Read Romans 8:12-25.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6)

Sorry, even though the lectionary reading for this week is Romans 8:12-25, I can’t get beyond verses 5-6. I’m stuck. My mind is stuck.

“Set [your] minds on the things of the Spirit.” I can try to set my mind all I like, but each time I try, it bounces back to where it was in about one millisecond. How can I control my thinking like that?

I hate myself.

Wait a minute. Where did that thought come from? I don’t really hate myself Lord, I don’t hate anything you have created.

I hate myself. I want to die.

No Lord! I trust in your love, your forgiveness.

I hate myself with the flaming passion of a thousand burning suns.



How do you “set your mind”? How do you control your thoughts?

Suppose you want to pray, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, to “be still and know that I am God,” to pierce that cloud of darkness and confusion between you and God with an arrow of love. But thoughts continually get in the way, anxieties or desires, thoughts of past sins or failings, thoughts of insufficiency or shame, thoughts that all somehow seem to come back to self.

These thoughts are particularly hard to get rid of when they have emotional attachment. If you try to force them out of your mind they pop right back in.

Take thoughts of past sins or failings or weaknesses. (Please.) You have already confessed these sin with tears. You have made a firm resolution to amend. You have submitted to God and you seek his will. You are reformed. It is time to accept forgiveness and live in the Spirit. Yet thoughts of these things keep recurring, interfering with your prayer, coming between you and God.

The Cloud of Unknowing says that there are many possible tricks and strategies for dealing with such thoughts and the Spirit is best able to teach them to you. Yet chapter 32 proposes two strategies you can try.

The first is to “look over the shoulder” of such thoughts toward God, who is there in the background. The thoughts are distractions (or worse), so redirect them slightly into thoughts of God. If thoughts of past sin arise, thank God for his atonement and seek him. If anxieties arise, thank God for his provident care and seek him. If thoughts of your own insufficiency arise, thank God that he is leading and guiding you and seek to do his will. This seeking, this longing desire for God, is the Spirit.

The second strategy is to give up. Cower under the onslaught. Acknowledge that you are indeed sinful, weak, insufficient, overweight, unlovable, a pretender, unable to save yourself. And then turn to God: Help! Your only hope is in Christ—but in him you have confidence. This humble dependence on God has as strong a pull on him to give aid and comfort as does the cry of a child being attacked by a wild animal on a parent.

Here is a third possible strategy. Use a brief prayer to which you have attached your desire for God. When thoughts arise, turn toward God by repeating that prayer. “I have nothing, I am nothing, I desire nothing but Jesus.” “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or maybe the admirably concise yet wonderfully rich prayer “Love!”

Repeat this prayer whenever you notice that you are off in left field. Repeat it frequently. Let it cycle through your mind repeatedly, like an ear worm. Attach it to your breathing. Make it habitual. Learn to pray continuously.

This “renewal of your mind” takes great effort and great courage over a long period. And endurance. But the mind of the flesh is death. The mind of the Spirit is life and peace. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”

The Cloud concludes this topic as follows:

Press on, then, and labor earnestly for the time, I pray you. Endure the pain humbly, if you cannot quickly acquire these tricks. For […] when your pain is all over, and God has given you these devices, and you have acquired the habit of them through grace, then I am sure that you will be purified, not only from sin, but also from the pain attaching to it. I am speaking of the pain of your own special past sins, not the pain of original sin. For that will be with you till your dying day, no matter how earnestly you labor. Nevertheless, it shall trouble you little, in comparison with your own particular sins. And even so, hard labour will always be yours. For new and fresh impulses toward sinning are always springing up out of this original sin, which you must always smite down and cut away. *

*The Cloud of Unknowing, Paulist Press, 1981, p. 182.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and