Today’s post is by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and the forthcoming memoir Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. Kimberlee is a regular contributor on prayer to this blog.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
“Spiritual transformation in Christ moves toward the total interchange of our ideas and images for his.”
—Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart
As I drive home across the Ballard Bridge, a new billboard advert looms large in my vision. Most of the time, this billboard’s message is tame. Annoying, but nothing that jars or upsets me.
Today, though, my eyes are bombarded with the image of a beautiful woman in a sexually suggestive position and the enormous letters of a lascivious message, both of which are trying to tell me that if I buy this particular product, I’ll be a sex goddess like the model on the billboard.
I look away quickly as I realize what I’ve seen. I feel assaulted, this image calling to mind all manner of others I’ve seen over the years, all of them clamoring for my attention. These are not the thoughts I want to occupy my mind.
As my year of prayer unfolds, I want more and more to be more like Jesus, to have the mind of Christ. In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard insists that our thoughts, when captured for Christ and fed on the images and ideas that Jesus himself fed on, will transform our entire lives. But he warns that there are special dangers that we must guard against. One of the gravest is the images we admit to our minds.
Images are powerful things. They make ideas concrete and accessible. In the case of this billboard, the image elevates the idea of sexiness to an ultimate good. And because images work on us at the level of emotion, they are not under rational control.
I have long known that what I see affects me deeply. It is why I long ago stopped watching TV news and later stopped watching TV altogether. What I am learning now is that I am not alone. Images affect everyone on a level that is beyond rational control, working deep within us to shape our ideas about reality—and so shape who we are.
This, I think, is why St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to focus their thoughts on good and true and beautiful things:
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. (Phil 4:8)
Willard emphasizes that heeding St. Paul’s instructions “is a fundamental and indispensable part of our spiritual formation in Christ.” We become who we are largely because of the thoughts that fill our minds. And the thoughts that fill our minds in turn depend largely on the images we feed them.
This is why the billboard near the Ballard Bridge bugs me so much. And the thought that my six-year-old daughter and all three of my sons are seeing it, too, makes me sick to my stomach. Young as they are, that image is shaping them even more than it’s shaping me. It makes me angry.
But one thing my year of prayer is teaching me is that everything can be a call to prayer. So I take the sickness I feel in my stomach and I take my anger, and I let them direct my mind to Jesus.
Over the weeks since that billboard appeared, it has become a call to prayer. As much as possible, I studiously avoid even glancing at it as I drive across the bridge. Sometimes I forget it’s there, and I see it before I remember to look away. Either way, whether I see it or manage to avoid it imprinting on my brain again, I pray.
Mostly what I pray is the Jesus Prayer: O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Have mercy on us, sinners all. Have mercy on the men who see that billboard and are aroused by it. Have mercy on the women who see it and are ashamed of their own bodies because of it. Have mercy on the company who thought it would be a good idea to put up this billboard.
I can’t always control the images I see, but I can control how I consciously respond to them. I can let images both beautiful and base call me to prayer—beautiful images to praise and awe of our even more beautiful God; base images to intercession for our fallen world that so desperately needs Him to save us from ourselves.
If you want to join me in getting rid of the garbage that clutters our imaginations, why not begin by eliminating from your life one magazine, TV show, or website that regularly serves up ugliness, unkindness, or smut? It’s always a good idea to replace a bad habit or thought with a good one, so make a plan: what will you do during the times that you usually engage with these images you’re eliminating? You could read or memorize Scripture, pore over a favorite art book, or listen to a favorite piece of music—something that puts images of beauty, truth, nobility, and excellence into your mind instead.