Our thoughts go astray all the time, in ways that we wouldn’t want anyone else to know. At least mine do. Whatever others may see of us on the outside, we know what’s going through our minds. And too often it’s neither pretty nor pleasing to God.
These are the times in which Paul’s words about taking thoughts captive and making them obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:5) may seem to resonate most. Sheepishly, we scold ourselves: Stop thinking that! That’s no way for a Christian to think!
But in context, Paul isn’t talking about the need for mental self-discipline — at least not the kind in which we wrestle with sinful or unwanted thoughts. He’s talking about defeating the arguments his opponents are using to undermine his credibility. More is at stake in this battle of wits than the Corinthians realize. And part of their problem is that they’re too easily swayed by smooth talk.
The issues are actually rather mundane. The fight between Paul and his opponents isn’t a lofty debate over complex theological principles. It’s a question of whom the Corinthians will listen to, of whose influence they will accept. And what makes the out-of-towners so convincing, as we’ve seen in previous posts, is that they play on social expectations and prejudices that the Corinthians already take for granted. Surely Paul can’t be a real apostle! He’s not a very impressive guy. He’s inconsistent and unpredictable. He has no references. And no one sent by God should have so many bad things happen in his ministry!
It doesn’t work to just try really hard not to think bad thoughts. That just gives them more attention, the mental equivalent of adding fuel to the fire. What we need is a different habit of thinking good thoughts instead, as Paul suggests elsewhere:
From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. (Phil 4:8, CEB)
More specifically, given the context in which Paul speaks of taking thoughts captive, we might ask ourselves questions like these:
- In what ways do I judge the worth and credibility of others?
- Where did these standards come from?
- How might these standards become so automatic that I can’t even notice or appreciate what God is doing in and through the life of another?
Paul is surrounded by conflicts and challenges. And yet Paul still sees newness and the redemptive work of God everywhere he looks, because God calls surprising people to do surprising things in surprising ways.
We might notice, too — if with the help of the Holy Spirit we can take our social biases and prejudices captive.