A while ago we discovered a new show called I Almost Got Away With It. The show chronicles the stories of criminals who nearly pulled off great heists or almost escaped the clutches of the law. One episode told the story of a man on the run who hid from the law by pretending to be a Catholic priest. He had grown up as a Catholic so he was familiar with many of the traditions and ceremonies, so he forged some official looking documents and sent his resume to a church. The senior priest at the church assumed it had come from another diocese and hired the man. Then for several years, this fugitive acted like a priest, following all of the rules and regulations and going through the ceremonies. Based on nearly everything he did on the outside, the man looked like a Catholic priest. Several times, he was nearly caught because a few of the small things he did were out of sync with what a priest would do or say and he was constantly having to watch his every step. On the outside, as far as the other priests and parishioners could tell, the man was a man of the cloth. On the inside, he was still a criminal on the run from the law.
The Apostle Paul wrote about a similar phenomenon in the book of Colossians. In chapter 2 he described a number of religious practices that were used to judge other people's faith, and all of these standards were based on outward things: food, drink, the observance of religious holidays and new moon festivals, abstinence from certain activities and pleasures, how many visions one claimed to have. Paul described all of these practices as things which had a "reputation of wisdom" but which did nothing to curb self-indulgence (Colossians 2:22, HCSB) and Paul warned his readers not to let people judge them based on these outward things. Instead, Paul said, "set your hearts on things above" (Colossians 3:1, NIV) as a means of managing self-indulgence. Throughout most of his letters, Paul repeats the refrain of changing the way one thinks, of focusing on heavenly things and allowing the Spirit to influence your mindset.
Paul understood, like the fugitive priest, that what a person does on the outside is only part of the story. You can play a good game, say all the right things, and look like a great person, and still be an ugly, vile, self-indulgent mean-spirited person. The things that we do matter, but our attitudes and thought processes matter more. We can fake doing all the right things by going through the motions but we can't fake having our minds in the right place. And just like that priest, if our mindset isn't right, eventually our façade will crack and our mask will fail and people will see right through us. More than that, we will never be able to beat those sins that haunt us or grow spiritually just by trying to be more disciplined. Discipline is a good thing but nothing will really change unless we change the way we think. In Romans 12:2, Paul put it this way: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (NIV). In Philippians 4:8, Paul gave this advice, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things" (NIV).
If we really want to change our habits, defeat those persistent sins, and grow into the kind of believers that God designed us to be, we have to do more than try harder, we have to change how we think. We have to choose to keep our minds on things that are pure, noble, true and admirable. Thoughts turn into actions, actions turn into habits, habits turn into character.
When we think about the right things, it becomes natural to do the right things. And it doesn't take discipline to do what is natural.