Imagine yourself transported to the other side of the world. A big, scary, smelly, 7-foot-tall man with a turban grins at you with vicious, rotten teeth, as he pulls out his giant scimitar. It is a sharp, curly sword, bigger than any you’ve ever seen. By the look on your face, you can tell that he is planning to use it to separate your head from your shoulders. What would you do?
I know what Indiana Jones would do. In the Crusaders of the Lost Ark movie, Indiana just looked at the guy; then he pulled out his gun and shot him. Game over.
The guy was bigger than Indiana Jones, and stronger than Indiana Jones. Yet he lost the battle, because he was using the wrong weapon. As the old saying goes, you should never bring a knife to a gunfight!
In ancient Israel, David ran into a similar temptation, years before he was coronated as King. Still just a boy, he was planning to fight the giant named Goliath. And if King Saul had had his way, David would have gone into the right battle, with the wrong weapons.
Trying to help little David prepare for battle, King Saul put his own armor on David. He put a bronze helmet on his head, and he weighed him down with a heavy coat of chain mail. Then to add to the burden, David fastened his sword to the armor and tried to walk. Then he told King Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them.” Then David took them off.
Then he took his staff in his hand; and he chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag, in a pouch which he had, and his sling was in his hand. And he drew near to the Philistine. (1 Samuel 17:40)
Now King Saul was an experienced and successful warrior. He knew how to win battles. And the advice he gave to David was based on conventional wisdom. Everybody knows that you need a good helmet, good armor, and a good sword, if you are going to go into battle. But in this case, conventional wisdom was wrong. David did not need armor, and David did not need a sword. What David needed was a smooth stone, a good sling, and the grace of God.
In our lives, how often are we like that giant coming after Indiana Jones with a sword, only to find that our opponent has brought a gun to the fight? How often are we like King Saul, thinking that conventional swords and armor are the things we need to fight Goliath? How often do we show up for the right battles, with the wrong weapons?
- A parent wants obedience from the children. Right battle.
- So the parent yells at the children in anger. Wrong weapon.
- A parent wants the children to learn responsibility. Right battle.
- So the parent confuses the difference between forgetfulness and rebellion,
spanking the child when he forgets to do one of his chores. Wrong weapon.
- A husband wants his wife to improve in some way. Right battle.
- So he makes a snide comment, making fun of her mistakes. Wrong weapon.
- A wife wants her husband to get some important work done. Right battle.
- So she nags him, hoping that will encourage him to get busy. Wrong weapon.
In each of these cases, the goal is good and holy. A husband should follow Christ’s example, and sanctify his bride. A wife should expect her husband to be a man, and to get important work done for the family. Parents should require their children to be obedient, and they should teach their children to be responsible. But these are the wrong ways to go about it. The battles are good, but the weapons are all wrong.
For many of us, this is not new information. We know that we need to be careful in how we interact with others. When we respond to people with anger and sarcasm, we know that the result is usually not good. So over time, hopefully we build better habits.
But all too often, we stop there. We change the way we interact with other people, but we fail to remedy the way we interact with ourselves.
As Christians, it is our job to struggle against sin with every fiber of our being. But what is the right way to do that? How do we avoid showing up to the right battles, with the wrong weapons?
in the 6th chapter of Luke, Jesus says:
“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:45-46)
Jesus asked an excellent question. If we are unwilling to do the things that Jesus tells us to do, then why do we bother calling Him “Lord”? If we are going to call Him Lord, then we need to obey Him as Lord. And the lesson here is that our thoughts determine our actions. What I think about in my heart ultimately influences what I do with my tongue, my mouth, my hands, and my feet.
“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7)
That is why we cannot focus on outward actions alone.
Struggling against sin is the right battle.
But exclusively focusing on outward actions is the wrong weapon.
Merely focusing on outward sins is like cutting down an ugly weed with a lawn mower. It is temporarily cut down to size, and for a while your lawn looks better. But no matter how many times you mow the lawn, you know that weed is coming right back. So it is with our sins. A merely outward focus on our sins cannot bring us anything more than temporary success. The weeds will grow back.
But when we focus on the secret thoughts of our hearts, and we conquer those, that is like pulling up a weed by the roots. It shrivels up, dies, and does not grow back. Therefore, the only way we can have lasting victory over sin, is if we strike at the very root of sin, and we wage spiritual warfare at the level of our thoughts:
- If you choose to think lazy thoughts, then you will become a lazy person.
- If you choose to think industrious thoughts, then you will become a hard-working person.
- If you choose to think of your wife as an ignorant person, then you will become a husband who is prideful, haughty, and condescending toward her.
- If you choose to fill your mind with thoughts of thankfulness for the good things about your wife, then you will become a kinder, gentler, more loving husband.
- If you choose to think critical and negative thoughts about your husband, then you will become a sour, frigid, nagging wife.
- If you choose to fill your mind with thoughts of thankfulness for the good things about your husband, then you will become a softer, gentler, more patient, respectful, and loving wife.
- If you choose to nurse resentments about the negative aspects of the work that you do, you will gradually grow to despise your work, you will become less and less productive, and you will become more and more angry. This happens whether you are an employee working in an office, or whether you are a housewife working in the kitchen.
- If you choose to rejoice about the positive good that comes about through your work, then you will grow to love your work, you will become more and more productive, and you will become more and more happy. And people will start enjoying being around you for a change.
It is not enough just to grit your teeth, and try to work hard, try to be a kind and loving husband, try to be a warm and responsive wife, or to try to have a good attitude with your work. Your outward actions are the symptoms of your thoughts. And to cure a disease, you have to look deeper than the symptoms. The source of the disease can be found in your thought patterns. Change those, and your actions will change accordingly.
Choose to think clearly, and be honest with yourself. Are there some things that you don’t like about yourself? Are there some areas of your life where you know that you are not yet like Christ? For years, you have gone back and forth between frustration and despair: frustration whenever you try to change your outward actions and fail, and despair whenever you give up trying.
You are fighting the right battle. But you are using the wrong weapons.
Merely focusing on outward behavior has never changed anybody . . . including yourself.
As St. Paul has told us, the only solution is to take every thought captive to Christ. That means every thought. Every thought about marriage. Every thought about sex. Every thought about money. Every thought about parenting. Every thought about food. Every thought about entertainment. Every thought about politics. “Every thought” means every thought that you have, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no exceptions.
If there are things that you want to change about yourself, then the only possible way to make those changes is to change your thoughts. First, you need to identify what parts of your thinking are contributing to your sin. Second, you need to choose to think differently, from now on.
For some of your sins, you may succeed in changing your thinking on your own. But for some of your sins, you may have difficulties identifying which of your thought patterns are at the root of your sin. In those cases, it is a good idea to seek the help of an Orthodox Christian counselor. You can talk to me, you can talk to Fr. Michael when he is in town, or you can talk to Bishop John when he visits. Do not be too proud to ask for help, for there are no Lone Ranger Christians.
In the past, you have fought with the wrong weapons. You have gone after Indiana Jones with a sword, while he was holding a gun.
Today, and from now on, you have the ability to use the right weapons. To achieve victory over sin, temptation, and the devil, you must achieve victory over your thoughts. We have been called to take every thought captive for Christ.
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ . . . ”
(2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
This sermon was preached in Omaha, Illinois, at Christ the King Orthodox Church, on Sunday morning, October 28, 2012, by Dcn. Joseph Gleason.