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By the Unlearning of Your Mind

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2 NIV)

When I first took up ballroom dancing, I danced five to six hours a week over two evenings of lessons and open dance. It’s a great workout and a fun social activity, but the learning curve at the beginning was quite steep. I was fortunate to find a group very open to dancing with and teaching beginners, and I therefore attempted to learn as much as I could, so that dancing would become more fun.

Once I reached the point where I knew enough dance styles to have fun, I had become quite addicted as well. (Doctors tend to encourage addiction to modest physical activity, as it’s apparently quite beneficial to your health.) But I found myself wanting to more intentionally improve my skills, since dancing better would be even more fun.

When I reached this point and started paying attention to my dancing technique, I learned something alarming: I’d been doing it all wrong! Not all wrong, of course, but in my haste to learn the steps and rhythms, I’d picked up quite a few bad habits as well. The worst part was that none of my bad habits were serious problems; rather, they were small things that most people wouldn’t have noticed. Yet they were important for style, comfort and safety, and therefore they were important to correct.

We instinctively know that it’s much harder to correct a bad habit than it is to learn something new (that is, to learn it right in the first place). But it’s almost to be expected that we’ll have to “unlearn” some things, because if I hadn’t learned fast enough to get to the fun part, I’d never have danced enough to need to do it right.

Of course it would be ideal to learn everything properly the first time, but that’s not usually how it happens in life. We may grow up in dysfunctional families and have to learn how to feel and express true love. When we come to Christ, we have to learn how to be a disciple. In each case, learning the new skills requires a fair amount of retraining — “unlearning,” as it were. You have to unlearn the unhealthy communication habits of your childhood, or the selfish habits to which you were accustomed.

All of those habits are literally engraved in your brain, little neuron trails that the next impulses like to follow. My friend Becky once likened habits to trails made in the sand on a beach. Once the water has found a channel, it will continue to follow that channel, and it won’t change course unless someone comes along and digs a new one.

These habits can be of thought as well as of deed. We all have familiar trains of thought that indicate our brains are stuck in a rut. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to be transformed and renewed. Put another way, we need to get out of the bad rut and make a new, better one! That means recognizing that we’ll have to unlearn the old ways of thinking and acting so that we can find the godly ways.

It still takes a lot of practice to learn proper dance techniques, even after you’ve had the right way pointed out to you. That’s why Paul urges us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV). Doing so is a struggle, but if we never unlearn the bad habits, we can’t put good ones in their place. At first we’ll still do it wrong more often than we do it right, so we must give ourselves the grace to make mistakes… and then remember that anything we can learn, we can unlearn.

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