The last time that we gathered together, I placed three passages of Scripture before us that call us to a life of intellectual excellence. Then, I laid out for us three obstacles that we will face as we try to become thinking Christians. I argued that anti-intellectualism, over-intellectualism, and pseudo-intellectualism are threats to genuine discipleship, and I urged us to oppose them in ourselves, in the congregations that we lead, in our denominations, and in our culture.
Today, I would like for us to look at our task from a more positive point of view. Instead of asking, “What mental habits ought we to avoid as we seek to follow Jesus,” I want us to ask, “What mental habits will make us more faithful followers of Jesus?” As we do so, we will discover that our task is more daunting than we might have imagined, but we will also discover that it is a task that is full of joy for those who engage it with gusto, who incorporate it into every aspect of their lives, and who see it as part of their devotion to the Triune God.
Seek Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom
Throughout Israel’s wisdom literature, those who receive instruction are urged to seek knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. They are not simply encouraged to gather up information. They are encouraged to work hard at figuring out how that information fits together to provide a cohesive picture of God, the world, humanity, etc. Moreover, they are encouraged to diligently consider how knowledge can be applied in real-world situations to promote faithful living, effective leadership, good decision-making, and the like.
We, too, must be passionate about learning. After all, being a disciple is about being a learner. We cannot wallow in ignorance, and we cannot wear our ignorance as a badge of honor. Rather, we should hunger and thirst for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, just like we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Make Transformation the Goal of Education
As important as the acquisition of knowledge is, it is not, for the Christian, an end unto itself. Instead, Christians apply their minds to the problems of their day because they are seeking transformation. Christians understand that the world is broken. Christians understand that they are broken. They know that they need to be healed—and that the kind of healing they need can only come with complete and radical change.
Obviously, this means that disciples of Jesus never engage the questions of our day out of mere curiosity. Indeed, the way we frame questions of interest reflects our goal of transformation. This does not mean that we neglect basic research. It does mean, however, that our intellectual endeavors are inspired by and oriented towards the goal of transformation.
But what kind of transformation do we seek? Romans 12:1-2 helps us answer this question. The transformation that Christians seek is one that is grounded in renewal and that results in the knowledge of God’s “perfect” will. In other words, transformation is not simply a buzzword for Christians. It is a phenomenon produced by God’s redemptive activity in the world. It reflects God’s goodness, and it corresponds with God’s good intentions for the cosmic order. Each disciple of Jesus grounds her or his life in the love that God has demonstrated and that God continues to demonstrate for the world, and, in so doing, he or she learns how to love both God and what God is trying to accomplish. This changes how the follower of Jesus thinks—which, ideally, changes other aspects of the believer’s life. As these changes take root, the follower of Jesus also bears witness to God’s way of thinking about and working in the world, for he or she wants God’s will to become manifest to others and to shape how communities, institutions, and nations think, feel, perceive, and act.
Construe the Life of the Mind in Relational Terms
Rooting the life of the mind in the redemptive purposes of God reminds the believer that relationships are absolutely vital to the task of thinking well. In the Old Testament, the life of the mind is often grounded in “the fear of Yahweh,” for God was seen as the source of all knowledge. Following the cue of the Mosaic legislation, however, the New Testament goes one step further. It construes the disciple’s intellectual life as an act of love for God. Put simply, the Christian’s whole mind is to be devoted lovingly to the One who created it.
Furthermore, this love for God—which encompasses all of the human people—is contextualized by a command to love one’s “neighbor” or “companion.” This should not surprise us, for in the Old Testament’s wisdom literature, human intellectual endeavors are often construed in terms of their impact on society. Words like “wisdom” and “folly” are often defined by scholars today in terms of conformity to social norms, but they also serve as markers of social beneficence (or the lack thereof). In other words, wise people can be recognized by the benefits that they render to their community. Fools, by contrast, harm themselves and everyone around them.
It is no wonder, then, that the process of rooting our minds in God’s redemptive activity is accompanied by a lifestyle of worship. We dedicate ourselves to God, sacrificing our own bodies for His cause because we know that to do so is the only reasonable response to the love that God has poured out upon us. That sacrifice, in turn, contextualizes not only the life of our minds but also the life of our hands. It becomes the matrix by which we evaluate our conduct, and it becomes the foundation upon which we build our thinking.
If you are struggling to make sense of what I am saying, ask yourself this question. “Is thinking well a loving thing to do?” Love is, after all, primarily an affective and behavioral phenomenon. So, is there any real relationship between thought and love?
I am arguing that there is such a relationship. Indeed, I am arguing that many of our failures to love well—as individuals, as churches, as communities, or as a society—can be traced to a failure to think well. We find it difficult to serve God because we labor under the burden of a serious misconception about what God is like. We fail to understand the needs of our spouse and children because we do not understand how humans work and what they need to thrive. We fail to take seriously the pain of those who have been wounded by church leaders because we are too lazy or too self-absorbed to think through the consequences of our leadership models. We fail to construct just, effective, and humane public policies because we are more interested in the acquisition and preservation of power than we are in thoughtfully reflecting upon the complex issues we face. Love demands that we do a better job in each of these areas, and in order to do so, we will have to think.
Just the Beginning
I am well aware that much of the foregoing discussion is quite abstract. I am also aware that it constitutes only the beginning of the task to which we have (hopefully) dedicated ourselves. Nevertheless, it is a beginning—one that draws us into a dynamic relationship with God and with one another in the service of God’s redeeming agenda. We have to start somewhere if we are going to become the thinking disciples that Jesus calls us to be, and there could be no better place to start than in God’s love for us, our love and respect for God, and our innate curiosity about how things work and about how we can make them work better.