When Thinking Is Not Enough
I’m convinced that people don’t think enough. Bad thinking permeates every sphere of our society—the church is certainly not immune. Pursuing a more vibrant understanding of truth is a worthwhile cause and something that needs to be emphasized more in our churches. Naturally, we can’t pursue truth—whether it’s knowledge about God or knowledge of the world generally—without actively learning to think well. I firmly believe this.
But there are objections. Are we in danger of losing a simple love for Jesus in our attempt to learn more? Can an overeager quest for knowledge detract from childlike faith? What about the tendency for higher education to pull people away from the church? And so on. These objections are familiar. For some of us, they’re a little tiring. Shouldn’t it be self-evident that childlike faith isn’t an excuse for ignorance? And how on earth would a pure love for Jesus keep someone from wanting to learn more about Him? I find these answers reflexive, flowing off my tongue without a second thought. Unfortunately, we seem to be talking past each other. As an intellectual, I can be so sure of the value of my pursuits that I give a mindless answer to defend my love of thinking. (Catch the irony?)
Could there be something distorted about the tendency of intellectuals to rely on carefully-crafted arguments to respond to objections from non-intellectuals? I’ve laughed off this objection before. How could it possibly be helpful to reason in a less compelling way? Shouldn’t all of our speech be presented as logically and persuasively as possible? The answer to both questions is self-evident. All the same, I think the issue begs for more consideration.
This is personal for me. In the past year, I’ve learned just how badly I can get things wrong, even when I was thinking as hard as I knew how. There were humbling moments when I realized that God is infinitely wise, knowing what is best in a way I never anticipated. At the core of my wrestling was a tendency to defend myself, making relationships difficult and keeping me from accepting corrections that I now clearly see were meant for my good. Yes, thinking well is important. But it simply isn’t enough. The formula for the Christian life is not “Think as well as you can, and God will bless your life.” To my shame, I must admit that too many times I allowed such thinking to permeate my existence, even though I never would have admitted it on paper—it looks so absurd. My pitiful self-defense only hurt me, and it ironically kept me from being able to exercise my gifts. This is my first post for Think Truth in months, which is pretty bad, considering that I’m supposed to be the site’s lead contributor. It wasn’t due to lack of time; I simply didn’t have the heart to write.
I hope I’m back. But I want to encourage all of you fellow lovers of good thinking to remember what thinking doesn’t do. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve been learning that I hope can be beneficial.
1. Loving God with the mind is not enough.
At large, the mind seems chronically underappreciated its role in the balanced Christian’s pursuit of God. This is no excuse for an imbalance in the other direction, though. Whenever I hear someone make a passing comment like “loving God isn’t only about the intellect and knowledge,” I find myself wanting to bristle. We need more thinking and knowledge, not less! All the same, the statement is true. We don’t love God only by thinking. If our proper defense of better thinking turns into mere obsession with intellectual pursuits, something is wrong.
I can’t stress this enough. Sadly, it’s too easy to become obsessed with the sheer love of thinking, even on religious topics. For an intellectual like me, it’s fun! I love a mental challenge. And no, there is nothing wrong with this love; it’s quite useful. But the mind cannot truly be engaged in loving God without touching the heart. Good thinking about God, by definition, will thrill the soul and produce a deep, intimate longing for fellowship with Him. (Colossians 1:9-12)
So perhaps my initial premise is flawed. If we are truly loving God with our mind, the rest of our being will cry out in wonder. (Mark 12:30) If we are coldly preparing an articulate statement about our beliefs, the problem isn’t that we are only loving God with our mind; we aren’t loving God at all.
2. A love of careful articulation poses challenges in relationships.
I love rigorous dialogue, the kind where two individuals articulate their views as compellingly as possible and see what ideas come out on top. There should be nothing unfriendly about this process. In fact, it’s a sign of a healthy relationship when two people are able to talk in-depth about something they see differently. (And yes, the reverse is also true, I think: a reluctance to discuss areas of disagreement is a sign of a weak relationship.) Should we be more willing to have stretching conversations with our family, friends, and the church? Absolutely. But its desirability doesn’t change the fact that dangers come with it.
Look, some of us are just naturally fond of intense conversation. When I was barely in my teens, I spent hours listening to debates, finding it thrilling when my favorite debaters would irrefutably make their point. After church, I’d rush over to my friends, not to talk about cars and sports, but to continue a feisty argument about politics. It’s in my blood. These days, I’d much rather talk about philosophy or theology, or at least I say I do; politics has a way of being annoyingly ubiquitous in conversation. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with many friends that share my love for these discussions; they make my life far more interesting and have transformed my own thinking tremendously.
But not everyone is born with this kind of relentlessly inquisitive mind. What’s thrilling for us is often exhausting for others. It gets worse if we think our ability to frame a good argument should force others to take us seriously. To be clear, I’m not saying that stronger arguments shouldn’t be taken more seriously—they should. But an arrogant attitude turns other people off very quickly, making them quick to dismiss an argument, even if it’s strong. Perhaps it’s not even that we have a terrible attitude, just that we’re continuing a lively conversation long after others got tired of it. To us, it seems hard to imagine how anyone could feel so nonchalant about our carefully articulated viewpoint.
If we think we’re so intelligent, we should just stop and think for a second, though. How will our love of reason win over people who aren’t naturally fond of this kind of dialogue? Even if our goal is to help others think better, there are times when we’ll get far more mileage out of engaging people relationally than proving our intelligence. The last thing we want is for people to think that we’re smart but give up on ever understanding us. If this happens, we shouldn’t be proud; we should be ashamed.
3. Seemingly unintelligent ideas may actually be profound.
Sometimes a great idea won’t be expressed intelligently. Someone will struggle to get their thoughts across and we instantly see holes in their arguments. So we give a rebuttal. They aren’t able to come up with a strong response, just something like “Well, sure, but I still just think this is a good idea for some reason.” So we smugly think we’ve shown they have a weak argument. And perhaps that is the case. But it isn’t necessarily the case. More accurately, even if they can’t frame their argument intelligently, this doesn’t demonstrate that the idea behind their argument isn’t solid. The ability to come up with a good idea doesn’t always—or even usually—overlap with the ability to explain it well. If we aren’t careful, we’ll silence people that actually might have a good idea. This is yet another reason why articulated rationality has its limits.
4. Our inner motives are deeply flawed and need continual transformation.
We can think as hard as we can, even use Scripture to back up our arguments, but if we are motivated by a desire for personal gain or recognition, there are severe limits to our usefulness in the kingdom of God. As humans still wrestling with our carnal nature, our struggle will never be eradicated in this life. We wrestle with conflicting motivations. I often am forced to ask myself, “Am I wanting to share this thought because I think God wants me to and it will benefit others or am I wanting to look impressive?” If I’m honest, the correct answer is usually “both.” If we ever think we are motivated by pure, untainted love for God with no trace of self, we are probably deceiving ourselves. (Romans 7:15) But if we are only relying on our thinking, this isn’t something we are likely to be aware of. This is a process much more about the heart than the head. No amount of intellectual prowess can ever make up for a heart that is ultimately motivated by a desire to promote self.
Yes, we need to think more and better. But we dare not pursue thinking at the expense of a surrendered, humble heart. No, there certainly doesn’t need to be a contradiction between strong thinking and humble hearts. There can be, though. God forbid that our intelligence and knowledge keep us from acknowledging the ways we have much to learn.