Why do you think the way you do? Are the choices you make truly your own, or do influences beyond your control unduly sway your opinions?
Besieged by a cacophony of sights, sounds, impressions, images and emotions—all competing for our time, attention and thoughts—our minds are daily exposed to far more information than we can consciously process. Even in sleep we integrate people, places and events into partly real, sometimes frightful and at other times wildly whimsical dreams. The sheer volume of ideas and information incessantly bombarding our minds creates for us an information crisis, a battle for control over what we think and believe.
The battle for your mind is a reality that you cannot afford to ignore. Believe it or not, you are the focus of relentless efforts to alter your beliefs, and some of the subtle skills meant to shape the way you think are astonishingly powerful and effective.
Commercial advertising is a widely recognized example. Marketing efforts thrive on shaping public habits and influencing choices.
Honest and legitimate advertising is a benefit to consumers and a valuable information source in any modern economy. Yet not all advertising honestly represents the facts, as illustrated by the old saying “Let the buyer beware.”
Beguiling and seductive schemes are so sophisticated and pervasive that America’s NBC Nightly News telecast with Tom Brokaw includes a regular feature called “The Fleecing of America.” Like it or not, you are the target in a never-ending struggle for control over the way you think—and behave.
Right and wrong influences
Under the right circumstances, the influence of others on our lives can be beneficial. People who positively affect our thinking expand our understanding and knowledge. They stimulate our minds and expand our horizons, increasing the excitement and challenge of life itself. From them we learn and grow. Emotionally, we benefit immensely from their nurturing influence. Our fellow human beings contribute enormously to our personal development.
But not all who seek to shape our views are constructive. This is especially true of the massive efforts at work to eradicate society’s standards and values. The previously mentioned adage “Let the buyer beware” is just as applicable to this intellectual and spiritual domain as it is to the marketplace.
In general, irrational ideas foster irrational behavior. How you think controls the way you live and how you relate to other people. Your thoughts will influence your decisions and thus your actions. Ultimately, in this sense, you are what you think.
Consider these questions: Who exerts the greatest influence on your personal opinions? What are the external pulls that sway your thinking the most? What are the sources that affect the standards for your behavior? If you address these questions honestly, you’ll find their answers disturbing as well as profound.
Let’s examine some commonly recognized influences that shape the choices millions of people make every day, noticing the colossal impact those influences have on the behavioral standards of society. Then let’s look at some of the direct and concerted endeavors to modify—and in some cases abolish—almost all standards and values. Finally, let’s squarely face another momentous question: Who should have the greatest influence on how we think and the choices we make, and what is our personal responsibility?
Influence of television and movies
Television is the most powerful medium ever invented for conveying ideas and information to large numbers of people. Remarkably effective and influential, television is drastically altering our society’s thinking and behavioral patterns, even encouraging so-called alternative lifestyles.
Film critic Michael Medved describes the profound impact of the TV and movie business on society. The power of the entertainment business “to influence our actions flows from its ability to redefine what constitutes normal behavior in this society,” he writes. Entertainers have “assumed a dominant role in establishing social conventions. The fantasy figures who entertain us on our TV and movie screens, or who croon to us constantly from our radios and CD players, take the lead in determining what is considered hip, and what will be viewed as hopelessly weird” ( Hollywood vs. America , Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, 1992, p. 261, emphasis added throughout).
Mr. Medved notes that society’s standards and values are incrementally but constantly altered by the entertainment media: “According to all available research on the subject, the most significant aspects of influence are gradual and cumulative, not immediate, and they occur only after extended exposure . . . What this means is that the full impact of today’s media messages will only be felt some years in the future” (Medved, p. 260).
“Hollywood no longer reflects—or even respects—the values of most American families. On many of the important issues in contemporary life, popular entertainment seems to go out of its way to challenge conventional notions of decency” (Medved, p. 10).
Music to whose ears?
All too often popular music represents the cutting edge of a philosophy that influences its adherents to seek to undermine all established conventions. Combining catchy tunes with sometimes blatantly antisocial lyrics, popular music exerts a near-incessant influence on many young people. Most adolescents can easily and flawlessly recite the words to today’s most-played tunes, yet they stumble over memorization work at school. Even adults can recall lyrics that were popular decades ago, but they flounder over names and phone numbers of friends.
Music’s influence is profound and pervasive. It is one of the most effective tools to alter the attitudes and outlook of those hearing it, both positively and negatively. It reaches emotions and reasoning simultaneously, ensuring a lasting impact.
