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The Role of the Thought Life in Spirituality

It should be granted that all our sin and all our faults start with the thoughts coming out of our hearts.  It is an advance for us to see that the generation of thoughts is independent of the "I", the "inner man" of Paul, and to recognize our essential helplessness in controlling the process.  We can attempt to train the mind by practice and study, making it react and cooperate with us as we, the "inner men", select thoughts to feed back to the heart.  As I pointed out in "Hack Yer Mind!", we can get the process to work quite quickly.  This is especially true of knowledge workers whose products are reports, recommendations, investigations, and computer programs.  Such individuals have well-trained minds that react quickly and appropriately to what the "inner man" selects, presenting extremely appropriate mental thought menu choices.  Yet, I think we all, at one time or another while at work, got distracted by someone or something that irritated us, got under our skin, worries us, or makes us want to be someplace else.  Although we intend to concentrate on our work, these thoughts keep getting added to our menu of thoughts and we seem to pick them more often than we should.  This is especially true of those caught in compulsive-obsessive behavior that most people would call an addiction.  Thoughts and cravings (which are thoughts interpreting the body sense) related to the compulsion seem to spring out of nowhere and are difficult to manage.

Let's ask a really fundamental question about such thoughts: why do we think such thoughts are wicked, evil, bad, or undesirable, thus requiring control and/or suppression?  Mainly because we, as individuals, are committed to a certain kind of behavior that is opposed to those thoughts.  We know that the thoughts are not in accordance to our commitments because indulging them leads to the working out of the compulsion in behavior that is not consistent with, and often the opposite of, the kinds of behavior that are consistent with that commitment.

How are those commitments known?  For a Christian, those commitments arise from a desire to follow Jesus Christ as expressed concretely in the Scriptures.  James speaks of the Law as being a mirror that shows us our faults.  The religious and concrete manifestation of the goal of the commitments we make are embodied in what Paul called, in Romans 7, the Law.

Now, this is a very subtle question: How are the commitments related to behavior-related thoughts (i.e. temptations) expressed?  We know that the Law is embodied in a book, but it obviously has no effect in that form: if putting a rule in a book made people behave, then they would, well, behave.  They are not, which is why there are all these calls in the Bible urging the people to follow the Bible.  The Bible makes the commitments known.  They are expressed as thoughts themselves

Thus, when we look at the actual conflict as described in Romans 7, we are not looking at a conflict between a Law in a book and a temptation: we are looking at two thoughts competing for selection, one of which is the thought "from the flesh" (the unconverted heart) and a thought that expresses the expectations of the Law that is thrown up by the Spirit.  Galatians 5:17 states "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."  This states that the conflict could be so great that it causes one mental pause, unable to go in either direction because the battle between these two thoughts is so intense. 

Making people adhere to a rule of behavior is a great concern in other belief systems.  Some resort to violence to enforce behavior, but the majority see the benefit of a mental "buy in" by the believers that would naturally produce the desired behavior.  However, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are belief systems that emphasize correctness of the thought life in addition to conformance in external behavior.  All three recognize that accountability comes only from a mind informed and educated of the standard, so all three have systems and traditions of education.  And like Christinaity, Judaism and Islam also have problems of believers not conforming to the desired standard.  How each has dealt with the problem is covered in Paul's writings.  They appear to be based on the Jewish model of the heart, but with variations.

Human Solutions to Thought Life Modification and Control

In Islam, it was seen that the heart generated thoughts mainly based on the external senses.  They saw the world as full of "triggers" that produced unclean thoughts, and so have created a system of laws and customs to limit the stimuli coming in to the minds of the believers.  In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul said this of such a system:

20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, 21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not; 22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

This sort of regime was tried during the Middle Ages and in pre 1900 America as well as Islam.  A focus on the external sense inputs and the reaction from the Body sense ignores what God said in Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"  In a sense, they ran into the same problem that the designers of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge ran into: not accounting for all the sources of wickedness.

The Old Coventant Solution to Thought Life Modification and Control

Judaism did not make that mistake, and opted for a "two track" approach that, while imposing a system of laws and regulations based on "Touch not; taste not; handle not", also emphasized the training of the Human heart.  I alluded to this when I commented on Hebrews 5:11-14 on the benefits of a trained heart that fools people into believing there is a "conscious mind".  While the Priests, Pharisees, and Lawyers relied on regulations, laws, and traditions to create a form of righteousness, they also emphasized knowledge of the law, saying with disgust that "... this people who knoweth not the law are cursed" when Jesus' popularity was brought up.  Who taught you the Law was a vital question, with Paul boasting of being taught by Gamaliel, while the Jews took offense at Jesus' knowledge and power because they were unable to trace who "taught" him how to do it.

The problem, of course, is that, although the Law is perfect, the Law was also limited.  The Jewish Heart Training Regime worked beautifully.  It HAD to, because it was based on a correct model of the human heart correctly interpreted.  Where it went wrong is that the Law, when viewed as a mechanical means of generating righteousness, was limited because it could only specify what was not desired.  It could only forbid the wrong, not encourage that which is right.  Let's take a look at Galatians 5:19-21:

19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The Law was great in regulating everything not bolded: the problem was with the bolded sins.  When it came to hatred, wrath, varianace, and envyings, the Jewish leaders and the Pharisees had them in abundance when it came to Jesus and his ministry. 

This huge hole in the coverage of the Law is hinted at in the question the Lawyer put to Jesus in Mark 12:28-34, and in the response.

