Putting the Mental Monkey to Bed: A Case for Creeds

Allow me to state my thesis right off the bat: the mind is a power for great good and great evil, and it is our obligation to master it, to teach it the way it should go, otherwise it will lead us astray; and the main way to train and lead the mind is through developing and memorizing creeds.

The cliche “The mind is a wonderful servant but terrible master” communicates the center of the problem the mind presents us with. It is either a rabid monkey, capable of ruining hours and weeks and months of our lives with its incessant nagging—babbling, worries, doubts, anxieties, fears—or it is your quiet servant, plowing straight rows for knowledge and insight to grow. The mind functions as both instructor and student and is capable of leading us into evil or following us into righteousness—and it is up to us to decide. The mind is never a victim, and we are never its victims, though often we claim to be. The mind is merely a tool, either of God or of Satan. And if you are an intellectual, or are privy to the depths of the life of the mind, you know how significant a problem this can be.

You Are More Than Your Mind

The first thing we have to agree on is that I am not just my mind; I am more than my mind. The Bible calls the center of my being the soul or spirit—the “self” that makes me, me—not the mind. God has shaped me in my mother’s womb (Psa 139:13), and breathed the breath of life into me to make me a living soul (Gen 2:7), and gave me a mind to think with, a heart to feel with, and a will to choose with. And God expects my whole person—those parts of me—to work together and become a healthy, whole human being whose heart is stayed on Christ, whose mind is trained in the paths of truth, and whose will is fixed on choosing righteousness.

The mind is an aspect of me that must be controlled, corralled, and instructed. Like the other parts of me, it demands discipleship. The heart “wants what it wants,” but it’s my obligation to train it to desire holiness. The will wants to passively let the easiest thing happen, but I must force myself to engage and choose to do right, even when it’s hard. Just so, the mind must be educated to go in the right way, which is why education is so important. Education isn’t about filling the mind, but about shaping it: “The object of hard study is not to draw out genius, but to take minds such as are formed of common mold, and fit them for active and decisive usefulness” (John Todd, an American preacher in the 19th century).

The mind is the center of “you” and all you can do, and you either learn to control it for usefulness, or you let it control you for destruction. As the Roman philosopher Horace said: “Rule your mind or it will rule you.” The mind is either my master or my slave, and the only way it can be my slave is if I have a Master far bigger than me, to whom I bow the knee.

The Mind-Master: A Unique Darkness

When the mind is my master, there is no end to the darkness it is capable of. The Prince of Preachers (Charles Spurgeon) said, "The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour." There is something about the mind that kills you.

The writer David Foster Wallace knew the excruciating pain of the mind more than anyone I’ve read—his suicide is proof that he was privy to a unique mental pain. In his famous commencement address to Kenyon College, he gave that cliche about the mind being a terrible master and offered this interesting commentary:

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Wallace is a perfect example of someone who fights the mind-master without the proper tools. He, like other secular thinkers, made two fatal errors. He assumed the mind is not broken and that he is the master of it. But in reality, his mind is fallen and in need of a Savior, and there is a Master bigger than himself that he must obey in order to find mental peace. A liberal arts education isn’t enough to protect the mind from the darkness—only a Divine Savior can do that.

The Mind-Servant: A Powerful Tool

So the mind is capable of good and evil, dragging us along either way. It’s our obligation to train it to lead us to righteousness, and the only way to do that is through patiently and consistently applying the redeeming work of Christ to it. And since the mind is the organ of truth, there is no greater salve than the Truth. It’s no coincidence that Paul says we must renew our minds (Rom 12:2) in a process of fixing it on things that are good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom 12:2 and Phil 4:8).

The truth is the mind is only good when it is aligned to Reality. When it is sat down in the desk and forced to listen as the Teacher explains to it how things are—which is an inherently religious activity. The mind thrives on restraint. Focus is its freedom. It needs to be single-minded. But when our culture hears that they think narrow-minded. But there is a difference. Single mindedness is “a broad comprehension of the whole truth which is required to see the value of the one thing” (Dr. Tom Nettles). It’s not closed, it’s focused.

A Case for Creeds

In order to rule the mind, we must talk to it, not listen it. And we must focus on the Truth in clear and memorable packets. Which is why I say the most valuable thing in the world for mental health is memorization and meditation of the Truth. The only hope we have to quiet the mental monkey is to develop and recite creeds.

We’ve established that creeds are necessary for mental health and discipleships, and that’s all for now. Next time we will look at several examples of creeds and I’ll introduce you to my creed that gets me through my day.