When it comes to negative thinking, it’s easy to wield Bible verses like weapons.
In fact, most Christian articles about dealing with negative thoughts invoke the popular Biblical advice to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2).
Perhaps you’ve used this verse to chastise yourself for even having negative thoughts in the first place.
I sure used to.
But before you inflict yourself with fresh wounds, let’s take a closer look at this scripture that we often interpret incorrectly.
Romans 12:2 says:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (BSB)
Aside from the fact that this verse isn’t about negative thinking — it’s about copying the ungodly behaviors of the world — we often inadvertently misremember it.
Sometimes when we read “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” we change the meaning to sound something like this:
“transform yourself by renewing your mind.”
But “be transformed” is very different from “transform yourself.”
In fact, the original Greek word we translate as “be transformed” (metamorphóō) is the root of the word metamorphosis— the same word we use to describe a caterpillar’s transition into a butterfly.
Let’s think about that for a minute.
Based on God’s design, a caterpillar spins itself into a silky cocoon or chrysalis— the covering under which she will be broken down and rebuilt according to God’s plan— eventually emerging as a beautiful, mature butterfly.
Now imagine a caterpillar, to-do list in her hand, striving to change herself into a butterfly:
- Learn to knit so you can spin a cocoon to cover yourself.
- Tear yourself down into caterpillar stew inside your new chrysalis.
- Workout daily to look like a new creature.
- Go clothes shopping to become a beautiful & radiant being.
- Plan a fabulous coming out party with homemade hor d’oeuvres.
Of course, that’s not how it works.
The caterpillar’s ability to transform herself is woven into her DNA. So instead of striving to turn herself into a butterfly, she merely allows God to work in her to fulfill the purpose He always intended for her to serve. She just follows the blueprint God gave her from the beginning.
In the same way, it’s not up to you to transform yourself but to be open to God working in you to fulfill the purpose He’s always intended for you. (Ephesians 2:10)
Don’t believe me? Let’s look even closer at that original Greek word.
Metamorphóō, the word translated as “be transformed” originated by combining two other words that mean “change after being with” and “changing form in keeping with inner reality.”
So, after being with God, we’re changed into a form consistent with our inner reality—the spirit God created us to be.
That same Greek word is used in only three other places in the Bible. Two of those are accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2-3). So this idea of “being transformed” is not something we can do on our own.
In fact, the account in Mark tells us:
“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2-3, ESV)
Did you catch the part of the verse I italicized?
As no one on earth could bleach them.
Just as no one on earth had the power to transfigure Jesus into the radiant being the disciples saw before them, likewise we cannot transform ourselves, but will be transformed by God.
In fact, the final place the Greek word metamorphóō is used in scripture is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where he writes:
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, BSB)
This transformation is something God will do in you.
Why is this an important distinction?
Because it’s easy to assume we must strive to get rid of our negative thoughts, to transform ourselves by renewing our minds.
But, like the caterpillar, we need only to be open to the work God is doing in us, and to be alert to our true nature—the way He created us from the beginning.
And that looks very different from striving to get rid of our negative thoughts.
So, next time you hear that you should transform your negative thoughts by renewing your mind, think of that caterpillar with her to-do list, and remind yourself that God is already in the process of transforming you — your job is to just be open to it.
Now go and live as the beautiful creature God created you to be!