We recently watched the third part of the Hobbit trilogy. Not for the first time, I began to think I was a bit old for this sort of thing. The cinema was redolent with the odours of crushed popcorn and stale teenage hormones. The film, though spectacular, was a bit derivative. In five previous Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies, I felt, we had seen it all before. Brave fighting, the flash of swords, stupid orcs* marching dumbly around in rows waiting for their heads to be separated from their bodies, yada yada yada.
(Sorry if that was a spoiler.)
As a body of work, though, the six films are an unforgettable spectacle, and for me the epic scenes remind me of a fight we each of us face in truth, not fantasy: the Battle of the Mind.
It's the fight of our lives. When we lose a battle in this conflict, war and trouble are likely to break out on a wider front. (All wars, even world wars, start in someone's head.) But when we win a round, we win a great prize, becoming more like Jesus and making the world a sweeter place. Instead of orcs, we are fighting the malicious, lustful, anxious thoughts which our human flesh generates. Instead of rebuilding shattered cities and fortresses like Tolkien’s heroes, we are trying to fill our heads with the image and likeness of God. The Bible teaches that the Battle of the Mind is all about whose image we follow:
... you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:9-10).
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
See the three stages. First we put to death the old thoughts. No mercy: lop their heads off, throw them in a river, bury them. Then, second, we take a step back, and reframe our thinking. “What am I doing? I'm a child of God! I was made for better stuff than filling my head with this.” We deliberately wake ourselves up from our dreamy, half-dead fug. Finally, third, we come to God, we seek Him, we cry out to be like Him.
Forget all semi-magic alternative descriptions of how we become ‘sanctified’, or grow more like Christ. This method, the Biblical one, takes effort. Uproot the old thoughts. Rethink. Seek the beauty of God to replace them. Day following day, sometimes hour after hour or minute after minute, this is our work.
The particular thoughts we have to fight depend on our personality. Some will fight sexual temptation; some will worry too much, or be prone to anger (do you feel to be surrounded by fools?), or jealousy (is your sister the favourite?). Some people are almost consumed by a desire not to be overlooked; others by feelings of worthlessness. Some of us carry malice around in our hearts, wanting to speak badly of people we don’t like. In every case, the Bible’s remedy is the same: out with the old thoughts, reboot our heads, refresh ourselves in the image of God. Out of that will flow all kinds of goodness into the world.
Gaze To Amaze
Here is our battle plan, and it works, but there is a flaw. May I suggest we don't spend enough time gazing on the image of God? And so His attributes perhaps never fill our minds and our behaviour quite like they are supposed to. So let's spend the rest of this article dipping our toes in this lovely sea.
Compassion. Do you remember the woman caught in adultery (See John 8:2-11)? I imagine her manhandled out of bed and thrown to the ground in front of Jesus, surrounded by a crowd, with people shouting for her to be stoned to death. It was like something out of Afghanistan or Northern Pakistan today, a wretched woman, surrounded by bearded angry men.
You remember Jesus writing in the sand with His finger. What was He doing? I think He was refusing to stare at this half-naked woman, unlike everyone else in the crowd who was greedily ogling her. Then He addressed the crowd: let the one without sin throw the first stone. After everyone slunk away, and perhaps the woman had time to rearrange herself, I can imagine Him looking her in the eye and saying, “Neither do I condemn you: go and leave your life of sin.”
So our image of Jesus. Here was a woman unfaithful to her husband. Yet Jesus accepted and defended her first. He didn’t judge her. Only when He had saved her from the angry mob and befriended her did He start to work on her sin problem. First came the respect and the non-judgemental embrace. Tackling the sin problem came later. Many of us will have a similar recollection of Jesus’ dealings with us. It is an extraordinary thought that at the heart of the Universe, all-powerful and great, is a personality like this. Gazing on such a being must change us too, and make us quicker to befriend, slower to condemn; quicker to see the offender, slower to see the offence.
Faithfulness. Go down to the sea sometime. I know the waves and tides in Singapore don’t always quite have the vigour of other places in the world, but still. On they come. Back they come. Night and day, year following year, through the unrolling centuries, persistent enough to eat landscapes and turn rough rocks into smooth pebbles. God’s faithfulness is like that. Back it comes. I know very little about the year 2030 (for example). Money, culture, countries, who knows what will have changed? Perhaps you and I will become grumpy old people, bewildered inhabitants of a new world. (I am halfway there already.) One thing won’t have changed. God won’t have forgotten to be faithful. He’ll still be there. Again and again, His goodness will come slurping and gurgling up our shores. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, forever good, forever true, forever he will be upholding us. Imagine just a fragment of that faithfulness invading our lives and making us constant and true! Nice thought.
Generosity. You can argue that it is easy for God to be generous, given that He created everything and owns everything. If He had to balance His books at the end of every month like we have to, maybe He too would count the pennies. Maybe, but probably not. God manages to be generous not just to the grateful, but to the mean-minded, the evil-hearted, and even the irritatingly smug. He makes the sun rise and the rain fall on His bitterest opponents, on people who laugh at Him and his friends, on the cruel, on the abusers and exploiters. And on the stupid. He knows justice will have its day one day. But until that day, He remains kind and good. What a challenge.
Three parts of God’s image: compassion, faithfulness, generosity. We could have considered many others such as wisdom, patience, a passion for the right. I think it's true that if we properly grasped any one of these we would make the world around us a different place.
Well, never mind how poorly we are doing. Next time we go orc-slaying, we know our job:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
* fantasy creatures who are supposed to be scary but by the sixth film in the series, you just know they’re doomed to lose.
Glenn Myers is a writer and former Impact Associate Editor. His latest book, More than Bananas: how the Christian faith works for me and the whole Universe came out of three near-death experiences in four years. It is available in paperback and Kindle formats. You can track Glenn’s increasing bewilderment at www.glennmyers.info.