots of speculative systems that are being used to discredit the gospel in people’s eyes. When Paul faced such systems, he described them as “fortresses … raised up against the knowledge of God”. He didn’t become angry or discouraged though. Instead, he confidently expected God to give him supernatural power to combat these enemy doctrines. “[T]he weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” Are you frustrated by the systematic belittling of the Christian faith that occurs in so many circles? This verse implies that you can be confident in God’s power to help you destroy “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” It is in this sense that you can take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

So what does this have to do with the GIGO doctrine? Very little directly, but there are some implications that may be useful. The key insight is that we ourselves have been affected by the fortresses of falsehood that Satan has erected. Each of us begins the Christian life badly confused about the truth of the gospel. Our minds are full of heresies of which we are only vaguely aware. These heretical ideas are not stray fragments of falsehood, they are complex, interrelated systems of thought (“fortresses … raised up”) that affect our actions far more than we know.

Therefore, we will sometimes need to take our own thoughts captive, to do to our own thinking just what Paul was going to do to the doctrines of the false teachers at Corinth. We need to ruthlessly weed out the lies we have been telling ourselves, and learn to believe the truth of the gospel instead.

How is this different from the standard GIGO teaching? The answers should be starting to sound familiar by now. First, the focus of this passage is not on disconnected images or random tempting thoughts; it is on systems of interconnected false beliefs. Second, the passage never implies that there is any danger from having false thoughts simply pass through our minds – they danger comes when we believe these thoughts, when we have incorporated them into a world view. On the other hand, when we do believe a fortress of falsehood, just keeping guard over our conscious thoughts won’t really help much. We need to dismantle the fortress; we need systematically to identify the lies in our own belief systems, repent of believing them, and begin to reorient our thinking to be more Biblical in those areas. Finally, the passage emphasizes that God wants us to rely on Him for all this. It isn’t just a matter of our practicing more self-control.

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GIGO theory: Romans 12:2

The introductory post is here. The previous post is here.

Next, consider Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

In Proverbs 23:7, we noticed that who a man really is – his essential character – is revealed in how he thinks. In contrast with that, this verse says we can be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s].” Does this mean that I can transform my heart and character by controlling my conscious thoughts closely?

There are four hints that this is not quite what Paul means, although it’s close. First, the prerequisite for verse 2 is verse 1, our surrender of ourselves to God. Paul assumes we have already settled the heart issue at a deep level. Second, Paul talks about the renewing of our minds, instead of the protection of our minds. That’s very interesting! Apparently the problem isn’t that things are getting in that shouldn’t, but that our thinking is following old patterns instead of the new ones God has for us. Third, Paul contrasts this with being “conformed” to the world. This suggests that the issue isn’t so much specific tempting thoughts or images as it is moral standards and value systems. Fourth, the explanatory phrase that follows says we need our mind renewed so that we will approve what the will of God is. Some translations use the word “prove” instead of “approve”. In either case, the meaning is that we will work out for ourselves in our own experience what the will of God is and that it is truly best for us.

One more hint as to Paul’s meaning comes from considering what “mind” and “thinking” refer to. On the one extreme, there is the world of our conscious thoughts. On the other, there is the conglomeration of everything that is in our minds, whether we are aware of it or not. This would include the presuppositions we hold, our value system, our buried fears and hopes, our unconscious prejudices, the perspectives from which we view the world, and much more. When we use words like “mind” or “thinking” our meanings can range from one extreme to the other or settle anywhere in between, depending on the context of what we are saying. An exploration of the word “mind” and related phrases in the New Testament suggest that the New Testament writers usually meant more than just our conscious thoughts when they used these terms.

Putting all this together, I would suggest that the best interpretation of the renewing of the mind mentioned in Romans 12:2 is this: a) first we settle the heart issue by surrendering our lives to God (verse 1), b) then we let God begin changing the ways we think – not just specific thoughts, but our moral standards and our assumptions about life and so on – so that we learn to value what he values, and c) as a result our character and lifestyle are gradually transformed into what is pleasing to Him.

So how does this affect the GIGO doctrine? It supports it in one sense. Under this interpretation, Romans 12:2 means that when we surrender any area to God, we should expect him to begin to challenge our old ways of thinking about that area. If we find ourselves thinking thoughts that we now recognize as false, we need to discipline ourselves to cast them away and believe the truth instead. However, there are some differences in emphasis from the typical GIGO approach. First, the point is not the specific thoughts, but rather the wrong standards and values that the world injects into our minds. Second, the question is not what enters our minds but how much of it we believe. Third, the danger is not primarily the thoughts that enter from the outside anyway, but rather the old, unrenewed patterns of thought still present in our own mental world. Fourth, the first and central catalyst for change in our lives is not our disciplined thoughts, but our yielded selves. Only after we have settled the heart issues can we find victory in mental battles.

