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Conventional wisdom tells us that a college education is not primarily about taking courses, reading books, or passing tests. Of course these are all important parts of the college experience. But these kinds of measurement tend to place the focus on a more superficial level. On a deeper level, the value of a college education lies in the way a student’s mind can be shaped—specifically as they learn how to think logically, write clearly, and speak confidently.
We can say something similar about our life with the Lord. All of the time we put into praying for people is good and valuable. All of the time we devote to helping those in need is vital. And all of the energy we give to our families surely makes Jesus smile. Still, anyone can pray every day, give hours to the poor, and provide for their family, and still have many contradictions going on in their minds. It’s possible to do all of these things and still miss out on the most important part of the Christian life: the Holy Spirit’s desire to form us and shape us into the image of Christ.
For example, we can volunteer at a food pantry and still entertain judgmental thoughts against the poor people who visit it. We can receive Communion at Mass and still be thinking about how we can manipulate our boss. And we can tell our children to forgive and yet harbor some resentment against our spouse.
God wants to shape us into his image. He wants to make us into merciful, kind, humble, and generous reflections of his Son. And to do this, he needs to help us smooth out our rough edges. This is a challenge that the Lord is eager to accept. The question is: Are we?
What a Treasure! The human mind is amazing. It’s capable of reasoning, imagining, understanding, and remembering. It’s also the home of the conscience, where we weigh right from wrong. Every day, your mind analyzes millions of data points presented by your senses and uses that data to make hundreds of decisions. It draws on your memories and imagination as well, and it engages your emotions to help you find the courage you need for hard decisions and the joy in a job well-done.
In addition to these “natural” gifts and abilities, the human mind has a spiritual dimension as well. St. Augustine, writing around the year 417, had this to say: “The mind is the image of God, in that it is capable of him and can be a partaker of him” (On the Trinity, 8.11). Similarly, St. Paul tells us that we have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). God created us with the capacity to sense his presence, to understand his mysteries, and to have a relationship with him based on love. Our intellects can think as God thinks (Matthew 16:23). With our emotions we can love what God loves and get a taste of how deeply sin hurts him (Lamentations 3:48). We can imagine the beauty of heaven and place God’s mighty deeds at the center of our memories (Psalm 77:12-16). And with our consciences, we can understand right from wrong and sin from righteousness (Romans 2:15).
What a marvel God has created! And what a gift he has given us—that we should be made in his image, capable of knowing him and destined to be with him forever! But as impressive as this sounds, we know that our minds don’t always serve us well. Past resentments, current sins, or even a guilty conscience can block the flow of grace that the Holy Spirit wants to give us. They can block our relationship with God and leave us feeling alone and helpless.
What’s more, these negative influences can dull our minds. The more we let them control us, the more clouded our judgment becomes. We find it harder to tell right from wrong. We begin to consider some sinful behavior as acceptable, and we pay less attention to the thoughts and voices that influence us in a positive way.
A Clouded Mind. Israel’s King David is one example of how a cycle of lies and other negative influences can lead to greater sin. David was not an ordinary man. God called him “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). But this didn’t mean he was immune to temptation. David was attracted to a woman named Bathsheba, who was the wife of a soldier in his army (2 Samuel 11–12). Filled with desire for her, David commanded that she be brought to him, and he slept with her. David was a powerful man. He had everything he could ever want, including a harem full of concubines. Yet he set his eye on this one woman, the wife of a loyal soldier of his, and he took her with little regard for how it would affect her and her family.
When David discovered that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to cover up his sin by commanding that Uriah be sent to the front line of battle and then abandoned. His plot worked. Uriah was killed in battle, and David thought he was free. But as often happens, the cover-up didn’t last. The prophet Nathan confronted David with his sins, and the king came face-to-face with all the wrongdoing he had committed. Humbled and ashamed, David repented, and God forgave him.
This story shows how deceptive our minds can be when they are clouded by selfish desires. We all know what it’s like to silence our consciences, make decisions that we know are wrong, and somehow believe that these actions are still acceptable. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Even the great King David wasn’t immune to temptation.
The good news is that God is merciful. David still had to bear some of the consequences of his sin, but he took great comfort in knowing that God had not rejected him. He could make a new start, confident that God would not hold his previous sins against him. No sin, not even adultery or murder, is outside of God’s power to forgive.
God’s Work, Our Work. As baptized Christians, we are all a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are all men and women “after God’s own heart.”
We may feel we have a long way to go, but we should be confident that God loves us and wants to help change every way we think and act that is opposed to him and his commands. St. Paul even tells us how this can happen: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Can you see God’s two-part solution here? God wants to change the way we think and act, but he needs us to cooperate with him. One key way we can work with the Lord is to take some time every evening to review our day: “When did I act in a godly manner? When did I fall short of what God was asking me to do?” Or to use the words of St. Paul, we can ask, “When did I live in a way that mirrored ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious’?” (Philippians 4:8). When did I fail to live this way?”
Practicing this kind of examination in the evening will teach you how to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When you take your thoughts captive, you become more and more alert to the way you think, and you’ll be able to weigh your thoughts against the truths of the Lord. Of course, don’t spend hours doing this. Just spend a few minutes looking at the most obvious situations. Over time, you’ll find the Holy Spirit helping you and setting you free.
So that’s our part. What is God’s part? As we examine our day, he is helping us see events through his eyes of mercy and love. He knows how easy it can be to dismiss or excuse our sin, so he helps us to be honest with him and with ourselves. At the same time, he is assuring us of his love. He knows how easily we can become discouraged, so he reminds us that he loves us for who we are and not necessarily for what we do. As the psalmist proclaimed, “Even if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me in” (Psalm 27:10). Nothing can separate you from him—nothing, of course, except your own unwillingness to come to him and ask for his love.
Created for Freedom. God wants to help renew our minds. In fact, he is willing to go to any length to help us win the battle between godliness and selfishness. He has given us the Holy Spirit. He has given us the gift of the Eucharist. He has given us his own word in Scripture. These provisions can be very powerful in helping us overcome every aspect of selfishness. There is nothing more gratifying than the ability to walk in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, freed from our selfish desires.
So begin today. In every situation, using “prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,” ask God for help (Philippians 4:6). Then watch as God’s own peace “that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7).