Shaping our emotions

I’m going to muse about emotions a little.

My wife wrote a very good blog post about emotions here. She said that emotions aren’t bad, and that there are three wrong ways to handle them (stir them up, stuff them, or store them) and one good way to handle them (surrender them to God).

I agree, but I want to expand on the surrender part with another S: we need to surrender them to God so that He can shape them. We need to let God change our emotional set so that we tend more and more to feel the way He feels about things.

Shaping our feelings will apply to both positive and negative emotions. I remember someone saying once, “We need to learn to let God break our hearts with the things that break His.” That seems deeply right to me.

It must be equally true that we need to learn to share in the joy of God. (John 15:11). I asked a few weeks ago what self-pity is. Maybe this is part of the answer: self-pity is a refusal to participate in the joy of God.

The two halves of an emotion

It seems to me that emotions come in two separate pieces. One half is the feeling itself, something which more or less just happens to us. We have little control over it. The other half is our attitude toward those feelings. That’s something we do have a choice about. For example, to feel angry is not by itself sin, but to embrace it and agree with it usually is (James 1:20). It’s similar for fear, sorrow, and other negative emotions. (Note that I’m not just saying that we shouldn’t always act on what we feel. I’m saying that even when I refrain from acting, I may sin in attitude by inwardly embracing a certain feeling.)

I suppose the same thing must be true of positive emotions. Sometimes we find ourselves simply gifted with a good mood. Several years ago God delivered me from a significant portion of the depression I was struggling with by waking me up one morning feeling deeply happy for no reason I could figure out. Even when the feeling passed, the memory of it lingered and changed how I saw life. I didn’t cause that: it just happened. When these positive feelings happen, though, we need to respond to them, to assent to them somehow with our minds and wills.

I don’t always know how to do this. When I try to “work up” positive emotions, it generally creates a feeling of underlying despair in me at the same time. So I tend not to do that. Most people don’t report the same phenomenon, so maybe that’s just something wrong with the way my emotions work. I speculate that instead of stirring up positive emotions the proper response is to give praise and thanks. I’m not sure.

I think a part of it is whether I identify with my emotions or not. I feel fear frequently. There is a big difference between whether I think “This is me, feeling really afraid”, or “Here I am, created to be brave in Christ, but being assailed by fear.” (2 Tim 1:7. See also 1 Peter 2:11.)


I think the key to shaping our emotions, or rather, letting God shape them, must be Scripture. We need to figure out how to read the Bible in such a way that it changes how we feel.

When I first got saved, a lot of believers around me kept telling me to “stop thinking so much” and trust God’s wisdom rather than man’s.  I tried for a year not to think, but I couldn’t seem to help it. Finally I prayed: “God, I’m trying, but I keep thinking about everything anyway!” I felt as though God answered back: “Kevin – don’t you think I know how much you think about everything? Don’t you think I made you that way? You don’t have to stop thinking. Just be sure you always surrender your thinking to me.”

I think emotions must be similar. God says to us, “Don’t you think I made you to feel? You don’t have to stop feeling, just be sure you always surrender your feelings to me.” Just as I want my thoughts to be increasingly conformed to the Bible, so that my world-view becomes thoroughly Christian, I also want my feelings to be increasingly Biblical. (Compare Romans 12:2 with Colossians 3:2, KJV.)

There are some great resources in the Bible for re-orienting our emotions. Do a word study of “compassion” in the gospels, for example. Look carefully at all the gushy parts of Paul’s epistles – we usually skip past those parts because they don’t have a lot of doctrine, but in them Paul expressed deep affection for those he wrote to.  Do you have a distorted view of romantic love and/or lust? Then studying Song of Solomon is probably a great way to imprint a new set of desires.

Of course, by far the best place in Scripture to learn about emotions is the Psalms. There, more than anywhere, God says to us, “Here is how a man feels when he is pursuing me.”

Furthermore, the Psalms are prayers, which is important. The best way I’ve found of shaping my emotions around a Scriptural pattern is to pray it back to God. As I do, I think about my own situation and draw on the imagery of the Psalm to pray about what is on my own heart.

When I read Scripture doctrinally, I love to look for the surprises in it. I put myself in the place of the writer and try to imagine that I am saying it. Then, when I get to something that I wouldn’t have said, I ask why. It usually signals some way in which my thinking is not completely aligned with Scripture. We can do the same thing emotionally when we pray the Psalms. As we pray them back, we can look for the phrases, or the patterns of emphasis, that jar us, that seem a little out of tune. These can be signals that our feelings are not quite lined up with God’s ideal.

Isn’t it possible that some of the Psalms hold emotional patterns that are not good for us to emulate? Some seem overly depressing in places, for example. Others seem awfully vindictive. Some Christian writers have suggested that it isn’t really spiritually safe for us to pray the imprecatory Psalms (the ones that call down judgment).