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GIGO theory: Proverbs 23:7

I explained the “GIGO doctrine” in a previous post, and said that several of the verses used to support it are taken out of context. The most seriously misinterpreted one is Proverbs 23:7. Here is Proverbs 23:6-8:

Do not eat the bread of a selfish man,
Or desire his delicacies;
For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
He says to you, “Eat and drink!”
But his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten,
And waste your compliments.

The important phrase for our purposes is “as he thinks within himself, so he is.” The GIGO teaching uses this to establish the principle that whatever we think about we soon become. If we think about sin, we will soon begin to do it. If we think about godly things, we will soon begin to do those.

What does the phrase mean in context? The point of the passage is that if a man is selfish, you should distrust his generosity. Even if he says to you, “eat and drink!” you should realize that he doesn’t mean it. His heart is not with you. As a matter of fact, he is not at all the man he pretends to be. The man he really is is shown by what he thinks privately to himself, in thoughts he keeps hidden from the rest of the world. As he thinks within himself, that is the real man.

In other words, these verses do not teach that as we think, we shall become; they teach that whatever we already are will govern how we think. It is almost the exact opposite. It is not that thinking determines character, but that character determines thinking. This doesn’t say that our thoughts change who we really are, but it certainly says that our thoughts reveal who we really are.

This applies to the issue of GIGO, but not the way most people expect. It explains to me why I have the thoughts I do. Do I think selfish thoughts? Then it means I am a selfish man. Do I struggle with thoughts of revenge? Then I am angry, at some level. Do I worry all the time? Then down deep, I do not trust God. Freud would have said that the subconscious keeps injecting its desires into our conscious mind. Jesus simply said, “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” This verse says something more like, “Out of the heart, the mind thinks.” Who we are in our hearts will keep showing up in what we consciously think about.

This explains why sometimes it is relatively easy to change our conscious thoughts and sometimes extremely hard. When we get our hearts right on an issue, it is just a matter of discipline to begin to think according to new patterns. If we haven’t dealt with things at the heart level, we can struggle for years and never really gain mastery over our thought life.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3     Part 4    Part 5    Part 6     Part 7    Part 8

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The GIGO theory of holiness

My life’s been crazy-busy recently, and I’m having a hard time getting blog posts written. Therefore, here’s my plan: I wrote a long analysis several years ago of a particular Christian doctrine I call the GIGO theory of holiness. I’m going to break it into smaller chunks and post pieces of it for a while, so that I can at least be blogging about something!

So, for now, here is an introduction to the GIGO theory of holiness.

GIGO, as many of you know, stands for “garbage in, garbage out”. The phrase is used about computers, to make the point that even the best software depends on getting the right input. If the input to a program is full of errors, the answers it comes up with will be wrong.

In the same way, say most evangelicals, our Christian walk can only be holy if we protect our minds from corrupt input. If we read, watch, listen to, or think about sinful stuff, it will eventually come out in the way we behave. If we want to grow in holiness, the key is to protect our minds from the kind of thoughts that will lead us astray.

Teachers of the GIGO doctrine have a mental model of the Christian’s mind as a kind of storehouse of images and memories. The contents of this storehouse are the sources of temptation in our life. If we fill the storehouse with immoral images and memories, they will spring up again and again in our thoughts and lure us away from God. If instead we filter out dangerous influences and keep our thoughts relatively pure, we will face a lot less temptation and be able to live godly lives much more easily. The key is to guard our minds from exposure to damaging imagery.

I believe there is some truth in this perspective, but only some. I think the GIGO model of Christian growth needs to be improved a lot before it reflects Scriptural teaching or practical realities.

There are four key passages that teachers of the GIGO theory use to prove their doctrine.

  • Romans 12:2 says that we are transformed by the renewal of our mind. Therefore, the way to change our behavior is to change what we think about. As we learn to guard our thoughts, to keep out anything that is not of God, we will find our behavior being transformed as well.
  • 2 Cor 10:5 talks about taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. It exhorts us to carefully screen every thing that passes through our mind, so that we can avoid even thinking about whatever is not honoring to our Lord.
  • Prov 23:7 says “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he”; in other words, whatever we think about is what we will become. Our thoughts determine our character, eventually.
  • Philippians 4:8 says “whatever is true, whatever is right [and several more things like that] … dwell on these things”. In other words, we shouldn’t think about anything that doesn’t please God, but only about those things that are good in His sight.

The problem is, none of these verses means exactly what the GIGO teaching assumes it does. Each of them has been taken slightly out of context.

