Growing up, I liked to watch cartoons, and one of the frequently featured techniques of a cartoon villain is brainwashing. Using either diabolical technology or nefarious magic, the villain could force whole masses of people to believe something that wasn’t true or to act in ways that they would never normally choose to act. This brainwashing power was demonstrated to be both fascinating and frightening, yet the heroes always eventually overcame it through their commitment to holding fast to what is true and to protecting one another from falling under mind control.
There is a way in which Christians must similarly protect themselves from a kind of brainwashing frequently at work today. Romans 12:2 says,
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
This verse appears at the beginning of the application section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, right after he finishes discussing the glorious righteousness of God in the gospel of Christ. Poignantly, after calling on believers to present themselves as living and holy sacrifices to God in Romans 12:1, Paul follows up that command in Romans 12:2 with an exhortation to resist the pressure to be conformed to the world.
The word for “be conformed” in Romans 12:2 refers to something being formed according to a pattern or placed into a mold. The verb is in the passive voice, meaning that the action is being attempted by someone else against the believer. Someone, Paul says, is trying to force or press you into the form of living characteristic of the world. Who is doing this? Other scriptures provide an answer so that we do not have to wonder: Satan, his spirit co-conspirators, the evil world system controlled by Satan, and even our old sinful flesh (Gal 5:17; Eph 2:1-3; 6:11-12; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 John 2:15-17; 5:19). These are all enlisted in an unholy alliance against us to get us to think and act like the world! Real-life brainwashers are known to use both repetition and intimidation to confuse victims and ultimately cause them to adopt the brainwashers’ own viewpoint. The evil one and his world likewise have a systematic and even coercive approach in pressing believers into the image of the world.
This is a serious situation, since the fleshly way of the world leads to death (Rom 8:13)! What must believers do to counter this relentless mind assault? First, Paul says, do not allow yourselves to be conformed to this world. Be aware of what’s going on and do not let it happen to you or your brethren with you (the “you” is second-person plural here, i.e. “you all”). Second, do allow yourself to be conformed or rather transformed into a different image. The word for “be transformed” here is metamorphao, from which we get the word “metamorphosis.” This second verb is also passive; someone or something else is going to transform us, and we need to allow this to happen.
What is the means of our transformation? Paul answers that question directly: “by the renewing of your mind.” You need your thinking made new, restored once again to what is right and true. Where do we find what is right and true? God’s word, of course! By regularly learning and refreshing ourselves in what God reveals in the Bible, we indeed come to discover “what the will of God is,” namely, all that is “good and acceptable and perfect.” Another way to describe our transformation is to point out whose image we will ultimately come to resemble if we let the word of Christ renew our minds: the image of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3:18; cf. Rom 8:29).
Sometimes we Christians can deceive ourselves into thinking that, even if we’re not actively seeking the Lord through his word, we can still maintain what we’ve already come to learn and believe. But this is not true. As people, we are always being conformed into one image or the other, either the image of the world or the image of Christ. To take the easy way and to do nothing is to allow Satan to increasingly conform you and your thinking into the world’s image; his relentless barrage and his subtle deceptions will eventually weaken and break down even your most formidable convictions. If you take the way of spiritual discipline, however, and subject yourself to the living and active word so that it both reveals and transforms you, not only can you keep the world’s corrupting influence at bay, but you can also progress in knowing and becoming more like your savior Jesus Christ (Eph 4:17-24; 5:15-17; Heb 4:12; 1 Peter 1:13-16; 1 John 5:18-20).
The word of God is not only our necessary spiritual food, but it is also the basis of our necessary renewal of mind. Let us therefore, by grace through faith, pursue our Lord’s word diligently.
Questions to Consider:
1. Do people who are being brainwashed realize that they are being brainwashed?
2. Sometimes people accuse Christians of being brainwashed, and there are some “Christian” cult leaders who do try to brainwash their followers. How can we protect ourselves from brainwashing even under the banner of Christianity (consider Acts 17:11; 26:24-29; 1 Thess 5:21; Jude 3-4)?
3. How can we help one another not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our mind (consider Eph 4:11-16; Col 3:16; Heb 10:23-25)?