Redefining Attitude

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Redefining Attitude

In the business world, "attitude" is a bit of a buzzword. One's mental attitude, whether positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy, is said to be a key factor in the success of our work projects and professional relationships. You've probably seen the motivational posters. 

"A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes." "A positive attitude is a powerful force." "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."

While all this seems to be helpful, it is not distinctively Christian. In fact, the emphasis on an internal positive attitude can devolve into mere selfism, since it doesn't require dependence on God or others.

On the other hand, at my high school church camp, someone would occasionally yell, "Attitude check!" and all of us would respond, "Praise the Lord!" In the Christian world, it's often assumed that the proper Christian attitude is one of always being happy or joyful in the Lord—sometimes in seeming denial of challenging realities. That view also seems somewhat insufficient. Attitude has to be more than just happy feelings.

Is attitude primarily an issue of one's temperament, personality, emotion, or cognitive thinking? Is it just a mood? Can we cheer up and have a better attitude—or is it something more than that?

Our modern notions of an attitude don't seem to show up very much in Scripture. Bible versions only have a handful of references to words that are translated as "attitude."

1) Phroneo – to be like-minded

This is the most familiar, perhaps, and it occurs in Philippians 2:5, where Paul exhorts his readers that "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (NIV) or that "In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had" (TNIV). The Greek word used here is a form of the verb phroneo, which is translated in various contexts as "have in mind" or "being like-minded" with someone else. The root word usually relates to thinking and planning with an intellectual focus.

2) Ennoia – what takes place in the mind

This word is also translated as attitude. Ennoia is in the same family as nous (meaning "mind" or "understanding") and noema ("thought"). You may be more familiar with the related Greek word metanoia, meaning "change of mind" or "repentance." Ennoia is en + noia, or "in the mind," referring to what takes place in the mind. This shows up in 1 Peter 4:1 ("Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourself also with the same attitude") and Hebrews 4:12 ("For the word of God . . . judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart").

3) Pneuma – the spirit of your mind

Bible translators have sparingly rendered this word as "attitude." Pneuma is most frequently translated as "spirit." So in Ephesians 4:23, where Paul calls us to "be made new in the attitude of your minds," that "attitude" would more literally be rendered as "the spirit of your minds."

In each of these cases, the emphasis is more mental and cognitive rather than emotional. It is something we think, not merely something we feel. Furthermore, there seems to be a strong connection between one's mental thinking and one's moral character and activity. Our attitude should be like Christ's, not merely in being mentally humble, but in taking the nature of a servant and being obedient to death (Phil. 2:7-8). It's significant that both the Philippians 2 usage of phroneo and the 1 Peter 4 use of ennoia connect a Christian's attitude with Christ's suffering.

If anything, Scripture's discussion of attitude is less about projecting a positive outlook on life and much more concerned with having a willingness to suffer as Christ suffered. For the Christian, attitude is directly connected with action, especially in taking on service-oriented, sacrificial acts.

As Max De Pree said in Leadership Is an Art, leadership means bearing the pain of the organization. That's a more biblical sense of what it means to have a Christlike attitude. Having a good attitude doesn't mean that we are chipper and happy in the face of adversity. A Christlike attitude means that because Jesus suffered, we too are willing to suffer. We do not avoid pain and difficulty; rather, we resolve to face it and bear it on behalf of others, because we know that it will serve the common good.

For the Christian, attitude is more than singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or "Hakuna Matata." A biblical, Christian attitude is a commitment to being more like Christ—regardless of whether that generates "positive" results in our lives. And we have hope that the more Christlike our attitude, the more we will be able to live out God's calling in our lives.