Over the next few weeks I want to take a closer look at each of these passages. As I go, I want to construct a revised, more balanced version of GIGO that differs from the original in subtle but important and practical ways.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3     Part 4    Part 5    Part 6     Part 7    Part 8

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Atheism and folly

One of my strong beliefs is that both atheists and theists can be reasonable, intelligent, well-meaning people. I get irked when Christians assume atheists are just being stupid or hypocritical, and I get annoyed when atheists assume evangelicals are irrational or brainwashed.

For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Psalm 53:1 NIV.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Doesn’t this verse say that atheists are being irrational? I’ve heard Christians use it that way, but I believe they are misunderstanding the verse.

I’d like to explain how I think this verse should be interpreted. I’m going to post this in the category of “general audience”, which is posts aimed at people who are not necessarily believers, because if you are an atheist and someone uses the verse against you, I think you should be able to say, “You know, that’s not what that verse really means”, and then point them to this post. 🙂

Let me emphasize that I believe strongly in the inspiration of Scripture, so I take this verse seriously. If it really means that atheists are automatically irrational then I am prepared to believe that. But that’s not the meaning of it, in my opinion.

So let’s start out with four clarifying observations.

  • First, note that this does not say,

    The one who says in his heart, “There is no God,” is a fool.

    Technically, that would imply that every atheist is a fool, but not that every fool is an atheist. Instead, the verse says,

    The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

    Technically that implies that every fool is an atheist, but not that every atheist is a fool.

  • Second, the word “fool” in the wisdom literature of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) has practical and moral connotations. If someone is called a fool, it doesn’t mean that he is unable to reason, but that he makes bad decisions. Foolishness is not the opposite of logic; it’s the opposite of moral and spiritual wisdom.
  • Third, note that it says the fool says in his heart that there is no God. It is focusing on what the fool believes inside, not what he claims to believe.
  •  Fourth, note that in the culture in which this was written, hardly anyone claimed to be an atheist. The Israelites weren’t surrounded by atheists, they were surrounded by polytheists.  So “the fool” in this verse was unlikely to be referring to someone who claimed there was no god. It was almost certainly referring to someone who did claim there was a God (or gods) but who in his heart didn’t believe.

Putting all that together, we get the meaning of the verse: when someone acts wickedly instead of righteously, they show that they don’t really believe, down deep, that God is watching and will judge them. In fact, ignore whatever they tell you about their religious beliefs – in their heart, they are saying to themselves that God does not exist.

So there you have it. Every fool (in the moral sense) really is an atheist deep down. But his atheism does not make him foolish; his folly makes him an atheist.

Does that mean that some atheists are atheists because they secretly are fools? Because they want to do what is wrong, and don’t want to be held accountable for it by God?

Of course. And it shouldn’t offend anyone that I said so. In just the same way, some professing Christians only believe because deep down they are afraid of a universe without God in it. Neither side is immune to silly reasons for belief. So if that’s you – if your atheism is merely a defense mechanism against having to be moral – then stop it! But if you’ve considered the evidence, and decided against believing in a God, then this verse does not say you are irrational because of that.  I’ll pray that God will show Himself to you, but I’ll respect your intellect in the meantime.

(Now, atheists, please stop assuming in turn that everyone who believes in God is a fool. That’s not true either.)

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The Bible often talks about the conscience, but I believe that word’s Biblical meaning is subtly different from the meaning we give it in ordinary communication.

We tend to think of the conscience as a forward-looking guide, some part of us that tells us in advance whether an action is something we ought to do or ought not to do. Like Jiminy Cricket.

The Biblical meaning of conscience, at least in many verses, is a backward-looking response to the past. It’s a sense of guilt or innocence based on what we’ve already done.

Of course, our sense of guilt about what we’ve done in the past can guide us as we make decisions about the future. Still, keeping the definition straight subtly changes how we interpret several verses about the conscience.

When people in the Bible speak of having a good conscience, they mean one free from guilt (free because they have nothing to be guilty about). They don’t mean having a keen sense of what choices are good to make. When Paul says in Rom 9:1 that his conscience bears him witness he means he has no shame or guilt about his claim. Compare Psalm 32.

In some passages (e.g., 1 Corinthians 8), Paul speaks about people whose consciences are weak or strong with regard to a particular matter. Note that a weak conscience is one that is especially sensitive to guilt about the issue in question. A weak conscience can become defiled by guilt, in the sense that it makes us feel unclean afterwards.

To strengthen the conscience is to make it less sensitive to guilt. (Note that if the conscience was a warning voice given to us before we made our choices, then surely the more guilt-ridden person would be said to have the stronger, not the weaker, conscience.)

When a conscience becomes guilty, it is damaged. This doesn’t mean we cease to feel guilty; indeed, it may mean that we are overwhelmed by guilt. The promise of the gospel is that our “evil” consciences can be cleansed and healed. (This doesn’t refer to our regaining wisdom about what the right and wrong things to do are; it refers to our being released from the load of guilt we had been carrying around with us.)