I think, though, that we don’t have to worry too much about this. Compare what I’m saying to the parallel case of doctrine. We evangelicals believe the Scripture is “truth without any mixture of error”. Although God could have communicated his truth using a Scripture with lots of errors in it, those of us who affirm inerrancy as a doctrine don’t believe He did that. At the same time, we believe that context is important. There are times when Scripture records that a certain person believed this idea or that idea, and goes on to identify that person’s belief as false. To see whether an isolated statement in the Bible is doctrinally true, we have to read on and see how the rest of the passage comments on it.

If we believe that the Scripture is doctrinally reliable, I believe we can assume that it is emotionally reliable too. Yes, Scripture shows a lot of people with lots of different emotional responses, and yes, sometimes it goes on to comment on how their responses were inappropriate. But if we are careful to take things in context, and take the whole of Scripture into account, I believe we can trust the emotional heart of the Scriptures we read. The Psalms are emotionally as well as doctrinally true, and we can safely mold our passions around Scriptural examples.

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Posting schedule

(OK. so “posting schedule” is probably a little too optimistic. We’ll see how long my good intentions last, but anyway …)

With the start of a new semester, I am making a renewed effort to organize my blog-posting habits. My plan is to post something that is carefully written and probably doctrinally oriented every Friday, and more personal chatty journal-like stuff on Mondays. This is my Monday post for this week. I’ve already written Friday’s post, but you won’t get it ’til Friday. 🙂

I’ll be doing something similar with the other blog too: chatty, lightweight pieces alternating with things that are more teacherly.

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A new blog

When I started this blog, I had two audiences in mind. One of them was my philosophy students.

I’d like to be able to point them to my blog in the classes I teach, but this blog is so explicitly Christian that I’m a little uncertain about doing that, so I created a separate blog for them.

It’s called

If the posts there seem relevant to this blog, I may cross-post them here or link to them from here. In the meantime, if you are really interested (*I* think they will be interesting :-)), be sure to check that blog out from time to time. There are a couple of posts there already.

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“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

I heard someone say this weekend that he hates that saying. He sees it as a way for Christians to make excuses for their sin.

I love the saying, but I see it completely differently. I see it as a statement of humility. We stop trying to claim to the world that we have got it all together, and instead insist that the primary difference in our lives is not us but Christ and his grace. Of course, we still keep trying to live more holy lives, but we never see ourselves as having arrived.

My wife doesn’t like the saying. She sees it as too defeatist, as not recognizing all that we’ve been given in Christ. We aren’t perfect, but  neither are we just forgiven. God has done so much more for us than that. Our very natures have been transformed, the power of sin in our lives has been destroyed, and we’ve been given the destiny of becoming like Christ.

What do y’all think?

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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.

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

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GIGO theory: Changing our thoughts from the inside out

The GIGO theory (described and critiqued in detail here) is the idea that one of the most important things we can do to grow in holiness is to guard our minds from being exposed to the wrong kinds of thoughts. What comes into our minds will eventually affect how we act and think.

I’ve spent several weeks arguing that the GIGO theory is only partly correct. I’ve looked at four different passages often used to support it and tried to show that they are being misinterpreted to some degree.

Even though the GIGO teaching misinterprets all those passages, I don’t think that it is all bad. It says we need to honor God in our thoughts, not just our actions. I agree. It says that what we think affects the choices we make. I agree. It says pornography is a bad thing. I agree. It says that what we think, do or say today affects what we will think, do and say tomorrow, and it offers a practical way to use that fact to grow in holiness. That’s a great idea, one which I fully support.

So where do I disagree? Mainly in this: the GIGO doctrine frequently leads people to focus in the wrong place in their battle against sin. It locates the enemy chiefly outside of us rather than in our own hearts.

The Bible talks about the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but all three sources of temptation are connected. The world and the devil only succeed in pulling us down because there is something in our own hearts that answers to them. I heard a story when I was growing up about some monk in the middle ages who went into seclusion in order to become more holy, and ended up writing “I went to a monastery to escape the world, and discovered the world was in me.”

It may seem funny that I would connect the GIGO doctrine with the idea of fighting external influences, when it is all about controlling our thoughts. What could be more internal than our thoughts? But the point is that the GIGO teaching encourages us to solve thought-life problems not by changing our thinking but by changing the input to our thinking. We need to change from the inside out: it offers us a way to work from the outside in instead.

So my concern is that people tend to use the GIGO doctrine to avoid having to confront and repent of the wrongness in their thinking. Instead of doing so, they just redouble their efforts to control all those evil media influences out there. Satan is happy to let us rail against Hollywood as long as it distracts us from dealing with our own self-deceit.

Jesus talked once about this tendency to try and control our sins from the outside. In his case he was responding to tendency to do so through the rituals of the Old Testament Law, specifically the food laws. You can find the story in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23. In my next post I want to analyze Jesus’ words and see how the principle he illustrates in that passage is applicable to our view of thinking.

Jesus: “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there 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


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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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