For those immersed in the cynical hostility that has characterized much of popular music in recent decades, the consequences can be devastating. Consider the rationale behind the promotion of some music-industry artists:
“Those in the rock business understood very well that the music’s subversion of authority was a large part of its appeal to the young. An impresario who developed one star after another was asked how he did it. He said, ‘I look for someone their parents will hate’ ” (Robert H. Bork, Slouching Toward Gomorrah , Regan Books, 1996, p. 23, emphasis added).
Tragically, however, all too many parents find themselves inadequately equipped to explain right from wrong. A recent survey of American adults by the Barna Research Group reveals that 71 percent of Americans still believe in right and wrong, that such a thing as sin exists. But the survey also found that most adults simply grasp no clear concept of right vs. wrong.
An article that accompanied the survey observed that “77 percent of non-Christians said, ‘There are no absolute standards for morals and ethics.’ Yet, shockingly, the majority of born-again Christians—64 percent—agreed with the secular culture that morality is relative. No wonder our lives are indistinguishable from the surrounding culture . . . The church has ‘tons of teachers’ yet it ‘doesn’t seem to be making a difference’ ” ( Southern California Christian Times , June 1996).
Who should set your standards?
Intelligent moral standards serve simply as practical rules for considerate conduct. They establish our ethics, ideals and values. They allow society to function in peace and safety for the benefit of all. Proper moral standards should be carefully thought-out principles for distinguishing right from wrong. Without them, we retain no guidelines for the way we live.
Who holds the prerogative to set absolute standards for the way we think and behave? Some among the academic elite do well to tell us that human traditions are not reliable sources; they are too often contradictory and parochially biased. But they are wrong to tell us that absolute standards of right and wrong do not exist. There most certainly is a source for absolute standards for humanity. The Almighty God, He who created mankind, reveals to us how we should live.
“The distortions and insults about organized religion [in movies and television],” writes Mr. Medved, “will continue unabated as long as our popular culture continues its overall campaign against judgment and values. A war against standards leads logically and inevitably to hostility to religion because it is religious faith that provides the ultimate basis for all standards” (Medved, p. 89).
Only the God who created us can define perfect and reliable guidelines for human conduct. He reveals them to us through the Holy Scriptures. Make no mistake: God’s Word is not of human origin. It carries the highest authority possible.
God cares how you think
How we think—our ideals and beliefs—are important to God. Yet our normal way of thinking is quite different from His. Through the prophet Isaiah, God describes the scope of our universal human problem: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isaiah:55:8-9, emphasis added throughout).
The apostle Paul explains the reason for the gulf between the values of God and most humans: People tend simply to tune out God’s instruction. “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans:1:20-21, New Revised Standard Version).
How wrong thinking began
The rejection of God’s guidance is nothing new. It began as far back as the Garden of Eden. There “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan,” began an influence and distortion of human thinking that still grips humanity (Revelation:12:9).
Essentially, Satan’s line to Eve was: “Don’t believe God and trust His words. Trust yourself. Eat the forbidden fruit. Then you will have all the wisdom you need to determine good and evil” (Genesis:3:1-5). Eve was impressed. The devil kindled in her the desire to decide right and wrong for herself.
Eve eagerly fell for Satan’s seductive pitch. Then she persuaded Adam that the two of them were capable of deciding such matters for themselves. They chose to disobey God. They lost their inheritance in Eden and began a life of toil and hardship, all because they allowed their thinking to be swayed by Satan, the archadversary of God (verses 6, 17-19). Satan won this early battle for the human mind. With relatively few exceptions, he has continued to win ever since.
God wants you to think like Him. He wants the principles expressed in His laws to live in your heart and mind (Hebrews:10:16), to form the foundation for your convictions, your thoughts and the way you choose to live your life. He wants to establish in your mind appropriate standards for human behavior—a clear understanding of right and wrong (1 John:3:4).
The apostle Peter expresses God’s concern for the way you think. “Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking” (2 Peter:3:1-3). New International Version).
Learning to think clearly
Paul goes further, giving timeless guidelines for what we should allow to enter our minds: “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” (Philippians 4:8, NIV). Wholesome thinking flows from honesty and truth, from a knowledge of what is right, pure and admirable.
Paul describes the results of behavior based on thinking that rejects God’s standards: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians:5:19-21, NIV).