The conscience not only testifies to us of our guilt, it also testifies to us of our innocence. A clear conscience can be a source of inward courage, confidence, and strength.

I think it can also be a source of joy.

When someone’s conscience is too badly damaged by guilt, it may become seared (1 Timothy 4:1). Such a person is numb to the guilt, but they are also numb to any sense of innocence. They lose an important part of themselves. They may even look for shameful things to do just so their consciences can feel something again.

One exciting thing about walking with Christ is that he not only forgives our guilt objectively, he cleanses and heals our consciences subjectively, so that we can find a fresh sense of joy in being ourselves again, of being clean, of being right,.

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The beatitudes are not virtues (part 2)

Reconciling Matthew and Luke

(Part 1 is here.)

So how do we synthesize the two versions of the beatitudes in a way that is faithful to both contexts?

Luke points us to the truth that the beatitudes are promises of hope to people who are hurting in concrete ways, rather than a list of character qualities to grow in. And yet, Matthew does spiritualize and generalize the beatitudes, so that they can apply to rich and poor alike. What can the meaning of Matthew 5:3-10 be in light of Luke’s version?

I suggest that we see the beatitudes as expressions of faith, rather than as marks of good character. When I started these posts, I listed three effects of interpreting the beatitudes as virtues. To clarify my meaning here, let me return to that list.

1. It affects how we interpret the meaning of the eight things.

The hardest four beatitudes for the virtue interpretation to make sense of are being poor in spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. It has to adjust these slightly so that they mean, respectively, recognizing that we are poor in spirit (humility), mourning over our own sin (repentance), hungering and thirsting for personal righteousness, and being willing to endure persecution.

Suppose we interpret these four, as in Luke, as things that happen to the downtrodden. We find ourselves crushed by what happens to us — poor in spirit — not because we are humble but because we have been beaten down by circumstances or other people. We find ourselves mourning, not just over our sin, but over the tragedies of life in general. We hunger and thirst not just for our own personal holiness but for justice and fairness in a wicked world. We endure persecution even when we do what is right.

If this is the meaning of the beatitudes, then Jesus is not telling us to grow in these qualities (Be more persecuted! Mourn more!) but to rejoice in the midst of them. We are blessed! God has promised us the kingdom!

In other words, recall that the second consequence of the virtue interpretation was:

2. It puts the emphasis on how we can develop these qualities.

The oppression interpretation puts the emphasis on having joy in the midst of sorrow.

This is true even for the remaining four beatitudes. Meekness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking are virtues, but I still don’t think the point of the passage is to encourage us to grow in them. The thing about meekness, mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking is that they are the unique virtues of those who are being mistreated. Jesus is not saying, “Develop your meekness”; he is saying, “When you find yourself having to be meek, don’t despair! Count yourself blessed instead.”

The third consequence was:

3. It affects how we interpret the benediction (“Blessed are”) pronounced on each of the eight.

If the eight qualities are virtues, then we understand the “Blessed are …” as being an expression of God’s approval of these qualities, and the promises (“… for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”) as rewards for having the corresponding virtues.

In the oppression interpretation, though, God is not expressing approval of the oppression. It does not please him that we are persecuted, or that we mourn, or that we are poor in spirit. Again, although our meekness and mercy pleases Him, it does not please Him that we find ourselves in situations requiring meekness and mercy. God isn’t registering His approval; He is promising to deliver us.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Because I mourn, God makes a promise to me. Because of the promise, I am blessed. The blessing is not a reward for my mourning, but because I am mourning the promise is addressed to me.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Again, the point in Matthew 5:3-10 isn’t that somehow I earn mercy when I show mercy (although at times Jesus taught something like that). It means that when I show mercy and others more ruthless than I am step on me, I can take heart in knowing that I myself will receive mercy one day.

Virtue in the beatitudes

There is virtue in the beatitudes, and it is something we can grow in as Christians, but it’s the virtue of faith in the blessing of God.

There are some spiritual truths that run counter to every instinct we’ve got. When we are being mistreated, it is really hard to trust God’s pronouncement of blessing. I think we do have to work to grow in humility, repentance, meekness, and so on. The way the beatitudes will help is to remind us of the promise of God, and encourage us to have faith in God’s declaration that we are blessed.

Do I find myself empty and broken? God says “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit …” It doesn’t feel like I’m blessed. But if God says I am, I can just believe it. Do I find myself compelled to show mercy to someone who has been ruthless? It may be hard to believe God’s declaration, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” I haven’t received mercy yet! But I will — and in that faith, I can act in mercy anyway.

I think perhaps this is the way of character growth according to the beatitudes: to let mistreatment be another reason to trust God and His promises. As we grow in our faith in the truth it makes us more Christ-like.

“… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, NASB).


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