28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? 29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: 30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. 32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: 33 And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.

Now, those particular statutes had been in the Torah for thousands of years.  Yet, if their "greatness" had been so obvious to the Lawyer, why ask the question in the first place?  These guys put such stock on the Law, it was not possible that these had been overlooked all this time.  The problem these verses posed were that they were "mushy": they could not be put into a "by the book" set of fixed rules that could be enumerated and followed as easily as the rules for determining clean from unclean animals. 

The Solution of the Spirit: The Law as the Foundation

How did Christianity address the question?  The first thing we should note is that they did not dispose of the law.  This may surprise some, for after the observation of Galatians 5:17 that "the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.", it says in verse 18: "But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law."?  Does this not dispose of the Law?

Actually, no.  Being "under the law" has nothing to do with being subject to the Law's moral requirements.  It only means no longer being guided and under the instruction of the Law.  Paul was a good Pharisee, understood the process of Jewish education, and understood the coverage gaps in the written Law, while being quite aware that the Law of God could not be exhaustively enumerated.  There are times when knowing Pi to 8 decimal places is 'good enough', and times when 800 places is not good enough, because Pi is, in actuality, bigger and more complex than a number that could be perfectly defined by writing it down to the correct number of decimal places of accuracy: it is inherently different than those kinds of numbers.  It was the intractability of Pi that led to their initial classification as "irrational" numbers.  Wiser heads prevailed, and they are now called transcendental for very good reasons.  The Christians used the Jewish education principles as a foundation, but went a step further.  Galatians 3:19-29 is an earlier passage that says, in verses 23 to 25:

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.  Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.  But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

The phrase "under the law" in Galatians means being under the Law-As-Schoolmaster.  This is a direct reference to the educative aspect of the Law, as viewed in light of the way the Graeco-Roman world educated high class children.  The schoolmaster was usually a slave who had been a member of the upper class of another society, and was set over the child, and who was given permission to educate and discipline the child in the early stages of their education.  Immediately after the above passage, in Galatians 4:1-7, Paul says:

1 Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; 2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: 4 But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, 5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. 7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

The Heir will use, in daily life, many of the skills and facts of knowledge that the slave-turned-schoolmaster taught him, but only because many of the issues of life are complex assemblies of very simple things, which simple things the schoolmaster taught.  However, there comes a time when the slave must cease to be the schoolmaster, not because the slave did not teach the child well, but because leaving the child under the schoolmaster makes the future heir subject to the slave, and not the other way around.  Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle, unarguably the greatest educator of the Greek culture and a free man, not a slave.  But despite those credentials, Alexander eventually had to cease being under Aristotle, lest the kingship of Macedonia fall to Aristotle, not Alexander. 

It is essential to see how the Law fitted into the Early Christian education system.  Recall the most striking fact of the Early Church: all those who worked miracles were Jews or Hellenist Jews. Put another way, Only Jews worked miracles.  Put another way, the pure Greeks and Romans, the gentiles of Judaism, did not work miracles.  Certainly, this is not an accident or a coincidence! 

Of course it isn't.  Part of the education of a good Jew included the Old Testament books of history.  Those books are full of stories where the course of events decisively turned for the better when the Spirit came on the scene by entering into a person bodily.  One should imagine a creative story teller recounting the story of Samson to a group of Jewish kids who would paint a dire picture of the Hero's straights, pause dramatically, and then saying "Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson!".  All hell breaks loose. Little boys leap up and curl their arms to show off their biceps.  The girls squeal in anticipation.  These kids are raised in such a way that when there is a hint that the Spirit of the Lord is on the move, they think "I GOTTA GET ME SUMMA DAT!"  Hebrews 11 is not in that book by accident: it would have been educational malpractice on the part of the writer not to have had it in there.  If you were a Greek in Greek culture, getting siezed by a spirit leads to you either getting locked up as insane, taken to the local temple to serve as an oracle to make money for the priests, or made a slave to make money as a diviner for your owner.  If you were a philosophical Greek, you'd be skeptical (if not downright greatly offended) that any Spirit (being so pure and holy) would care to occupy a sinful and evil husk of flesh.  Big difference in culture attitude.  For all his faults, Simon Magus was the smartest non-Jew around, for if the Spirit of God was for sale, you'd see the Jews running toward the booth waving bags of gold, fighting against the waves of Greeks running in the opposite direction, with Simon Magus being the sole exception.  Peter and John heal a crippled man in front of the Jewish temple, and more Jews join the Church.  Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled man in a Greek city, and a riot starts that ends up with Paul stoned by the Greeks.  Which culture, Jewish or Greco-Roman, would be more fertile ground for growing suitable hosts for a symbiotic Holy Spirit?

It was never the intention of the Apostles and Paul for the Christian Church to be separate from Judaism.  It would be Judaism-Lite to the Gentiles, while giving every Jew what their heart desired , the Holy Spirit within them to help them walk in the Spirit. At the same time, there was a strong effort on the part of the Apostles, and all the evangelists, to urge the believers not to obey the law in a legalistic manner.  Living was to be done lawfully, but not legalistically. 

For centuries, this has been seen as an educational high-wire act on the part of Bible teachers.  How does one properly teach the Law in light of the Gospel without improperly disposing of it or slavishly following it into bondage?  At some point in people's lives, the Law has to exist, but at what point does the Law's instruction end and the instruction of the Spirit of Life begin?

Here is my attempt at an answer.

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