From war movies to westerns to science-fiction films and even romantic comedies, countless films focus on the theme of good guys versus bad guys. Perhaps this is how St. Paul was thinking when he wrote his Letter to the Romans. Especially in Chapter 8 of the letter, Paul sets out a good guy/bad guy scenario.
The good guy is the person who lives “in the Spirit,” while the bad guy is the one who lives “in the flesh.” According to Paul, we will act one way if we are living in the Spirit, and we will act differently if we are living in the flesh. The first way leads to godliness, and the second way leads to sin.
Every day we are brought face-to-face with this battle between good and bad—or, as Paul says, between spirit and flesh. In a very particular way, this battle comes to the forefront in Lent. The call to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving challenges us to “master our sinfulness and conquer our pride” (Lenten Preface III), and we must choose how to respond. And as Lent progresses, we realize that the real battleground is not our bodies—what kinds of food we will eat or how much more time we will spend in prayer. Rather, the true battleground is in our minds: in the attitudes we have and the behavior we extend toward God and his people. So let’s take a look at the battle that goes on in each of our minds. Let’s also look at some strategies that will help us win this battle so that Easter Sunday finds us closer to Jesus and filled with his love and grace.
The True Battleground. Let’s begin with a somewhat simplistic but helpful way of looking at our inner lives. Each of us has many wonderful and valuable traits, virtues, and talents. These are all gifts that God gave us, gifts that we may have nurtured and strengthened over the years. They include such attributes as generosity, kindness, sincerity, love, compassion, and industriousness. It is God’s intention to take these virtues and gifts and fill them with his grace so that they can be useful in building his church and serving the common good.
On the other hand, we also have desires, habits, and tendencies that are offensive to God and hurtful to ourselves and those around us. These sinful drives include greed, self-centeredness, envy, lust, and deception. Similar to our gifts, we have “developed” some of these tendencies—and they have exerted their own influence on us—with the result being that they draw us away from the Lord and his will for our lives. So we have this battle in our minds between the desire to live by the Spirit and the desire to please ourselves at the neglect of God and his people. But this isn’t all that’s going on. We also have the Holy Spirit living in us—and he is not idle. In fact, he is always trying to tell us how much God loves us and how deeply he has blessed us. He is constantly trying to guide our actions and help us relate in the right way to the people in our lives. He loves to comfort us when we are down and encourage us when we are up, all the time offering us a share in God’s love, mercy, and wisdom. There is still one more “player” in this battle for our minds: the devil. He is always near to us—not in us—suggesting one temptation after another. He spends all his time whispering lies and half truths, throwing “flaming arrows” in our direction (Ephesians 6:16). He tries to tell us that we have a right to do whatever we want. And he tends to be quite good at his job! Of course, we can’t really separate our minds into such neat little compartments like this. We are far too complex for this simplified approach. Yet many saints have found methods of examination like this to be very helpful in giving them a handle on their inner lives so that they can continue to pursue Jesus and grow in holiness.
A Case Study: The Apostle Peter. Let’s take a look at a story from the Gospels where we see all of these elements at work in a person—St. Peter. Peter is one of the most beloved characters in the New Testament, mainly because we find it so easy to identify with his faults as well as with his desire to please the Lord.
On one occasion, Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Immediately, Peter responded: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then blessed Peter, and told him: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father.” He called Peter the “rock” of his church and promised him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Imagine how good Peter must have felt hearing this!
But a short while later, Jesus told the twelve that he was heading for Jerusalem, where he would be killed by Israel’s religious leaders. This news upset Peter, who responded—again, with great passion: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
Such loyalty! Such commitment! But what did Jesus say to him? “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:13-23). So much for Peter’s good feelings!
So what happened here? In both instances it was Peter’s mind that came to these conclusions. It was Peter’s good intentions that motivated him. And it was even Peter’s mouth that spoke these words. Yet Jesus told him that one response came from God, and the other one came from Satan. Clearly, Peter needed to learn how to discern the thoughts and impulses within him.
This is how our minds work as well. One moment we can be expressing God’s love and insights, then the next moment we can be speaking out of the devil’s influence. And all the time, it is us doing the thinking or talking!
Does this mean that we are doomed to living haphazard lives, never knowing whether a thought comes from our minds, from God’s revelation, or from Satan’s temptation? Of course not! This episode reflects only one step in Peter’s journey. Over time, he learned how to discern what was going on in his mind. Through the years, increasing faith and deeper surrender to the Lord—along with a good amount of his own experimentation—helped temper his impulsive and impetuous tendencies. Peter never stopped seeking more and more renewal in his mind, until the final day, when he humbly gave up his life for the Lord.
The Mystery of God’s Love. We may find it encouraging to learn a key spiritual principle that is always at work when we take up the battle for the mind. When we seek to become more like Jesus, God works in us in ways that far surpass our human efforts.
Once a man took a golf lesson. At the lesson, the instructor changed only two things in the man’s swing: his grip and his posture. To the man’s surprise, not only did these two elments change, but three other faults were also changed—without the man even focusing on them!
This is what happened to Peter after that encounter (and many others), and this is what can happen in us as well. Perhaps we think we are “just” going to Mass and spending a few moments praying after receiving Communion. Perhaps we just think that our family rosary was helpful in teaching the kids about prayer. But the truth is that whenever we seek the Lord like this, he both fixes our flaws and enhances our virtues—and often we aren’t even aware of it until later, when we see changes in the way we think and act.
This is the mystery of God’s love: When we take a few small steps toward him, Jesus takes a giant leap toward us. And the result is always greater peace, deeper wisdom, and a clearer mind. He does “far more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Challenging . . . but Not Impossible. When Paul told the Romans to live in the Spirit, he wanted them to use both their own human energies and God’s surpassing grace to “put off” the old, sinful ways of thinking that are opposed to God and to “put on” a new way of thinking that resembles Jesus. This is our goal as well.
Your mind is one of the most precious gifts God gave you. It’s the greatest tool you have to help you draw closer to him. Ironically, however, your mind is also capable of being your own worst enemy.
Eventually, Peter learned why one response was of God and why the other was not. He learned how to discern God’s will. Over time, his mind was renewed. Being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit was challenging for Peter, and it will be challenging for us. But challenging doesn’t mean impossible. Learning how to live in the Spirit is a matter of grace and prayer; and it is a matter of trial and error. It takes time, but it does happen—that’s a promise you can count on because Jesus himself made it (John 14:17,25; 16:12).
So as you take up the challenge to renew your mind during Lent, remember the way Paul closed his challenge to live by the Spirit. He told the Romans that they were sons and daughters of God. More importantly, he told them that the Holy Spirit was with them and in them, praying “Abba Father,” and testifying, telling them that they were God’s children (Romans 8:14-15). What could possibly be more reassuring than that?