This is my third and final post in a series on the Holy Spirit—a subject too often either ignored or misunderstood. The first two posts looked at the Spirit’s role in creation and new creation and as God’s temple presence within believers, respectively. In this post I want to shift to a different set of issues: specifically, how does dependence on the Holy Spirit relate to careful study and thinking?
This site is called “Think Truth,” so we’re clearly not anti-thinking. But does that mean, perhaps implicitly, that we’re anti-Spirit? I can picture a variety of reader reactions already—some giving a knowing smile, others an eye roll, others experiencing slightly higher blood pressure. Let’s face it: while there are plenty of people in a healthy middle position, this is a topic that has a couple of camps on either side. Some Christians (we may know them) seem afraid of careful thinking, critical analysis, deep study. They are wary of preachers who prioritize long periods of preparation for their sermons. In some cases they are very wary of people like me who have devoted years to formal study of Scripture. Their concern is that all of this has very real potential for stifling the Spirit.
Then there are people on the other side. They have stacks of books on theology. They are Bible interpretation police, making sure no one ever quotes Scripture incorrectly. They are extremely uneasy around people who claim that God spoke to them, or that they “feel” the Spirit “led” them to do something. Their concern is that all the emphasis on subjective experiences of the Spirit has very real potential for leading away from our one source of objective truth about God.
Whatever you do, don’t pick a camp.
Obviously, my natural inclination is toward the “think and study” camp. I firmly believe that it is vital to the health of the church that Christians study Scripture and theology deeply, reason logically, and think hard. But I just as firmly believe that all of this is a complete waste apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The “Spirit and feeling” camp is right that emphasizing thinking and study can lead away from dependence on the Holy Spirit. But it shouldn’t. And ironically enough, emphasizing dependence on the Spirit apart from careful attention to the Spirit’s breathed-out words can also lead us away from the Spirit.
“What God Has Joined Together”
Every year for the past several years, I’ve taught a class called “Understanding the Biblical Storyline.” One of the very first things I talk about is what I call our “philosophy of education”—in other words, what’s our view on why and how we study? In that little talk, I glean heavily from a book by John Piper titled Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. My main takeaway is this: learning exists for love of God and neighbor.
If that’s the case, then learning: 1) contributes to our Spirit-filled lives of walking in God’s presence and love, and 2) requires the Spirit’s illumination and direction so that our learning does lead to love. Thinking and learning thus depend on the Holy Spirit for love and illumination, and are meant to increase our love and dependence upon the Spirit.
Piper points to 2 Timothy 2:7, where Paul writes this: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (ESV). According to this verse, thinking hard and relying on God for understanding go together.¹ We must not think that God will drop spiritual insights to us as we sit back and not study his word. Nor should we think that by studying hard we’ll get all we need—or we may end up with a head full of data and a heart hard as stone. We are to think and study, while doing so we must pray and pray and seek God for the understanding, the “sight” and the love that only he can give. The devil knows far more about God than we do; his problem is that he does not love what he knows. That love is something that God’s Spirit must work in our hearts, as we seek him in humility and dependence.
What does it mean to love God with all your mind? Piper writes that “Our thinking should be wholly engaged to do all it can to awaken and express the heartfelt fullness of treasuring God above all things.”² We cannot love without knowing. God gave us minds so that we could think about, know, and love Jesus—and therefore treasure him, obey him, and love others.³ “Logic is a furnace driving the engine of love.”⁴
Piper also points to 1 Corinthians 8:1–3. There Paul writes concerning food offered to idols: “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” Knowledge is dangerous because it can lead to pride—it is “something we have attained. So we are prone to boast about it.”⁵ But Paul says that this “knowledge” the Corinthians have isn’t really knowledge at all, because it does not love. In one sense they’re merely “imagining” that they know. “The only kind of knowledge that will count in the end” is knowledge that comes from and leads to love for God and others.⁶ And this is the type of knowledge that requires reliance on God’s Spirit.
Most of us are familiar with negative attitudes and views on education and careful study. Sometimes there are good concerns behind these attitudes, but Piper points out that “the solution is not to abandon rigorous thinking.” This, he writes, would be to abandon the Bible itself.
If we were to succeed in raising a generation of people who give up serious, faithful, coherent thinking, we will have raised a generation incapable of reading the Bible… Either we do it [reading and thinking] carefully and accurately or we do it carelessly and inaccurately. The problem with those who debunk the gift of thinking as a way of knowing God is that they do not spell out clearly what the alternative is. The reason is that there isn’t one. If we abandon thinking, we abandon the Bible, and if we abandon the Bible we abandon God. …
There is no reading without thinking. And there is no reading carefully and faithfully and coherently without thinking carefully and faithfully and coherently. The remedy for barren intellectualism is not anti-intellectualism, but humble, faithful, prayerful, Spirit-dependent, rigorous thinking.⁷
That last line sums up so well what our thinking should be like: “humble, faithful, prayerful, Spirit-dependent, rigorous.” In the end, we cannot divorce careful thinking from dependence on the Holy Spirit. Both are necessary, and both must be done together. We think and study because God calls us to love him “with our minds” (Matthew 22:37), and because it is in a book that his words are recorded. But as we do, we pray and depend on the Spirit for the love and illumination that only he can give—and without which, all our thinking is futile. We study with the intent that what we gain from our study will become logs to stoke the fire of our love for God and dependence upon his Spirit.
¹ John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 64–65.
² Piper, 83.
³ Piper, 90–91.
⁴ Piper, 54.
⁵ Piper, 158.
⁶ Piper, 158–59.
⁷ Piper, 122–23.