crosspost: this article originally appeared HERE.
I’ve recently read two books that have impacted my growing understanding of spiritual transformation. Each book approaches the question of how a person experiences personal change (transformation) from a different perspective. One looks at transformation from a theological and mind-based approach. The second book looks at change from a spirituality and heart-based approach. The first book is Effective Biblical Counseling by Larry Crabb (1977). The second is Surrender to Love by David Benner (2015, expanded edition).
Over the past several months my wife Julie and I gave a series of teachings at our church titled “The Heart at Rest.” In this series we looked at some of what Scripture has to say about the change process for our hearts. Much of the content of these teachings was influenced by both Crabb’s and Benner’s thoughts. I wanted to put some of the main thoughts in these books – and a few of my own – onto paper, if only for my own sake. In order to best accomplish this, I’m writing a 3 part blog series on transformation. The first will explore the basic concept of transformation and then look at Crabb’s ideas. The second will engage Benner’s thoughts. The third will attempt to bring them together and add some further personal reflections.
One quick note on what I mean by transformation. Transformation has little to do with blessing in the sense of happiness or material gain or pleasant circumstances in life. Rather, I tend to think of spiritual transformation as the movement from Romans 6 through 7 and into 8. Even though we have been adopted through Christ into the family of God, we so often find ourselves doing the very things we hate! In Christ we know that the flesh has been put to death. We have been crucified with Christ and our lives belong completely to him. And yet, we continue to experience the overwhelming weight of life, and the wretchedness of our longing to continue sinning. I don’t know about you, but this often causes me to hate myself. I loathe – absolutely hate – that I continue not just to sin, but actually at many times desire to sin! So, as I explore a few theories of transformation, I’m mainly interested in how we live by the Spirit, as more than conquerors, and continue to experience change from old to new. I’m not so interested in 3 steps to a happier life, etc.
In recent years there has been a growing recognition in the Christian counseling world that both theology and spirituality are necessary for abundant Christian living. Theology without spirituality is lifeless religion. But spirituality without vibrant Biblical theology can quickly descend into idolatry. Jesus said that the time is coming when worshipers of the Father will worship in spirit and in truth – with living/experiential spirituality and vigorous/orthodox theology. Secular psychological theories offer models of behavioral modification and coping strategies. But only Christianity makes the ridiculously, all-encompassing promise of complete and total transformation (Benner, 2015). Here it’s important to remember that Christianity doesn’t promise happiness, health, or wealth. What it promises is a life that can be truly alive and abundant; a life in-Christ.
LARRY CRAB AND THE ROLE OF THE MIND
In Effective Biblical Counseling Crabb defines Christian maturity as: thinking with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). He argues that for a person to be transformed that person must learn to renew their mind. Crabb draws this idea from the famous verse in Romans 12:2 where Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (ESV). Thus, for Crabb, personal change centers on the renewing of the mind by the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, which results in transformation.
Crabb arrives at this conclusion not only due to these two Scriptures, but also as a result of his understanding of the makeup of a person’s soul. Crabb offers an incredibly helpful sketch of a person’s soul, which he titles the psycho-anatomy of a person. Crabb identifies five components of a person’s soul. Each man and woman has a mind, which is made up of both conscious and unconscious portions. Our conscious minds represent our continuous stream of self-awareness. Our unconscious minds represent the part of our mind that we cannot freely access, yet are very real and present (which artists have long attempted to unlock through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, etc.). In addition to the two parts of a person’s mind, Crabb identifies a person’s heart, a personal will, and emotions as parts of our soul.
According to Crabb’s psycho-anatomy theory the mind is where a person perceives the world. The will represents the choices and free will that each person has in response to these perceptions. The heart gives each person his or her basic life direction. And the emotions represent a person’s capacity for feeling and compassion. Crabb stresses the priority of transforming minds, writing, “Counseling can be thought of as an effort to learn ‘right thinking,’ to choose ‘right behavior,’ and then to experience ‘right feelings’” (Crabb, p. 103). Crabb contends that when I think rightly, I will act rightly, and thus I will ultimately feel righteously.
I think that Crabb’s psycho-anatomy is excellent. In his book he takes time to look at the Hebrew and Greek words that are used in Scripture to describe each of these components of the soul. It’s a very helpful breakdown.
Crabb’s understanding of the heart is also helpful. He describes the heart as the source of basic direction. He gets this idea from Proverbs 4:23 where the writer says, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (NLT). The heart, however, is desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9) and so the direction that it chooses cannot be trusted. Crabb suggests that as long as a person’s will listens primarily to their heart they will continue to practice self-destructive and idolatrous behavior.
However, when a person learns to renew their mind they can learn to place their personal will in submission to their renewed mind and therefore choose right behavior – even when the heart wants something contradictory.
Eventually, the heart will also be submitted to the will, which has been submitted to the mind, which has been renewed to have the mind of Christ. This brings us back to Crabb’s theory that right thinking leads to right behavior, which leads to right feeling. Thus transformation takes place.
Whereas a person once followed the direction of their deceitful heart, they have now learned to choose right behavior based on their right thinking (through the mind of Christ). For this to take place the primary input into the mind must be the Word of God.
When the Word of God is the primary input, both the conscious and unconscious mind can learn to think like Christ and thus be renewed, which leads to holistic spiritual transformation.
In Christ we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), but we still have access to all the old desires and all the shame. When we’re even slightly honest with and about ourselves we come face to face with the reality of our spiritual state. I can say with absolute belief that I belong to Christ, that I am beloved by Him, that He has a will and plan for my life, and that I have eternal life and hope in Him. I can also say, with Paul, that I do and think the things that I hate, and often don’t do the things that I know I should, and in fact actually want to do. Don’t you identify with this? The most meaningful lyric to me over the past couple of years has been the final verse of Come Thou Fount, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love, here’s my heart Lord take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” Don’t you feel it too?
So, if Crabb is correct, than what I most need is a renewal of mind through the Word of God. When the Word of God becomes the most vital and important input into my mind, my mind can be renewed through the Holy Spirit to think like Jesus. When I have the mind of Christ, I know the will of God, and can then exercise appropriate dominion over my will and cause my heart to be moved in the right direction, aligned with God.
This is a helpful theological perspective of the change process. That being said, I’m not sure it gives quite enough recognition to the strength and positional prominence of the human heart. For many people, the heart is simply stronger than the mind. My mind can think rightly all it wants…at the end of the day, my heart is still going to do what it wants (giving direction to my life). So if my heart doesn’t change, neither will my mind.