An outstanding model of clear, level-headed thinking is recorded for our benefit: the personal example of Jesus Christ. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” wrote Paul (Philippians 2:5). He admonished: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (verses 2:3-4).
Clear, wholesome thinking puts concern for others as a priority—equal to concern for oneself. It is founded on genuine love for others.
A matter of choice
We live in a society that prides itself on its new ways of thinking, many of which have really been around as long as mankind has existed. Because of the sheer force of these ideas, we are confronted with a personal battle for control of our thoughts and values in the face of almost overwhelming opposition.
God will never force us to think like Him. Even to ancient Israel He said, “. . . I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life . . .” (Deuteronomy:30:19). God provides the guidance, but the choice to heed or ignore it is always ours.
Those who would abolish standards of conduct often imply that acceptance of values defined by anyone besides yourself—whether God or man—is an abdication of choice.
To blindly accept the ideas of others would, of course, be abdicating personal responsibility. However, to carefully examine, comprehend and adopt the wisdom of God is the mark of one who makes informed and intelligent choices. Acting only on feelings and emotion shows neither discretion nor intelligence.
Corrupting power behind the scene
What is the real source of our society’s rejection of godly values? The apostle Paul explained that his God-given mission to earth’s inhabitants was “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God . . .” (Acts:26:18).
The Bible reveals Satan as a powerful unseen force influencing humanity. He is described as “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient,” a being influencing men and women to lead a life of “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians:2:2-3, NIV).
Satan’s influence is so pervasive that it affects every area of life in every society. How great is his power over humanity? He “deceives the whole world”! (Revelation:12:9).
Through thousands of years of deceiving people, he has become the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel . . .” (2 Corinthians:4:4, NRSV). The influence of Satan and his demons is such that they can sway even the opinions and decisions of world leaders (Revelation:16:14).
Surprising to many, Satan has succeeded in influencing religious beliefs and institutions. He manages to disguise his own ostensibly Christian ministry and religious assemblies (2 Corinthians:11:3-4, 13-15; Revelation:3:9).
He does not present his ways as the greedy, self-centered, vain practices they really are. Nor does he show their destructive, painful end, leading inexorably to suffering and death (Proverbs:14:12; 16:25). On the contrary, he masquerades his thoughts and way of life as enlightenment, fulfillment and satisfaction. God’s Word warns us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians:11:14, NRSV).
Besides religion, Satan’s ideas invade such arenas as business, education, philosophy, government and science. No human interest or endeavor escapes his intrusion. Indeed, we read that “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John:5:19).
Does Satan influence your mind?
The consequences of Satan’s influence on mankind’s thought processes have proved devastating. Seldom has the world seen peace; 150 million people have died in wars in just this century. In the same time, more than 100 million have died from diseases, pandemics and natural disasters. Humanity possesses the ability to erase human life from earth many times over.
In spite of constant attempts to improve our lot, thousands live on the verge of starvation, and millions go to sleep hungry every night. A fourth of earth’s population lives under totalitarian regimes with little control over basic decisions that affect their lives.
Under Satan’s influence, human thinking has become so absorbed with self-gratification that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot” (Romans:8:7-8, NRSV).
The prophet Jeremiah recognized that people are blinded by the deceit of their own evil intents. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah:17:9).
Satan has succeeded at turning humanity away from God. The apostle Paul describes the inevitable, tragic results of rejecting God and His way of life:
“Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans:1:28-32, NIV).
Who will win?
God calls some out of this immoral, ungodly, Satan-dominated world. He calls them to fight the influences around them, to resist the tendencies and desires of their own minds. This deeply personal battle, however, is not the sort of conflict we often envision. This battle “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against . . . the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians:6:12, NRSV).
This struggle pits us against the ingrained, self-centered habits and ways of thinking that have influenced us from birth, as well as a personal foe determined to separate us from God: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith . . .” (1 Peter:5:8-9, NIV).
Who will determine your values? Who will win the battle for your mind? Will you allow the influences of Satan on society to control and corrupt your personal beliefs and convictions? Or will it be “God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure”? (Philippians 2:13).
A godly victory is possible only by establishing righteous standards as your values. That will require you to make difficult choices.
The apostle Paul expressed it so well in these words: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds [on our minds]. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians:10:3-5, NIV).
Who you allow to exert the greatest influence on your life is your choice. Will you permit God, by seeking His knowledge and assistance, to win the battle for your mind?